To tell or not to tell?

Jan 29th 2010

As expectant parents, you have two big naming decisions. The first is the choice of name. The second is when to reveal it.

At one extreme you have parents who start referring to the fetus by name from the moment they see an ultrasound. Let's call them the "broadcasters." At the other, you have the parents who guard the name as a state secret, refusing to give their nearest and dearest so much as a clue: the "keepers."

Both of these extremes are on the rise. The broadcasters have gained momentum from early sex detection and the self-revelatory culture of the internet. As reader Jen wrote to me, "Facebook seems to be the main vehicle for this reveal: 'We had our 20 week ultrasound today, and Olivia Kate is on the way...,' 'We are on our way to the hospital to meet Matthew!'"

The keepers, meanwhile, have more and more to hide. Our modern culture of creative, distinctive names leads to a lot more wrinkled noses and outraged grandparents at name announcement time. The way keepers see it, if you know they'll complain and you know you won't change your mind, why have the argument? Just present them with an adorable newborn baby, the name a fait accompli.

As usual, extremes carry risks. For the keepers, if you suspect that your friends and family will all hate your child's name, shouldn't that set off alarm bells? Bouncing ideas off people can also help you avoid unwelcome surprises. I've heard from "keeper" parents who learned too late that, say, Amelia was the name of Grandpa's first wife whom nobody ever talks about.

Broadcasters risk locking themselves into premature decisions. Their public pre-announcements can also seem like tempting fate. The sad truth is that things can go wrong with pregnancies, and an early name broadcast to 1,000 Facebook friends can add an extra layer of complication to an already painful time. Even if all goes well, you've stolen the thunder from your birth announcement. If everybody already knows the ultrasound sex reading, the date of your scheduled c-section, and the name, what's left to announce?

Luckily, there's plenty of middle ground. For instance, you can choose a trusted circle to bounce your ideas off of. Ideally the group should include at least one parent of young kids who knows the name landscape, and one person who knows your family well enough to help you navigate around the "Grandma Amelia" problems. If you keep the circle small, you preserve some secrecy and get the extra bonus of flattering the people you've taken into your confidence.

If you're a broadcaster at heart, you can hold back a bit by sharing a list of finalists rather than a champion. (You may have already chosen the winner, but nobody has to know that.) Presenting a candidate list can also generate excitement about the name choice. After all, you can't root for a team without knowing who's playing.

Personally, I like the idea of combining both approaches. If you share a small group of names with a small group of confidantes you gather feedback, retain some air of mystery, and get the full oomph of the birth announcement.

How about you?


By Qwen (nli) (not verified)
February 2, 2010 7:22 PM

@Lilliputian: I’m still voting for Maud as well. I think it ‘fits’ without being too matchy.

@Kerry – Marcail is ‘from this board’ in that it’s my baby’s name and I’ve been talking about it nonstop since my 20 week ultrasound last month. (Did I mention that I’m a broadcaster?!) I agree with your assessment of the Oregon spirit; we DO take a certain, “We’ll do what we want” stance on lots of stuff. :) If you want to take off all the names we like, you’ll have to keep going. I really liked most of your list.

@hyz – I know that Solomon is a biblical character but so are Mark, Peter, John, David, blah, blah, blah, blah. And, while the bible is well… the bible. It’s also a history book and therefore, in my opinion, open to usage by anyone from a Judeo/Christian country or background. In a similar manner, I don’t think it would be weird for me to name a child Louis, Antoinette, Winston or Henry – even though they aren’t American figures (well Henry can be but still…), they’re a part of the history we all share.

@emilyrae – Not weird at all. I was going to say the same thing (re: Maleficent vs. Millicent).

@ Anna S. – Well said. I agree that ‘because I like it’ is a perfectly valid naming reason. I find it interesting that so many people give themselves self-imposed rules on naming. My sister was appalled that we picked names because we liked them and had personal associations with them rather than researching the nationality and the meaning. Meanwhile, I think it’s a little strange that her son’s name HAD to be of Irish heritage, especially considering we have a small amount of it in our lineage. I guess it goes back to TMTOWTDI?!

By hyz
February 2, 2010 7:45 PM

emilyrae, thankfully, I don't have a real/personal example. The first thing that always comes to mind for me is the wrestler Chyna (born "Joan Marie Laurer" according to Wikipedia). In a similar vein are random people I come across named Asia (or Aysia, or Ny'Asia, or whatever). To me, these seem to be looking to coopt the stereotype of Asian women as exotic, or sexy/sexual, or dainty/submissive/servile (often with sexual undertones). Of course, Chyna certainly isn't going for the submissive thing, but she's all over the sex thing. With the (general public) people named Asia (or Chyna or maybe India), I wonder--have the parents of those people ever been to the continent of Asia? What do they know about it? What made them want to choose the name of that continent for their child? It's been an a observation here--and one that certainly rings true to me--that people who have genuine connections to a place don't tend to literally name their kid after it (i.e., you'll be hard pressed to find an Irish kid named Ireland, or Irelyn, or whatever).

Another thing that tends to trouble me a bit is people who name their kids after video game characters (often Japanese). I've heard of a couple of these on the web. Again, while it's not necessarily bad, it does give me pause. As a non-gamer, forgive me if this is totally off-base, but female video game characters seem to be mostly about giant breasts and skimpy outfits and violence, and when you throw in stereotyped elements of foreign culture to that (i.e. dragons and samurai)--well, it just doesn't seem like the healthiest source of naming for a few reasons. I'd never say somebody shouldn't use their passions as a naming choice, and if gaming is your passion then that's great. I'll just say that, for me, I'd want to be sure that if I were specifically using a character as a namesake, that the character had generally positive/healthy traits that I wouldn't mind seeing in my child.

By Qwen (nli) (not verified)
February 2, 2010 7:48 PM

Dangit! Sometimes this board moves quickly, when I posted suddenly there were more comments I'd missed. I think emilyrae brings up some good points too in the idea that while appropriating a name from another culture will definitely be odd or surprising (did I mention that I know a Taiwanese family who named their son Jose?) and maybe even jarring to people, it’s a whole different matter as to whether or not it’s offensive. As I don’t have a strong claim to ANY culture (can you put Heinz 57 on a demographic sheet yet?), I’m not sure I’m qualified to say. But my first instinct is no. If a white family (or black or latino) names their child Reiko because they thought it sounded cool, I wouldn’t think “Wow, that couple is being disrespectful of Japanese culture.” I’d probably think, “Hmmm… someone in that family likes video games or manga.”

Which leads to a whole new question (as hyz hinted at): Is choosing a name you have no cultural affiliation with any different than choosing any other genre of name that stems from pop culture (sci-fi, literary, tv, heck even Shakespeare) references? Because isn’t that generally how people come up with these names they think sound ‘exotic’? I really love those British-sounding boy names (Oliver, Neville, Nigel, Watson), mostly because of this romantacized image of them I've built up in my head from books I’ve read. However, I’ve never been to Great Britain and probably don’t have a firm grasp of cultural nuances there. Is that really that much different than someone who loves the names Reiko, Ryukia, Kai, Ichigo, etc because of the images they’ve gotten from watching anime?

February 2, 2010 7:50 PM

i definitely agree on all counts. i guess that's not a scenario i had imagined. perhaps the situation is just different for every couple naming a child. perhaps one should just carefully examine their motives. while i do agree with qwen and anna's statement of "i like this name" being a good enough reason, the scenarios you present would definitely give me pause. maybe it's okay to "just like a name," but we should make sure we like the name for good reasons.

oh, and i don't think you're too far off base as regarding video games (where is linnaeus? he knows such things!), though obviously there exceptions. princess peach in mario is neither busty, scantily-clad, nor violent (though she's fairly useless/helpless). zelda's a pretty decent female character. but i don't really know anything about video games made after 1996. my impressions are very similar to yours though.

February 2, 2010 7:55 PM

hyz-Well said! The only example I can think of for this kind of thing is the guy who named his kids Adolf Hitler and the like. I'm pretty sure he was passionate about the names but I'm not sure why. Like you said, why would you not want the "character" you are naming after to have positive qualities and traits.
(Btw, I am NOT a history buff so if Hitler had any please let me know and I will stand corrected).

February 2, 2010 8:08 PM

he was a very good public speaker. i'm going to make a leap and say that was about it.

By Anna S (not verified)
February 2, 2010 8:13 PM

Hyz, Zoerhenne,

"I would never say that choosing a name outside one's culture is inherently problematic, perhaps just that it tends to warrant heightened scrutiny."

We actually do agree then, it was the "inherently problematic" I was arguing against. Zoerhenne's example with honeymooning in Japan is exactly the kind of "personal connection" I inherently assume to be an underlying reason for "just because I like it".

Emilyrae, I agree with your points and I'm also curious about an example to RobynT's comment.

Hyz, those "random people" named Asia and the like--do you mean as given names or "stage names" for women in the personal entertainment industry? In the latter case I suppose it is a different issue.

The video game example is a good illustration of "named after" vs "inspired by". Some people inherently associate the name Korka with Korka-the-sluttish-clad-dragon-slasher while to others the connotations don't extend from a video game character to a real person. (Korka is the name of my Icelandic SIL's Icelandic friend's daughter, everything else was made up - I don't know the name of the guy in Boulder Dash, and that's the game I ever liked).

By Qwen (nli) (not verified)
February 2, 2010 8:22 PM

Such an excellent conversation going on! I am not a gamer, but I'm married to one so I'm going to chime in again (and I hope I'm not offending anyone. I'm not trying to take a 'side' so much as further the discussion - everyone has added valid insights so far)

I don't think it's fair to say that because gaming (or anime, or manga) characters are busty and violent we should disregard a parent’s reasons for using such naming inspirations. Do I think 'busty and violent' are ringing endorsements and character traits I'd like my child to have, no. But beautiful, strong and capable of taking care of herself MIGHT be.

I think it’s a whole new ball of wax if we start questioning people’s motives for naming their child one thing or another. I have a friend who named his daughter Cyndi R@e in order for the name to sound like “Cinderella” because his wife is a Disney buff. While I am also a huge Disney fan, I would personally never name my daughter after a Disney Princess (especially the classic ones) regardless of how pretty the name (Cyndi, Aurora, Briar Rose). To me that’s saying, I’d like my daughter to grow up to be a simpering, helpless girl who’s only aspiration in life is to find a man and have him take care of her. But to someone else it’s a pretty name with a long history in fable and magic.

Similarly, I’d nix all current ‘star powered’ names. Angelina, Jolie, Aniston, Tyra and Beyonce are fabulous names and are even decent role models; however they also propagate the myth that to be a successful woman you must be six foot tall, uber thin and stunningly beautiful, which is a stereotype I’m hoping my daughter won’t feel the need to live up to.

Again, that doesn’t make the NAMES any less beautiful or legitimate naming sources but it again comes down to personal choice. Who are we to decide what is a ‘healthy name source’ for people? Or even what their naming motives are when they choose the source?

February 2, 2010 8:49 PM

I would have to agree with hyz on this.

In my opinion, it is not a case of right or wrong, but it does cause some raised eyebrows if I met a little girl named Tovah and her family and no connections at all to Judaism, Christianity, and Israel of any sort. I guess I would expect some logical explanation such as she was named after her best friend or such.

Yes, it is everyone's right to named their child as they please but they have to be prepared for what connotations that will bring for them and the child.

The bottom line to me is that there should be some explanation that fits other than "I just liked it".

For example, I have a name crush on Genevieve. A normal name in this society but it still rings very "french" to my ears. I didn't think it fit us since I am only a smidgen french. I just don't "feel" french. but than I realized my husband's grandma was from France. She s obviously poke French and it is a big part of him. I then felt I could use Genevieve as sort of tipping the hat towards that part of his life.

By sarah smile (not verified)
February 2, 2010 9:56 PM

I just thought of another example of what I would consider stereotypical naming. I came across someone who had named their daughter "the French form of (noun also used as a name)". Except that what they had actually done was to take the English word, add an ending commonly seen in French names, and pronounce it with a French accent. The result wasn't particularly terrible as kreative names go, but it bore no relation to the actual French version of the word, which is in fact shorter than the English and doesn't include that ending at all.

Obviously this isn't exactly what we were discussing, since the name isn't really a French name at all. But I do think that stereotyping with names can be an issue. In this case, I suspect that the parents thought that French = exotic and sophisticated, and so wanted to give their daughter a French name - but didn't even know or find out enough about the culture/language to pick a real one.

February 2, 2010 10:45 PM

do you think that naming after objects or places lends itself more easily to the situation you describe than actual names from the culture in question? for example, i can see what you're saying with names like asia, china, india, etc. i can also see it if you named your child something like "samurai" or "geisha." all of things seem to me to potentially be in bad taste (emphasis on "potentially"--obviously this is not a rule. for example, i believe it's tirzah who honored her daughter's heritage by naming her phoenix, and i certainly have no problem with that). but i don't get the same negative vibe from actual NAMES from the culture--michiko, reiko, etc. it seems that the objects or place names can embody the stereotypes, but the names are just...part of the culture. they're actual names, and it's hard for me to imagine them being inappropriate in the way we were discussing. this is just a random thought, and it may be just a personal feeling. i'm not trying to offend. it just sort of occurred to me stemming from your comment about how "people who have genuine connections to a place don't tend to literally name their kid after it." i guess i just get a more "genuine" vibe from actual names (again: there are exceptions, many i'm sure).

February 2, 2010 11:30 PM

Yep, I was also going to raise Asia as an example of a name that I fear is chosen based on stereotypes of a culture. The name ranked 386 in 2008 btw. The Namipedia entry states that this was ranked as Top X African American names.

I'm trying to think about whether there is a difference between African Americans and whites naming their daughters Asia. I think it is different when it's one Othered group drawing on another Othered culture. I think that even though the problems of perpetuating stereotype are still there, there is something different in the naming situation. We know that there are differences in the names different racial groups give. So this means that there are different influences on how we all name our kids. This leads me to think there's a different motivation... This is not fully thought out obviously. :P

emilyrae: i am thinking about your point that giving an actual Japanese/Chinese/etc name does not have the same problems as giving a name like Asia. i'm trying to think of some Asian names that have been in the spotlight. need to think about this some more, but right now i'm thinking that generally, knowing an actual Asian name might indicate a closer connection with the culture than simply knowing the name of a continent, country, etc.

one last thing for now: I think there's another way this argument is diverging as well. On one hand, there's a critique of people as uncultured/backwoods when they use a name without knowing much about the culture. On the other, there's a critique of them as disrespectful for a similar action. With French, for example, like the story mentioned above, to me, it seems it's more the uncultured/backwoods critique that applies. With "minority" cultures, it seems it's more the disrespectful critique.

I think this is because of the different status of France vs. Asia, for example. French is high status so someone who gives their child a "French" name without background knowledge risks their own reputation rather than that of France. (We think poorly of them for not knowing proper French.) When someone names their kid Asia, it may risk their own reputation as well, but I think it also risks the reputation of Asia--or more likely Asian/Asian Americans. Maybe this seems overstated, but, as an Asian American, the view of Asians as exotic makes me a bit paranoid. It's not always at the front of my mind, but there are times when it is.

February 2, 2010 11:55 PM

RobynT-I like your comments. They made me think. I agree that we all have different influences when it comes to naming our children regardless of ethnicity/heritage and such. It's a bit like the nuture vs. nature argument. But I wonder if I could simplify the discussion? Is naming your child Asia when you are not Asian nor have any connection to the country, any different from naming your child April if she was born in the middle of December? I understand it is not a cultural misappropriation in the latter case, but is it not something that would seem odd upon first glance? Doesn't that also make you wonder what was the reason behind the naming decision?

February 3, 2010 12:21 AM

i don't think so...i actually see both of your examples as expected and normal, not odd.

i see a little girl, april, born in december the same as almost any other name: meanings are mostly ignored. i know that's not always the case and some people very closely examine meaning, but i think it often is. parents like the sound of the name or the personal associations they have with a name and so they use it. my parents didn't care that one possible meaning of my sister's name (olivia) is elf army.

asia, on the other hand, i would not ever expect to see on an asian child. i'd actually be pretty surprised if i did see it, for the reasons hyz detailed. it feels a bit...redundant? and almost...wrong. i don't know--maybe it's just me, but naming an asian child asia almost feels like the namer was trying to say, "she's asian. and that is the most important thing about her." does that make sense? anyway, to me, hearing the name asia on a non-asian is the expected scenario.

so i guess i must not be following very well or maybe we're just on different pages? neither example seems odd to me.

but i will say that everyone's opinions are so, so interesting, and i'm really enjoying how they are shaping my perception.

By sarah smile (not verified)
February 3, 2010 12:22 AM

Robyn, that's an interesting distinction and I think you have a point. The tricky thing is that the boundaries between high and low status are pretty grey, and constantly changing. And while I suspect you're right that stereotypical names do more harm to the reputations of lower status cultures, I do think there is an issue either way. When I heard the 'French' name it played into a stereotype of French things as frilly, which I've always found a bit irritating. And even stereotypes that might seem positive (like sophisticated) can be harmful, as I'm sure you know.

As far as the story I told, you're right that I was teetering on the edge of criticizing the parents for being less cultured/educated, so let me try to clarify. I wasn't trying to pick on them for not knowing French - most of us don't. If they had simply said "we wanted to use (American name) but thought it was prettier with this spelling/pronunciation", I would have been fine with that. If they had chosen a name that belonged to a French celebrity just because they liked the sound, ok. But to label a name as belonging to a specific culture without checking to make sure that it does did feel rather disrespectful to me. It's not that I think they needed to travel to France or anything, but it's not really that hard to contact a HS french teacher, or google French names, etc. Since the name in question is a noun, they could even have checked in any French-English dictionary (free online and in most libraries). It's not like they were missing subtle cultural nuances; this wasn't a nuance issue. It just felt dismissive to me that they thought that they could make a word French (or any other language) just by changing the spelling and sound to something that sounded right to them, ignoring that French really is a separate language with actual vocabulary.

By Qwen (nli) (not verified)
February 3, 2010 12:36 AM

So I agree that it would somehow seem 'off' for an Asian child to be named 'Asia' but then I wonder why 'America' is ok for American girls? It's currently ranked #503.

By hyz
February 3, 2010 12:49 AM

ok, only have a minute here so I can't write a full response, but:

1)emilyrae, I seriously laughed out loud at your "she's asian" comment--it probably wasn't meant to be funny, but it was so apt, I just loved it.

2) sarah smile, I definitely get what you're saying. It's kinda like people thinking they can add "o" onto the end of any word to make it Spanish, or string a bunch of nonsense syllables together ("ching chong...") and speak Chinese. It's just... ignorant, and unflattering to the speaker.

February 3, 2010 1:12 AM

after re-reading your comment, i think i was trying to read too much into it. basically, you're just saying: in both the asia and april examples, people are naming their children things that their children "aren't." right? which is true, of course.

sarah smile,
i get what you're saying too. i would have felt the same way. it isn't very flattering to them, in my opinion, and it's just...a little bit lazy.

By EVie
February 3, 2010 1:33 AM

emilyrae - I think that was probably me who said that - just to clarify, I was only trying to explain my own personal reservations about cultural appropriation, where I choose to draw the line, and why. I know I wouldn't be necessarily *offending* any Hispanics if I chose to use a name like Pilar - I just don't want the burden of having to explain all the time, no, we're not Hispanic, we just liked the name. I certainly wouldn't blame anyone who did decide to use Pilar, Hispanic or not. I just wouldn't feel comfortable with it myself. Actually, one of my favorite girls' names, Maribel, is Spanish in origin, and I don't think I would have any reservations about that one, mainly because I think it blends into the English name landscape well enough that it won't get many raised eyebrows.

Regarding the list of names that are offensive or propagate stereotypes - would you also include Native American tribal names like Dakota or Cheyenne? I'm not sure where the line is, since these are also American place names now - can you invoke the place without disrespecting the people who originally owned the name? (I was also going to add Seneca to the list, but then I remembered the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca - I have to say that any classics buff would have a claim to him. Although I also doubt that most people who use Seneca are thinking of the Roman).

Qwen - I think that America is a legitimate name in its own right. It is the Spanish feminine form of Amerigo, as in Amerigo Vespucci, for whom the New World was named. It wouldn't surprise me if most of the Americas born in the US are Hispanic, e.g. America Ferrera.

February 3, 2010 1:42 AM

This whole topic is so interesting to me and reminds me of a debate that often flared around tattoos when I was in college. Several white girls at my school got tattoos that were supposed to be "Japanese for peace" or along those line. But since they didn't speak Japanese, they missed several layers of nuance having to do with the characters and how they are interpreted by different language groups. Some of my friends were Japanese majors and would say "she say it's peace but in certain readings it's broomstick."

I don't think naming a kid something from a culture that's not the one you were born with is the problem. I think it's not knowing ANYTHING other than the name. I guess I disagree with the "I just liked it" camp when it comes to names that are already established in another culture. A couple of people have said "use ethnic names you like, as long as it's not something like Coehen." But the only reason I know about the traditions and significance of Coehen is because of the people on this board who explained it to me. If I just saw it in a book and liked it, I would have had no idea I'd be offending certain people. Peace from some angles is broomstick.

February 3, 2010 4:02 AM

wow! such an intense conversation!! it's very late so my comment will be brief. this conversation has brought to mind a family that was on the Real Housewives of New York City where their two sons had french/exotic names (i believe Francois and Johan) which amongst my circle drew many comments on the taste of the parents. I just thought it was interesting that my friends all saw it as a "social status" thing for them to give a clearly french name to their American (and I believe Australian) child who would grow up in a culture where Francois is a name with strong French connotations even though they didn't seem to me to have as strong connection to France.

also i think it was mentioned before but i think when it comes to "holy" names in certain cultures naming can become a bit offensive. if i met a non-religious family with a child named Cohen (not that I have) or even Levi i might be a bit offended because those names have strong meaning in Judaism and someone offhandedly using them because "they like them" would degrade the meaning of the name for me. of course that's just personal opinion, and i totally do see the other side of the argument.

By sarah smile (not verified)
February 3, 2010 4:25 AM

I don't really have a problem with choosing a name that you 'just like' from another culture even if you have no particular connection to that culture. What I (and others, it sounds like) have a problem with is doing so without doing your homework.

If you have a name in mind, then contact people from that culture - not just with that heritage, but people who are actually familiar with cultural norms. Find out the history and meaning and associations of the name. Ask if it would seem inappropriate on a child of a different culture. Get input from a few different people if you can - if you don't know anyone personally, then look for cultural organizations or language programs and see if you can call/e-mail someone and ask for advice.

If you've done that, and haven't come across anything to make you hesitate, then it doesn't bother me that you are choosing a name just because you like it. It's deciding that because you like it you can ignore the name's heritage that bothers me.

By PunkPrincessPhd (NLI) (not verified)
February 3, 2010 9:03 AM

Loving the discussion here! There's way too much to address specifically, but I just want to applaud so many intelligent and insightful comments!

@Sarah Smile:

Here's an example close to my heart - You all know how I agonized over the name Saoirse before choosing Sorcha, and eventually let it go due to its weighty political connotations in Northern Ireland.

So the other day I was lurking in another name forum (which shall remain "nameless" ha ha). And the OP has a list of names that she loves and is considering using....including Saoirse. It was surprizing because it didn't fit stylistically with any of the other names on her list. So I'm thinking, maybe she just likes how it sounds, how it looks on paper?

But no: she'd misspelled it, had no clue how to pronounce it, and didn't know its literal meaning (freedom), much less the tangled complex of inter-communal political baggage to which it was attached. I couldn't understand how she could love this name (which I love) without knowing any of that.

Then I really looked at the other names on her list:
Briony, Keira, Knightly, McAvoy.

She was 15, and had just spent 2 hours watching "Atonement".

Suddenly it all made sense....

February 3, 2010 9:07 AM

emilyrae-Ha Ha! Yes, what you noted in your second comment is correct. It was late when I posted anmd now rereading everything I have to admit that naming an Asian child Asia would be odd and that's not what I meant.

Qwen/EVie-Interesting questions. I think America is a bit like the name Liberty, and many of the virtue names. I think those that name their child America do so to instill the virtues they expect or experience from American culture. With regard to Native American names that are also places, hmm not sure. I do like the sounds of many of those personally but I don't want to name after ANY place name that I don't have a connection to so Brooklyn, Savannah, and Camden are out also.

PJ + Becky-Those are cases, I think, where the person made an error. In the tatoo example I think it was a bit silly/ignorant to not do your research. In the "Housewives" example, I remember us having a discussion about this when it occurred. I believe it WAS their intention to give off a "French air of sophistication". I'm not saying it was right but they did intend to be that way on purpose.

And I do know children named both Levi and Koen. Now it makes me wonder about both their names and if they "deserve" to be named that.

February 3, 2010 9:10 AM

PPP-That's funny! It reminds me of how much I like (on paper) the name Caoimhe. To me it looks like it should be pronounced Cammie :) But I know better!

By Bue
February 3, 2010 9:32 AM

I'm not sure how I feel about Asia but I wonder if India is seen in the same way? It's got the same issue of being a 'low status' place name perhaps chosen for its exotic qualities, but it's also a name with deep roots and usage in England and the South. For that reason I guess I see it as fair game. In fact for me the name is strangely separated from the country - I would assume a young India was named after a white ancestor, not the place.

Regarding the issue that 'you don't name a child something that they are' ie. Asians called Asia - the daughter of Sarah McLachlan is called India, and the father is Indian (well, Indo-Canadian). So it does sometimes happen. I actually think it's quite sweet.

An aside - I know we're talking primarily about the US here, but any Asia you come across in Europe is guaranteed to be Polish and is not named for the continent. Asia (pron. Asha) is the Polish nn for Johanna. London is teeming with Asias!

PPP, LOL that is hilarious. I will totally admit to a Briony/Saoirse name crush after watching Atonement!

February 3, 2010 11:35 AM

What an interesting conversation. You all have added such well reasoned and insightful comments. Unfortunately I have only had time to skim, and don't have time to add anything right now.

One quick note- on my list, I am definitely NOT getting rid of the names that you all liked. Those will definitely stay on my list. I wanted to post the ones that people hadn't talked about, because I wanted to hear which of those "non-favorite" names people liked or did not like.

By Anna S (not verified)
February 3, 2010 11:39 AM

A few comments:

The "French" name - " label a name as belonging to a specific culture without checking to make sure that it does [feels] rather disrespectful to me."
I wouldn't see it as disrespectful if someone obviously don't even know what they're doing, but rather as a reflection of their ignorance. Similar example: Swedish surnames of the -son construction always has a double /s/, e.g. Andersson. Now if someone conjured up Jones+s=Joness and claimed it was now Swedish, I'd just be shaking my head. Disrespect would require a more conscious, informed decision, e.g. to use a sacred name on a your dog.

Asia - I guess it makes sense that many people think Asia sounds good as a name because it *is* a name. Asia-the-continent was named after Asia from the Greek mythology. Lots of other old Greek and Greek mythology names have been incorporated in the European languages (and coexist as both person and place names). Does anybody know any real Asia's and whether they're named for the continent or the Greek woman?

Saoirse - this is a good example of a name that may not mean the same to everyone. PPP has previously described the connotations of the name, today, in Northern Ireland/Ireland. But if someone far away, e.g. in the US, has a few Irish ancestors and happen to like Irish names, do all those connotations still apply? I have a friend named Ninell. It's the adopted-to-Danish spelling of Ninel which was a popular name in the Soviet Union, once. It's Lenin spelt backwards. Very few people in her surroundings know this, she didn't even know herself until I told her. In her situation it's "just a name".

February 3, 2010 11:53 AM

"And I do know children named both Levi and Koen. Now it makes me wonder about both their names and if they "deserve" to be named that."

Zoerhenne, Koen is a Dutch name, a cognate of the Con- in Conrad. I did know a Koen or two back when I was traveling regularly to the Netherlands. If the family is of Dutch background and/or knows how to pronounce the name (one syllable, not two, and the vowel roughly, but to my ears not quite, the -oo- in 'cool' ), I don't see a problem. If this is intended to be an alternate spelling of Cohen and pronounced accordingly, then as far as I am concerned it's 100% not OK. No one entitled to this title uses it as a first name, and no one not entitled to it should use it IMO. This is how it is traditionally used: my great-grandfather's name was Yitzchak Moshe ha-Cohen. In English that is Isaac Moses the priest. Cohen was not his surname. We have an entirely different surname. When the Jews of Eastern Europe were forced to take surnames, some of those who were entitled to use the titles ha-Cohen or ha-Levi after their names simply converted those titles into surnames. Others so entitled didn't.

Levi is a different story. Levi is one of the twelve sons of Jacob and hence one of the twelve tribes of Israel. The Levites were a tribe dedicated to service in the Temple and as such were distinct from the other tribes. So Levi is legitimately a given name and is used like the names of the other sons of Jacob, such as Benjamin and Asher. Even among Jews it is not necessary to be a Levite to name a child Levi. Those who are Levites use the form ha-Levy AFTER their given name(s). Again when surnames were adopted, some of those who were entitled to style themselves ha-Levi took forms of their title (Levy, Levin, etc.) as their surnames.

February 3, 2010 11:55 AM

Wow, what a conversation! Anna S. that's fascinating about Ninel/Lenin, I would never have noticed that.

I agree with much of what has been (very well) said so I just had a few spin-off thoughts:

I'm one of those people who don't mind month names on a baby not born in that month. To me the name April in December might imply that the mother loved spring and wanted his/her child to feel springtime in winter! I almost like that better than naming April in April because that feels less special to me (I know most ppl here don't feel that way:). I may end up using the name May, probably as a mn. This would be both bc I think it's pretty and for Abigail May Alcott, younger sister of Louisa May Alcott. The May in their names is their mother's maiden-name, but eventually Abby May started to go by May (she was Amy in Little Women, ta-da!) as her first name too. So anyway, this wasn't meant as a criticism, just an alternative point of view.

I find Sarahsmile's "frenchified" name interesting, it has always bothered me how many assumptions Americans make about French culture so the reason behind this name bothers me a little. I think it is reinforcing certain "fussy" stereotypes, altho I agree their probably not as harmful as the exotic-types....

Generally, I don't know that we can expect people to contact language teachers (they're busy people too) but I DO think it's not too much to ask people to do a little googling. I haven't tried it, but if you google Cohen baby name, I bet you could find its history and issues with some searching and that's probably worth doing with any name.

February 3, 2010 12:18 PM

Hi everyone! I've been reading for years but never participated in the convo. Buuuut, now I have a naming dilemma, so I am here for advice.

My hubby and I immediately agreed on a girl's name -- Zoe, which I know is a little trendy for these circles, but we love it -- but we cannot for the life of us agree on a boy's name.

My favorite boys' names tend to be British-y like Adrian, Damian, Rowan, Sebastian and Tristan, or Biblical like Elijah, Gabriel, Jesse, Micah.

Hubby thinks these are all lame and effete and prefers names like Alexander, Benjamin, Christopher, Gregory, Jeffrey -- names I see as way too overused. But then the other day he SERIOUSLY suggested Zeb -- not even Zebedee, just ZEB!" -- so I have no idea what's going on in that brain of his.

We came across "Theo" and both immediately really loved it, but now I have cold feet about giving our kid just a nickname. I'm not excited about Theodore or (worse!) Theobald. There haven't been any other names we've both felt EXCITED about.

Anyone have any suggestions? Our only rule is that since our last name starts with a K sound we'd like to avoid names that end with a K sound (which is a shame since I love Dominic and Isaac).

February 3, 2010 12:21 PM

jenny l3igh,
no, i'm with you on month names. i've already stated my point of view, so i'll be brief. to me, ANY reason to name your child april (or may or june) is better than "because they were born in that month." because it honors a family member, because you love springtime and you want that association with your child, because you think it is sweet but still strong, or even just because you simply think "april elizabeth" is the most lovely and beautiful string of syllables you've ever heard. to me, all of those trump "she was born in april."

February 3, 2010 12:26 PM

(An addendum to the above, which relates to what emilyrae just posted -- given that we love Theo but don't want a nickname, Leo seems like an obvious choice. But our baby will almost certainly BE a Leo, and having a kid with the same name as its astronomical sign seems really hokey.

I thought I'd also add, apropos of the general topic, that I'm enough of a "keeper" that I just re-registered for the site with a username I don't use elsewhere, just so that if a family member or friend stumbles across these posts they don't suspect it's me!)

By Dittalitta (not verified)
February 3, 2010 12:47 PM


I'll have a think for you, but one name that immediately sprang to ming (and I don't know if it's your style or not, but here goes,) is Jotham. It's biblical, very uncommon, and I think it's got quite a masculine sound. And doesn't sound too unfamiliar... Sort of like Jonathan...

February 3, 2010 12:55 PM

Oh, emilyrae I really like April Elizabeth!!

ondine- no great ideas yet, but I am not big on astrological signs so I would never notice if a Leo was a Leo personally...

February 3, 2010 1:08 PM


I told hubby our first suggestion was "Jotham" but that it makes me think of "Gotham" -- and he said "Gotham!!! Now there's a name!" Eek! ;-)

February 3, 2010 1:45 PM

Miriam-I remember our previous conversations about Cohen. That's why I posed my question rather rhetorically because no one here can possibly know what they intended. I can only guess that they "liked the name" but as I have only heard it pronounced by the teacher/students as Co-en I am only speculating. And yes, I know that makes you want to figuratively poke your eyes out. I simply wondered if Levi was Jewish but I think he is.

ondine-The first name that came to mind for you is Elliot. To me it's Britishy w/o being TOO British like I find Alistair, Brooks, Hudson, and others. It also has the beginning like Elijah and Elias so I thought you might like it. I will post a few more suggestions later when Nymbler and I can get together.

emilyrae-I like April Elizabeth too! It sounds springy and sweet!

February 3, 2010 7:25 PM

haha, i'm glad so everyone likes april elizabeth! interestingly enough, april is actually my least favorite of the common month names (april, may, june, august), but it does have a nice, springy, happy feel. :]

though i have said in the past that i might find things like that cheesy (a leo who is a leo), but i really only think it's cheesy if you do it on purpose (hey, he's going to be born in august, let's call him leo!). and you're not doing that. i also think that personal preference trumps almost everything. in other words: if you and your husband like leo, i would use it. it's a great name, in my opinion, and it's got tons of spirit. and the odds are that none of his friends are going to know what astrological sign he is. and if anyone notices, he can just shrug and say, "oh, yeah, just a weird coincidence. my parents liked the name." i'm with jenny l3igh--i probably wouldn't notice, myself, but i know that some people are really into astrology.

i do also like theo, i just like leo better. i'm surprised at the names your husband finds effeminate, as i definitely don't, but to each his own, i suppose. for what it's worth (though i'm betting neither of these will thrill you), there's also theophilus and thelonius.

i myself would almost always want to give a longer version for both theo and leo (like leonardo, leon, leopold, leonard, etc), and that's just because i like the idea of giving my child some flexibility (lots more nicknames and a longer full name to choose from). but i don't think there's anything wrong with the opposite point of view either. and i think leo can hold its own as a full name (whereas i don't really think that jimmy or billy can).

also: new baby in my office. isl@ marguerite!

also, randomly: i'm noticing that i really am drawn to all "ju" names. juliet, jude, juniper, june, julian, jupiter, judy, jubilee...i love all of these. i also love almost all "lu" names. so i think i might have some sort of "thing" for the "oo" sound.

February 3, 2010 3:35 PM

Speaking of people's ignorance/lack of knowledge about French makes me think of the mom of a girl I went to middle school with, whose name was Monique, but she insisted on pronouncing it Mo-NAY "because it was French". At the time I thought it was hilarious that she was so ignorant of French, but now 15 years later it just seems kind of sad to be so unaware of pronunciation patterns that you mispronounce your own name.

@ondine--here's my fave boy's name: Vaughn! Fits the Britishy feel, but since it sounds a lot like Sean or John, feels more like a tough one syllable name to me than some of the other British names.

February 3, 2010 3:53 PM

how about:

nicholas, nn nico (or just nico, if you prefer)

February 3, 2010 4:07 PM

On the topic of "mispronouncing" your own name: I'm white but I went to school with a lot of African Americans. Some kids I knew got traditional Irish names but with Americanized spelling and sometime a change in pronunciation. Examples: Shavonne, Dedra. (DEE-dra)

I also had neighbors once (white), who named their kid aisling out of a book and pronounced it "a-slin".

February 3, 2010 4:48 PM

Regarding name "legitimacy," (or perhaps I should say the taste and cultural sensitivity involved in naming) I have an example that confounded and really bothered me, for some reason. A close friend, who generally exhibits what I consider to be good taste and good sense, gave her lovely daughter a name that baffled me. I absolutely *know* I haven't the right to be disappointed, but as a NE who offered (solicited, of course) well-researched lists of names and their meanings/backgrounds -not to mention as a longtime friend of the family- I was kinda over-invested.

Anyway, a day or so after delivering her beautiful girl, she scuttled the several top contenders (all interesting, lovely names to my ears, which went well with her son's name and their LN) and went with a name that is most familiar to me as the name of an East Asian spiritual concept: three letters . . . think the bestseller "The *** of Poo."

The family consider themselves to be Christians. They have very limited knowledge of ***ism, and although they chose the name in part for this particular meaning, they are pronouncing it with a hard "T." When I suggested the pronunciation might be otherwise, I was told that "most Americans won't know that." Doesn't this seem a bit culturally tone-deaf? Am I being hard on them?

P.S. For the record, I have not said anything against the name. And she's a darling baby.

By Anna S (not verified)
February 3, 2010 4:57 PM

Eleni, would you mind filling out the ***'s? You could spell it backwards if you're afraid of Google?!

February 3, 2010 5:00 PM

@Anna S --it's "oat" backwards. Often pronounced with more of a D sound than a T sound.

Here's a link to the book Eleni referenced:

And @Eleni, I agree that it's a rather odd name choice for people who consider themselves Christian, and not adherents of an Eastern religion.

February 3, 2010 5:07 PM

I like your approach - you're refining your list slowly with feedback from a generally thoughtful bunch. I think I will borrow this tactic eventually!

My favorites from your "remainders":

Alice, Faye, Frances, Grania/Grainne, Ione, Lenore, Liv, Maeve, Margot, Oona, Pascale, Romilly, Theodora, Thora, Willa, Zara.

Adrian, Desmond, Edward, Elias, Ellis, Ethan, Ezekiel, Felix, Fergus, Galen, Graeme, Innes, Leo, Lucien, Pascal, Rhys, Rowan, Seth.

February 3, 2010 5:12 PM

ondine, my favorite british sounding name is Dashiell. i think the nickname Dash is very cute and boyish. You get the full name along with a fun nickname.

also, random but interesting, my neighbor is pregnant with twin girls and we're not really close but today we were talking names while in the elevator. she quickly mentioned that they had "named" the babies Courtlin, which is a mashup of her and her husbands names, and Elizabeth. she offered up the meaning behind Courtlin, but if i was closer with her i might of implored the meaning behind Elizabeth (family name? long-time favorite? etc) but i didn't. the two names just seem mismatched to me, one being a trendy-mashup, the other being a very popular classic.

February 3, 2010 5:15 PM

becky's suggestion of dashiell seems pretty good. because dash is a pretty masculine sort of nickname that might appeal to your husband...?

February 3, 2010 5:27 PM

@Kerry: my *absolute* favorites from the complete list are:


Helen (or Helena), Beatrice, Adele, Romilly, Norah, Penelope, Ursula, Petra, Bronwyn (or Bronwen), Theodora, Linnea, Miranda, Lenore and Thora. Several of these were on my list for my first daughter.

I like these names, but I find they are either more common than I would wish (when choosing to name my daughter) or new, conspicuous risers in my area (which somehow puts me off):
Abigail, Adelaide, Alice, Ann, Audrey, Catherine, Charlotte, Claire, Eleanor, Elise, Erin, Freya, Hazel, Ilah/Isla, Jane, Julia, Juliette, Liv, Matilda, Nancy, Nathalie, Olivia/Olive, Philippa, Sadie

February 3, 2010 6:02 PM

Ondine, How about...


Another one that popped into my head is Ivan.

I think I'll probably change my user-name, too, once we get pregnant. We're keepers, and since I use this username on a family forum, I wouldn't want to risk being found out. :D

By Anna S (not verified)
February 3, 2010 6:04 PM

Anne with an E - thank you!

Eleni "...they are pronouncing it with a hard "T." When I suggested the pronunciation might be otherwise, I was told that "most Americans won't know that."

I don't necessarily see it as a sign of disrespect, perhaps more of a compromise between the original word/spelling and an acknowledgement of the fact that their daughter would be in for a lifetime of spelling/pronunciation issues if they insisted on an orthographically incorrect pronunciation. Does the hard-T pronunciation significantly change the meaning of the name? I think it is not entirely different from naming your daughter after your Polish grandmother Krysztyna but going with the traditional English spelling Christina instead.