When you second-guess a name

It’s happened to many of us. For whatever reason, we find ourselves second-guessing or outright changing our minds about a name for a baby, adopted child, pet, fictional character, or ourselves. This doesn’t mean the original name is bad, just that we’re having second thoughts.

When second thoughts strike, it’s important to consider why we’re no longer wild about that name. Such reasons might include:

1. You planned to change the birth name of an adopted child, but started feeling guilty about erasing such a visceral part of her or his native culture.

2. A name you loved for years has leapt to the top of the charts, and you don’t want people to assume you mindlessly followed a trend.

3. You discover the name you picked out months ago is this generation’s Jennifer or Jason.

4. The name you had your heart set on just doesn’t feel right on the baby once it’s born, or on a pet after you bring it home.

5. You’re from a culture or family where there’s enormous pressure to always and only name kids after relatives instead of original names you truly love. The thought of never getting a chance to use a special name you’ve loved for years would always haunt you.

6. You named a character before you were well-versed in names, and now you want something that’s more than just “there.” Absolutely nothing wrong with names like Jack, Beth, Bob, and Kate, but characters with distinctive names tend to be more memorable.

7. You’re choosing a new name for yourself as part of converting to a new religion, and realise how common it is in your community in general or that faith as a whole.

8. You want a new name for yourself for another reason, and the more time goes by, the more you realise it just doesn’t fit with who you are. That name also might sound ridiculous on someone of your age, since it only appeared on the charts a generation or two after you were born (like a certain 1976 Olympic gold medalist’s new name).

9. A name you love is very common, and you don’t want your child to go through school as, e.g., Sarah with an H #10, or every dog in the dog park responding when you call for Bailey.

10. The name has acquired a pop culture association you’d prefer to avoid.

Like with all gut feelings, there’s always a reason something’s bothering you, and keeps bothering you instead of quickly resolving like a case of cold feet. You need to decide if you truly want to change a name, or if you love it enough to overlook extreme popularity.

Yes, many people might assume you were mindlessly following trends and can’t think outside the Top 100 or a very small pool of traditional names, but if you chose that name in honour of a beloved great-grandparent, special friend, or person in history or the Bible whom you really admire, popularity shouldn’t bother you. You would’ve chosen that name regardless of current trends.

For a very long time, I’ve chosen the names of my journals in advance of starting them. Since #3, Cecilia, my journals have been named after songs, and I’ve always paired them (e.g., two songs from each band or performer, though not necessarily one after the other). Thus, I knew Cecilia’s pair would be Emily, after this gorgeous song:

By the time I was nearing the end of my seventh journal, Athena, I was starting to have serious second doubts about using Emily for the next one, since the name had become so freaking popular, and my taste in names is anything but Top 10. But then I realised popularity meant nothing when I’d had the name in mind for so long, and she was my journal and no one else’s. Emily also took her name from such a beautiful song, and the name is a classic.

I’m now fast nearing the end of my eleventh journal, Khanada (Ka-NAY-dah), and had started to reconsider naming the next Mary. It turned out I was mostly frustrated at this vow I’d held myself to all these years, exclusively naming journals after songs, having to pair them, and never using names I just like.

Since I released myself from that vow, I once more am very happy about naming my next journal Mary. I may indeed still name future journals Magnolia and Suzanne, but not because I felt compelled to.

Always consider your reasons for rethinking a name, and weigh the pros and cons of each decision. Sometimes it’s just cold feet, while other times there are compelling reasons to choose a different name.

Some thoughts on naming laws

Many Asian and European countries have lists of approved names, both for babies and adults changing their names. These lists aren’t set in stone, and have had new additions over time. In general, I support the concept, and don’t think it’s a cruel restriction.

A quick look at the countries with such laws and lists reveals they’re historically rather monolithic cultures, without a thriving tradition of immigration like the Anglophone world. It’s only been in recent years that we’ve seen a large uptick in the number of non-Europeans moving to places like Sweden, Germany, and Denmark.

Not only do naming laws ensure all approved names adhere to the national language’s orthography, but they also outlaw names which might be seen as ridiculous, offensive, or shameful. The best-known example is Adolf, which is illegal in many countries.

When one applies for permission to use a name not on the approved list, the name must indicate sex, conform to the language’s orthography, cannot be a surname or commercial product, and cannot have a negative effect upon the child.

Children born to foreign citizens don’t have to be given names on the approved list, but they should follow the onomastic rules of the parents’ native country.

Some countries have longer lists than others; e.g., Denmark has 18,000 female names and 15,000 males names to date, while Iceland only has about 1,800 each.

Other countries, like Italy, don’t have lists of names which must be used, but shameful, ridiculous, and offensive names are nevertheless barred.

Countries with a long tradition of being under the influence of another empire (e.g., the former republics of the Russian Empire and USSR) have taken steps to ban names from that foreign culture, or at least strongly disapprove of them. It makes sense they’d want to reclaim their native names after finally gaining their freedom.

Malaysia goes further, since their National Registration Department may refuse to register not only objectionable and vulgar names, but also names based on colours, numbers, titles, equipment, fruits, and vegetables.

Saudi Arabia has 50 banned names.

Not only has Tajikistan banned Russified names, but is also trying to ban Islamic and Arabic names on its list of 3,000 approved names. All names must be Tajik, as Arabic and Muslim names are considered too divisive (on top of a lot of other Islamophobic legislation, like banning hijabs and closing mosques). However, religious Muslims don’t want to use native Tajik names.

Naming laws might seem restrictive, old-fashioned, anti-creative, authoritarian, etc., to those of us in the Anglophone world, but they’re meant to enforce basic guidelines instead of punishing people. We’re more used to seeing a wide range of names, from many languages, due to the long tradition of being melting-pots.

It’s far different in many other countries, where the culture is relatively more closed. While there are long traditions of sizable ethnic minorities (e.g., Armenians in Iran, Germans in Hungary, Serbians in Slovenia), they’re still from within the same general Indo–European cultural heritage.

Looking at Hungary’s list from 2016, for example, reveals not only historic and popular invented Hungarian names like Imre, Kálmán, Jolán, Csilla, Piroska, and Lájos, but Magyarized forms of names from other cultures.

Under the policy of Magyarization begun in the late 19th century, there were relatively few approved Hebrew names, like Eszter and Dániel. Today, there are many more, like Jáél, Sifra, Tirza, Mika, Ezékiel, and Józsué.

We also see the obvious influence of Hungary’s Muslim minority, in names such as Aladdin, Ahmed, Szultána, Nasira, Zafira, and Abdullah. Many English and pop culture names are also represented, like Gandalf, Szkarlett, Cinderella, Dzsesszika (Jessica), Brendon, and Lennox.

If critics would actually look at these lists, or the specific types of names not allowed, they’d see most countries’ naming laws are anything but cruel, restrictive, and set in stone. They prevent ridiculous names like Urhines Kendall Icy Eight Special K and Moxie Crimefighter.

Some thoughts on name-changing after immigration

(Note: I’ll be further discussing some of these issues on my main blog in upcoming posts, “A Primer on Anglicizing Names” and “A Primer on De-Judaizing Names.” I also previously discussed the issue of Hebraizing names on my main blog.)

Though most immigrants in the modern era proudly retain their birth names, that wasn’t always the case. Many people felt they had to change their names (first, last, or both) to become “real” Americans, Canadians, Brits, Australians, Israelis, French, etc. By and large, no one questioned this.

Now we know there’s no one “right” way to be a proud, patriotic member of one’s adopted homeland. By trying to whitewash themselves and pretend they never had any other names and ways of life, people lost vital parts of their heritage and identity.

Changing spelling to reflect pronunciation:

I understand why people would want to do this. Certain letters make different sounds in, e.g., English than they do in the native language. For example, the Hungarian surname Kovács might become Kovach, or the Polish surname Adamczak became Adamchak.

Many Hungarian women named Sára (nickname Sári) have likewise changed their names to Shara or Shari, since most non-Magyarphiles don’t know the Hungarian S is pronounced SH.

Many people gave up the idea of anyone properly pronouncing, e.g., W as V, and accepted a linguistically incorrect pronunciation of a name like Janowski or Korošec.

Removing diacritical marks:

This was extraordinarily common, esp. since many people would’ve had no idea how to pronounce characters like Ń, Ž, Č, Ł, Ę, Ñ, Ü, Ø, or Ő. Even if the diacritical mark makes the difference in correct vs. incorrect pronunciation, most people even now see them as a hindrance or annoyance.

Pedant I am, I like seeing diacritical marks in names of foreign origin. It sets the bearer apart, sends the message that s/he cares about his or her ethnic heritage and doesn’t believe in taking the easy way out. A name like Ramón, Yaël, Léa, Gwenaël, Kálmán, or Irène looks so distinctive.

Changing spelling to conform to host nation’s “norms”:

Examples would include the Hungarian Jakab becoming Jacob, Izabella becoming Isabella, the Estonian Eliisabet becoming Elizabeth, or the Polish Zofia becoming Sophia. Before people were used to seeing certain letters or sounds in names, they would’ve stood out like a sore thumb. But today, those native spellings really stand out beautifully from the crowd.

Many Russians and Ukrainians with -skiy names also changed that suffix to -sky, to simplify the spelling. Sometimes, Poles changed -ski to -sky. If they lived in a region with a lot of people of Russian, Ukrainian, Czech, or Slovak descent, it helped them to blend in better.

Dropping sex-based endings of surnames:

Many names in the Slavic languages denote the sex of the bearer. Russian women’s names end in -a after -ov, -(y)ev, or -in, and -skiy becomes -skaya. Likewise, Polish women’s names end in -ska instead of -ski, and Czech women’s names tack on -ová. In Slovak and Czech, -ský becomes -ská.

It just looks wrong to me to see a beautiful Russian or Polish surname without the feminine ending when the bearer is a woman. It’s grammatically incorrect for a woman to have a name like Jaskolski, Kuznetsov, or Borodin.

“Translating” names to that of the host culture:

It wasn’t uncommon for, e.g., Pavlos or Pavel to become Paul, Katarina or Katarzyna to become Catherine, or Ryszard to become Richard. Even a name like Caterina or Nikolay was considered “too foreign” once upon a time.

Surnames could be “translated” too, such as Schmidt becoming Smith or Molnár becoming Miller. Anything suggesting foreign origin was seen as undesirable and suspect.

This frequently happened when people made aliyah (moved to Israel), as discussed in the above-hyperlinked “A Primer on Hebraizing Names.” Many common Jewish surnames were translated into Hebrew, such as Bergman becoming Harari and Rosen becoming Vardi. Those birth surnames smacked of a people without their own country and language.

Choosing entirely new names:

The name Irving was once quite popular among the Jewish community, as an “American” substitute for Isaac, Israel, and Isaiah. Many of the new names chosen have dated rather poorly, though at the time, they were seen as “all-American” and a part of the mainstream onomastic culture.

Shortening names or putting Anglo twists on them:

This happened both for Anglicization in general and de-Judaization in particular. For example, Garfinkel became Garfield, Rosenkrantz became Rose, Nielsen became Nelson, Feuerstein became Firestone, de Jong became DeYoung, Eisenhauer became Eisenhower.

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I’m glad more people now see the beauty in names from a wide variety of cultures, instead of seeing them as an ugly, embarrassing, foreign burden to be shed. Not everyone needs to have names like John and Mary Smith, just as not everyone has to abandon native cuisine, culture, language (as long as one learns the host language), and religion.

Supposedly geriatric names I like

It’s no secret many of the names that are currently quite popular (e.g., Sophia, Isabella, Max, Henry, Emma, Isaac) were not too long ago derided by more than a few people as too musty and geriatric to use on a baby. However, some names still frequently garner scorn instead of an enthusiastic, “ZOMG, that was my grandma/grandpa’s name!”

Here are some of these unpopular, supposedly geriatric names which I’ve always liked.

Female:

1. Ernestine. I’ve absolutely loved this name from the very first time I saw it!

2. Irene. As I said recently, I don’t think of this as an old lady name, in spite of its greatest popularity being quite some time ago, because it didn’t explode in popularity overnight and then sink just as rapidly. It’s still used somewhat regularly.

3. Justine. I’ve always loved this name, as well as the variations Justina and Yustina.

4. Ida. I don’t understand all the hate this name gets, though I agree the English pronunciation isn’t as soft and pretty as it is in all the other languages with this name.

5. Beatrice. It’s hardly a secret I adore this name, after how many posts I’ve written about it! Like many other name nerds, I was worried it might suddenly get trendy and overused after Paul McCartney and that gold-digging second wife of his used it on their child, but that fear thankfully wasn’t realised.

Male:

1. Stanley. Yes, I’m biased because this was the name of my favouritest comedian, Stan Laurel, but it’s still a very distinguished, charming name. I also love the cute nickname Stan.

2. Harold. I’ve adored this name for years, long before I became a fan of the great comedian Harold Lloyd. I’m also very moved by the section of the Bayeux Tapestry declaring, “Here sits Harold, King of the English.” The people knew who their real king was, even under foreign occupation.

3. Leon. This name has such a charming, snappy ring to it. It’s short and to the point, like Ida.

4. Leonard. My main reason for liking this name is probably the fact that it was Chico Marx’s real name. It’s been said Chico is the one who sneaks up on you, since he tends not to be the one most people are immediately hooked by. But then, over time, you’re more and more drawn to him.

5. Philip. This name feels both sweet and serious to me, evoking a kind, quiet, caring, intelligent fellow.

Original ways to name a child after someone

While I’m a very strong advocate of giving kids original names you love, and only naming them after someone if you’re truly moved to do so for your own reasons, the pull of culture can be very strong. I know a lot of people in the Jewish community who feel like they HAVE to name their kids after deceased relatives if they’re Ashkenazic, or after living relatives if they’re Sephardic.

Sometimes, that special older relative you want to name your baby after has a name you’re not wild about, a name that’s too common for your liking, or a name that stands out like a sore thumb in the modern era. Here are a few ideas to use a namesake in a roundabout way.

1. Use a similar-sounding name. E.g., Micah instead of Michael, Helena instead of Ellen.

2. Use the middle name instead.

3. Use a variation on the middle name.

4. Think of something that was really important to this person, either a concrete thing or an intangible quality. E.g., if s/he loved donating to charity, you could name your baby Charity or some name that means “charity.” Someone who worked tirelessly for peace organizations could be named Shalom or Miruna.

5. Use another language’s form of the name, or the original form. E.g., since the name Adolf is taboo and even illegal in many countries, you could honor your great-grandpap through the original form Adalwolf. Or if you’re concerned about how trendy Alice is becoming, you could honor your great-grandma through a form like Alisa or Adelina.

6. Find another name with roughly the same meaning as that person’s name. Perhaps you’re not keen on how common David is, or you don’t like the feminized form Davida. In its place, there are a number of other names meaning “beloved,” such as Cara, Carina, Shivali, and Erasmus.

7. Perhaps name the child after someone who was a huge hero and inspiration to that relative.

8. If that person were really proud of being from a certain country, state, province, or city, consider using a symbol of that area which could work as a personal name. E.g., Amethyst for Ontario’s provincial gemstone, Lilac or Rose for New York’s state bush and flower, or Hibernia after the national personification of Ireland.

9. If s/he were Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, use his or her patron saint’s name.

10. Perhaps use a name s/he always wished s/he’d been called instead.

11. If the person had a pen name, consider using that.

12. You could also name the baby after one of that person’s favorite literary characters.