Perceived associations and usability

How a name acquires a certain widespread association or is considered usable vs. unusable will vary from person to person, but much of our views are shaped by the culture in which we live. We don’t declare a name to be taboo, outlandish, trashy, pretentious, heavy, old-fashioned, etc., in a vacuum.

In most Western languages, female names generally end in vowels and male names ends in consonants. Therefore, some people find it odd to encounter a male name ending in an A, as is common in, for example, Indian and Japanese names. Some people even co-opt male names into female name because of this, like the very male name Nikita. It’s one thing for a male name from your own language to gradually cross sex-based lines, like Ashley, Courtney, or Evelyn, but you can’t just appropriate a name from another language just because you think it sounds feminine and have no idea it’s only used on men in the source language.

All names have to originate somewhere, but invented names which became popular weren’t just thrown together from random syllables. They were based in familiar sounds and letters, and had solid etymologies. True, names like Miranda, Jessica, Vanessa, Pamela, and Wendy sound like names because we’re very familiar with them and they’ve been around a long time, but when they were invented, people had never heard them before. They were accepted as real names because of the way they look and sound. Would invented names like Rhagmutt or Zunker have caught on in a Western culture?

Some names we started out disliking or not considering real names become names we’ll give a pass to, or even begin to like, thanks to good personal associations. I, for example, have no problem picturing an adult woman with a formerly male-only name like Mackenzie or Taylor because I’ve encountered them myself. I also have less of a hard time picturing an adult Brittany, or a Brittany with serious interests. However, there are still certain names I just can’t picture on an adult, not only because I’ve never known any adults with those names, but also because they just have a very childish sound.

Some names which sound perfectly normal and lovely in the native language may cause English-speakers to laugh, like Dong, Dung, Bich, Yu, Yuki, Cowessess, Foka, Floor, Phuc, and Trees. They don’t know the pronunciation is different, or that it’s not considered laugh-worthy in the language of origin. Some English names have also gone from acceptable to taboo, or at least the butt of jokes, like Dick, Titty (a nickname for Leticia), Fanny, Rod, Buddy, and Gaylord.

Nevaeh-it’s-Heaven-spelt-backwards-TEEHEEHEE!-isn’t-that-the-cutest-and-cleverest-thing-ever?! fails as a name for me because it doesn’t look or sound like a name, beyond just the stupid etymology and very, very, very recent origin. While there are many types of established names in the Western languages, ranging from flowery (Isabella, Anastasia) to short and to the point (Brooke, Lark), Heaven spelt backwards doesn’t look or sound like a familiar, established name. Even the most common pronunciation doesn’t match English spelling rules at all.

Almost everyone will have some names s/he hates or considers taboo due to bad personal associations, but that doesn’t make them unusable for everyone. The names Bernard and Logan are poison to me because of awful bullies by those names, and by the time I met another Logan, who was nothing like the bully in junior high, the damage had already long been done.

However, it’s different when a well-known person’s name becomes taboo. Let’s say you really hated Bill Clinton or George W. Bush, depending upon your political views. The names William and George haven’t become taboo, because there are too many people with those names, and plenty of other associations. The name Adolf has become so taboo, so verboten, it’s even illegal in some countries, like Sweden. Who has any other association with Adolf/Adolph/Adolphe? I only know several other famous bearers because I’m a historian and lover of classic films. While it was far from rare, it also wasn’t exactly the most common name either. Hence, its almost complete disuse ever since.

The kinds of sounds we like in a name will vary from person to person, and we might like some names others consider cartoonish or fit only for fictional characters, like Midnight or Rhapsody. But ultimately, the names considered usable vs. unusable by the wider, general native culture follow certain patterns.

Words as names

Words have a long history of being used as personal names, though some of them are more versatile and timeless than others. It all depends upon the name, your style, and the child’s ultimate personality.

Flower and gemstone names seem to be among the most established, with popular choices including Violet, Rose, Lily, Saffron, Juniper, Pearl, Opal, Coral, Ruby, Amber, and Emerald. Others aren’t so common, and may take some getting used to on a person, such as Sapphire, Onyx, Orchid, and Hydrangea. Another option is to use the name of a flower or gemstone in another language; for example, my spider plant’s name is Kalanit, which is Hebrew for “anemone.” The name Anemone might sound odd in English, but it’s an established name in modern Hebrew.

Month names are either long-established as personal names, or sound odd and outlandish. Obviously, the most popular month names are April, May, and June, with some people who still use various forms of August (e.g., Augusta, Augustine, Augustina, Augustus). September is also sometimes used, and I’ve also seen January, but the other months don’t seem to get much traction.

When it comes to days of the week, Tuesday seems to be the most normal name. Other people have made this observation as well, though I’ve never figured out just why that particular day of the week seems to work best as a person’s name. Mind you, if I were using this name, I’d use it in the middle slot, not as a forename.

Nature names are various and sundry, and seem to have more possibilities for boys. Many other word names tend to be used more for girls. There are familiar nature names including Cliff, River, Acadia, Forrest, Sequoia, Clover, Ginger, Olive, and Rain. And again, you can always use a name from another language if the English form seems too weird. For example, I rather like the French Océane, but find the English Ocean to be bizarre as a name. But some nature names are too weird even for me, like Rainbow, Sunshine, Branch, Lake, Tide, Prairie, Meadow, and Birch. I personally think River is a weird name too, but at least it’s somewhat established as a name.

As for season names, Autumn and Winter seem the most normal. Uncharacteristically, I don’t even mind the alternate spelling Wynter. I never cared for Summer as a name, and Spring seems the most un-namelike of the four.

Pilgrim-era Virtue names have long been my delicious guilty pleasure, though in all honesty, I probably wouldn’t use them on actual children. I just love those archaic Virtue names like Honesty, Courage, Fearful, Thanksgiving, Thankful, Fear, Remember, Increase, Amnesty, Blessing, Radiance, Reliance, Hopeful, Amity, Charisma, Wrestling, Peace, and Obedience. Maybe it’s just the old-fashionedness that appeals to me, the fact that they’re all pretty much unisex, what each word represents, how they’re so un-namelike and out of the ordinary.

Even I think food names are weird, though since one of my long-shelved 19th century characters is named Apricot, I’ve always made an exception for that particular food name. My lifelong pronunciation of Apricot is AP-er-cot, not AYP-er-cot.

Random words as names make it seem like you just grabbed the dictionary and didn’t bother to think of actual names. Even worse, a certain venerable baby names book, in print for almost 30 years and with several updated editions, has even suggested names like Afternoon or naming your child after pieces of furniture. If you love music, for example, why not pick a name like Allegra or Cadence instead of Flute or Song?

And if you’re proud of your religious faith or love a particular holiday, there’s no need to pick a non-name like Halloween, Christmas, Cathedral, Prayer, or Sabbath. However, I’ll make an exception for Easter, since not only is that one of the two names I’ve loved longest, but it’s also pretty established as a personal name. I’ll also give a pass to Valentine. There are so many great names to choose from which still reflect your love of that religion or holiday, like Noel(le), Holly, Faith, Raven, and Liberty, as well as names of people associated with these holidays and faiths.

Why do you need a Mini-Me?

I’ve never understood the custom many people apparently still have, of automatically naming the first boy after the father. He doesn’t get his own special identity. He’s just Dad, Jr., a Mini-Me. It’s like letting your parents-in-law or parents name your child, or even your grandparents or further back, if the kid has a Roman numeral.

Unless you’re royalty or the Pope, it seems really silly to have a Roman numeral in your name, unless it’s skipped a generation. Like, say you really want to name a child after your dad or grandpap, who had his own name. Your son would then be James II. It would be pretty cool if there were a custom of skipping generations, so that no boy in the family would ever have the same name as his father, but the last generation before.

The Roman numeral II, by the way, is NOT the same thing as Junior. I’ve seen so many birth announcement for IIs, when clearly they’re really Juniors. You only use II when you’ve skipped a generation. Otherwise, it makes you look pretty pretentious and ignorant.

Junior is traditionally only used when the name is exactly the same. So, for example, if your name is Robert William and your son is Robert John, your son wouldn’t be a true Junior. I’ve heard that you’re “supposed to” move everyone’s suffixes up when the oldest bearer of the name dies, but I really don’t think too many people actually do that. A guy who’s gone by Junior his whole life usually doesn’t become Senior when his dad dies, and his son wouldn’t go from III to Junior.

It’s not very common anymore, but it used to be pretty standard for a firstborn daughter to be named for her mother. While I’ve seen references like Jane, Jr., I don’t think that was ever really done, practically or realistically. A girl would just have the same name as her mother, without any suffix calling attention to it.

When you and your son have the exact same name, it can lead to embarrassing and inconvenient incidents like opening one another’s mail and taking one another’s phonecalls by mistake. If there’s a III in the house too, it gets even more complicated and embarrassing. Isn’t it awkward enough when someone accidentally answers when his or her name is called, when the speaker wanted someone else in the vicinity with the same name?

If you want a carbon copy, someone in your exact image, have yourself cloned. Do you like hearing your name over and over again? Will you not feel secure and fulfilled as a man unless you pass your name on? The only time I’m fine with it is when it’s a posthumous child, named after a father he’ll never know. That’s a sweet, touching way to honour your late husband, not the man himself deciding he’s incomplete as a man without his own little Mini-Me.

Maury is one of my guilty pleasures, and I’m always gobsmacked at how many babymamas name their sons after denying deadbeats who’ve treated them, and their children, very poorly. Why would you want your son to have the same name as such a jerk? Some of these names aren’t even that great to be passing on for more than one generation. And when it’s shown a guy isn’t the father, why keep calling him Junior or III? He just happens to have the same name as a guy you slept with without protection, not the same name as his father.

It’s also pretty egotistical. Why can’t you leave it to the next generation or greater to determine if you’re worthy namesake material instead of naming a child after yourself?

Choose a middle name with care

A lot of non-name nerds don’t put much thought or care into picking middle names, particularly for girls. Many people think of middle names as an afterthought, never thinking that maybe a child will like the middle name enough to go by it. And if a girl likes her middle name enough, that could contribute to her being a Lucy Stoner, wanting to keep all of her name instead of ditching her original middle name to become Jane Smith Jones.

It’s such a breath of fresh air to see a name like Marie, Anne, or Rose being used as a forename instead of a thoughtless filler in the middle. My real middle name is Ursula, which I’ve always been extremely proud of. If my spinsterdom ever comes to an end, I’m keeping my entire name, the way it’s been since birth. I was already always baffled at how so many women automatically change their last names for marriage, but I was even more baffled when I found out about the high-society custom of a woman ditching her original middle name and moving her birth surname to the middle position. That’s definitely not something working-class or poor women do!

There are more middle names for girls out there than Marie, Anne, Rose, Grace, Elizabeth, Leigh, Lynn, Hope, Renée, Jade, Louise, Jean, Joan, Jane, Claire, May, and Paige. And there are more middle names for boys than John, James, William, Robert, David, Joseph, Edward, Michael, and Andrew. Why not pick a combination that dazzles, like Claire Octavia, Julia Rosemary, Jared Micah, Felix Samson, Amalia Chrysanthemum, or Jeremiah Leonard?

Sometimes a person decides to go by both names, though people with double names tend to be very religious Catholics or Jews, high-society people, or traditional Southerners. But if you want your child to have a double name, or if your child decides to be called both names, why not have a combination that’s a little out of the expected? Instead of yet another Anne Marie, Mary Catherine, Juan Carlos, or John David, why not try Mary Charlotte, Julia Rosa, Avraham Ezra, or Roger Edmund?

You don’t want to get too pretentious with double names, though. While many names sound awesome together, when constantly said together, they sound ridiculous, pretentious, too much of a mouthful. One of the most pretentious, mismatched double names I’ve ever seen was Irene Stephanie. Seriously, who’s going to constantly say, “Irene Stephanie, time for dinner,” “Irene Stephanie is sick,” “Irene Stephanie failed a class,” “I have a date with Irene Stephanie”? Keep the names simple and similar, without too many syllables.

And if you’re using a one-syllable forename, it seems to flow best with a longer middle name. Say, Anne Ernestine, Skye Octavia, John Francesco, James Fernando.

Honestly, when I see or hear of a new baby with a middle name like Marie, Anne, Grace, John, Michael, or Joseph, I tend to assume the parents didn’t really care about a meaningful middle name. Just something quick and easy to toss in there, nothing special to make the child different.

Leave some names for the boys, please!

One of the naming trends which annoys many name nerds to no end is the constant co-opting of established male names for girls. I have no problem with unisex names like Dale or Drew, or even with accepting that some formerly male names have mostly crossed over to the female side, but let’s leave some names for the boys.

I strongly believe in raising children as people, not rigid stereotypes erroneously based on biological sex. If I have a daughter, I’m not going to put one of those bands around her bald head so everyone can immediately know she’s a girl and not a boy. I intend to raise any kids I have in a very gender-neutral way, without forcing boys to wear clothes with trains and footballs or decorating a girl’s room that looks like Disney Princesses vomited all over it. But names are a different story from other gender-neutral manifestations.

When you take more than a few names away from the boys and give them to girls, it creates a much smaller name pool for boys. Some names that have largely made the switch, like Ashley, Courtney, and Meredith, never sounded that strongly masculine to begin with. But other male names, like William, Aidan, Dylan, Tyler, and Owen, sound completely ridiculous on girls. What is going on upstairs when you gushingly declare that those names sound “cute” on girls?

When you’re looking over someone’s résumé or responding to an e-mail, and you see a name like Mackenzie, Madison, Taylor, Jordan, or Dylan, you can no longer assume that’s it’s from a male. It’s embarrassing to have to ask someone, “Are you a man or a woman?” or to use the wrong title.

Contrary to tryndy belief, a y does nyt myke a nyme fymynyne. It just makes you look illiterate, or like you didn’t know about any established female names.

Many people say they like co-opting male names for girls because they sound “strong.” So you think traditional female names are weak by virtue of being female? Do you think women like Queen Elizabeth I, Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman, or Eleanor Roosevelt would’ve been more kick-ass if only they’d had “strong” male names like John, Henry, David, or William?

As a Lucy Stoner, I give no credence to the sexist, double-standard argument about what happens if Taylor Smith marries a man named Robert Taylor. She can easily stay Taylor Smith, just as her husband could choose to become Robert Smith. And if a woman has a child named Cameron as a single mother, gives the child her surname, and then marries a man with the surname Cameron, her child’s name won’t suddenly be Cameron Cameron. It’s truly baffling to me, as it was to my mother in the Seventies, how so many people in the U.S. still think women have no choice but to give up their birth names for marriage. That’s not the “tradition” in a lot of other countries!

There are so many wonderful girls’ names to choose from, including many with very strong associations and meanings. Why not use one of them instead of giving your daughter a very masculine name like Brandon, Jason, William, Elliott, Emerson, or Ryan?  You don’t think a name like Octavia, Beatrice, Ingrid, Leona, Miriam, or Emilia sounds strong?