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Saturday, April 2, 2011

Naming your baby: it's not about you!

My son went to school with a boy named Richard Head.  If you can't see a problem with that choice of name, you'd better stop reading now, because there's no hope for you and your poor baby may well end up with a name that becomes a life-long burden.

If, on the other hand, you winced or had a guilty giggle at the very thought of a child called Dick Head, read on...

Naming a baby seems to bring out the very worst in some parents.  I'm not sure why this is; maybe parents don't realise that their child is already unique, without having to give them a name that nobody has ever seen or heard before.  Maybe it's a sort of attention-seeking.  Maybe some see it as some type of art or personal expression. Really, I don't know what possesses them, but I do know they're NOT thinking of their child's welfare.

When you choose a name, it's important to think of the repercussions of giving a child a weird and unique name.  I've always been good with names, but at some of the centres where I've worked learning the kids' Christian names felt like learning a different language.

Jeminda? I just couldn't get my head to recall that one, and so tended to avoid interactions with that child out of embarrassment (I think I asked another carer the child's name every morning and had forgotten it again within ten minutes).  I'm betting I wasn't the only casual staff member to do so.

Shadisha? Quite apart from the strangeness, try saying that in a childish lisp- how would you like your child to be unable to pronounce their own name?

Jyr?  I couldn't even guess how to pronounce that one. Apparently the R is silent... oh, really? How would you like to be a child explaining that random idiocy to every official person they meet who has to write their name down?

How does giving your baby a strange name like that affect them through their life?  It certainly makes life more complicated.  And how does it feel to a child if even their teachers, who are well-practised at memorising such things, have so much trouble learning, spelling or pronouncing their name?  Not every teacher will hide their irritation well.

An older friend gave me some excellent advice when I was choosing a name for my son; she suggested I use a name which was unusual enough that he would likely be the only one of that name in his class, but not so unusual that he would be the only one of that name in the school.  That's an excellent rule of thumb if you're thinking of the child's comfort, rather than your own rash enthusiasms for some new and unusual name that has taken your fancy when you're suffering from an overdose of hormones.  If you want to use a weird name, get a pet.  Naming a child isn't an exercise in asserting your ownership; in the long term, it's not about you.

Relatively common names with weirdly 'original' spelling can also be a pain in the neck for your baby as he or she grows up.  Even minor diversions from 'normal' spelling can cause trouble. Spelling Macey as Maci, for example, might seem logical when YOU know how you want it pronounced- but strangers who only read the name and who've learnt the rules of English pronunciation may tend to say 'Mackie', and everyone else who hears the name will probably write it down with a Y, an EY or an IE at the end. 

By the age of 5, a child will often try to learn to spell their own name; do you really need to make it complicated and illogical? As they grow up, do you really want them to have to spell it out over and over again every time they encounter anything official?  There are so many better ways they could be spending their time other than being embarrassed by your moment of foolishness.

Weird names and spellings aren't the only traps for unwary parents.  It's important to combine your baby's potential Christian and surname out loud a few times, consider the possible contractions (eg 'Dick' for Richard), run the names together and think hard about the result.  I refer you back to the child mentioned in the first sentence of this column if you have any doubts, or perhaps you'd like to consider the plight of a child called Jenna Taylor.  A friend of mine was wise enough to do this before naming her son Peter Ebert.  You can sing along with that one- Little Peter Ebert had a fly upon his nose...

And it's important to look at your child's initials and check whether they spell something regrettable. Put yourself in your child's shoes and think about what it's like for them to go through life with the burden of that name.  Even my poor physics teacher suffered at the hands of us teenagers for being P. Green.

Peer pressure, bullying, shyness... a weird name can have a negative impact in all these tender areas. Be kind to your baby, and give him or her a name that blends in with the demographic.  Face it- a child who wants to be a pop star can make up their own unique 'brand' when they're ready.


  1. I was nodding the whole time I was reading this!!!
    I found if i wanted a unique yet nice name for my son I looked at old names like Edward (wouldn't do that now with twilight and the 30 million children now named that lol) But those names rarely get used any more. I ended up naming my son Lucian. I've had to pronounce his name once or twice to people but most of the time they hit the mark the first or second time they say it and then they don't necessarily say it wrong they just go for the Greek pronunciation (Lu-Ci-an) not the English/Australian way (Lu-Shun)!
    Yet at my work place I have seen the name Rory spelt 3 different ways!!!

  2. Oh yes, Chewy- pop culture can derail many well-intended names! I wonder how many well-meaning mums named their baby 'Brittany' before Ms Spears came to grief, for example?

    I like Lucian too- my instinct was to pronounce it the way you intended, as I tend to go for the logical Aussie/English way based on the rules I was taught at school.

  3. What a great article, every year I have children with 'made-up' names in my class & I always try to imagine how they will be perceived at job interviews. I live in N.Ireland where our vowels are very flat & so many parents choose names from the USA that sound awful with our accents! Friends in Sweden tell me that they have to submit the name they want for their child & if it is considered a violation of the child's human rights it can be refused!


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