A recent New Yorker article, “Identity Crisis,” caught my attention because it addresses a longtime interest: what names we give those dearest to us, our children, and how we come up with those names. It was penned by Lauren Collins, a young woman from Wilmington who has made her mark in the New York publishing world and whose career I have followed. “Identity Crisis” details her struggle to find a name she and her husband could agree on for the son coming their way.
Expectant parents know the names they bestow on their little ones can shape their lives positively or negatively, and most take that seriously. What would-be parents may not realize is that names, like fashion, can be trendy. A quick visit to the Social Security Administration website, which has tracked the most popular baby names in America for more than a century, confirms this.
Mary and John were the most popular baby names in the 1910s, but by the 2010s Emma and Jacob topped the lists. The lesson here is that if you do not want your child to be one of a large tribe of Emmas and Jacobs in the kindergarten class, a little more naming consideration might be in order. And don’t even think about an overly creative name involving a number, a hyphen, or an acute accent that will burden your bundle of joy all his or her life.
So how do people decide what to name their children?
Collins has some enlightenment on this point. She, her French husband and her daughter (Claudia) live in Paris, so she sees some naming trends not part of our culture. In Switzerland, Collins reports, an enterprising “baby-naming consultancy” will “‘create a new and independent name for your child’ for around the cost of a car.”
She also notes grandparents are now offering cars, businesses and cold hard cash in exchange for naming rights for their future grandchildren. Incredibly, some prospective parents are turning to social media to ask for naming suggestions, a proposition that makes my blood run cold to think of what might be posted, and — heaven forbid! — adopted.
The law is not much help, according to University of California law professor Carlton F.W. Larson who told the Atlanta Journal Constitution that “naming your child is an expressive action. And the idea that you get to name your child, not the state, is a fundamental right.” Larson was reacting to a Georgia legal battle in which parents gave their child the last name
“Allah,” when Georgia law says the surname must be one parent’s or the others or some combination of the two. Some states offer no legal guidance on baby-naming, and it often falls to hospital personnel or local record-keepers to talk parents out of some ill-advised name, like Adolf Hitler Jones.
According to Collins, “more than 600 Americans answer to Ikea,” and I know of an Alexus, apparently named for a car. Then there are all those K-loving Kardashians. These parents should have slept on it.
While I once met a student named Chandelier, we Southerners seem to be traditional namers. Ancestors are often our first resource for options unless their names are too much for even the most traditional among us. Think early Puritan names like Humiliation, Desire, Unity, Prudence, Purity, Chastity — you get the idea.
In my own little family, one Precious Jewel is a junior, one named for my mother, and one named for my father. Many Southern babies are given names that began as surnames resulting in boisterous first-graders answering to dignified Smiths and Clarks. Collins herself notes that her surname, Collins, is, in fact, the 647th most common name for girls in the United States, more common than her daughter, Claudia’s, name.
Not much creativity there, but such adherence to tradition can have strange consequences. One of my grandmother’s best friends was a lovely Southern lady, John, named after her father who had no sons. Southern children are often given double names — think Mary Elizabeth and Billy Joe, which can be a mouthful to explain to people from somewhere else. Finally, let’s don’t even start on the custom of Big Susan and Little Susan and Big Bob and Little Bob when the real “Little” one is actually bigger than the real “Big” one.
Faced with naming a baby, “first, do no harm” seems like good advice. In a naming dilemma, Collins referenced the advice of a thoughtful friend. “‘I would say that it’s essentially a matter of selfconfidence,’ he’d concluded, suggesting that any name we chose could go in any direction, depending on how our son embodied it. He was right. We had no idea if the particular individual we were bringing into the world would be sensitive to sticks and stones or schoolyard taunts if his name could ever hurt or help him. … Your child’s name is what you want to be, but what he is is really up to him.”
What name did Collins and her husband finally choose?
A very traditional Louis.