Naming a child


Someone recently asked me for advice about what they should name their child. Actually that person is my wife, and the child is ours, or will be, in about two months’ time, but we don’t have a name yet.  It feels like a major responsibility, like writing a one-word poem for a stranger to have tattooed on their forehead; as Louis CK points out (WARNING: contains very obscene language),  you can call a child whatever you like. It seems to me we have a simple choice. We either:

Give her a name with meaning

In this way we could preload her up with a default value or something that has importance for us. This would, of course, be nice for us, but perhaps not so pleasant for her. Hence while we’ve been thinking of Maya (because she was conceived in Mexico), I worry that according to playground logic other kids will nickname her Maialina. Kids are like that. Gaia has also been an option but it might be a leetle beet depressing for her growing up and hearing about how she’s in the process of total collapse. I mean, we all are to some extent, but let’s give her a chance to get born and do something about it without somehow feeling that she’s got that particular burden on her shoulders alone.

There are other nice messages to pass onto the child and, through her, to the world, like Grace, Serenity or Justice. Or ones that represent the times in which she is born, like Crisis, Cookie Warning or #F*ckTrump*. However, it’s essential to remember that to imbue a child with a heavily meaning-laden name is to expect her to carry that burden throughout her whole life. In some ways I admire the idealistic/acid-addled flower children of the late ‘60s who gave their kids names like Starchild or Moonprancer. However, since that decade is nowadays the most heavily-commercially exploited of all time we might as call her Body Shop or Lush. Clearly giving her a name like Patience or Serenity is just asking for trouble as she one day becomes embroiled in relationships with other humans (including, presumably, us) who will inevitably test both. Alba and Aurora both sound a bit fascist to my ears. Although we both want her to do well in life we’d hate it if she came to represent the rebirth of the white race. Nowadays it’s fashionable to raise your children to be gender-neutral. Such is the case with Russell Brand, who did however then go on to choose the name Mabel, which is not going to do his kid any favours on the football field. In any case all the suggestions here sound like the names of characters in Dynasty. If there is such a concept as power-naming, someone should definitely deinvent it.

My own name has never done me any great favours. Any Derren Brown-style gains made by my introducing myself with the words “Hi, I’m Rich” are generally offset by the impression created by my evident inability to iron my clothes properly. As it happens one name I really love, and one that has a great deal of significance for me, is Chiara, but apparently that’s also not an option either. Then there are the names of significant relatives. One of my little nieces goes by the name of Heather, and she was very pleased when I told her that in various other languages her name is Erica, which happens to have been to be the name of her great-grandmother. Just by chance I once had a Chinese student who had chosen Erica as his English name**. I explained to him that it was also the name of my paternal grandmother, and he was delighted. China’s like that: I also had students called Killer, Adolf, Blue, Jamily and Ruál (named after the famous Spanish foobtaller). Given that la fagiolina, as she is currently referred to, spent the first few months of her gestation in Bangkok, we could give her a Thai name, like Bumsick or Porn.

Those names, of course, make sense as part of a culture. Separated from their cultural context the choice of some ‘exotic’ names can sound arrogant, pretentious, and, well, a bit Essex-y, giving the impression that your parents, and by extension you, are making a claim on cultural qualities which you have no right to. Shanti falls into that category. You might as well call her Unique, Élite or Notachav. Imagine someone spending their whole having to tell new acquaintances “it means humble in, er, Sanskrit”, and explaining once again that no, she wasn’t brought up in a Sanskrit-speaking household. I wouldn’t want her to be called something that David Beckham would have as a tattoo. I personally quite like the name Pondicherry but it does sound a bit colonial, like the name Addis for an Italian. Plus some of my more off-the-wall suggestions are immediately vetoed as it’s luckily not just me making the decision.

Nevertheless given that my wife’s Italian, I’m English (and A Bit German), and we’ll probably spend more time in Spanish-speaking countries, we would like something that works in different languages, perhaps Una, Ana,or Zöē. Maybe to give her a headstart in life we should just call her Ambilingual. We both quite liked the name Día until I remembered it’s also the name of a cut-price Spanish supermarket, so it would be like calling her Aldi or Eurospin. Also to be avoided are the names of students and ex-girlfriends. I have had hundreds of the former and…some of the latter. I certainly don’t want her to remind me of some sulky Portuguese teenager who failed First Certificate in 2002 because she could never be bothered to do any homework.

The second option, then, is to give her an ordinary name. A name is a badge, a tattoo, a mark of distinction, and also a vessel. The person it carries or contains is what gives it meaning; the name need not be special because the person it identifies will be, in her own way, like every one of us, physically and spiritually unique, and she doesn’t need a wacky name to remind her and everyone she meets of that fact. Choosing a name may feel like writing a one-word poem, but ultimately the name is not the poem. The person is the poem. I suspect that the final decision will be made in a spirit of total exhaustion and bliss, and we will probably end up giving her the name that we knew we would choose all along. We just don’t know what it is yet. She will let us know, when the time comes, which name she has chosen for herself.


* This will be sorely tempting if – and this is a distinct possibility – she happens to be born on the day of his inauguration.

** I think his Chinese name was Ben or something.

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