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What's in a Name?

                               
This article by Vol-E was previously published elsewhere.

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In the debate over whether children benefit more from a common name or an unusual one, it is necessary to examine what we mean by "common."  With a world population of over 7 billion souls, could there possibly be many names left that are entirely unique?  There are a lot of other Baracks in the world, and plenty more people named Britney, Halle, Khloe and Shaquille.  Parents who think they can beat the odds and raise the only individual on the planet with a particular name are setting themselves up for disappointment. 

Wait (I heard you asking) -- what about "Zezozose Zadfrack Glutz?"  

Nope, sorry. Charles Manson and Susan Atkins beat ya to it back around 1968 or so...

My parents often told me that they chose my name to avoid the "Kathy-Debbie" phenomenon that seemed quite popular in the late 1950s.  I managed to be the only Elaine in my school, all the way through 12th grade, but I also suffered the continual indignity of being called "Eileen," "Ellen,"Eleanor" and even "Heléneby people who had never heard of the name Elaine.  But by the time I reached my early 20s, the name had apparently caught on.  At the camp where I worked one summer, someone with a twisted sense of humor assigned me to a cabin with a CIT named Elayne and a camper named Elain.  Since then, nearly every environment has provided me with a name-twin.  The name is still unusual enough in these cases to cause confusion.  E-mails meant for "the other Elaine" find their way to me, and vice versa, invariably followed by "Oh -- that's right, we have two Elaines." 

Another advantage that the more well-represented Kathys and Debbie have is what I think of as a "convertible" name.  A Kathy of sneakers and jeans can transform into a regal Katherine for occasions such as interviews and formal dinners.  The same is true for Debbie/Deborah, Frank/Francis, Bill/William and even Millie, who can become a Millicent or a Mildred.  This is why I am often puzzled when parents intentionally give their child the shortened version of a name, right off the bat. "Jack," "Sam," and "Peggy" never get a chance to opt for the more formal "John," "Samuel," and "Margaret." Sometimes we need a dash of gravitas.

On the other hand, quite a few people have strong negative reactions to the common diminutives, under any circumstances. We all know a Susan who will threaten bodily harm toward anyone who dares call her "Sue," and a Michael who could probably stand to loosen up now and then and tolerate being called "Mike." 

An unusual name should, at the very least, provide some ease of pronunciation.  As many of us learned in high school English class, the word "ghoti" is actually pronounced "fish," using common spelling conventions.  But it is unfair and burdensome for a child to have to explain, day after day, how to pronounce one's name, especially if the spelling clearly implies one thing and the pronunciation comes as a surprise every time.  We live in a fast-paced, abbreviated sort of world where children are just as rushed and short on time as adults.  A child of a certain temperament will relish the spotlight and the momentary fascination of teachers and classmates, but children typically like to feel that they blend in and share common ground with their peers.  

The best place for exotica is the safe territory between the first and last name.  This is where parents can open themselves to creativity and pay homage to cherished ancestors or even admired celebrities.  There's also no limit to the number of middle names a child can have.  Middle names are handy for those unforeseen changes of identity that many children come up against.  A good example is a child christened Lady Jayne Seymour Fonda, who is today known as anything but a "plain" Jane. 

Comments

A great post.

Cultural diversity -- I once met a white girl named Shaniqua.
An Indian man at work has the name Abraham Abraham.

Imagine making a joke of your child's name -- Kim Kardasdian child, North West.

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