syzygy.blue : names & stuff

Waiting for a baby to arrive is both very exciting and very boring. You know the baby is going to change your life, but most of the changes haven’t happened yet. You know the baby will be a lot of work, but the amount of preparation you can do ahead of time is limited. You know the baby will be uniquely important to you, but you have very minimal information about who they are and what differentiates them from all the other babies in the world.

I think this is part of the reason many expectant parents end up making such a big deal out of choosing a name for their child. Choosing a name for an unborn child gives them individuality in your imagination, and is a gift you can give them at a time when there is not much else you can do for them yet. It’s easy to get caught up in it, and to start thinking of naming as the first real test of parenthood, where your success or failure is indicative of your suitability as a parent (it’s not).

Of course, names are important. Names are so closely tied with identity, and their power to shape other people’s first impressions has real impacts on people’s lives. Most people do use the name their parents gave them throughout life, so it’s appropriate to take the job seriously – but not so seriously that you become paralyzed by indecision. At the end of the day, it’s not about proving your creativity or your good taste or your aptitude for parenthood – it’s just a name.

To that end, here are some suggestions for how to approach the naming process without getting frustrated, lost, or overwhelmed:

Guiding principlesName criteriaSpecific methods

Guiding principles

Here’s some ideas that I think will help get you in the right mindset for naming:

Who gets a vote?

One of the first things to work out is who actually has decision-making power. In general, I think that the decision should be made by the baby’s parents, not other family members. Everyone who is going to be a parent to the baby should have full veto power, and everyone who is not a parent to the baby should be involved in an advisory capacity at most. One exception to this is that if you tell someone you’re thinking of naming your baby after them, and they say something like, “Oh no, please don’t, I actually really hate my name” (or any other reason!), then I think you should listen and name your baby something else.

The “all parents have veto power” rule is simple in theory, but it can be difficult in practice. If you’ve been dreaming of twins named Aidan and Nadia ever since you were 12, or if all the boys in your family have been named Dwight Pinocchio Smith for six generations straight, it can be tempting to try to override your co-parent’s veto. You’re not raising a baby with your middle school self or your great-great-great-grandfather, though. You’re parenting this baby with someone who hates that name, so you’ve gotta respect their veto and let it go. It’s not fair to the other parent or your child to give the child a name that one parent hates (no matter how important the name is to you, or how dumb you think their reasons for hating it are).

You can’t veto everything

Along with veto power comes the responsibility of suggesting names. The task of coming up with names doesn’t necessarily have to be split perfectly evenly – it’s often the case that one parent simply enjoys the process more – but what isn’t fair is when Parent A is coming up with all the suggestions and Parent B is just shooting everything down and bringing nothing new to the table (except maybe that one name that Parent A vetoed way back at the beginning).

It’s not okay to make your co-parent present names to you one after another while you sit there like a picky toddler at dinner and say no to everything. Naming should be a collaborative problem-solving process, and if you’re only vetoing, you’re not helping to solve the problem. If you dislike all of their suggestions, then it’s time for you to make suggestions of your own. 

Make the family name a real decision

When a baby has a mother and a father, it is often assumed that the baby will take the father’s family name (also called a last name or surname). I do not think that this is a neutral default: when this pattern dominates, it suggests that everyone else’s identity is defined in relation to men.

Instead, I think that all families should seriously consider all the family name options available to them, including but not limited to:

  • All family names in the last 2-3 generations in all branches of the baby’s family tree
  • Having a double last name, with or without a hyphen
  • Mashing up two family names as a portmanteau
  • Choosing or inventing a brand new family name
  • Alternating last names so that the oldest child has Parent A’s last name and the next has Parent B’s last name, etc.
  • Giving the child a patronymic/matronymic/genonymic

Some questions to ask yourself when evaluating these options:

  • Are there particular relatives that we would especially like or not like our child to share a name with?
  • Do we particularly like or dislike any of these names based on sound, spelling, or meaning?
  • Is there a particular cultural heritage we would like to preserve or emphasize our child’s connection to?

I would also encourage you to only consider your child’s family name during their childhood, and not get caught up in thinking too far ahead. No matter what family name you give your child, whether they change their last name in adulthood or what they name their own children (if they have any) is out of your control. 

A good name is good enough

Naming a baby is a different problem than choosing your favorite name. First of all, if there’s more than one parent, it’s unlikely that they have the same favorite name. Second, there may be other practical considerations that mean your favorite name in the abstract just isn’t going to work for this child. Most important of all, when you’re naming a baby, you should be focusing on their perspective, not your own. Nobody wants to have a name their parents actually hated, but your child is extremely unlikely to care whether their name was your all time favorite or just a name you liked. Naming a child is a lot like buying a present for someone you don’t know well. They’re going to have their own opinion about the name, independently of how you feel about it.

So, release yourself from the pressure of trying to find the absolute perfect name that you’re going to love more than anything. After all, no matter how much you care about names, there’s no name you’ll love as much as you love your child.

Name criteria

When discussing names, you pretty much automatically consider the name’s sound, spelling, and whatever associations you have with it, but there are a couple other factors I think you should take into account:

Popularity

When you’re beginning the naming process, it’s a good idea to do some research and get a sense of what names are currently popular for babies in your part of the world. When you’re considering a particular name, it’s also a good idea to look at the data and make sure the name’s popularity is about what you think it is.

I’m not just telling you this because I personally have a fondness for uncommon names – I think it’s an important step no matter what. If you’re like, “yeah, Liam is popular because it is The Best Name!” then it’s not really going to bother you if you run into another Liam at preschool. But if you’re thinking, “Evelyn is such an underrated gem, it’s so lovely but I’ve only ever met one Evelyn,” you may be disappointed to find out that it’s become quite popular. This can work the other way too – you might think a name is only a little uncommon, and then find out that it’s actually quite obscure and you are seemingly the only people in the world who have heard of it. Doing a quick popularity check helps you make a more informed decision that you’re less likely to regret.

How do you find data on baby name popularity? In some countries, the government collects and releases baby name data, but the completeness and ease of access to the data vary. For example, the US Social Security Administration provides baby name data, but their data visualization tools are a little clunky, so if you’re in the US, you’re better off looking a name up on Nancy’s Baby Names (the URL for a particular name follows this format: nancy.cc/baby-name/evelyn) or Nameberry (the URL for a particular name follows this format: nameberry.com/babyname/evelyn) or using the Name Grapher at Namerology. All of those sites also provide popularity data from other countries too – if a government does release name data, you can probably find it on one of those three sites.

If there’s no government name data for your area, you can try searching for “popular baby names + COUNTRY” and see what comes up. Sometimes parenting websites try to fill the void by sharing data about which names are popular with their users – for example, I don’t think the Indian government releases any official baby name data (or at least, if they do, it’s not easy to find if you only speak English), but BabyCenter.in makes lists based on their data. This is obviously not quite the same as having official data, and it will be biased toward names popular among the sort of parents who spend a lot of time on baby websites, but it’s better than nothing and can give you a good sense of what current name trends are like.

It’s also a good idea to ask people in your social circle what all the babies and toddlers they know are named. Sometimes name trends can cluster in a particular geographic region, or among people with the same interests, style, or cultural background. For example, although Liam and Olivia have been very popular in the US and Canada in recent years, in my broader social network, I don’t know any Liams or Olivias born in 2018-2022. In the same five year period, I know of two Aadhyas, three Leos, and four Junipers, all of which are much less common in the aggregated data.

Meaning

A name’s meaning is something that’s more important to some people than others, but even if you’re someone who thinks the sound of the name is much more important, I think you should make sure the name means something that you feel at least neutral about.

If you’re considering a word name, figuring out a name’s meaning is straightforward, but for other names it can be surprisingly difficult. A lot of names have inaccurate meanings that have ended up being copied across various name books and websites. So where do you look if you want to find accurate information? For European names, my favorite resource is the Dictionary of Medieval Names from European Sources. It’s a work in progress, so there’s some names that were used in medieval Europe that are not listed, but if you find a name there, you can be sure that a scholar actually went and looked at historical sources to figure out the etymology. A lot of names are older than you might think, so it’s always worth checking. If a name isn’t in the DMNES, my next stops are usually Behind The Name, Nameberry, and Wiktionary, all of which are at least written by people who care about getting things right even if they’re not as thoroughly researched as DMNES (there are a lot of other websites that just aggregate name information from other sources without trying to fact check any of it).

Initials

Once you have a full name you like, do a quick search of the initials to make sure there isn’t a strong negative association that you hadn’t noticed. I don’t think there’s any need to worry about having particularly “good” initials, but sometimes you get so caught up in the first and middle names that you don’t notice that the initials spell out a word or acronym that would make you change your mind about the name.

Specific methods

Sometimes when you’re having a hard time making a decision, the problem is actually with your decision-making strategy. Here are a couple strategies to consider:

Curator & selector

Parent A assembles a short list of names, all of which they like and would be okay with. Parent B chooses their favorite name from that list.

This strategy works well if you have one parent who likes to do exhaustive research and slowly mull over all their options over a matter of months and a second parent who just wants to sit down and make a decision once. It may also work for you if you have agreed that Parent A should have more influence over the first name decision (as may happen when the child will have Parent B’s family name). 

Remove one, add one

Write a physical list of 3-5 names and post it somewhere in your home. Each parent can cross a name off the list at any time, but they must replace it with another name. As you get closer to the baby’s arrival, start shrinking the size of the list.

If you get stuck having the same arguments over and over, or if one parent is having a hard time respecting another’s veto, or if someone is just vetoing everything and contributing nothing, this strategy can help you break out of that pattern.

Choose two

If you’re feeling paralyzed by the idea of choosing one single name out of the sea of thousands, it might help to choose two names now, and make the final decision later, after the baby arrives. (This is not a good strategy if the thing that’s stressing you out is not having the decision made.)

Name tools

There are lots of tools and apps designed to help you choose a name. Nameberry and Behind the Name both have tools that try to suggest names based on your taste. MixedName will give you a list of names that work in two languages. The babyname app lets you connect with a partner, swipe yes or no on names, and then shows you the names both parents agreed on.

Ask for help

If you really get stuck, try asking someone else for advice. Somebody else might suggest the perfect name you never thought of, and oftentimes just hearing someone else’s opinion helps you figure out your own opinion. Sometimes it can be easier to ask someone who doesn’t know you, because they don’t have any kind of personal stake (and their advice can be easier to ignore if you don’t like it). 

Both Behind the Name and Nameberry have forums where you can ask other users to weigh in, and I’m sure there’s a community for this somewhere on reddit as well – a post on an active forum will probably get a response, but you’re also likely to get replies from people who just have very different taste than you. Another option is to find a name blogger whose taste you like and who takes letters. I would love to get baby name advice letters, but other more established name bloggers who give naming advice are:

Nameberry and Appellation Mountain also do private name consulting (for a fee). If you know someone else who gives name advice, let me know!

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