Tuesday, August 19, 2008

subsets, non-intersecting

Feeling uncharacteristically optimistic, on the train ride home yesterday, I spent my time staring out the window, considering names (real names, not blog pseudonyms). It's not all that easy, mainly because there are a number of constraints that have to be satisfied.

First, I prefer pretty traditional names for boys -- say, the kind you'd find on a list of Supreme Court justices or a roster of Revolutionary War veterans.

Second, among Ashkenazi Jews*, there's a strong superstition that it's bad luck to give a child the same name as a living relative. Because L and I both come from families that are not so much blended as diced and puréed, that rules out scads of otherwise perfectly acceptable names. We each have a living father and stepfather and, between us, we have ten (full, step, and half) brothers and nine nephews. Most of these people aren't Jewish, so they wouldn't care. But I would.

Next, there are names that are off-limits on purely idiosyncratic grounds -- the great uncle who did five years in the big house for tax evasion, my mother's ex-boyfriend who once tried to convince me that okra was a reasonable substitute for french fries, the high school pot dealer, my second grade crush, who didn't even send me a valentine.

Finally, the last name we're planning to use is a very short one, which doesn't flow well with most one-syllable first names or nicknames.

So, basically, there aren't a whole lot of options. Still, I finally came up with the perfect name. It has three syllables, Hebrew roots, and, when I checked the list of names compiled by the Social Security Administration, I found it wasn't off-puttingly popular. I whispered it aloud a couple of times on the cab ride from the train station and, as soon as I walked in the door, I told L. And, of course, he said it was just about the most hideous name he'd ever heard.

What kinds of things do you consider when thinking about names for children, real or hypothetical?

*Generally, descendants of the medieval Jewish communities of the Rhineland, representing the vast majority of Jews in the United States.


Lollipop Goldstein said...

We went with a single name--as in only giving them a name in Hebrew so they wouldn't have a Hebrew name and an English name. So we had to go with something that was easy enough for Americans to day (no chaf or tzadee in their names). That wouldn't stand out too much. And we wanted their name to mean something in a sentence. For all the names to go together. For instance, my name means "small white flower by the flowing stream" and we wanted our kids to have names like that too. And strangely enough, with all of the factors we were balancing, the first name came to me one night completely intact as I was packing a suitcase. And the ChickieNob's name came together when I told Josh that I was going to stand until we had a name. He chose quickly.

thordora said...

Funny-the only boy names I ever liked were Hebrew names. Good thing we had girls since my husband didn't like them.

For us, we wanted something different and interesting, but not dirty hippie different. Classic names you can see someone running a bank with...as judgy as that sounds. And we had to make sure that the names wouldn't allow someone to easily mock them.

Vivian came to me in a dream, so that one was easy, and Rosalyn was her father's choice really.

Antigone said...

Porn stars.

c. said...

So, are you telling us you are painting the walls blue after the recent u/s?

It's tradition to name Italian children after their grandparents. Unfortunately, for my mom mostly because she's the one who most wants a grandchild named after her, we haven't done this with any of the kids. We've pretty much picked names we like and that don't start with the letter P because then the child's initials would be P.P. - never a good thing.

debbie said...

Seeing as my husband and I are also Ashkenazi, we stay far away from any names of the living. We are, however, drawn to names of the non-living. Because, as you well know, as much as naming for the living is in shied away from, naming for the dead is expected. My brother's kids all have hebrew middle names that start with S, which was my father's first initial. This practice of "naming after" by using the first letter is becoming more and more popular, but I'm not particularly for it. I would prefer the connection to be a bit more obvious to the child.
So, I gravitate toward names of my great grandparents and aunts. [haven't had to work on a boy name yet, but I guess I'd gravitate to the same in the opposite gender]. I think in my family, most names have been taken from my father's side, so I'll want to be politically correct and name from my mother's side. Too bad her mom's name was Flora. Could I name a child nanny, that's a little better than Flora, isn't it?

Rachel said...

Ooh, I can help!

Supreme Court justice names:
Salmon (fo foolin')
Antonin (bad karma with this one, imo)

Revolutionary War soldiers:

Wait... that's not what you had in mind?

Seriously, I (and the rest of my demographic) also tend to prefer "old-fashioned" names -- but really, it's not that these names are old-fashioned, it's that the names are associated with a certain current image of old-fashioned-ness. In reality, throughout history there have always been parents who gave their kids quirky names. And a decent number of those kids have gone on to do great things.

Hope you and your partner find the perfect name!

Amanda said...

The meaning of a name is important to me. I also prefer something a bit unusual -- not too far-fetched, just not the same name as every other child in our neighborhood. Lastly, our last name ends with an "n" sound, so I won't allow first names that end in the same way. Other than those things, I'm open.

niobe said...

Rachel: Mmmm.... you know that I've been seriously lobbying for a whole bunch of the names you've listed. (Lucius, Augustus, Enoch, Ephraim, Lemuel, Phineas, Zebulon, Peleg).

Plus Ebenezer (we could call him Eben) which I think would be the coolest name ever.

Sadly, L is far too conventional.

scribblette said...

i love rachel's list of supreme court justices. i guess sandra is out, 'eh?

the last name we use is a short one-syllable name, too, and you're right that it puts a damper on a lot of otherwise perfectly decent names. i also don't want a first name that ends with the letter the last name starts with.

i have no objection to family names -- of the living or dead -- but i find myself far more interested in aesthetics. i like the idea of family connections (some, that is) but i really like names that sound, you know, somehow right.

boo will be here soon and frankly, i've no idea what his name will be. oddly enough, we are considering a few civil war era names (they're not on rachel's list, though!) and while i like the way they sound together, they are a mouthful, with no obvious (i.e., pleasing) nickname.

i guess the last thing that matters to me is that the name fits the child. bitsy wasn't named until she was born, although we had a list of preferences. i imagine the same will be true of boo.

Anonymous said...

Is Elijah a bit too much? Eli for short. We had to think of French names that English speakers like me wouldn't botch up too badly.

Aurelia said...

Oh my....that list!

Anyway, my husband's main criteria seems to be practicing Jewish naming customs, even though we are Irish Catholic. A name from the Jewish scripture is what he wants everytime we pick a middle name, and it has to be the correct ancient spelling. I really did worry he'd pick Ezekial or Moses this time.

For first names he never really cared before, but he made a big fuss that we had to name this boy after his deceased father. Silly really, but in the end I gave in, even though I hated the name. (His Dad hated it too fwiw.)

I always get nervous about the cultural idea of naming kids after relatives because it assumes that you have relatives, and that they are decent people. When lots of them are awful.

I personally look for something nice, and not too popular, but well known enough that it will be easy to spell and no one will make fun of the kid. Because really, what matters to a kid is that they want to fit in without being teased.

The Nanny said...

Ahhhh, now you have me all curious as to what the 3-syllable name is!

Though if you do really like Phineas (which I love), perhaps you could compromise and call him Finn? Though I guess that's a short first name and may not work with your last name.

My great-grandfathers were named Rudolph (Rudy) and Zolton (Zolti) Emil. Either of those strike your fancy? :-)

cinnamon gurl said...

Ooh ooh I LOVE name posts. And I love Hebrew names (obviously since I gave my son one).

First off, the first time I suggested the name we ended up choosing, my husband said no way. But every few weeks I'd suggest new names and slip it in. He warmed up to it over time. Of course, it's convenient that he has a very lousy short-term memory so he never knew I'd suggested it before. So try again.

And I'm not Jewish but I totally have an aversion to choosing names of living relatives. We tried to consider whether the initials would be silly or whether he would be subject to torment on the school grounds but in the end we chose a name that gives him the initials EW. Woops. Also, I figured everyone can be teased and chances are it will be something we never thought of so why bother trying...

keep us posted!

Furrow said...

I really like Zebulon, so that would be on my list for a boy if we didn't already have a girl with a Z name. That's just too, too cutesy.

Basically, my rules are the same as yours, except for the living relative thing. It's hard, but it should be, because the kid will be stuck with it for the rest of his life, for good or ill. (I hope our girl doesn't hate us.)

Aurelia said...

Oh, definitely not Lucius. Everyone will tease the kid and think that his mom named him after the Harry Potter character.

It's a great name, but they ruined it. Just me--but check the googles on any name you pick, just in case it comes up in odd places.

Furrow said...

Oh, and if people are offering names of dead relative, I'll offer some of my own: Porter, Sterling, Elder, Eulas, Armon, Venis (my grandfather).

Lori said...

This is the most entertaining set of comments I've seen in a long time!

For our son, my husband picked (and I vetoed): Odysseus, Mungo, and ZOLTAN! (as it would appear on the birth certificate).

We ended up with an Irish family name, 2 syllables, very strong and not one that will get his a$$ kicked on the playground.

So, are you going to prevail over L on your perfect name?

Caro said...

S fell in love with a name that I hated, it's inevitable I think.

Tash said...

My parents picked names from literature and heroes; my husbands' family has the stupid alternating boy name thing (think: Rudolph, Salvatore, Rudolph, Salvatore), a trend which his mother gratefully bucked. Which left everything on the table. Since he's Italian, and I think those names are beautiful (for the most part, Rudy and Sal a bit excepted) we go there.

I was going to dig up my dissertation and list the names for you, but Rachel beat me to it. The only outstanding ones I can think of are Obidiah, Jeb, a ton of Isaacs (which I'm guessing is probably off limits in your wildly blended Jewish family), Nathan(iel), William, Jeremiah, Horatio, Thaddeus, and Silas.

Beck said...

Ah, names. We have a distinctively ethnic last name that is also rather wimpy sounding, so our first names have to:
a) pair up well with our last name
b) sound macho. Girls names included.
Oh, and they also have to be names that my husband and I agree on - next to impossible! - and that aren't wildly, horrifically fashionable or popular. Our kids are lucky that they have ANY NAMES AT ALL.

Emily said...

My husband would try on a name for a few days, trying to see what AWFUL rhymes he could make with it, just so there wouldn't be any surprises in 2nd grade.

Emily said...

Oooh, I love Eben!

And I just met a little 7 month old Pierce at the park this morning. His name made him look so adorably serious and astute.

Aunt Becky said...

I pretty much don't want to hate anyone who has the same name as my kid. Which is a lot harder to match than you'd think.

Kristen said...

We followed the Italian old-country tradition of naming our kids after their grandmothers and grandfathers. My daughter's name is my mother's first name - before she Americanized it and dropped her Italian roots - and her second name is my mother-in-law's maiden name (because her first and second names were too horrible to use and did NOT flow well with the chosen first name.)

My son's first name is his paternal grandfather's first name, although we chose for him to use the proper name and not the nickname his granddad goes by, and his second name is my late father's first name.

It is a lot of pressure - naming a child. We, or rather I, agonized over it completely - what did the name rhyme with - what horrible name could it be skewed into by bratty kids on the playground - that sort of thing.

The best piece of advise someone gave me was to go on the back porch and yell the proposed name at the top of my lungs several times - to see how it flowed - and there was a lot of truth in that - it seems I'm always yelling those names now - in good times and in bad.

Good luck in your decision!

sweetsalty kate said...

I adore so many of the names on that list - my vote, though, has to go for Felix.

I'm with Thordora as to my thinking-through of names - a name has to travel well, suitable and dignified no matter where your child ends up in life.

passingwindows said...

I'm so happy to read that Friday went well! H and I frequently have exactly this conversation about names, with him thinking it's hideous and me already imagining the child running down the passage trailing towels and soap bubbles in a slimy trail.

christina(apronstrings) said...

i just made sure it couldn't be turned into something sexual. i had wanted to spell our baby's middle name analis, but i don't want a-n-a-l in her name.

her first name is scottish, because k is and looks scottish. and as it happens she looks like him-so it fits.

i really like the "cool baby name book." that's not where we got her nbame-but i have to say they are cool names that aren't popular. of course, anyone who uses that book will have to make something up. or admit to their child that they like imagination. : )

i think men should have more say in a boy's name. otherwise, little one might end up with a name like frances.

christina(apronstrings) said...

that they "lack imagination."

Eva said...

Classic, both available in Swedish and English, popular in Sweden and unpopular in America, easy-to-spell, melodious, gendered.

Sam said...

My Jewish friend named her son Zachariah.

Magpie said...

Classic, not too popular.

We sat down with the Yale Shakespeare and pondered all the female names, rejecting Portia (people would think she'd been named after a car) and Katharine (because it was already going to be her middle name, spelled differently) and Desdemona (because, really).

Ms. Planner said...

i looked for names that were unmistakable to pronounce. this is my own hang up because i grew up in the south with a first name that - at the time - was unusual. by 4th grade i wanted to snidely say to every teacher: ...like the actress in love story, you dim wit. not the boxer.

so pleased to hear of your musings on a name. a big step.

flutter said...

I'll let you know if I have any ;p

K @ ourboxofrain said...

Our biggest consideration (particularly for girls' names) is our last name, which is really tough with a ton of girls names -- when people ask what names we're considering, I usually just list a few we've ruled out, since some are quite comic in a Julia Gulia kind of way. We have also eliminated the names of our friends' dogs, which, sadly, eliminates quite a number of names I like. We also eliminated the names of the children of our friends and cohorts (but have focused somewhat less on the social security list, figuring that what's popular nationally may not represent what's popular near us and vice versa). Finally, I'm into genealogy, so I tend toward family names, which has worked better with boys' names, since the female names in our family are a bit horrid (I am partial toward old fashioned (though P is not), but Edna, Mildred, Wilma, Blanche don't do it for me). At this point, we have 2 boy names we're both happy with but only one girl.

Anonymous said...

I prefer slightly ungendered names or atleast names that when said or read might not be obvious as to the gender(Sam, Shannon, Adrian/Adrianne, Alex, Morgan, Lyn, Jay).

I wouldn't use a living friend/relative's name as a first name.

I really like noun names as long as they are not too hippie. Iris, Melody, Joy, Hope, Traveler, Blaze.. and have come to like my friend's kid's names such as Forest. I also like names like avellana, which means filbert in Spanish.

And even though I have very little religous exposure there are many biblical names like Isaiah (the American pronouncation), Elijiah, and Ezekiel.

I also like 2-3 syllable names. And ones that can be shortened in at least 2 different ways

sweetsalty kate said...

This popped into my head and I had to share it: I also love the name Ezra. Just to throw into the pot.

Debbie said...

Our criteria was it had to fit a baby/toddler but also had to be something you could call out in a nursing home without shame.

niobe said...

Sweetsalty Kate: Ezra is one of the names we're seriously considering. By which I mean that I love it and L hasn't totally rejected it. Yet.

Aurelia: Good point. I'm close to writing off Silas for similar reasons (He's the creepy homicidal albino villian in The DaVinci Code)

debbie: I actually love the name Flora.

niobe said...

K: While I'm with you on the other names, I can easily imagine an adorable little Mildred, perhaps with the nickname Millie.

Oh, and you probably know this, but the social security website also compiles lists of the most popular names in each state.

Though it might not mean that much, because I'd imagine different ethnic and socioeconomic groups have different preferences in names. I mean, Christian may be a popular name, but I doubt I'll run into too many at my synagogue.

Monica H said...

I never thought we would select family names, but when the boys died, it just felt right. We originaly planned to name our first son (Sam) Jackson B. And my friend liked the middle name so much, she suggested we switch the first and second and call him BJ for short. I don't think so!

We're still going to use the B name, eventually :-) When choosing a name it just has to feel right. We chose something that had meaning to us in our relationship and sound good with our last name.

Mayberry said...

Have you tried Baby Name Wizard yet? LOVE that book.

I knew a darling little boy named Solomon -- and his best friend was Ezra.

Just Meim said...

I am so glad that you mentioned giving a name that would be appropriate for a Supreme Court Justice because that's EXACTLY what I do. I'm so glad that I'm not the only one who thinks that way.

My other qualifying criteria is how it sounds with my daughter's name. I always imagine our Christmas cards, and how our names sound together. They have to "flow", I can't have one that sounds oddball with the rest of us.

wheelsonthebus said...

Naming Jewish babies is really, really hard. Cannot name after someone living. Must use particular letters for someone dead (and the letters always are terrible). I just try my best not to saddle the kid with anything too ethnic or too non-ethnic. Easy, right?

Artblog said...

Two rules for me.

First is that the name cannot, under any circumstance, be shortened in any way, e.g Samantha = Sam, Alexander = Alex, Benjamin = Ben, etc...

Two, and this only applies in my circumstance, the name has to sound similar in both French and English because you wouldn't believe how some English names sound so ridiculous in French!