What’s in a name? (part one)

As literary giant William Shakespeare opined in Romeo and Juliet, “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

I’m not a huge Shakespeare fan by any means, but the romantic in me agrees with the guy that there’s something reassuringly endearing about an object having a permanent identity, regardless of what we call it.

The romantic in me, however, has the feeblest of influences on my thoughts and actions, so of course, my opinion differs from that of a long-dead Englishman (who, by the way, made up names for people, things, and experiences because the ones in existence didn’t do justice to what he wanted to say – I think that’s a bit hypocritical).

While a rose would smell the same if it were called ‘stinky butt breath,’ people’s interactions with it and their perceptions of it might change. The flowers and its properties are permanent, sure, but the way the world interacts with it will always be fluid. A name determines, in part, what our expectations of a particular object will be, and our expectations can have a tremendous impact on our experiences. Now, that doesn’t mean that when I lean in and give a ‘stinky butt breath’ a long, deep whiff, I will necessarily find it less appealing that when I sniff a rose – maybe I’ll be so pleasantly surprised that I’ll instead find the odour to be more delightful – but with my expectations so askew, it would be hard to independently treat both flowers the same.

I hope, dear reader, that you know me well enough at this point to realize this isn’t about flowers, regardless of whether they’re called ‘roses’ or the equally poetic ‘stinky butt breaths.’

No, this is about naming a baby.

In theory, naming a baby is easy; you pick a name that you like, and then when you have a baby, you call it that name. Congratulations, you’ve just named a baby. Very straightforward stuff.

But now that we’re in the process of trying to pick a real-life name for a real-life baby, things seems a little more complicated than that.

All of a sudden, it’s not just about liking a name. I could like the name Horatio (I don’t), but it might not be appropriate to name whatever comes out of my uterus (it’s definitely not). Names can imply all kinds of things about the people who bear them – or at least about their parents – and who they might turn out to be. Reading Chapter 6 of Freakonomics (aptly called “Would a Roshanda by Any Other Name Smell as Sweet?”) convinced me that while a name is not the be-all and end-all of who my child will be, people will certainly approach Little Parasite with particular expectations based on the name.

(Although, the authors pointed out, there was a pair of brothers, one named Winner and one named Loser. Loser went to college on scholarship and became a Sergeant with the NYPD. Winner? He has been on the receiving end of more than 30 arrests.)

One study has shown that the more unusual your name – perhaps like the “uniquely” named baby girls Uneek, Uneque, and Uneqqee – the more likely you are to land in the juvenile justice system. It’s all about socio-economics, of course. Those with truly unusual names are more likely to come from families with a low socio-economic status, and thus are less likely to have wondrous opportunities and are more likely to end up involved in crime.   On top of that, there’s a lifetime of explaining the name to people, and even the possibility of being turned down for job interviews.

(This, of course, doesn’t apply to celebrity babies, like Blanket, Apple and Blue Ivy, who will have every opportunity in the world.)

So if you don’t want your child to become a criminal, is the right answer to name him or her something super common? As someone whose name was ninth most popular in the year she was born, the answer is a complicated maybe. There are certainly advantages – for example, I was always able to find toothbrushes with my name on it, while my sister Fiona’s name didn’t even seem to exist in North American until the past decade. I have never had to spell, or even repeat my name for anyone. “Heather” is kind of like “Jennifer,” as explained by Wait But Why:

Between 1965 and 1985, everyone named their daughter Jennifer, and now, no one does. So Jennifer was officially a Name Fad. What this means for all the Jennifers of the world is that while they’ve enjoyed spending most of their life so far with a cute, hip, young girl name, they are on their way to having a Your Mom’s Friend’s Name. A Your Mom’s Friend’s Name happens when lots of middle-aged people have a name that no young or old people have.
A few decades after that, Jennifer can look forward to having an Old Lady Name, which happens when a name belongs to lots of old ladies, but no one under 75.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s a fact that Jennifer is irreparably branded with her generation forever. Of course, Jennifer is just one of many such names.

That same phenomenon is likely to happen to all the little Masons and Jaydens and Olivias and Averys running around today. In 15 years, they’ll be so cool and know all the hip lingo, and 65 years after that, they’ll need people to help them go to the bathroom. Me and my friends Jessica, Ashley, and Brittany are at the same general stage in our lives as all the other Jessicas and Ashleys and Brittanys in the Western world – we’re getting jobs and buying houses and writing blog posts celebrating quinoa and kale. I actually managed to duck too much name confusion, but the year there was a Jenna C., a Jenna D., and a Jenna P. on my soccer team, it got a little overwhelming for everyone.

I can see popularity having its drawbacks, too.Shortly after names hit their stride in popularity, Freakonomics suggest that they can quickly turn into “trashy” names. That’s because names, apparently, tend to trickle down the socio-economic ladder. Parents who named their daughters “Madison” and “Kennedy” – famous last names – two decades ago were a bit wacky then, but boy, did they start a trend. Jackson and Mason and Madison and Kennedy are all ridiculously popular now. But the earlier of the bunch, the ones on the leading edge of the wave? Their parents were likely rich and educated. Those kids are way more likely to be lawyers or doctors or other prestigious things.(Meanwhile, a Madison born 10 years from now is more likely to be a stripper.)And that’s what most parents dream of, right? Kids with prestigious jobs who have found socio-economic success?

If that’s the goal, Freakonomics suggests one of two things:
1) Be trendy and just go with something bold, and hope with all your heart that you went “classy” bold and not “criminal” bold.
2) Pick the name of a great-grandparent. It will probably be cool again once all the great-grandparents with that name are dead.

My husband and I are not trendy people. The couch in our living room is brown with yellow floral print, so clearly, we’re already attracted to things that are associated with grandparents. Surprise, surprise, we’re leaning towards Route Number Two.

We got our name list inspiration mostly from the “Most Popular Baby Names” lists from the period of 1880 to 1910 – we’re talking Herbert, Clarence, Agnes and Myrtle.

But even then, it’s not just a matter of picking a name, like, say, Gladys, and assigning it to the fetus. Even though most Floyds in the world are probably now six feet below, the name, to me, still sounds like it’s been sitting under a half-inch pile of dust for the past couple decades. We don’t want to burden the child with a leather-bound name that belongs in a museum – well, not too much.

Instead, consider names like George, Lillian, and Beatrice. These are all outdated names, sure, but they’re starting to make a resurgence on the popularity charts. I guarantee you’ll be meeting a lot of young, professional Evelyns and Everetts 30 years from now. But we don’t necessarily want that, either.

Our goal was antiquated, uncommon, but still “normal.” We want LP to not have to spell or explain the name to everyone. We want LP to not have to go by LP B. to distinguish from LP C. and LP G. in the classroom. We want LP to have job opportunities (although, let’s be open minded, lawyer and stripper are both appropriate, as long as LP is happy… right?), not a criminal record.

Most of all, we want to not mess this kid up with the first decision we make.

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