The Naming Way: Part II

In part I we discussed how names are used differently in various situations. We also touched on the idea that first names can take multiple forms, depending on the situation. But how are these names chosen? What factors influence a parent’s decision to brand their newborn child with a label for the rest of their life? First, let’s talk about name popularity.

Statistics from name databases clearly show the historical rise and decline in the popularity of certain names assigned to children at birth. Some names were popular at one time but have since tumbled into oblivion. Henry and Bertha, for example, were trendy titles in the late 19th century, but are seldom used today. Other names, such as Aiden and Addison, are hip newcomers to the name scene, surging into style from obscurity in the mid 1990s.

There could by any number of causes for the swell and slump of particular names, from heroes and villains in television and film to inspiring saints or despised politicians. It’s possible that Hitler and Stalin were popular names at one time. Another cause for increased popularity could be short-sighted parents who want to give their child a trendy name. But what happens when that name is no longer fashionable? The child grows up to be just another Henry or Bertha, bearing an old-fashioned title that conjures imagery of grey hair and false teeth.

Parents also express themselves through the names of their children. In an attempt to appear unique and enlightened, they may choose a name from another culture, which may result in long explanations of pronunciation and spelling. Another recent trend is the use of traditional names with non-traditional spelling. Rather than giving the child a feel of individuality, these alternate spellings merely confuse others and produce unnecessary identification errors.

An additional factor in name choice is the parents’ feeling toward certain names based on personal experience with people who had that particular name. The parent could have shared a deep friendship with someone and as a tribute, desire to pass that name on to their child. Conversely, the parent could have been bullied or harassed by someone and, as a sign of harbored resentment, refuse to proliferate their name. This is often a point of conflict between spouses when they have had opposing experiences with the same name. Now let’s explore some potential hazards into which parents often fall when naming their newborn.

Parents should answer several important questions before deciding on a name for their child. First, does the name sound pleasant? It is important that the name embodies the qualities of the child’s gender. Feminine names are expected to be beautiful and masculine names are supposed to be tough. Names like Ulga and Percy do not fit this requirement and should be rejected. Sometimes names which have traditionally been male are adopted by females. This usually happens after a male name gains popularity, making the females jealous, causing them to steal the name. These names are usually smooth and mild, so it’s unlikely that a girl would receive the name Gary or Walter.

Parents should also consider how the name sounds together with the family name. Some names can produce an annoying alliteration, such as Steven Stover, while others, like Chris Smith, remind us of a winter holiday. After finding a first name that works well with the surname, parents must still navigate the maze of middle names.

Middle names, sometimes called second and third names, can be given for a variety of reasons. They can honor the family’s heritage or religion, or serve as a fallback option in case the first name fails. Parents should be mindful of how the middle name, or names, sound in conjunction with the first and last names, as well as the initials they create. It would be very cruel to name a child Samuel Harold Isaiah Thompson.

Parents must also imagine what form of a name their child will be known by, since many of us go by nicknames. A name may seem like a perfect choice, but parents must imagine what people will actually call their child.  Samantha sounds nice, but she’ll get called Sam. Peter seems like a good choice, but he’ll probably go by Pete. There are also names which have short forms that do not resemble the full name at all, like Richard and Dick or James and Jim. Some names have multiple forms, such as William and Robert, which each have five variations.

There is always one variation which, for some reason, is not legitimate.

Parents should also be aware that there is a possibility, however unlikely, that their child might be mocked at school. They must consider what cruel insults may be hurled at their children before settling on a name. Plain Jane, fat Albert, snoozin’ Susan, deaf Jeff and smelly Shelly are all potential aliases for your child once they’re exposed to the vicious and relentless ridicule of elementary students.

After answering these questions and carefully choosing a name, there is yet one question which has been have ignored up to this point: is it fair that parents decide their child’s name? Children are autonomous individuals, not pets, so why must they endure being labelled by another person? Perhaps children are not responsible enough to be trusted with their own name. Perhaps having a fixed name is beneficial to the child’s identity. Regardless, children should get one free name change when they become an adult.

The Naming Way: Part I

“Oh, Melvin, I was afraid I’d lost you.”

“Do not worry, Sandra. I will never leave your side again.”

“Melvin, I….”

“I know, Sandra. Don’t say another word.”

This is an example of a typical conversation between lovers found in the pages of a vapid romance novel or in a scene from a stale TV movie. There is something surreal about conversations like these, besides the predictable and vacant phrases. The problem is that in real life lovers don’t say each other’s names.

When we want to speak with someone we know very well, we tend to use visual cues, such as a nod, to get their attention, rather than speak their name. Sometimes we will look at them with our eyebrows raised, head tilted slightly back, mouth ajar, and wait for them to lock eyes with us. Whatever the strategy, it would be unusual for close friends or lovers to use each other’s names in conversation. If we must get their attention verbally, we usually use a name that is pet or nick. However, in books, plays and movies it is important that the audience knows which character is speaking and to whom they are speaking. Because of this need for clarity, writers will have their characters say each other’s full first names with unsettling frequency. This can make dialogue suspiciously formal, causing the audience, or reader, to reject the idea that the characters are in a close relationship. If you really love someone, you don’t say their name.

In casual relationships first names are exchanged commonly. In fact, this stage is often called first name basis precisely because members call each other by their first names. Once the relationship has evolved beyond this form, members no longer rely on noises to identify one another; this is known as no name basis.

In the workplace first names are employed because the purpose of verbal communication in this setting is efficiency and accuracy. Using a first name is the fastest and most definite way of identifying another person, besides a colored number system as was used in Star Wars. Since employees only interact because of their voluntary slavery, there is often little interest in fostering meaningful relationships.

In the education system students are known by their first name, while teachers and professors are known by their last name. This is because teachers want to segregate themselves from the students. Having students call them by their last name is a sign of respect and reminds students that educators are more powerful and of a higher rank than students. Sometimes teachers and others in respected positions will ask to be called by their first name in order to encourage a more comfortable, level relationship with young people. This is merely an attempt to mingle with youth by those who refuse to accept that they are old and uncool.

There is one scenario in which name-saying is more abundant than any other: public prayer. In this setting, the person speaking will say the deity’s name at an unrivalled pace, often using it more than once in a single sentence, though the name is altered slightly each time in order avoid seeming too repetitive. The cause for this is not easy to discern. Maybe the speaker, like the writers mentioned above, is merely clarifying the identity of his target for the audience. Perhaps repeating the deity’s name is a form of worship. Whatever the case, using a person’s name that many times in a conversation would be gratuitous and unnatural.

As an entertaining experiment, next time you see someone with whom you are on a no name basis, greet them using their first name in full length. Continue using their name in this way in each subsequent sentence. It’s weird.

In part II we will explore the origin of names, how they are chosen and some pitfalls to avoid.