What’s in a Name? (A Lot)

Baby naming is a serious, million dollar industry these days. It is also a serious source of anxiety for parents to be. There is too much time invested and too much pressure now to come up with the perfect name. Do you know how many hits come up on Google when you search “baby names?” Neither do I, but I bet it is a lot. More than five, certainly. Probably even more than ten.

I fell for the baby-name madness just as badly as everyone else. Fortunately, Dustin and I have always shared fairly compatible naming conventions. For example, neither of us like the now ubiquitous trend of using surnames as first names (let me just issue a blanket apology to all you McKenzies, Taylors, Carters, and Emersons out there – I still love you). Likewise, neither of us can stomach unisex names. Frankly, I’m terrified on them. I remember freezing upon receiving a class roster during one of the bizarre, lost years of my life when I worked at a preschool. My thoughts were along these lines:

“Brayden. Alright, that’s a boy’s name. One boy so far. No, wait, there’s a ‘Y.’ It must be a girl…or is it a boy? Does the ‘Y’ rule still apply? Is there anything particularly feminine about the letter ‘Y’? What is the meaning of life, after all? Are we all just candles in the wind…?” At this point I stared poignantly at a Fischer Price firetruck and became lost in revery. Fortunately, my subconscious was now thinking about Elton John. I started humming Crocodile Rock to myself and was able to move on. “Charlie…that’s got to be a boy, right? Right, world? RIGHT? No, it appears to be a nickname for Charlotte. C’mon, girl, you can do it. Take it one moment at a time. Life is a marathon, not a sprint. Next name, next name. Next name is… Jayden?!!! ARGHHHH!!” (I stab myself with a pencil).

Trying to decipher the make up of your preschool class shouldn’t initiate an existential crisis, and yet that is what we have come to as a society. A whole generation of Katnisses and McKeltins and Kaitlynns are marching grimly into the future. They will rule the world someday. Someday, we’ll have a president of indeterminable gender called Bricker. It’s a grievous inevitability.

But I digress.

As I mentioned above, Dustin and I have similar child-naming conventions. When I was pregnant, we worked hard to find names that were reasonably uncommon yet recognizable and easy to pronounce, and with only one acceptable spelling. The names we chose for our children, of course, were Penelope and Malcolm; familiar, rare, and interesting without being shocking. Timeless. A classic and foolproof direction, no?

Ironically, nobody can pronounce Penelope’s name correctly – usually instead of rhyming ‘lope’ with ‘soapy’, they rhyme it with ‘rope.’ Alas, alack. I blush for the state of our educational system. Doesn’t anyone fight sleep while wading through the Greek classics anymore? Are there no people left on earth who remember half-heartedly skimming through their dogeared paperback edition of the Odyssey on their way to English 101?

Yeah. The name Penelope didn’t turn out as perfect as we had hoped. As for Malcolm, I’ll be darned if anyone remembers to spell it with the second ‘L.’ Ever. It’s always Malcom, which sounds less like a beautiful ancient name and more like a cable TV/internet provider. For all our care, we definitely struck out in the name spelling/pronouncing department, and struck out hard. A government official once asked us the names of our children. My poor husband had to spell each name aloud at least three times, and when the guy finally figured everything out, he said, “Boy, you sure used unusual spelling for these names!” If looks could kill..over the phone…

I know better now, but in the beginning I actually felt pretty smug after choosing Penelope’s name. People gushed when they heard it; they oohed and aahed and told me it was  “original” and “beautiful” and “adorable.” All of this pleasant ego-massaging convinced that my daughter would shine like a jewel among the common rabble in her generation, and that the glory would reflect back onto me, her educated and brilliant mother, the one woman who had come up with the best name in the world before anyone else could sully it.

Naturally, my punishment from the universe for this hubris was swift and in accordance with the gravity of my sins; shortly after my little girl was born, one of the Kardashians also had a girl and named her Penelope. It was Kim, I think. Or maybe Khloe. They’re probably interchangeable – when you want a new one you just swap out the head, like with Lego men. Tina Fey also used the name for her baby daughter that year. I like Tina and all, but I could have cat-scratched her eyes out when I found out. I was actually devastated. I cried. I cried because because someone else used a sweet little name before I could even start the patent paperwork. That’s how far my baby name madness had progressed.

The point of all of this is no matter how careful you are, no matter how clever you’ve been, you can’t think of everything. Something will be off about your child’s name. It will rhyme with a rude body part or it will be impossible to spell. Or worse, suddenly every pregnant woman in the world will be hit with the simultaneous desire to also name their baby The Name of Names – that amazing name you especially picked out when you were in high school and have jealously guarded since that time so no one will steal it. Those things will happen. They will. But you and your kid can get through it. And with only a few years of intense therapy! Unless you’ve christened your baby something truly awful, like Seven or MoonUnit, go easy on yourself. Stop the baby name madness.

Calm down, take a breath, and hide your copy of 1,000,000,000,000 Classic Baby Names. Relax and enjoy the rest of your life. And let this be a warning to you: my lasting punishment from the baby naming gods is to constantly hear, “Her name is Penelope? That’s great. Just like the kid of that Kardashian girl. Y’know, the one with the black hair. Married to that celebrity actor. Or rapper? You know the one I’m talking about.” At which point I stab myself with a pencil.

One thought on “What’s in a Name? (A Lot)

  1. A fun read. No doubt many a parent can identify with yours and Dustin’s efforts to select those ideal names only to have others spoil them. Sorry for the times I have misspelled Malcolm. :)

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