Saturday, August 21, 2021

What's in a Name?

This was something I wrote as a Facebook Note -- essentially a blogging function that's been discontinued -- back on Dec. 1, 2010, before either this blog or my daughter was born. I thought the post was lost for good, but I was able to unearth it recently. So I'm reproducing it here, in honor of Miranda Penelope's 10th birthday. And since I think of Eggshells as, essentially, my writing legacy, I wanted to preserve it here in case the archived Facebook version eventually vanishes for good.

Lori and I are thinking about having a kid. (Don't break out the cigars yet; nothing has happened.) Out of all the things I could be thinking about -- prenatal health, things to prepare around the house before the birth, how to change a diaper -- I've been fairly obsessed over names. This is why I work with words for a living. They fascinate me.

Even more fascinating to me are the current naming trends. Looking around online at a lot of baby-naming sites, I've been struck by several things.
  • A lot of people are influenced by pop culture. Isabella and Jacob? Hello, Twilight.
  • "Aden" names seem really popular: Aiden, Jayden, Hayden, Brayden, Cayden.
  • Androgynous names are apparently in vogue, too: Taylor, Jordan, Riley. I even see Peyton mentioned as a girl's name. Am I the only one who thinks of Peyton Manning when I hear that name?
  • For many, the notion of giving your child a "unique" name appears to consist of taking one of the names from the Top 100 list and mangling the spelling. This baffles me. You can spell it Emmaleygh if you want, but your girl is still "Emily" when someone speaks her name. And all you've done is made her life difficult, having to always spell and explain her name to people.
  • Brooklyn? Really? Will she have a brother named Manhattan?
  • People either don't know or don't care that patronyms are totally inappropriate for a girl. The "son" in "Madison" means just that -- "son," not "daughter." Same for the seemingly popular "Mackenzie" (or "Mickinzi" or "Mykynzee" or various other butcherings). "Mc" and "Mac" mean "son of." If Johnny Cash were still around, he could write a sequel to "A Boy Named Sue" -- "A Girl Named Mackenzie." And I guess people missed the point in the movie Splash: When the mermaid decided she wanted to be called Madison, the joke was that it was such a terrible, unfit name for a woman.
That last point is one that really galls me. Words mean things. Before you stick your kid with a name, wouldn't you take the time to research what it means?

Consider "Adrian," if you will. (Even if you don't want to, I'm going to consider it anyway.) "Adrian" has a Latin origin. It means "from Hadria," a town in northern Italy named after the Adriatic Sea. The town most likely got its name from the dark-colored sands along the shores. "Ater" is Latin for "black." That's how, in turn, the name "Adrian" also came to mean "dark one." Suddenly sounds a lot more sinister, doesn't it? That's probably why it was chosen as the name of Rosemary's baby. If you've never seen the movie of the same name, the short version is that Rosemary's son, Adrian, is literally the spawn of Satan.

Contrast that with my middle name, "Michael," which means, rhetorically, "Who is like God?" Well, the Dark One sure ain't, I can tell you that much. So my name is, at best, an inherent contradiction, and at worst, an affirmation that I am far from grace. Like I said, you need to think about these things when naming your kids.

It's even worse in my case, because my biological mother deliberately chose my name, knowing full well the connotations. She literally named me after Rosemary's baby because she hated my biological father so much. To her, I was the spawn of Satan. Further, my middle name is legally spelled not "Michael" but "Mikel." My biological dad's name was Michael, and the nearly illiterate misspelling "Mikel" was, I'm sure, an attempt to humiliate my dad. All my bio-mom ever said was that she named me after my dad, but I think the subtext is clear. Someone in my family (I don't remember who) once tried to tell me "Mikel" was the French spelling. Nuh-uh. That would be "Michel." I took four years of French in high school.

I know this is probably more than you ever wanted to know about me and my fucked-up family and childhood, but I bring it up to make a point: Don't be cruel to your children when you're naming them. If you have an ax to grind with someone, take it out on someone else, not your innocent-bystander kids.

And for anyone who's interested, my bio-mom was a drug-abusing, child-abusing, suicidal schizophrenic who gave me up for adoption to her own parents when I was about a year old, because she was completely incapable of raising me. She eventually died choking on her own vomit, after overdosing on prescription drugs. I've only met my bio-dad once. He took off when I was just a baby, and I've never blamed him for it. But all my attempts to reach him ever since our one meeting have, sadly, gone unanswered.

Anyway, when it comes to baby names, here's what I know Lori and I are not doing:
  • Using an androgynous name. It's a pain in the ass not having people know whether the person they're calling or e-mailing is a man or a woman. Don't you hate it when you're applying for a job and the contact person is, for example, Jamie Smith? And you can't address the person as "Dear Mr. Smith" or "Dear Ms. Smith," because you don't know which one is right? I've dealt with that all my life. I've gotten lots of mail over the years addressed to "Ms. Adrian Rush." (I even once got an invitation to try out for the Miss Teen Michigan pageant. I should have shown up for the tryouts. That would have been a hoot.) Even worse, people frequently misspell my name "Adrienne" or "Adrianne" -- EVEN WHEN THEY KNOW I'M A GUY. It makes me feel bad for all the Jordans and Taylors in the world. They're both fine names, but they're bound to cause a lot of confusion.
  • Using a trendy name. Despite my own love-hate relationship with my name, it was nice to always be the only Adrian, while there were always three or four Johns or Chads or Jennys or Julies in my classrooms. Today, classrooms are probably full of Ethans and Avas. (And Eethyns and Ayhvahs.) When thinking of names, I'm trying to steer clear of ones on the Top 100 lists. If the name isn't in the Social Security Administration's annual top 1,000, even better.
  • Using a virtue name. I can already feel the irony of having a boy named Justice who gets in trouble with the law. And I'm sure a 16-year-old girl named Chastity can come up with lots of creative ways to rebel against her name.
  • Similarly, using a name associated with a single religion. What if a boy named Christian decides to become a Buddhist or an atheist? What if a girl named Dharma wants to become a Catholic social worker?
What we do want to do is give a child a name that he or she will be proud of, and that stands out -- but not in a bad way. Lori says her mom always wanted a grandson named Michael, but I'm going back and forth about that name. For one, it's my own middle name, and as I've mentioned, I have issues with my name. For another, it's so plain. There are millions of Michaels in the world. And finally, it's a Biblical name. I'm not really big on saddling a kid with a name from the Judeo-Christian tradition. My hardcore agnosticism and my issues with many Christians (not Christianity, and not Christ himself, and not all Christians) make it hard for me to want to identify with it in any way.

I also want to give a child a name that's not only cute for a kid, but also suitable for an adult. I understand the temptation to name a cute little girl some adorable little doll-like name, like Kayleey Breeanne, but you're not just naming a cute little girl. You're also naming a grown woman who will one day have her own life and will have to live with that name forever. You're naming someone who will someday have to put her name on a resume and be taken seriously in the professional world. One good test I saw on a baby-naming site was to put your baby name in a context like this: "Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States, [name]." Would anyone take Kayleey Breeanne seriously as a doctor or a lawyer? These are all things to think about.

The other thing I'd like to do is give a kid more than one middle name. My hope is that it turns out to be a simple way to make the kid feel extra special. "You only have three names. I have four!"

But most importantly, I want the name to tell a story. And a positive story at that. I think (based on what I've seen online) that some parents just pick random strings of words that they think sound good together. A child deserves better than that. Sure, the name has to be pleasing to the ears (and believe me, I've tried plenty of combinations and considered the flow of the syllables and accents), but it should be special, too, whether the name itself has meaning or whether you're naming the child in honor of someone else.

Lori has focused on the boys' names, while I've been thinking a lot about girls' names. (Yeah, we're a strange couple. We'll both be happy with whatever we have, but I think she'd prefer a boy, while I know I'd prefer a girl.) The boys' names that she's mentioned she likes are:
  • Trevor
  • Sebastian
  • Damian
I like "Gordon" and "Wyatt," too, and I've also been tossing around the idea of "Henry David" after my favorite writer, but I'm fine with her choices. I was thinking of "Ian" until I realized that it meant "God is gracious" (meh) and that it's merely the Scottish version of John (a fine name, to be sure, but there are already enough Johns in the world).

So let's see how this plays out:

Trevor: Two origins. In Welsh, it comes from a combination of "tref" (settlement) and "mawr" (large). So "Trevor" in Welsh is, essentially, "the man from the big town." In Gaelic, the name derives from the name "Ó Treabhair," or "descendant of Treabhair," which means "industrious" or "prudent." Given my Irish heritage (my birth surname was Dooley), I think I'll go with the Gaelic meaning.

Sebastian: From the Latin "Sebastianus," meaning "from Sebaste," a town in Asia Minor (near modern-day Mersin in Turkey). Sebaste, in turn, came from the Greek "sebastos," meaning "venerable."

Damian: From the Greek "damazo," meaning "to conquer, master, overcome, or tame." Yes, I'm well aware that the name "Damian" has its own horror-movie connections. But I don't think that many people make the connection anymore, and we certainly aren't picking out the name to deliberately brand the child as a demon, the way my name was picked out for me.

So Trevor Sebastian Damian is (in one way of looking at it) the prudent, venerable conqueror. Sounds like something that Sun-tzu himself would have approved of.

You suppose Trevor Sebastian Damian Henry David Rush is too much? Actually, I kinda like it. The prudent, venerable conqueror and beloved home ruler. I'll talk it over with Lori.

Now for the girls' names. I'll confess right up front that I adore the name Gretchen. Absolutely love it. Always have. I think it's a beautiful, classic, and woefully underused name. Feminine, yet strong. It's a pet form of "Margaret" in German and means "pearl." But Lori hates the name just as much! So strike that one off the list.

I've been thinking long and hard about girls' names, because so many of them come off sounding so treacly-sweet that they nearly turn me diabetic. How do you come up with a name that's pretty and feminine yet wouldn't make a woman sound like she's a perpetual 3-year-old with little ribbons in her hair? At first I thought it might be best to stick with a traditional name, but the only one I could come up with that I really liked was Anna Marie Theresa. And it automatically had two strikes against it: Anna was my bio-mom's name (technically it was Ruth Anna, but she went by her middle name), and "Anna Marie Theresa" also happens to be the exact name of an ex-girlfriend. So yeah, maybe I can just set that one aside.

Poking around on the baby-name sites, I first came across "Sabine." Not in the SSA's top 1,000 names. A Latin location name ("from Sabine"). Great backstory to the name, too. The Sabine women were abducted by first-generation Roman men to populate their new city. A war ensued, and it ended when the Sabine women threw themselves between the Romans and their own husbands on the battlefield. What a great name to bestow on a girl, suggesting such strength and fearlessness!

But then I got into Greek names. Jackpot. Selena, Iris, Irene, Helena, Lydia, Norah, Phoebe … I loved them all. So I decided to focus on Greek names to narrow down my options. OK, so my surname is English in origin, but there's not much I can do about that.

I finally have it down to my three favorites:
  • Lyra
  • Zoe
  • Penelope
Lyra: A variant of "lyris," in reference to the lyre, a handheld stringed instrument. You see it in lots of pictures from antiquity, and in scenes depicting ancient Greece. I'm a music nut, so having a musical name would be perfect for a girl of mine, yet it's not an ordinary name like "Melody" or "Harmony." Best of all, it's never (best I can tell) been in the SSA's list of the top 1,000 names. I hadn't thought of this name since Lori and I listened to Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy on audiobook. Lyra was the heroine of the story.

Zoe: Greek for "life." I can't think of a more positive name to give someone. I love names that start with "Z" sounds, too. My only concern is that the name has become very trendy. At first, I was thinking of Zoe as a first name, but I'm not sure I can bring myself to do it when it's in the Top 100 baby-name list year after year and apparently climbing. So it'll have to suffice as a middle name. I still haven't decided whether to stick a "y" on the end, yet, either. I just know there will be some people who think it rhymes with "Joe." But on the other hand, I don't want to cater to the illiterate. And as much as I like the lovely Zooey Deschanel, that's just going way too far. The double "o" in her name makes me think of the place where you go to see the animals, not of an affirmation of life.

Penelope: The faithful wife of Odysseus, who fends off suitors by saying she can't remarry until she finishes weaving a burial shroud for her father-in-law. Every night, she unweaves the shroud and is eventually reunited with her husband. The name seems to be of uncertain origin: The most likely explanation I've read is that it's a combination of the Greek "pene" (thread) and "lepo" (to unroll). So Penelope is the cunning weaver -- faithful and resourceful. I've also read that "penelops" is a reference to a bird in Greek -- seemingly a type of duck that rescued Penelope as a baby. But a majority of baby-name sites simply define "Penelope" as "weaver." That cuts to the chase pretty nicely.

Thus, Lyra Zoe Penelope is (in reverse order) a weaver of life and music.

I tried to think of names that would be tease-proof in school, but kids are both creative and cruel, and they'll find a way to make fun of almost any name. Trevor could have tremors, and Lyra could be a liar. The only big alteration I made to my plans was to abandon one of my favorite name combinations: Zoe Irene Penelope Rush ("weaver of life and peace"). Initials: ZIPR. That might be fine if the girl grew up to be a track star who zips around the course, but I'd rather not saddle a kid with the nickname "zipper."

I'm sensitive to this stuff because I got crap coming and going with my name growing up.

  • "Yo Adrian!" (Every person who says it thinks he's the first one to ever come up with it.)
  • When HIV was discovered, I became "Aids." That was fun.
  • "A drain." From people who apparently can't spell.
  • "Russian." (Harmless, but stupid.)
  • "Do you listen to Rush Limbaugh?" (No.)
  • "I'll bet Rush is one of your favorite bands, isn't it?" (Well, actually, yes. That was just a happy coincidence.)
  • "What's the hurry?" (Thank you, I'm here all week. Please tip your waitress.)
My last name either comes from people who lived near rushes (a.k.a. cattails) or who weaved rushes for a living. Not much I can do about that, though. Before Lori and I got married, we tossed around the idea of both taking my birth name, Dooley, but when my bio-dad turned out to be kind of a disappointment, we scrapped that idea. And she never liked her maiden name, in part because people mispronounced it all the time. So our kids are stuck with "Rush."

The most I can do is not name a boy Howard Evan Arthur Dennis Rush. I'll let you think about that one for a moment.

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