4 Ways to Name Your Children Without Ruining Their Lives

The United States has fewer child naming laws than most countries. Such laws restrict the names that parents may legally give their children, but the right to free speech in America allows for a culture where almost anything is permitted, except in a few states which prohibit profanity and numeric characters. Carlton Larson, a University of California law professor and the author of a 2011 study on baby names, noted that a New Jersey couple who named their infant son Adolf Hitler were well within their rights to do so, although if they “had named their son R2D2, state authorities would have intervened” (as reported by Katy Steinmatz, in her Time Magazine article, “What You Can and Cannot Name Your Child”).

For the past few decades, there has been an increasing trend toward creative child-naming. In her NBCToday article “The 12 Craziest New Baby Names…” Pamela Redmond Satran notes that “there were 1,393 new baby names coined in 2014 — and it’s safe to say that at least 1,350 of them would have been better left as words, misspellings, celebrity surnames, or pure flights of fancy.” Celebrities are not necessarily to blame for this trend, although they are, perhaps, the leading participants, granting their offspring such one-of-a-kind names as Apple, North, Kal-el, Blue, Kyd, and Audio Science. Non-celebrity parents are, however, not immune to making up names of their own and have introduced babies with names like Amillion, Sadman, and Lay.

My work in University administration has shown me how impacting the parents’ decision to name their child can be, if that decision is not taken very seriously and made with extreme foresight. Consider, for example, the case of Rrose, who will forever be plagued with the assumption that she or someone else has made a typographical error. There is nothing visually pleasing about this spelling change on a very classic name and no phonetic difference that makes the name unique. The only thing these parents accomplished is to gift their daughter with a lifetime of unnecessary explanations made to strangers: “No, two R’s is correct, really.”

In Adam Alter’s article “The Power of Names,” published by the New Yorker in 2013, he notes that “the names people choose for their children convey a wealth of sometimes unintended information.” The act of personal naming is an ancient cultural practice observed in only one other species (the dolphin) but known in every human community that has been studied. Alter relates child naming to the Heisenberg principle, and although he acknowledges that the effects of names on children are probably more subtle, there are those who believe that a given name is closely linked to an individual’s personality, and evidence has shown that, at the very least, a person’s name is inextricable from their self-identity. Many parents labor over selecting a name, or combination of names, which achieves a certain meaning, while others consider the naming of their offspring to be an act of their own self-expression and creativity.

This latter group is the most likely to make a questionable decision, one which will affect their child, literally, for a lifetime. To be fair, some parents are true artists, and the names their children receive are beautiful: Poesie is a play on the French translation of ‘poetry’ and the group of flowers known collectively as ‘posy,’ and the result is an ultra-feminine name claimed by fewer than five babies per year.

Unfortunately, out-of-the-box thinking is not always the best approach when naming a child. Name popularity differs greatly across the decades, and the popularity of one’s name in 2015 is likely very different than in the year that one was born, as noted by Chris Wilson is his Time Magazine contribution “Find Out What Your Name Would Be If You Were Born Today.” However, some names have been fairly consistent in their popularity for many years and others have been recycled every few generations. The phenomenon of many parents coining new and untried baby names is relatively unique to the 21st century.

Naturally, there is some hesitation to send into the world another Sarah among thousands, or another Justin among ten others in his class. But then again, what’s wrong with Jack? What’s wrong with Emma? Some names are common and classic for a reason. If parents are completely averse to common and classic, they still have unlimited options: what’s wrong with Braylon, Atticus, or Sinea? Creativity doesn’t necessarily mean naming your son after a comic-book alien superhero. It does not mean that you should subject your daughter to ridicule or inconvenience. There are hundreds of thousands of names available for human beings and the majority of them are rare enough to be considered unique and interesting. Parents need to take responsibility for the fact that their naming decision determines every interaction their son or daughter will have. Therefore, they should take the time (nine months is appropriate) to fully consider any potential complications with the chosen name.

Below is a list of guidelines that parents should consider when settling on a name. This list is by no means conclusive and merely reflects some of the problems that I have encountered while working with students whose parents were perhaps too whimsical or simply too stubborn to think past their own experiences with boring-yet-functional names.

Don’t try to be creative with spelling uncreative names.

A child’s name should be Julianne or Julie Anne, but never JuliAnne. If a she is unfortunate enough to be called the latter, she will inevitably be frustrated her whole life by individuals who, making a judgement call, spell her name according to simple rules of capitalization. Her aggravation would be more justly directed at her mother, who lacked the foresight to anticipate the hassle and difficulty her daughter would face, returning to offices time after time in order to correct the mistake.

The only punctuation appropriate to a name is a hyphen or an accent.

Parents should never use apostrophes as though they count for accents. There is nothing phonetically indicative about Denee’. And what if you need to make your name possessive? If your legal name already has an apostrophe, then grammar rules dictate that you should use another one: Denee’’s cat.

Don’t punish your child for being born as the undesired or unexpected sex.

Although it’s true that, as Chris Wilson notes, “many names have drifted from being associate with boys to being associated with girls over the years,” such things take a long time, and it is unfair to select one’s own child to be the banner-wearer in such cases. Sorrowful fathers and indulgent mothers who think it’s acceptable to give their daughters blatantly male names and then cover up their offense with a middle name like Elizabeth are most likely creating a lifelong insecurity and feeling of inadequacy: “My parents named me Steven Jane because they really wanted a son.” There is nothing wrong with a gender-neutral name like Taylor, Brett, Noah, or even Kyle. Another option is a hyphenate like Mary-Franklin. Names like Wesley, Scott, and Daniel, however, simply are not cross-overs and parents should learn to accept the child they have. (These guidelines also apply to the reverse of this scenario, although it’s rare to encounter a boy named Esther or Sue.)

Always consider the surname.

It is surprising how many parents, in naming their children, do not actually say the name out loud. Most are so concentrated on how the name looks on paper that they forget to test how it sounds. Some of the saddest of these, as reported in a New York Times article by Matt Tierney, “And the Worst Bad Name Is…” are: Iona Knipl, Shanda Lear, Ima Hooker, Justin Credible, and Rainbow Traut.

In naming their children, parents should consider all possible outcomes. If there is any potential for clever mispronunciations that will result in bullying, or any inevitability of chronic clerical errors, then parents should reconsider their choice and remember: the name is for the child.

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