On Baby Names

Among the hardest decisions in the approach to a new baby is, of course, THE NAME.

It’s right up there with choosing a baby stroller. You want something nice; you’re looking around at what other families have done; you don’t necessarily want the same one all those families in Park Slope are getting (but still those are kind of nice); you want to get good mileage out of it …

Except that THE NAME is gonna stick with your child for the rest of their life, while the stroller is done by at most a decade (if you’ve gotten one of those with add-on multi-child capabilities like those hoverboard attachments so that your older kids never have to actually walk anywhere on their own). Sure, your kid might change their name, or do something crazy like start going by a derivation of their Hebrew name rather than their legal English name (don’t know anyone for whom that one applies …) but regardless it’s a big decision.

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Solid advice.

And unlike a stroller, which you can openly discuss with pretty much anyone who has had a kid before — ooh, you have an UPPABaby? Is it really worth it? What about the BabyZen YoYo? So compact! But honestly, we’re leaning towards the CityMiniGT. We’re told it’s like the Subaru of strollers! — if you’re intending to keep the baby name to yourselves until it’s ready for full announcement, as we are, you can’t really discuss it with people.

Which is somewhat unfortunate, even if wise, because there are SO many factors. Here are just a few:

  • Do you want a “Jewish” name? And what does that mean? Is that a Hebrew name? Something “classically Jewish American” like Josh or Noah or Rachel or Sarah? Or something more unique? But does a “unique” Hebrew name sound like you’re trying to be Israeli?
  • If you’re looking at names that don’t root back to Jewish / Hebrew traditions, is that ok? E.g. do I need to worry that if we choose a Greek name I’m symbolically spitting on my ancestors who literally fought against the Greeks to preserve their culture and traditions?
  • Are you naming your child after someone? If so, are you going by the Ashkenazi Jewish tradition that you only name them after someone who has passed away, and not after any living relatives (lest the Angel of Death gets confused)?
  • Can you mix & match traditions? How many different relatives can be included in one name? What if we leave someone out? Is that what the next kid is for?
  • Do you want a name that is classically gendered or one that’s more gender neutral?
  • What nicknames do these names present? Are you setting up your child for needless ridicule with a name that’s easily made fun of?
  • How many names of NPR hosts is it ok to include on our list?

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All of this of course adds up to a list that, from my side, started with something like fifteen names that I liked but when discussed with my wife was quickly narrowed down to about … three (maybe four, charitably speaking).

How is it that out of hundreds or probably thousands of possible names that in theory are all lovely the list immediately shrinks down to less than a handful of viable options?

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Beyond the factors listed above, I think this one is particularly notable: in my generation we often strive towards trying to find a “unique” name for our children. I think it stems from wanting both to express our individual personalities and tastes and hopes and dreams for our child; and also to avoid them sharing the same name with three of four kids in the same class at school.

Those with experience in most American Jewish communities know exactly what I’m talking about. A quick search of my Facebook friends list yielded 49 Rachels, another six Rachaels, two Rachelles, and one Ruchel. There are 38 Sarahs and 15 Saras (and one Sarai) ; and 19 Josh’s and 15 Joshuas.

Ok from here I really went down the rabbit hole in some pseudo-analyzing of my friends list for names. Here are some of the most common names that showed up — feel free to scroll past this if you somehow don’t find this as fascinating as I do …

  • 35 Annas
  • 31 Davids and 5 Daves
  • 28 Aarons
  • 26 Emilys
  • 25 Bens, 8 Benjamins, 2 Benj’s, one Benny
  • 23 Michaels
  • 22 Andrew / Andy
  • 20 Rebeccas, 8 Beccas, 4 Rivkas, 2 Beckys, and one Bekkah
  • 18 Adams
  • 14 Jessicas, 4 Jess’s, 4 Jesses, 4 Jessie’s, 1 Jessy, and 1 Jessi
  • 13 Sams, six Samanthas
  • 13 Matts, 7 Matthews, 2 Mati’s, 1 Mat, 1 Mathieu

Surprising? Some yes some no? 

This is probably also a good time to mention that my brother-in-law’s name (this would be my wife’s sister’s husband) is Joshua David Goldberg. My full (legal) name is Joshua David Silverstein. 

Yep. That happened. 

[We have an ongoing unofficial Joshua David of the Year contest. Josh totally won last year (he helped create grandchild number one, pretty tough to beat). With Red Panda Cub on the way the odds are at least somewhat tilted in my favor this year … but we’ll see.]

Of course, maybe around the time our parents’ generation were naming their children, Rachel and David and Sarah and Joshua were far less common and they thought they were being more unique, only to discover upon entering Preschool or Kindergarten or Sunday School that actually everyone else had the same ideas for names too. Or, maybe it was just less of a big deal to come up with a unique name.

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Not the worst backup name …

Regardless, this quest for uniqueness in names has some interesting  side effects. One, very simply, is that when you see one of your hard-earned possible names show up on a list of “trending baby names for 2017” you immediately curse and start to question everything decision you’ve ever made thus far along your baby-readying journey.

More interesting to me, though, is how this trend I think actually adds weight and significance not only to the names themselves but to the associations with those who carry them. If I’m thinking about a common name, sure it may be bring up some associations but if I know thirty or fifty people with that name they’re easily disassociated and generalized amongst the general Sarah population.

But with uncommon names, the opposite is true.

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For argument’s sake, let’s take the name “Mara.” One of my best friends is named Mara (hi Mara!). On Facebook, I have her and only one other Mara that I know. Pretty uncommon name. And it’s a lovely name — even if it roots back to the Hebrew word for bitter 😉 — and of course I think the world of my good friend.

But I’m pretty sure that if we were to name our child Mara, our friend Mara would experience some mix of a) being honored (I hope) but also b) um, really?? WTF guys. That’s weird.

Even if we tried to pretend that we weren’t directly naming Red Panda Cub after our friend Mara, the truth on the ground speaks very strongly otherwise. It would be near impossible *not* to associate the name with a specific person.

[For what it’s worth, our friend Mara is by far the single person most responsible for the meeting of my wife and me. If not for Mara, I almost for sure would not have ended up working at the camp where we met. So, thanks Mara! But, still not planning on naming our child after you … Unless, um, maybe you want us to? Awkward … ]

And I think the more everyone tries to uniquely name their children, the more the weight increases with specific name & person associations.

So, ok. Where does that leave us? Probably not really anywhere different. I don’t think we’re going to suddenly expand our list to include all the most common names of this new generation. But there’s an argument to made for the simplicity that comes from a more narrow range of choices.

And if/when Red Panda Cub starts preschool or kindergarten and (inevitably?) meets the four other “*******”s in her class (sorry grandparents, we still aren’t gonna say a word about the actual names we’re thinking about) we’ll just sigh and say “oh well” and just move on. There’s seven billion people in the world and only so many names. What are you gonna do?

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Although, I did grow up in the Inland Northwest …

Actually, I think we’ve got our name. Shh don’t tell.

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