What NOT To Do When Choosing a Baby Name

Oy! People at Kveller who chooses the name-of-the-day, sometimes I wonder, what are you thinking?!

I started thinking about names the other day.  My friend’s daughter found out that she was pregnant just after her grandfather died. According to Jewish custom, she would have been expected to name her baby after him. Unfortunately, she thought he was a narcissistic meany. Thank goodness, for the time being, she dodged a bullet. She just found out she was having a girl.

It’s crazy to think that even before one is born, one’s parents hold so much power just by choosing a name. Names are so much part of one’s identity that it seems fitting that we should choose our own after we get to know ourselves a little so we can see if the name fits us.

When people in my circle choose a name, they generally choose a Hebrew name first and then somehow match it up with an English name, unless they really like the idea that the kid has two names (first and middle) instead of four (first and middle times two). But what if custom and family dynamics make it obligatory to name after an unfortunately named dead (Ashkenazi) or living (Sephardi) relative? Worse, what if the obligatory name is Yiddish and sounds just awful? (I have one and I had to give my daughter one–they are buried as middle “Hebrew” names.) And what’s with choosing a name in English with a first letter that “matches” the first letter of the Hebrew name? I never understood that but it’s how my Rivka became Renée. It could have been the exact correlative name, Rebecca (that makes sense, no?)

We all know that associations we have with names influence us. The name Sarah is forever tainted for me because of the lower-school librarian who was a scary, unattractive little gnome of a woman with thick white stuff oozing from the sides of her mouth. I once read that a child with a nice-sounding, mainstream type of name has a slight edge in school because of subjective associations the teacher has with names. Think of that next time you are deciding between, say, Dwayne and David.

What about unisex names? That seems to be pretty common nowadays, especially with modern Israeli names, but as a female Renée who, to my little-girl discomfort, met male René’s I’d advise against it. It may be old-fashioned to think so, but I really think it makes kids uncomfortable. And talking about my name, by all means make it easy to pronounce! I was a timid child (hard to believe, yeah, I know) but the only thing that got me to open my mouth on the first day of class was if a poor ignorant teacher mispronounced my name as Reenie!

My friend’s son named his own (Israeli) son Amit. The baby’s great-grandmother was horrified! She had belonged to the religious Zionist women’s organization with that name for decades! And it sounded like a girl’s name besides.

My grandsons and their friends have names that sound like my grandfathers and their brothers–the old men who sat on benches, wearing caps, talking loudly and smoking cigars. Who would have thought that three generations hence, Sam, Charlie, Jack, Harry, Max and Louie could be trendy? At least I haven’t heard of any Hermans or Stanleys. There are, however, lots of Morrises in the Syrian community in Brooklyn. Oy! It just can’t ever sound sexy, no?

I thought I was doing my kids a favor when I chose English names I liked rather than match up a Hebrew name. But it did lead to unusual pairings—my Shlomo (named for his grandfather) is not the English-correlated version (and my father-in-law’s name) Solomon but Andrew Michael. I just loved that name! So British upper-crust! “Solomon” was just too big a name for a little baby!

I also picked names that went well with our unusual last name. I even wanted the number of syllables to fit together nicely. (I’ve admitted before that I am a little obsessive-compulsive.)

I don’t think grandparents have any right to say anything about a grandchild’s name, not even to express an opinion. Grandparents, just keep your mouths shut. You’ll love the kid no matter what. And you will eventually get used to saying the name without stumbling or gagging.

Parents, your kid is going to be stuck with her/his name for the rest of her/his life. Make it easy, please.

Renee SeptimusRenée Septimus is a social worker and Jewish educator. She lives with her husband Joe on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and is the very proud mom of four married children and a savta (that's Hebrew for grandmother) to a (growing) bunch of absolutely perfect grandchildren!

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