What's in a Name?

January 22, 2014

"You guys always pick black names."

This ridiculous statement is something we have heard on countless occasions. Don't get it twisted either, we have heard it more from friends who are black than from others by far.  It's motivated by association and it has always got me thinking about what they really mean? Where do we get these associations we have with names?

Miles and Desmond. In America these names may be associated with a famous musician and athlete respectively but globally that is not the case at all. For example: Miles is Latin for soldier and has been around since the beginning of civilization and Desmond is Scottish and means 'the world.'  The only 'black' tag is the one given to it by an individual who associates those names with someone who happens to be black.

And that's the bottom line isn't it? What a name really means is individual to us all.

It's based on who we know, what we've read, what movies we've seen, shows we've watched, what music we listen to, where we live, and what our ethnic backgrounds are.  If you knew a Laura that was a nasty piece of work you aren't likely to pick it for your own daughter. If you grew up in the 80's the name Jake is forever a jock name. Geographically speaking, if you grew up in metro Detroit you knew at least 10 Quincy's growing up so you're unlikely to pick that for your own child, ditto Jennifer and Matt. Too many associations tends to mean it's easier to just pick something different.

Everyone who has named a child knows the stress that goes into it.  It's a name that is to become part of history, forever stamped on the family trees of multiple generations and someday it may be something that a future descendant looks at and chooses for their child saying "We wanted a family name."

I think in America we have taken a much different route than the rest of the world when it comes to naming. Where once names denoted social class or status, religious affiliation, or geographic origin like village or town, names now can be meaningless except to say we like the way it sounds. We don't necessarily think of family, heritage, or history, etc...we think;

"Does this name sound presidential?"

"Does it go with our last name"

"Do the initials spell something awful like f-u-k?" (Sorry to all the Frank Ulysses Kellogg's in the world;)

"Can it be turned into some awful nickname that will render this poor child the butt of playground jokes throughout their childhood?" (Not sure this is avoidable by the way no matter what name you choose. Children are evil.)

Myself, I've tried repeatedly to pick Italian names but I married someone of Scottish heritage and have had a hard time finding things that don't sound ridiculous. Carmine Heddle doesn't have a lilt does it? Add to that the fact that so many people have chosen names that are decidedly identifiable to specific ethnic origins (Isabella, Gianna, etc...) that are not their own and I think it's safe to say Americans are erasing the ability to make assumptions about individuals based on names.

Ultimately I hope that a name will be nothing until the person who carries it gives life to it for us.  That people won't read a name on a resume and dismiss a candidate based on that alone. It is sad that having a foreign sounding name lowers your chances of getting called by a large percentage. Perhaps as each successive generation of melting pot named individuals takes over hiring this type of reaction to names will diminish.

The truth is these little people who we bestow an identity upon make the name themselves. They become that person so completely that you can no longer think of them any other way. Leia is Leia, she isn't bogged down by that name, she inhabits it and gives it life and new meaning for me that I couldn't have imagined.  It was an uber-geek move on our part to pick it, and one we have suffered relentless criticism for, but in the end we love it and so does she. Desmond and Miles are the same. What I associate with those names now is specific to what they have given to it.  Every Desmond I meet in this life will bring to mind not Desmond Howard football star or Bishop Desmond Tutu, but MY Desmond. My bouncy, silly, amazing little man. Ditto for the other babies in my life including the one who has yet to be named;)

I hope the parents who named their baby Asshole (Ah-Shole-EE) feel the same way.

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