Every coupled friend I have here in Germany is, as of this year, a parent. And looking upon the names bestowed upon the new generation, I must say I like them all. Or at least, I don’t hate any of them. This is impressive when considering that, if my partner and I ever want to get into a fight, we simply start discussing names we would hypothetically pick for a child. Just give us five minutes and soon we’ll be shouting, “Bo-ring!” “Flaky!” “Hideous!”
And then we run up against the unanswerable question: Is it harder to have a mundane (a.k.a. boring) name or an unusual (a.k.a. weird) name?
While I enjoy the sound of my own name—as many if not most people do—I haven’t enjoyed seeing Emily end up in the top ten of the most popular U.S. baby names for the past three decades. Emily was the first name a sociologist in Freakonomics came up with when asked to list “typical white girl names” in the U.S. One hot summer in Upstate New York, I worked in a room with five other Emilys, all my age. One friend had so many Emilys in his life that he added permanent descriptors to differentiate us. (I was “Home Emily.”) Matt Groening was definitely on to something when he listed meeting-another-kid-with-your-name as one of childhood’s greatest traumas.
This is why I see the appeal of extraordinary names. After all, the whole point of giving a child their own name—as opposed to, say, calling them Person or Daughter No. 1—is to distinguish them from others. To have them, and not four other people, look up when you call them. In my years as a school teacher, I had a much easier time remembering Xenia, Letitia and Suma than Tom, Jim and Kate. I’m also grateful to parents who opt to avoid the sound-combinations that happen to be trending, reducing the likelihood of my having to remember which student is Julie and which is Julia, or whether the boy in front of me is Leon, Leo, or Leonard. I regularly confuse Kristen Stewart and Kristin Scott Thomas, but I’ll never forget Quvenzhané Wallis till the day I die.
Black Americans are renowned for frequently giving their children names that sound vaguely African with modern flourishes, from Baratunde and Beyoncé to Kwame and Malia. I spent a good deal of my childhood on Long Island and in Baltimore where I had classmates and friends named Chiwanna, LaTaesha, Zeeyaré, and Teyonté. South African comedian Trevor Noah has poked fun at how very not African such names sound where he comes from, but the attempt to reconstruct cultural ties, however inaccurate, is perhaps most understandable in the context of those whose ancestors were violently removed from their culture:
Looking down on extraordinary names can have xenophobic undertones. After all, the pre-1960s model of blending into middle class America resulted in immigrants named Wei-Li and Helmut swiftly transforming into Winnie and Herbert. An insistence that it’s cruel to name your child something unusual suggests something wrong with diversity or being a minority.
“That kid is gonna get teased so bad!” is the usual response to an extraordinary name. But wouldn’t it be better to teach your child how to react to schoolyard teasing with self-confidence and empowerment rather than avoid anything that might make them remarkable? Studies show the Boy Named Sue Effect is real. That is, my friends Lucrezia, Baldur and Bronwyn are more likely to have strong and sturdy personalities than my friends Matt, Matt and Matt.
As one psychologist explained in The New York Times:
Researchers have studied men with cross-gender names like Leslie. They haven’t found anything negative — no psychological or social problems — or any correlations with either masculinity or effeminacy. But they have found one major positive factor: a better sense of self-control. It’s not that you fight more, but that you learn how to let stuff roll off your back.
Then again, some endeavors to be different do seem less defensible than others. As noted before, a study in 2010 showed that teachers here in Germany are more likely to give lower grades and presume unruly behavior of kids named Cindy, Mandy or Kevin because they are assumed to come from anti-intellectual, anti-social homes. These names are common among children born in the Eighties and Nineties in the former East Germany where Hollywood had a strong influence, Kevin having boomed right after the international success of Home Alone. Smashing stereotypes about the people from behind the Iron Curtain is admirable, but destigmatizing Macauley Culkin feels less necessary.
And what about the potential for sounding pretentious? German punk singer Nina Hagen named her daughter Cosma Shiva after having allegedly seen a UFO while pregnant. The most compelling argument against picking a name from a distant culture I’ve heard comes from a fellow Long Islander with an Indian first name and a Jewish surname given by her Jewish dad and mother whose parents hail from Chennai:
I don’t think it’s offensive when a white couple reaches around the world for a name. I think it’s tacky. If you want to name your kid something foreign and exotic, then get to know someone foreign and exotic, and marry them. Otherwise, stick to what you know well. You’re trying to sound deep and yet your relationship to the culture isn’t deep. It’s shallow.
Not to immediately insult Dhani Harrison, but she has a point.
Having no cultural context for a name can be very problematic. What if the foreign name you’ve picked “just because it sounds nice” is widely known abroad as the name of a brutal dictator, infamous celebrity, or literary villain? If a WASPy American couple stumbled upon “Mohammad” or “Fidel” for the first time and decided to give it to their son just for the sound of it, they would be looked upon with a good deal of suspicion. In Amy Tan’s The Kitchen God’s Wife, a man returning home to China after a trip to the U.S. tricks his rival into taking on the name Judas when dealing with Western businessmen, promising him that it is the name of very well-known, powerful historical figure.
And controversy aside, phonetics often don’t translate easily across cultures. Not only are my favorite English names often butchered by German accents, but most of the German names that sound loveliest to me and my American family elicit horrified looks from my contemporaries in Berlin. (Apparently “Hannelore” is one of the ugliest names anyone could ever think of in Germany today.)
This proves, however, that it is often nothing more than a matter of taste. One person’s tacky is another person’s terrific, and there is little we can do to change that.