On naming children: an angle I’d never thought about.

Josephine Hammond not long ago wrote an article for Onyx magazine discussing baby names in the African American community (of which Hammond is a member). I’ll let you read her article and her concerns about people giving their children “imaginative” names.

Recently, the actor Shia LeBeouf, who experienced a lot of schoolyard teasing and bullying because of his unusual first name, made a public plea with celebrities to stop giving their children weird names (such as Nicolas Cage naming his son Kal-El, a name from the Superman comic books).

This morning, I realized there’s an aspect of this I hadn’t thought about before: giving your child a more or less common name, but with an imaginative spelling. The way this came up this morning is that there was an Amber Alert on TV about an abducted girl in our state. Now, from the outset I don’t anyone to infer in any way that I’m making fun of this girl or her situation: what follows should make it clear that I am concerned about her and wanted to find out what I could about her situation.

The sound cut out on the TV just as they were giving the particulars of the Amber Alert. All I got was her name and age, not her location. I wanted to find out if she was in our area, so I Googled the name, which the TV announcer said was “Brittany Mayo.” I soon found out there are lots of Brittany Mayos around the USA, but I could not find this particular one. After much searching, I found the story. The girl’s name is Brittny Joynn Mayo.

I never, never in a million years would have thought to Google “Brittny” because I never would have spelled it that way. I might have tried “Britney” at some point, since Ms. Spears’ redneck Louisiana mama graced her with that spelling.

The name Brittany comes from a real place. It is one of the Celtic lands and is part of modern-day France. Naming your child Brittny or Britney or Britni is a little like naming a child Englynd instead of England.

When I was in school, there were a lot of Tiffanys in my grade. (And I guess if I were named after a jewelry shop, I’d rather be named Tiffany than, say, Zales.) Mine was the first generation in which little girls were named Tiffany, I think. Since then I’ve seen Tiffani, Tifani, and Tiffanie. I’m sure there’s a Tifni and a Tifney somewhere too.

Now, if your name is Deborah or Debra and people call you Debbie and you’d like to spell it “Debi” (for whatever reason), that’s your choice: it’s a nickname. But don’t saddle your child with the given name “Debi.” What if she wants to become an investment banker? Would you trust your portfolio to a Debi?

Furthermore, if you have been stuck with an unfortunate spelling of a conventional name–Anfernee Hardaway, Andruw Jones–I believe you should have no qualms whatsoever about going down to the courthouse and having your name legally changed. Afraid you’ll hurt your parents’ feelings? They didn’t seem to think that much about you, seeing as they didn’t bother to consult someone who was familiar with the names “Anthony” and “Andrew.”

I live daily with a surname that people want to misspell (hence the blog title), but that is usually due to the listener’s laziness: I never say a “t”, but they put one down anyway (my last name is spelled exactly the way it sounds). It’s not the listener’s fault if they don’t spell “MeShaell” correctly when they hear “Michelle.” It’s the parent’s fault for the “creative” spelling.

Someone may need to find your child one day. Don’t create such an unncecessary hindrance.

To be sure, many names have multiple conventional spellings (Catherine Katherine Catharine Katharine Cathryn Kathryn comes to mind immediately), but most people are aware of such variations and will typically ask. But if your name sure sounds like “Cynthia”, only your mom decided to spell it “SinThea”, you’ll be finding it misspelled every day of your life.

(Aside for would-be pugnacious posters: yes, we have an Iain. No, it is not an imaginative spelling. His ancestors on his mother’s side are from around Dunfermline, and that’s how they spell it. “Ian” is an anglicized form of the name. What would have been tragic would have been insisting that people pronounce it “Eye-an,” as Mr. Ziering of 90210 apparently does.)

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About revjatb

I am a father of six who is trying to do his best! My interests are varied. I have one blog, KnowTea, that is primarily focused on liturgy and worship and another one, Bengtsson's Baking, that is about, well, baking! I hope you enjoy both of them, and if you have any questions, please contact me!
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19 Responses to On naming children: an angle I’d never thought about.

  1. Solitaire says:

    I have a problem I don’t see mentioned here,as one who in now way resembles an exotic Dancer
    I was amazed when I moved to Canada’s biggest city to find Solitaires all over the place dancers all
    I have since shortened it to Solita and have not had an …offer πŸ˜‰ yet lol

    Solita Solitaire Archer

  2. TimmyRalph says:

    And be sure to dot the “i” with a little heart!

  3. MoDrig3 says:

    And I thought it was difficult being called by my middle name instead of my first.

    Incidentally, when we began thinking of names for our children, one of my strongest stipulations was that we would call them by the first name to spare them the frustration.

    I love my black friends, and my children’s black friends, but I’m grateful for the simplicity of names in my genetic heritage.

  4. RevJATB says:

    Yeah, we have two who go by middle names. I always thought that was kind of cool: like going through life with a “secret” name.

    Then we have one who goes by a nickname, and it’s a nickname for her middle name at that!

  5. Sara says:

    As someone with two unconventionally spelled names (but still within the realm of understanding, not like “Yeah, that’s a silent X there at the end…”), and a middle name with at least 4 or 5 accepted spellings, I don’t know how I feel about this.

    On the one hand, you’re certainly not investing your kid with a name that is going to make them seem very intelligent. It goes beyond “Debi” the CPA — if you’re the Harvard admissions team, who are you more likely to give a spot to, SoBreenah or Sabrina?

    On the other hand, who cares? Brenndyn is hard to instinctively spell correctly. So is Aloysius (Hey, as long as you don’t give your kid a name like that and spell it “Alawishus,” right?).

    And where do names like Justus (a real name dating at least to the middle ages, usually not a mispelling of Justice) fit in? Am I a bad parent if I want to name my kid Mathieu instead of Matthew, if it means they might be hard to google?

  6. RevJATB says:

    To me, the difference is that you CARE. (Yes, Justus is much older than that: it’s a Roman name, attested in the Bible). If your child is named Mathieu or Ciara (which is not pronounced “Sierra”, people. It’s an Irish name and is pronounced the same as Keira Knightley’s first name), you will be able to tell that child the heritage of his/her name and how you came to decide on it, whether you found that name in family records or literature, etc.

    It’s quite different to say, “I just made your name up” or, “I wasn’t sure how to spell the name I wanted to give you, so I just put something down.” You want your child to know that some THOUGHT went into choosing his/her name.

  7. Sara says:

    Yeah. But at the same time, my parents don’t have any really meaningful reason for choosing my first name. They just liked it. And, hey, it’s a good thing I’m not Jewish — Sara transcribed faithfully into Hebrew looks almost as wrong as Anfernee does in English, because that last “a” corresponds to the assumed “h” of Aleph (which is why so many women’s names of the Old Testament end in “ah”). Sara seems as wrong to a Hebrew speaker as Brynnan does to a speaker of Gaelic.

  8. RevJATB says:

    “Sara” is how the name is transliterated in older English versions of the New Testament (such as the Authorized or “King James” Version), as it is closer to the way the name is transliterated in Greek (see I Peter 3:6 in the AV). There are lots of examples like this in the AV besides Sarah/Sara, such as Rebekah (OT) and Rebecca (NT), Isaiah (OT) and Esaias (NT), Jeremiah (OT) and Jeremias (NT), and Zechariah (OT) and Zecahrias (NT). In the AV, whereas the Old Testament prophet is known as Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father is called Zecharias, although they have the same Hebrew name.

    Most modern translations smooth this out and use the Hebrew-to-English transliterations throughout rather than using the Hebrew-to-Greek-to-English transliterations as the AV did. Curiously, no modern translations re-Hebraicize (that’s probably not a word) Mary back into Miriam, James back into Jacob, or Jesus back into Joshua or Yeshua, although if they were consistent, they would. (John would also be Yochanan.)

    The only English translation I know of that has done this is the Jewish New Testament:

    http://www.messianicjewish.net/cgi-bin/webstore/quikstore.cgi?product=342&exact_match=on&page=webstore.html&search=yes

  9. RevJATB says:

    And Sarah in Hebrew ends with a he, not an aleph, which is why the transliteration ends with “h”. The he ending is commonly used to make a noun feminine, so sar (sin-resh) = “prince”, but sarah (sin-resh-he) = “princess.”

  10. cancerman says:

    I believe Steve Martin did a routine where the name was spelled “shit” but pronounced “Bill”.

  11. RevJATB says:

    And then there was the Monty Python sketch where the man’s name was spelled “Raymond Luxury Yacht” but pronounced “Throat-warbler Mangrove.”

  12. RevJATB says:

    I had a German friend in college whose name was Andrea, and she was always having to correct people’s pronunciation because they wanted to pronounce it the American way. I told her she should tell them it was spelled “Andrea” but pronounced “Stephanie.” She never had the nerve to try it.

  13. MoDrig3 says:

    And my adopted German/American daughter’s name is not pronounced [feh-lee-sha], nor is my 2nd son’s name pronounced [ben-jer-man], nor is my wife’s name pronounced as if it were spelled “Doane” … but that’s the way we hear them all the time. You could easily spell what my grandmother called me “Marcie.”

    Tom Lehrer mentioned a guy named Hen3ry (the 3 is silent, you see).

    On and on and on it goes.

  14. Sara says:

    While Sara may appear in some versions of the Old Testament, it looks incredibly weird written out in modern Hebrew, which is why when I studied modern Hebrew in college, I turned in papers with my name spelled Shin-resh-he, because just Shin-resh looked weird. Just as I’m sure some people named Shavonne eventually start spelling it Siobhan when they discover that’s the correct spelling.

  15. RevJATB says:

    No, I don’t think “Sara” appears in any editions of the Hebrew Bible, but it is found in the LXX as the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew name, and thus in the New Testament in some older English translations, although, as I said, most modern translations harmonize the spelling with the Old Testament version and render it as “Sarah” in both the Hebrew scriptures (OT) and the Greek scriptures (NT).

    In the LXX, when Sarah is still Sarai, the Greek renders this as Sara (sigma-alpha-rho-alpha), but when her name is changed to Sarah, the LXX has Saraa! (See Genesis 17:15, for example.)

  16. MoDrig3 says:

    Oh, sure. Show me up and go all textual criticism happy on me.

  17. RevJATB says:

    Hey, I didn’t even get to mention the Documentary Hypothesis, “Q”, Heilsgeschichte, or Sitz im Leben: you know, those phrases we get to throw around to prove we’ve been to seminary. πŸ™‚

  18. RevJATB says:

    I’ve got to figure out a way to work “Yahwist” into a sentence tomorrow . . .

  19. cancerman says:

    Aren’t you sad they dropped Q from the James Bond movie? A true yawhist wouldn’t have done that. (Just trying to help πŸ™‚ )

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