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Naming Names

David Skinner, naming names.

May 5, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 32 • By DAVID SKINNER
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One early sign of man's superior station in the natural hierarchy was that he got to name the animals--this according to the Book of Genesis. If the job had fallen to me and my wife Cynthia, I'm afraid the story would have ended right there. Instead of a mess of well-named beasts and long chains of confidently though curiously named people begetting each other for many generations, the whole miniseries of God's chosen people would have run aground in episode one.

Part of our naming problem derives from differences in our styles of brainstorming. When I can't find the right word, I just start riffling through words like cards in a rolodex. J.D. Salinger, I once read, would sometimes pause for hours while he wrote out long lists of words in search of the perfect one. I count this as evidence that Salinger is not insane. (Kerouac, by contrast, believed your first idea was your best: Talk about crazy.) So when I have tried to think of names for our children, as we recently had occasion to do, I've just launched forth: Beth, Bathsheba, Brittany, Bentley, Brianna, Bopeep.

Around this point, my wife looks at me as if I am talking nonsense, and gives me an incredulous "What?" or just changes the subject. "Can you come with me next weekend to go shopping for a car seat?"

Cynthia's style of brainstorming is to wait until she actually has something to say. When I try to follow her lead, we'll find ourselves in the middle of long thoughtful pauses and not much else. To me this is too much like not having a conversation at all, so I'll change the subject. "Do we have anything else to do that weekend? Or will car-seat shopping be our big outing?"

While trying to find a name for our first child, we stumbled onto certain principles. Names found to be among the 20 or so most common were ruled out. Certain sound combinations were to be avoided (alliteration, per se, was acceptable, but nothing ending in X, because it's hard to say before the Sk sound at the beginning of our family name), and certain combinations of initials were verboten: SS, because it makes you think of Nazis, and BS, because if monogrammed on a shirt it would cause me and other 12-year-olds to laugh. We ended up breaking this last restriction. Still, it's funny how what a person will be called for their entire life sometimes comes about for the most trivial of reasons.

Like associations. Name a name, and the mind thinks of a person who bears it; and one's feelings about the person usually determine one's feelings about the name. I would be surprised to hear of a parent who wanted their child to share a name with someone they loathed. So, despite the relative popularity of some presidential last names--Jackson, Madison--one does not hear of any tykes being called Nixon. This goes even for names from the Bible. Satan, despite its pleasing ring, remains unpopular.

Famous names, premade so to speak, do exert a certain appeal. I asked Cynthia, early on, if she would consider the names of my favorite writers. She was amenable, in a general way, until she realized that this meant naming our child Evelyn if it was a boy and George if it was a girl.

One problem with choosing a name just because it sounds good--as opposed to using a saint's name or a family name, say--is that its provenance can become disputed. Asked by a friend of ours why we had named our son Ben--this at a little party at our house--I explained how I had come to like the name. It happens to be my best friend's name, which actually made me hesitant to use it. But I liked the series of thoughts the name Ben led me to.

In college I had studied Rousseau, and in Emile he counsels men who prefer friendship to family to raise a son to be their friend--a line that always stuck with me. One day, I reflected, perhaps my son Ben will be to me (and I to him) as simpatico as the other Ben has been. Naming my son Ben was, for me, like naming him Friend, but without the poor kid having to go through life with a stupid name like Friend.

My wife, however, just liked the name. So when she overheard me explicating Rousseau, she looked over and delivered her usual incredulous "What?" Then, to debunk my story of how our son came to be named Ben, she made provocative use of his initials.