How to name a human

The United States Social Security Administration has just issued its most anticipated (more accurately: its only anticipated) annual announcement: the most popular names given to new American humans from the previous year.

I am a veteran human-namer, having named (more accurately: co-named; my wife was certainly involved, though I have heard of families where the naming of offspring is handled by just one parent, usually the mother, which is an arrangement I simply can’t understand) four lovely and, if I may say so myself, quite well-dubbed young humans. My own kids’ names: Lucy Beth (age 20), Martha Grace (17), Eliza Pearl (15), and Peter Everett (12). If you hate those names, you’ll hate my advice, so you might want to stop reading now.

Anyway, after seeing the SSA announcement, and realizing that my own human-naming days are behind me, I’ve decided, against all wisdom, to enter an area of great sensitivity, and to share my guidelines for properly naming a person. I know this is an intensely personal matter, and my guidelines will invariably seem a criticism of others’ taste, so please, please know that these are my own preferences, borne of my own Germanic protestant midwestern milieu and somewhat particular (more accurately: dorky) aesthetic values. Surely there are a variety of familial and cultural and personal factors that would cause anyone else to have other opinions.  

And so, forthwith (hey, that sounds like a name; “Forthwith! Stop pinching your sister!”), here are one American dad’s guidelines for naming human offspring.

1. Beware of The Vapor Name 

The Vapor Name is what I call any variant of a name with a specific and trendy combination of sounds, without historical heft, where faddish aesthetics are the only criterion dictating its choice. Though it takes many forms, I consider it a single, shapeshifting name.

For girls, the Vapor Name often features the letter K, often an L, often an M, often with a vowel ending, frequently with an intentional misspelling. Prime forms are Kalee, Kylee, Maley, McKenzie, Keanna, Kiera, Makenna, Kylie, Haley, Kayla. There are others. Many others. Listen at any playground and you will hear them. No, not them. Them is plural. You will hear it. The Vapor Name.

For boys: it’s a trochee (a poetry term; sorry. Basically: two syllables, the first one stressed), probably starting with a hard vowel, usually ending in n, often with a long vowel. As with the girls, the K or hard C is an over-represented consonant. Kayden, Colton, Logan, Keaton, Bracken, Cannon, Paxton. There are others. Many others.

The Vapor Name will be confused for other forms by teachers and grandparents (“Did you say the kids’ names were Klingon and Mylanta?”). It will be misspelled. It will not anchor the child. In a generation or two, it may well be a joke.

Some non-Vapor Names look like The Vapor Name. My nephew has what appears to be an archetypical Vapor Name: Cassen. But wait: that was actually the name of his great-great-great grandfather, chosen precisely for its historical heft.

I have noticed fewer uses of The Vapor Name in the SSA database over recent years. This is a good thing.

2. Resist medieval jobs

On the left is a Cooper, on the right are Fishmongers. Both are medieval jobs. Why is only one a familiar first name for a boy?

On the left is a Cooper, on the right are Fishmongers. Both are medieval jobs. Why is only one a familiar first name for a boy?

I know they’ve been wildly popular for decades, but I say no to the medieval jobs. Tucker, Cooper, Carter, Chandler, Taylor, Fletcher, Hunter, Sailor, etc.: all out. To me there’s little difference between naming a kid Taylor and naming him Fishmonger.

3. Celtic Clans are for Braveheart warriors, not baby girls

Betcha one of these guys is named Mackenzie

Betcha one of these guys is named Mackenzie

Also wildly popular, but I stay away from Celtic clans: Mackenzie, Finnegan, Kendall and the like. I meet little girls named Mackenzie and I imagine a caber-tossing bekilted ally of William Wallace.

I indirectly know of a family with daughters bearing Celtic clan names McKinley and Kennedy. Do they realize that they just need sons named Garfield and Lincoln to complete the set of children named after presidents who have been assassinated?

4. Skip the homemade spellings

If you invent the spelling of your child's name, you might want to give her this onesie.

If you invent the spelling of your child’s name, you might want to give her this onesie.

This is especially true with the jobs or the clans or The Vapor Name. Mackenzie is risky enough; Mackynzie is ridiculous. The aesthetic effect is exactly like Mötley Crüe or Def Leppard. Ripped denim and spandex are the fabric of Mackynzie. Is that what you want to burden your offspring with? And, really, have you done anything more than demonstrate that you understand the rudiments of phoenetics? “Madysyn” is to “Madison” as “ellyfunt” is to “elephant.” So you understand how to use the alphabet to misspell things. Congratulations.

(Hey, I just thought of a good example of The Vapor Name and a serious spandex name: Dokken. If you hate my advice, name your kid Dokken and wrap him in leopard print and a feather boa. That would actually be kind of cool.)

Also: if you insist upon a homemade spelling, you forfeit all rights to be bothered when it is misspelled or mispronounced. Which it will be.

5. Poetics matter

Pay attention to rhythm, assonance, alliteration, spondees, trochees. If you don’t know what these are, retake freshman English and pay attention this time. And by the way, a well-chosen meter is more “creative” than a phonetic spelling.

6. Seek inspiration in the right places

Names drawn from art, literature, music, culture are great, but make sure the reference will remain meaningful to you and the child. So look to longtime favorites, not the popular culture of the moment. One could thoughtfully name a subdivision worth of kids just by inspiration from Dickens characters (Oliver, Ebenezer, Nell). Or Beatles lyrics. (Julia; Desmond; Vera, Chuck, and Dave) But just because you cried at that one episode of Pretty Little Liars doesn’t mean you need to name your kid “Wren.”

7. History is a feature, not a bug

I’d probably never give a kid a name that didn’t even exist a century ago. Pro tip: go to an old graveyard. Find headstones from the 1800s. Read the names thereupon. Those are good names. Pro tip #2: imagine a letter written home from the Civil War by a young private to his sweetheart. He begins: “To my dearest <name>.” He concludes: “Till we meet again, I remain ever yours, <name>.” Fill in the blanks. Those are good names.

8. If it sounds expensive and classy, it usually isn’t

No to Tiffany, Amber, Champagne, Taffeta for girls; Chance, Mitt, Chase, Tad for boys. You’re striving.

9. Fight common the right way

Look: I understand the desire to give a child a name that won’t be too common on the playground or in the classroom. I stayed away from popular names, too. In fact, none of my kids’ first names were in the top 100 for their gender in the year they were born. To fight common-ness, you need to understand some things:

  • You don’t fight common with trendy. If a name is trendy, it is by definition not uncommon.
  • If you like a trendy name, be on the leading, not the trailing edge of the trend curve.
  • If you want uncommon, go with archaic + uncommon, not invented + uncommon. Yes to Ezra; no to Zera. Yes to Ferdinand; no to Fando.
  • Don’t confuse “that’s been around a long time” with “therefore it’s too common.” This is related to “History is a feature, not a bug.” There are far fewer little Marys and Janes and Peters and Thomases than you might think. These things can be easily researched. Peter (the name of my son) didn’t crack the top 100 boy names in the year of his birth (2004 — it was 124 for boys); however, Aiden, Jayden, Caden, Brayden, and Hayden each did (Do I sense the Vapor Name?). I hope the Jayden-namers that year didn’t choose the name because they thought it less common than James or Charles or Robert. Cuz it isn’t. This is a statistical fact.

10. Dig into your family tree

There’s good stuff back there. I’ve got Ralph and Martha and Cassen and Amalia and Everett and Walter and Julia and Norman and Ruth and Johann and both Fredericka Wilhelmina and Wilhelmina Fredericka (I am not kidding) all rolling around in my ancestry. Great names (well, maybe not the Fredericka & Wilhelmina duo). You have some too, I’m sure.

11. Play games with the name

You often hear to avoid names that could be turned into easy targets for teasing and cruel nicknames. (Last name Pants? Don’t name the kid Poopy.) But I say go one step further: mess around with puns and word games, because you will be playing with this name for years. If you think I haven’t made a little riddle that says “how do cavemen get their food? A: They Club it” (an anagram for Lucy Beth, my oldest) or drawn a picture of a ham shank hanging framed in a gallery (Ham Art = an anagram for “Martha,” my second), then you don’t know much about me.

12. Don’t relax on the middle name

A good middle name puts the finishing touches on a first name, taking a good name to a great name. I dig the name of my daughter Eliza; I really dig Eliza Pearl. In fact, I’ll pause for a moment to examine the case study of Eliza Pearl, my 15 year old daughter’s name. Its features:

  • Not a whiff of The Vapor Name.
  • Deep connections to history and literature. Think of Eliza Doolittle from Pygmalion and My Fair Lady, or Eliza Hamilton, Alexander’s wife, as recently featured in the eponymous Broadway musical. (note: betcha that show leads to a spike in popularity for “Eliza” and possibly “Martha,” which happen to be the names of two of my teenaged daughters).
  • Not common (she’s the only Eliza in her school of 3000+ kids), but not invented. A stylish variant of a common name, Elizabeth.
  • Neatly paired with Pearl, a jaunty, familiar-but-fresh middle name that connects her to family (My wife’s name, Marjorie, comes from the Greek for “pearl”), with a bonus allusion to a song from one of our favorite bands from way back before we got old and bitter and way too concerned about things like names.

You may not love this name, but you gotta respect the artistic process.

13. Fit to the surname, especially a difficult surname

I acknowledge that one reason I favor names that aren’t invented, that have historical or literary precedent, and that others can spell is because I have a hellaciously difficult last name. My son will have a thousand conversations like this throughout his life: “S-C-H-E-R-S-C-H – that’s right, another “sch” – L – I – what? After the “sch”? The first or the second one? The first? E – R, then another “SCH” – got it? OK – no, the OK aren’t part of the name! – Ready to continue? L – I – G <PAUSE> — and T. Not G-H-T. Just G-T. You wanna repeat what you entered, just so we have it right? Oh jeez. You are way off. Let’s start over.”

I figure just saying “First name Peter, as in Frampton” spares him a little something.


The hardest thing I’ve had to do so far

Last weekend my wife Margie and I drove our oldest daughter from our home in suburban Minneapolis to start college at DePaul University in Chicago. We spent two days with her, getting her settled and exploring that wonderful city. After our last afternoon in the Loop, we returned to campus, kissed her one last time, and watched her head into her dorm. Margie and I then splurged on fabulous meal (restaurant recommendation: Perennial Virant), reminisced about our girl, spent a sleepless night at our hotel, got up at 4:30 AM, stopped in the street in front of her dorm, looked at her window, and drove the 414 miles home.

It was a weirdly profound experience — one I hope I never forget, even as I hope the pain subsides. This is a condensed chronicle of my thoughts throughout.

This roadtrip to Chicago is the greatest drive we’ve ever taken. It’s going so fast!

Wait. I don’t want this drive to go fast. I want it to slow down.

Why do Margie and Lucy say we should get our breakfast to go? I don’t want to get it to go. I want to stay right here in this coffee shop in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. I want more time.

Lucy keeps asking us to turn the radio to the Broadway Tunes channel. And when a show tune she loves comes on she yells “turn it up!” as if it’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” when really it’s some song from “A Chorus Line.” What a dork.

Wow. This is going to be tough.

Ah, the Chicago skyline.

Ah, the Chicago traffic.

So this is it. Her room. She needs more stuff. Let’s go to Target. Let’s go get her more stuff. This is something I can do for her. Stuff.

I should have been a farmer! Because farm kids don’t really leave home, right? They stick around, help with the family operation, eventually take over while the dad hangs around sipping coffee and acting patriarchal. Isn’t that how farm families work? No?

Get control of yourself, you big dope. This is something to be proud of. Your oldest daughter, a bright, creative, independent young woman, is enrolling at a fine university in a program that seems exactly right for her. Do not try to stop this.

I need to try and stop this.

I’ve heard people say it’s so nice to have your kids leave the house. Every one of those people is a lying bastard.

I feel sad, and that makes me angry. Is there something I can punch? What can I punch?

I have three other fantastic kids at home. None of them are leaving Minnesota. Ever. I can’t go through this again. As soon as I get home I’m moving us all into the woods.

Other animals don’t do this, right? They don’t take their kids 400 miles away and just leave them there. I think bears are really protective of their cubs, right? And I’m her papa bear! I should be defending her. Oh, if only I’d been born a bear! Bears are awesome.

Actually, I’m quite sure bear cubs don’t stay with their papa bears forever.

Actually, I think some bears might even kill their young. Or is it that the young kill the parents?

Actually, I know nothing about bears.

Speaking of bears, she better not become a Bears fan. I need to send her some Vikings gear.

What are we doing? This kid belongs in one place, and that place is our house in Minnesota. Going away to college is just stupid.

Hey, I have just discovered an unexplored flaw in our society: we send our kids away to college. Oh modern America, what is wrong with you! Your tradition of sending kids away to school probably contributes to all sorts of social ills. Fortunately, someone has finally recognized this, and that someone is me. I shall fix it! I shall start a movement!  There will be banners and parades! People will dump buckets of ice water on their heads to support my cause! First things first: a domain name. Is available? No wait: not dotcom: this is totally a dot org. This is a non-profit!  This is for society’s good! This will be my life’s work!

No. Not a non-profit. A business. For huge profits. Parents sending kids away to college are what savvy businessfolk call an underserved market.  There are all sorts of products and services for parents of young children — but what about for parents with an 18-year old daughter on a distant campus? Here’s the idea: a mobile app that sends reassuring text messages to parents on a college kid’s behalf.  We name it “Call Your Mother.” What parent wouldn’t pay for this? (ED. NOTE: Actually, this is a pretty good idea.)

Why am I in this hotel, staring at a picture of Abe Lincoln on the wall at 2:00 AM, while she is in that dorm room a mile away?  She’s our child. Shouldn’t we be together? Can I break into that dorm room? I wouldn’t even wake her up. I’d just look at her for a while. She doesn’t even need to know it.

I’ve always encouraged her independence. I would never consider myself a helicopter parent. Maybe I am.

I just don’t want her to graduate from DePaul, and then go to grad school in, I don’t know, Phoenix, and then end up meeting some dude from Arizona, and I spend the rest of my life seeing my grandkids and my lovely, lovely daughter at Christmas and for one weekend each summer. In Arizona, of all places. And she doesn’t like hot weather.

Look at her, sitting on the el train, one pink earbud in to listen to music, one out to stay attuned to what’s going on around her. She is so poised, so prepared. I’m going to sneak a photo of her while I pretend to check my phone. Ha. She doesn’t even know I took it.

You know what? She’s going to be cool to know as an adult.

Last time we were in Chicago I became a member of the Art Institute. That was so smart. Look at those tourists, waiting in the long line for tickets. We get to use the separate member entrance and just flash our membership card, like VIPs. It’s so quick.

Wait. Today I don’t want quick. Can we go back and get in the long line? Can I revoke my membership?

Some part of me physically hurts. Am I being stabbed? It’s sort of beneath my ribs. What is that? Is that my heart? My guts?

Not much longer now. It’s coming. The goodbye. I have maybe 10 more minutes with her.

This is the hardest thing I’ve had to do so far.

This is where we’re saying goodbye? Right here on this sidewalk? This isn’t what I planned. I had planned a momentous paternal speech, filled with wisdom and wry humor. What was I going to say to her again? I can’t say anything to her. I can’t even bear to look at her. If I do I’ll melt on this sidewalk.

I guess I just tell her I love her.

There she goes. My girl. Into her future.

Are these tears? Am I seriously starting to weep? I’m not a weeper. I haven’t wept in years. I’m a happy guy. It’s one of my features. Sad sucks. I don’t want to be sad.

Time is cruel.

Is this grief? Is it fear? What is it?

C’mon. She’ll be home at Thanksgiving. Real grief is felt by the parent who has lost a child. Real fear is felt by the parent of a soldier headed into harm’s way. Stop being such a baby.

But this hurts like grief. If this isn’t grief, what is it?

Maybe sorrow? Maybe lamentation? What do I call this?

Maybe call it being a wuss. Stop being such a baby.

If this the hardest thing I’ve done so far, I’ve had one blessed life.

But still. That stabbing. These wet cheeks.

I should call my mom and dad and scold them for not preparing me for this. No, and apologize if I did this same thing to them, 26 years ago. Why didn’t they tell me I was doing this to them?

Hey, what about Spain?!  Yeah, the country. Spain.  I think I’ve heard that in Spain kids don’t really leave home. They stay in their family’s home, and when they grow up I think they just move into an apartment upstairs or something.

Actually, I know less about Spain than I know about bears.

There sure are a lot of Dunkin Donuts in Chicago.

So I’m supposed to just aim this car away from her? Go back to Minnesota without her? This doesn’t seem possible. It’s like pulling a planet away from its star. This defies physics.

Sadness, pride, joy, and love all prove there is more to this existence than mere physics.

Jase, you keep saying this is the hardest thing you’ve done so far. That’s wrong. You’re not really doing anything. If anything, she’s doing it, and Time is doing it.  Watch your grammar. You are an object, not the subject.

There’s this: you do get to keep being her dad. You just have to do it in a new way. You have no other choice. You can’t become a farmer. You can’t become a bear. You can’t move to Spain. And even if it hurts like a ripping rib, you would never want her to be doing anything other than becoming herself.