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.


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