Sunday, July 17, 2011

What's in a name? (A Sunday ramble)


Recently, my cousin Steve and his wife Laura Kristi welcomed into the bigger world their first child, whom they named Kaiya (pronounced “kah-yah”). Yesterday, some of my nieces and nephews and I were talking with him about her, trying to get the pronunciation right, and he grinned self-consciously: “I know. Sounds pretty hippie, doesn’t it?”

Men don’t get to pick the baby’s names. At least, not often. Sometimes it’s not a good idea, especially if you consider Dweezil, Moon Unit and Motorhead Zappa. Steve’s smile suggested to me that, for love of his wife, he had embraced Kaiya’s name as much as he embraced Kaiya herself. It was a beautiful thing.

And I don’t intend to denigrate it, either, or to chide Laura for it. “Moon Unit” would be far, far worse.

But it does make me wonder why and how people choose the baby names they do. How many women actually think about the child that has to carry the name they give, and what s/he may have to suffer if given something too outré.


Then again, who can foresee all possibilities? For instance, my sister-in-law Annette’s  middle name is pronounced “Marie” but spelled “Maire” due to a clerical error by the nurse. I’m told she hates the misspelling … so who stuck their first daughter, Charlene, with the same spelling, her or my brother? Ted recently advised Charlene to pronounce it like “Moira”, as “Maire” is a common variant in Irish spelling and means the same thing (rooted in Hebrew Miriam/Aramaic Maryam, from which we get “Mary”).

Another thing to remember is that, as America’s ethic mixture sees greater influx from Africa and the Middle East, this increases the pool of possible baby names that might seem odd choices to an old fuddy-duddy whose roots are solid European Catholic but which won’t raise an eyebrow in any public school.

As I check the Social Security Administration’s database, I note that only a handful of the top 100 boys’ names of 2010 actually fall out of the European tradition: Jaden/Jayden, Jackson/Jaxon, Landon, Brayden, Carter, Colton, Hunter and Parker. On the girls’ side, we have: Nevaeh, Avery, Brooklyn (“You named her after a borough?”), Kaylee, Riley, Makayla, Peyton/Payton, Aaliyah, Maya, Genesis, Paige and Bailey. “Kaiya” apparently didn’t break into the top 1,000 until 2001 at 799; it peaked at 652 in 2002, bottomed out at 871 in 2004, and last year finished at 747. So it’s not that uncommon a name.


The sacrament of Baptism is conferred “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt 28:19). In Baptism, the Lord’s name sanctifies man, and the Christian receives his name in the Church. This can be the name of a saint, that is, of a disciple who has lived a life of exemplary fidelity to the Lord. The patron saint provides a model of charity; we are assured of his intercession. The “baptismal name” can also express a Christian mystery or Christian virtue. “Parents, sponsors, and the pastor are to see that a name is not given which is foreign to Christian sentiment” (CIC 855).

However, when I was confirmed in 1977, it was the practice at the time for the candidate to choose a confirmation name. The current canon law doesn’t require the choice of a confirmation name, especially not if the confirmand is an adult non-Christian receiving Baptism at the same ceremony. But it's still a common tradition.

(If you’re wondering — or even if you’re not — I chose “Francis” to honor my father and his father, both named Franklin, as well as my maternal grandfather [Francisco, later Anglicized Francis] and St. Francis of Assisi. But I have yet to be called “Frank”, and candidly would be violently astounded if I were.)

I am interested in the black American tendency to give their children names that are made up unique to their subculture, like Lakeisha, Anfernee and Aaliyah. In some ways, it seems like a reaching back to an authentic West African tradition from which they were stripped over two hundred and more years ago, as well as an in-your-face assertion of blackness that’s lost much of its punch as white people have grown more accepting and less hostile to them.

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet.” So says Juliet, pondering sadly the division between the Capulets and Montagues that holds her separate from her new-found love … her only love, sprung from her only hate. Just so; a unique first name doesn’t give a person his individuality or character. And yet a family name can sometimes come with obligations and baggage that bind the individual willy-nilly, as both Romeo and Juliet found to their cost.

Since this post is simply a Sunday ramble, I don’t really have a point to make. But a couple of thoughts do occur to me.

For one, I think parents, whether Catholic or not, ought to be very careful about using the baby’s name as a social experiment or political commentary. Children are good in themselves, not good only so far as they advance an agenda; moreover, they have a disturbing tendency to grow up to be different from what you planned them to be … even, I suspect, if you’re a “Tiger Mom”.

For another, I think even Protestants can benefit from naming their children after saints and the beatified, even if you simply think of them as “heroes of the Faith”. Besides the wide variety of the names themselves — I mean, how cool is Kateri? Or Maximilian? — the heroes themselves are worthy models of the Christian life. Rather than definition, they act as aspirations.

Like St. Francis of Assisi. Or St. Anthony of Padua.

Addendum: July 20, 2011
This notation was on a tweet today: "I'm naming my kid PlayerToBeNamedLater so that when he grows up to be a ballplayer, he'll be in every trade rumor."

Yeah. Try and get that one past your wife.