What’s In A Name?


by Lisa Y. Taylor


Seven years before their daughter was born, Angelica Lopez and her husband knew what they would name her. At the time, they lived in the Florida Keys and had an acquaintance whose name was “Ysla.” When their daughter was born, they added the middle name of “Marisol” to recognize Mary, the mother of Jesus. When pronounced in Spanish, her first and middle names sound like “island, sea and sun.”


For some parents, choosing a name comes easily, and for others it’s a decision fraught with uncertainty. Whether a name is unique or classic, parents should consider how it will be perceived by the child and others as he or she grows up, says Nancy Franklin, a registered play therapist and director of children and family services at the Ecumenical Center for Religion and Health in San Antonio.


“Some parents worry themselves to death over choosing the right name,” she says. “A lot of what’s involved is thinking about what could be ahead.”


Following Tradition

Parents seek baby name inspiration from a variety of sources – books and Internet sites, Hollywood and professional sports celebrities, Biblical figures and the monikers of family members and friends.


For centuries, naming a child has been a way to honor relatives and to trace lineage. When Laura Teague was expecting her first-born son two years ago, she and her husband only seriously contemplated one name: Walter Teague V. “There was no question that he would be the fifth,” she says. “My husband’s family on his dad’s side has only one son, and so he felt a lot of pressure to carry on his name. I absolutely honored that.”


As Teague researched the history of the name Walter, she liked its Germanic meaning of “ruler of the army.” “It’s a strong name, and so few things are carried on through the generations. Tradition is something that my husband and I treasure.”


If parents name their child after a relative, they should consider if it will put certain expectations to be or not be like that person, Franklin says. “The child may hear things like, ‘You’re going to be like your Uncle George,’ or ‘I hated my cousin who had that name.’ The impact of a name is really about how the parents and people around the child treat it.”


Embracing the Unusual

In the 1950s, the most common boy and girl names respectively were James, Robert and John, and Linda, Mary and Patricia. In 2010, the most popular names were Jacob, Ethan and Michael as well as Isabella, Sophia and Emma, according to the U.S. Social Security Administration.


While some parents gravitate toward familiar names, more Americans are opting to have their child’s moniker stand out, according to research led by psychologist Jean Twenge of San Diego State University. She found that in 1955, about 30 percent of boys had one of the year’s top-10 names, but by 2007, only 9 percent had names on that list. The decline is similar for girls in the same years.  “There’s a real strong trend toward more uniqueness,” she says. “Fewer babies are given common names.”


One advantage of this trend, she says, is less confusion in classrooms over children who share the same name. On the other hand, if a child has a name that is frequently perceived as strange, he or she could experience low self-esteem, says Twenge, co-author of The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement.


“A lot of research shows that names are linked to identity and self-esteem,” she says. “A name is not just about one’s self. It’s the first impression that people get from you. It plays a role on how others perceive you,” says Twenge.


Anticipating Perceptions

Although selecting a child’s name is a very personal decision, Twenge encourages parents to get feedback from people they trust.


“If you’re thinking of giving your kid a name that everybody hates, it’s a good idea to know that,” she says. “Knowing other people’s reactions is good information.”


Franklin says parents should try to anticipate how a name might be treated or perceived in future school and work environments.


“Parents should think about how the name will sound when their child goes to school and if it’s something he or she could be bullied about,” she says. “They should also consider how the name will look on a job application or be perceived by a future employer.”


She also suggests that parents choose common over unconventional name spellings and avoid initials that spell a funny or embarrassing word.


And as for parents pondering giving a current celebrity’s name, Franklin has food for thought:  “Stop and think about what the relevance of that name could be years from now,” she says. “Will many people remember who Adele (the famous British singer) was?”


Another guide is to pronounce the prospective first and middle names along with the last name. “Names have a cadence to them,” she says. “Think of what it sounds like when you say the entire name out loud because the child will have it forever.”

When children ask how they got their name, Franklin believes parents should be prepared to answer.  “A name is important and so is the story about how the child got that name,” she says.


Lisa Y. Taylor is a San Antonio freelance writer and mother of three daughters.


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