My daughter is 17. I think she’s great. It’s not mutual. She is, after all, a teenager and as such holds me accountable for all the crimes I’ve committed against her over the years. These include just about everything I’ve done, everything I should have done and the various ways I embarrass her in public. It’s all very age appropriate, or so I tell myself, but there’s one offense she cites that I can’t shrug off:
I named her badly.
Elizabeth Stern Shepherd–Barron. That’s what we (my husband was co-conspirator) called her. This was our logic: Elizabeth, because it’s a classic that pays homage to two notable queens as well as one of the greatest heroines in literature — clever, funny, beautiful Elizabeth Bennett. For a middle name, an exciting concept for me as I don’t have one, we chose my maiden name, Stern, to remind her of half her heritage and to serve as a strong contrast to her last name, my husband’s double-barrelled Shepherd–Barron.
We thought it was a great way to encompass and convey two contrasting worlds. I’m an American, a Jew from New York. My husband is British, the eldest son in an upper crust family. We live in England, but Elizabeth also holds an American passport. We imagined her hopping across the pond at will, able to live and work in Boston, L.A. or London. We thought the name we chose said it all, sent a powerful and, dare I say it, cosmopolitan message.
She thinks differently.
She thinks it’s neither one thing nor another. That it fails to conjure up a person or a place. She says Stern doesn’t work as a name; it’s just a clunk in the middle of the mix. The whole package, she claims, sounds like a law firm: Elizabeth, Stern & Shepherd–Barron.
Well, actually, I should have known; I’m a professional namer. Clients hire me to come up with names for all sorts of products and companies. I’ve branded corporations and candy bars, banks and baby carriers, security systems and movie studios. I’ve sat clients down and told them a name is not just for Christmas, it’s for life. I’ve said a name is destiny. It’s a key to defining who you are to your chosen audience. The first rule of naming, I tell my clients, is Know your audience.
I broke that rule when we named our daughter. I got the audience wrong. To tell the truth, I’m not sure what audience we had in mind: our two very different families? Passport control? And was it a small act of defiance on my part, sneaking Stern into it? Maybe we were just trying too hard. Whatever we were doing, we weren’t thinking about our actual audience, which was, of course, our daughter.
She’s dissatisfied but not, I’m happy to report, damaged. Like all dissatisfied clients, she took her business elsewhere and went to another naming consultant: in this case, herself. Her passport still bears her official name, all 29 characters of it, but everywhere else she’s known as Bug. It was her baby name, the nickname that seemed so right when she was all eyes in a very small face. She decided to go back to it. It’s individual and memorable and in Britain, where the eccentric is acceptable if not desirable, it works particularly well. As is my tactic with all my clients, I let her think it was her idea in the first place.
Michelle Shepherd–Barron is a writer and professional namer, with bases in London and New York. In her blog, whatiwaswearing, she writes about life as an American in England, river swimming, motherhood and trying not to smoke. Her twitter address is: @M_S_Barron.