My sister and I name other people’s babies for sport. Do we know you? We’ve named your baby. Do we know you well? We’ve probably named him better than you have. It’s something we do daily, a ritual bonding activity in between Skype sessions and Words With Friends. As soon as we find out there’s a bun in the oven, the speculation begins. The lists are rolled out and refined. The months go by and they are calibrated with reference to new information gleaned from social media. Then we sit back and wait for the grand announcement: to see if you’ve gotten it right after all.
Our particular area of expertise is the names of subsequent children, because 1) we like a hook on which to hang our predictions and 2) there is a special kind of tragedy in a sibling set gone awry. We’ve had some impressive successes on this front, if I do say so myself. Like the time we spun our magic on an acquaintance’s third child, a boy on the way after George and Louise. I was convinced it was going to be Henry, she was certain it would be William and, voilà, the baby arrived as William Henry. That was a good day.
There have also been some crushing disappointments, such as the second girl of a friend of a friend. First baby: Scarlett Adina. Classic, artistic, funky undertones. The next baby, what would she be? My books said Celia, perhaps, Harper or even Marlowe. The mom dropped a hint that Piper was in the running and we both jumped on that possibility like it was a springy mattress. Alas the baby came…Bea Catherine. Which is sweet, but not what we expected. “Let’s have a moment of silence,” my sister messaged me on Facebook almost instantly, “for the baby name that could have been.”
What makes the name of a friend’s baby “right” for me is not that I would have chosen it myself. That’s just silly and crass and I don’t really want all the babies in the world to be called Oliver, Leo, Phoebe or Jasper. I don’t need to love your baby’s name in the sense that it is my favorite name ever; I need to love it in the sense that I believe it. That it suits you, that it represents the best compromise available for you and your partner’s idiosyncratic tastes, that is of the same style and originality as your other children’s names. Most importantly, I need to believe that you’ve actually said it out loud with your last name. Not to mention with the names of your existing kids (my sister once saved somebody from Sonny and Claire, I kid you not).
Let me give you a case in point. One of my good friends had a second baby recently: Nicholas. In the abstract, I am not a fan of this name. But she hit every one of my criteria like a home run and I couldn’t have been happier with the resulting sibling set had I invented it myself. Alexander and Nicholas. Two little tsars, with comparable lengths, workable nicknames and, oh boy, don’t they sound great together.
It fills me with a warm gooeyness to have people in my life whose children’s names I applaud (I am thinking of trios like Natalie, Alexandra, Charlotte; I am thinking of quartets like Owen, Lavinia, Tessa, Clementine). Then there are the other names. The ones that cause my heart to wilt a little when I open the email. What do you say in these situations or do you say anything at all? Silence isn’t an option for me – I’m too outspoken. Lying isn’t either. Not only does it feel disrespectful to the naming gods, but it goes against my personal convictions. I was raised on truth, straight-as-a-picket-fence truth, and my mother is famed for telling it like it is.
Pop quiz: which of the following sentences escaped her lips in the immediate aftermath of the birth of my children?
B. (Of Leo) You haven’t actually registered that name yet, though, have you?
The correct answer is D) all of the above. Honesty has its merits, to be sure, but when it comes to non-family members and the syllables they will be hollering across playgrounds for years to come, I can appreciate the desire for a little more tact. The good news is that with names, as with any feature of a new baby, there are always things to say that are true. Even if they are not terribly complimentary and even if they miss the point. So, for instance, you can try:
1. I’ve never heard that name before! So unique! (= That’s bloody weird.)
2. What a great complement to your first kid’s name! (= I would never have chosen either of those names in a million years, but at least you’re consistent.)
3. Such a thoughtful choice! (= I don’t like it, but I understand your reasons.)
4. They will certainly have separate identities! (= Did you let your husband pick one on his own? You should not have done that.)
It’s a funny feeling when someone close to you chooses a name for their baby that you just can’t get behind. You will inevitably go through a phase of wondering: did I ever really know you at all? But the truth of the matter is that we don’t pick our friends on the basis of a common reverence for monikers that are “vintage chic” any more than we do our spouses. And yet, now that I think about it, maybe we should. .