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Confessions of a Name Nerd

Name Game

For years, it was my dirty little secret. I had special paper: lined white pads with no margins or holes down the left side. The pens had to be just so too, heavy black or blue fountain pens like we used in Catholic school. I needed two decks of cards, shuffled together. And my name lists, that was the most important thing.

I called it Writing Names, and the only people who knew I did it, my parents and my younger brother, teased me mercilessly about it. It was weird, they said, crazy even. And so I kept it secret from the rest of the world, not only when I was ten and eleven and twelve but for years afterward.

I was seriously unpopular during that time, too old to race around on bikes or play house in the woods, but too young to be so ashamed of my name obsession that I’d give it up. After school and through long summer days, I’d get out my paper and my cards and my lists and I’d settle in for hours alone with my Name Game.

Here’s how it worked: I had four lists of 144 names each – girls’ names, boys’ names, last names, and place names. The names on the lists were each keyed to a pair of cards: ace-two might equal Barbara, say, or eight-three Joseph. I’d shuffle my cards, divide them into two equal piles, and then turn over the first pair, which would indicate the fathers’ name in the family I was inventing. Then mom and last name.

But the payoff I was really playing for was the children’s names. I had some key for determining the number of kids in the family and their ages, but what was important was their names. If the first card I turned over was black that meant a boy while red was for girls, and the children’s names as they unfolded created a vision for me of how the family looked and how they acted, their entire life.

Best were the families with a dozen kids, all of whom by the grace of the name gods were given what I considered cool names. Sandra Michelle and Glenn Richard, Michael James and Lisa Marie: My tastes were not sophisticated, my knowledge confined to the names I heard around my little suburban town. I was aware that such things as baby naming books existed, but in that pre-Barnes & Noble time I worried that to buy one would be to reveal my shameful secret obsession.

Because it was bizarre to be so fascinated by names, wasn’t it? None of my classmates had even the vaguest interest in the subject, I’d learned the few times I’d ventured an observation. My family acted as if I were dismembering insects, or teaching myself to speak Bulgarian. Who cared why I found thinking about and writing down names so absorbing and even comforting? I just knew I had to keep it to myself.

It wasn’t until I had my first child that I came out of the closet as a name fanatic. I remember rushing to the bookstore from the doctor’s office to buy not a pregnancy guide but a name dictionary. Finally, I had a legitimate reason to own one and spend hours, days, months poring over it, talking about names with my family and friends.

That’s when Linda and I, already friends, bonded over our mutual long-seated fascination with names, a shared interest that would lead to our ten books and the site on which you’re reading this. I remember the thrill of writing our first book Beyond Jennifer & Jason, which made me feel like I was eleven again, playing my Name Game, but getting paid for it and discovering that thousands, then millions of people found it interesting.

But it wasn’t really until nameberry, I think, that I truly understood that not only was my early name obsession something that turned out to be so valuable for me and for our name books’ readers, but that it was shared by legions of other people. How deliriously happy I would have been as a young girl to have discovered the nameberry message boards, where I could have not only indulged my passion but discovered so many like-minded friends!

If I were a kid now, I told Linda the other day, I’d be on nameberry 24/7. But then I realized that if I were a kid now, there’d be no nameberry. It took that name-obsessed little girl, and the name-obsessed person she grew up to be, to help invent it.

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