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Favorite Names: Why We Love What We Love

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Most people, name aficionados and ordinary citizens alike, have favorite names.  My own favorites are often the subject of  professional curiosity, with interviewers asking what my favorite names are and why.

The whats are easy: Eliza has long been my favorite girls’ name, and Joseph my favorite name for boys.

But the whys are more complicated.

I decided I loved the name Eliza after a college friend whose taste I admired proclaimed Eliza her favorite name.  She knew a gorgeous girl named Eliza, and felt it combined the best of vintage charm and modern quirkiness.

I agreed, but what’s really remarkable about my love for Eliza is how long and how much it’s survived.  In the decades since it became my favorite, I’ve named three children (none of them, alas, Eliza, as my husband dislikes the name) and coauthored ten baby-naming books, along with developing this site.  I’ve talked to thousands of parents about their name tastes, and developed more sophisticated tastes of my own.

And yet my love for Eliza survives.  It still feels to me like a perfectly balanced name, with its alternating vowels and consonants, its melange of hard and soft sounds with a streamlined minimum of letters.  I love the way it calls up the images of both a Jane Austen heroine and a Broadway dancer, with the plucky Eliza Doolittle in between.  It’s become more popular in recent years — thanks partly, I know, to how energetically we’ve championed it — and I feel a pang of jealousy whenever I meet a little Eliza.  And yet it hasn’t become over-exposed and probably never will.

The reasons I love Joseph are very different.  It was my dear dad’s name, and my grandfather’s name, and I got to use it for my own older son.  I love the simple good-guy nickname Joe.  Down-to-earth, straightforward names for boys appeal to a deep-seated preference of mine, undoubtedly rooted in my love for my dad.

My other favorite boys’ name, Tom, is further evidence of this.  And Thomas and Joseph feel like similar names to me, too: classic yet soft in their final sounds, slightly out of step with current styles, yet not decidely UNfashionable, the way a name like Gary or Myron may be.

It’s interesting that only one of my three children has a name that’s a personal favorite.  My husband overruled me, as I said, on Eliza for our daughter, and also nixed another favorite, Susannah, on the grounds that his cousin was named Susie.  Our final choice, Rory, was based more on qualities we wanted in a name and for our child — Irish and energetic — than on the name being a favorite.

When we found out that our second child was going to be a boy, I said his name was going to be Joseph and that was final, and in return said my husband could choose any middle name he wanted.  His pick: Leopold, after an ancestor who fought in the Civil War.  I was horrified in the hospital, but the name has grown on me.

For our second son, Tom was out as it’s my husband’s brother’s name, but we agreed on Edward, to be called Ned.  That time, as I’ve written here before, our two older kids overruled us, and that’s how we ended up with Owen.

I still have a diary that lists the names that were my favorites when I was a child: Sandy and Susie for girls, Michael and Matt for boys.  In recent years, I’ll go through phases of favoring certain names: Bridget, Maeve, Juliet, Jasper, Omar.

Why?  Sometimes a favorite is attached to a person I care about, such as my grandmother Bridget or my friend in London Maeve.  Or I may fancy a name chosen by someone I know who has a lot of style: Antonia is one I’d put in this category.  Sometimes it’s simply the sound, like the O in Omar or the oolya in Juliet, that appeals, the same way I like the taste of raspberry more than strawberry, prefer orange clothes to pink.  And sometimes I find myself loving a name and not having any idea why.

What are your favorite names and why?

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