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Global Baby Names: Picking a border-crossing name

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Canadian guest blogger and name book writer Shandley McMurray offers some advice on global baby names–picking a name that will travel well. (And those are her beautiful kids in the illustration.)

Growing up with a name like Shandley in Canada wasn’t always easy. I became tired of correcting people’s spelling and pronunciation of it, and, of course, I bemoaned the lack of personalized products like pens and rulers that adorned the desks of my more traditionally-named friends. Then, the world’s increasing reliance on email made things even more difficult, with online editors and others I hadn’t met in person often referring to me as Mr. rather than Ms. in their correspondence.

Now don’t get me wrong—I’ve always loved my name. I’m a loud and opinionated free spirit and a quieter name like Elizabeth or Ashley just wouldn’t have fit. My name set me apart and I took pride in the fact that my parents had invented such a unique name.  So when it came time to name my own children, I thought long and hard about my decision.

When I became pregnant for the first time, I spent hours on baby name sites, interviewed experts and flipped through at least ten baby name books to find a moniker that stood out. (I became such a pro that I even wrote my own baby name book.) The name I chose for my daughter had to be unique, have a positive meaning, be easy to spell, and sound good with my husband’s last name: Brown, which proved to be a rather daunting task. In the end, we found a name we both agreed on and were proud of: Marley, meaning meadow near a lake. Less than two years later, we repeated the process to name our son Pierce, which means rock, after my grandfather.

But despite all my research, I forgot to consider one factor—globalization. As part of a family that moves countries quite frequently, I neglected to take into account the popularity and practicality of our chosen names in other regions.

The first seven months of Marley’s life were spent in Toronto, where she was the only girl we knew with that name. Still proud of our ‘unique’ choice, we moved to New York City, where we were surprised to meet four neighborhood children, two girls and two boys, who shared her name. Pierce, born in the Big Apple almost two years later, was a one-of-a-kind: we never ran into another Pierce during his three years in Manhattan.

Once we moved to London, England, however, the proverbial tables were turned. Suddenly Marley became the kid with the interesting name (though they pronounced it Molly), while Pierce had to constantly explain that his name, which we thought was foolproof, was not spelled Piers, a more common British name.

My French-Canadian friend Karine attempted to be better prepared than I was. Living in Cambridge, England, and pregnant with her first daughter, Karine decided to opt for a name that sounds good when voiced by both French and English speakers. She chose Clara, a name that suits her little bundle perfectly—the only problem being that people in different cultures do pronounce it differently. But whether the speaker is French (Clahra), English (Claira) or Canadian (Claarra), the name still has a distinctive ring.

The moral of the story: If you plan to live globally, try to choose a name that’s easy to pronounce and spell by people in various cultures; just don’t be too disappointed if some of them still don’t get it right.

Have you ever had an experience where you child’s name was misunderstood in another country?

Shandley McMurray is the author of Hey Baby! What’s Your Name? A Canadian Guide to Naming Your Baby.

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