Category: cross-cultural baby names
By Beth Grimm
As the proud mummy of two, soon to be three, bilingual children, who attend international school and are exposed to multiple cultures on a daily basis, I am constantly reminded of the need to consider the implications of names. The wrong name could cause frustration for family members or even ridicule of the child. So what factors should you consider?
Pronunciation – It is important to be aware how the name will be pronounced by different family members, dependent on their native language. Having lived in Central and Eastern Europe most of my adult life, I frequently confront the difficulty in pronouncing the ‘th’ sound in my name, Bethany. My counterpart may think it’s fine to call me, a woman in her thirties, Betty; I, as a Brit, think of an elderly lady with permed hair.
The first criterium for naming my children was no ‘th’ sounds. Off the list came Dorothea, Martha, Arthur and Nathaniel. Other sounds may cause no problem, or the difference be unimportant. The Germans say Ze-ra-fee-na for Seraphine, which is similar and quite pleasant. My daughter answers to both. Just be warned, you may feel attached to the name Lawrence and your beloved uncle Larry, but your Japanese family may hate you for it, go for Ren and keep everyone happy!
Soundalike Rude Words – You would be surprised how many names sound like rude words in other languages. I was discussing names the other day with my husband and pointed out the name Akako, which was a Name of the Day here on Nameberry. I commented that we couldn’t use that name and he was baffled. Our six year old, on the other hand, sat in the corner giggling and when questioned as to why… “Mummy said the K word” Then, my husband understood; it contains a children’s word for toilet business.
This is far from an exception; many a beloved name has to be struck from the list for similar reasons. Zack and Chloe are a no-go for the Germans, Sookie for the Russians; Danish people, consider carefully before naming your daughter Bente, if you have British relatives. Where possible, it would be best to ask a teenage native speaker what they think of a name, as an adult may be too mature to spot the problem.
Direct Translation – Here, an adult will be of assistance, or even an online dictionary. A name may be perfectly innocent in your native language but sound ridiculous, or even unpleasant in the language of your foreign relatives. I adore the name Viola, but a deep rooted desire to move to Spain one day takes this one off our list. The verb violar means ‘to rape’. Another time, I was engrossed in my family history research and uncovered the gorgeous name Rosine. I turned to my husband with fluttering eyelashes and got the swift and uncompromising response, “I’m not naming my child Raisin!”
Historical and Cultural Influence – In school, you learn a little of the history of other countries, but even if you take it as a specialist subject in high school leaving exams, it is doubtful you would study enough of the history of another culture to make immediate subconscious connections between a chosen name and what it means to other members of your international family.
My personal experience with this came after the thought that I might name one of my daughters after my Great Aunt Eva, a woman who shared my passion for genealogy and was always kind and caring. It was quickly vetoed in the early stages of name selection, however, when my husband said, “What, you mean like Eva Braun?” Living in Germany, having a child who shares her name with Hitler’s wife may not be the most sound decision.
Honoring the family member – So how do you honor the family member with the strongly cultured or perhaps, inappropriate name? The first and easiest option is to use the middle name slot. Nobody shouts their child’s middle name on the playground and a teenager can easily hide it if embarrassed. Laura Brunhilda can tell everyone the B stands for Belle. Another option is to find a soundalike name without the association. With the Eva example, Evangeline and Evelyn could also work well, without the immediate historical link. The most subtle way of all would be to find a name which means the same thing from the partner culture, honoring Grandad Raul by naming your baby Ralph.
It’s definitely a minefield, but with a little more care and a lot of patience, you will find the perfect name that allows your little precious child to fit in, wherever they may be.
In this perceptive and illuminating guest blog, Zaira Shaal confronts the naming issues facing interfaith parents.
My boyfriend and I have talked about having kids a few times, and the main topic is always what we would name them. He is Muslim, I am Catholic, and while we are both Pakistani, we have very different ideas about the names we like.
We both grew up in North America and now live in London, England so there is added pressure to ensure our children’s names can be pronounced by their friends and colleagues as they grow. Our own names, Waqas (Wuh-kaas) and Zaira (rhymes with Tyra not Sara), have proved difficult for peers to handle over the years so we are sensitive to this.
While he prefers names like Khalil and Omar for boys – and hasn’t really thought about naming a girl – I have always loved names like Audrey and Grace, Adam and Jacob. We came to a compromise and came up with a list of names that work for both religions. This also appeases both sets of parents and ensures our kids all have uniform sounding names. I don’t want one Matthew and one Mohammed.