Category: Lauren Apfel
By Lauren Apfel
As both a classicist and a lover of names, I find myself in a unique position. On the one hand, I have been exposed, from a relatively young age, to a swathe of wonderful monikers that wouldn’t otherwise be on my radar: Achilles, Antigone, Andromache (to mention a few off the top of my head that all happen to start with A). On the other hand, I have spent many years studying and internalizing the tales of woe that accompany these names. Achilles, for instance, is not just an interesting three-syllable option to me with the benefit of a double letter. He is an angry man, with a delicate ego, who spent a long time sulking in his tent before embarking on a brutal killing spree. Not exactly the connotation I was looking for, you can imagine, when it came to naming my sons.
Okay, to be fair, I was never really tempted to call any of my sons Achilles. But there are some ancient Greek names that make me swoon, names I might even have considered using for my own modern offspring had their backstories not been so utterly problematic. Here are five:
By Lauren Apfel, Omnimom
I wrote a post here not too long ago called Confessions of a Baby Name Snob, a funny post about how my sister and I name other people’s babies better than they do. It was meant to be tongue-in-cheek, this piece, but like all resonating humor there was more than a kernel of underlying truth. Readers must have picked up on this, because an equally funny thing started happening as soon as the post went live: messages in my inbox with subject lines like “Name my baby!” and “Help us, please!”. Emails with swirling stories of beloved great grandmothers’ initials and first names that had to work in two languages and middle names that needed to start with this letter or that.
Several of the pleas, I kid you not, came straight from the hospital, where a new baby was lying in his bassinet, swaddled, helpless, waiting expectantly to be bestowed with the perfect moniker. How could his parents fail him now? They couldn’t. So they got in touch with me. Not because I have any savant-like skill in this arena, I assure you. But because they were looking for someone, someone who cared, to hold their hand through the thrilling, yet increasingly anxiety-inducing, process of branding a child for life. What they wanted, it occurred to me, is what all of us want, all of us, that is, who appropriately value the art of nomenclature. What they wanted was a little baby naming therapy and I was happy to oblige.
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.
If a recent New York Times article is to be believed, naming a baby is more anxiety-inducing than ever before. So much pressure to find the one. perfect. name. But what happens when you need two perfect names and I don’t mean in succession. Like virtually everything else to do with having twins, is naming them double the trouble?
There is a real sense in which choosing a pair of twins’ names is just like choosing a sibling set. For me, the same basic rules applied. The names had to be complementary and of a comparable level of originality. They had to roll off the tongue together, because, lord knows, they will be spoken in tandem more often than you can imagine. It would be a bonus if they shared some common, but not overwhelming, feature: a group of letters perhaps or a vague significance of meaning. Better yet, a sense of style. I have seen, for instance, all of my children’s names described as “Antique Charm.” This was a happy coincidence for the first two. For the twins, as numbers three and four, it felt almost like a necessity.
First names make a statement, middle names tell a story. Often they preserve a memory. In the Jewish tradition, there is a disinclination to name after the living. Ours is not a culture of ‘Junior’s or ‘Second’s. The important people keep their own names when they are alive and then it is sometimes the letter, the initial sound of the moniker only, that gets passed down. My middle name is Jena, for instance, after my great grandfather Jacob. When it came time to choose a middle name for our son, we were certain of its source, so very sadly.
I heard Oliver’s heartbeat for the first time a mere matter of days before my husband’s sister, Stella, died of cancer. No matter how aware you are of the cycle of life and death in the abstract, losing a close family member in the same year as giving birth to a new one drives home its power in an unparalleled way. Stella was a bright light, as her name suggests, and her parents must have known that because it was not a particularly common thing to call a girl in 197os England. We had the option of going with the ‘S’ alone, but I wanted to enshrine the ‘star’ aspect. It so happened that the year before I became pregnant, celebrities Jennifer Connelly and Paul Bettany, an Anglo-American couple just like us, had a boy. They called him Stellan, a Swedish name I had never heard of before. It was perfect.
Life and death continued to swirl together with the next child, as my second son came into this world on my uncle’s birthday, my Uncle Russel who had been killed in a car crash 12 years earlier. It was a wild coincidence of dates and it should have been a sign. There is a large part of me that regrets not making Leo’s middle name Russell – I would have spelled it with two ‘l’s – after my mother’s younger brother, a second child himself. My husband didn’t like the name enough to use it solely for its significance. And while we could have done something with an ‘R’, we picked Isaac instead. Isaac, the only one of the middle names which was chosen for aesthetic reasons only. We loved the name, plain and simple. Its old Jewish feel, its striking double ‘a’. If I had known for certain that we would be having another son, I would have saved it. Alas.