Category: Lauren Apfel
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.
In 1642, Oliver Cromwell led a contingent of parliamentarians against King Charles I, defeating him in what became known as the English Civil War and giving rise to the only occasion in modern British history where the monarchy has not held power. Three and a half centuries later, he became my husband’s hero for it, my husband who is a constitutional lawyer and a committed republican (small ‘r’). In the years before the arrival of our first child, we lived in Oxford, both of us affiliated with the University there. Amidst its hallowed halls and Gothic spires, people would talk in hushed tones about their ‘periods’ of expertise. My husband’s period was the seventeenth century. Cromwell was his guy.
Unsurprisingly, Oliver was always his first choice for a boy’s name. It became mine too. We said we weren’t having children, though, so we bestowed instead the name Cromwell upon our future dog, a brown and white beagle. Things changed and we didn’t get the dog. But we did welcome a son who was, of course, called Oliver. My husband wanted it because it was traditional and historically grounded. I wanted it because it was sparky and unconventional. It is both of those things, depending on where you come from: this is what has made the Venn diagram effect of our name selection so successful. The year Oliver was born it was the fifth most popular baby name in the UK. In the US, it hadn’t even broken the top 100.