Ask the Name Guru: Can I Use an Honor Name Without the Honor?
Welcome to my newest column, Ask the Name Guru, where I use my background as a baby name expert and perinatal therapist to answer your emotional and relational questions about names.
“The first name I loved for our baby was Nora — my husband Michael immediately disliked like it because his grandmother’s name was Nora. Not that there is anything wrong with that, we just don’t necessarily want to name our baby AFTER someone. She passed away when he was young, so although the few memories he has of her are good and she was a lovely woman, we wouldn't associate naming our child Nora with her. I’m anxious about naming her Nora and then people assuming it’s an honor name and having to explain that it’s not. I don’t want anyone’s feelings to be hurt!
Both of our families usually use a middle name to honor someone versus a first name. The middle name isn’t 100% decided but we’re leaning towards Elizabeth which is after my late aunt who passed in December.
We had a few other names we both liked after Nora was off the table, but none of them really stuck or felt “right.” My husband even called me one day and said we should start from scratch. After looking and looking for new inspiration, we still both come back to Nora. Our dilemma: is it okay to name our baby Nora, but not AFTER Grandma Nora?”
The Name Guru replies:
You can absolutely name your daughter Nora, but if you insist it’s not after Grandma, you have to be prepared for the conversation that comes with it.
Family members who knew Michael’s grandmother will initially assume it’s an honor name. And honor names tend to stir up strong feelings in families.
Honor names remind us of connections to our loved ones — good, bad, complicated, whatever they may be. We tend to honor relatives with whom we have or had deep relationships, so it makes sense that Grandma Nora wasn't a top priority. But how others react to the family name depends on their connection to the honoree.
Who you choose the honor (and who is left out) and the order in which people are honored are meaningful choices. And while there’s more that goes into a name choice than just the connection, that’s the piece that matters to anyone not responsible for making the decision. It’s an honor to have a namesake, and most people are thrilled when the honoree is someone with whom they were close.
So telling your father-in-law that your daughter isn’t, in fact, named after his mother? That could be perceived as hurtful.
The good news is that people tend to recover from hurt feelings. My guess is that you wouldn’t be entertaining Nora as an option if he was the type of guy to hold a long-term grudge. The temporary discomfort around the subject might be worth it to use the name you love the most. But let’s talk about ways to minimize the potential for hurt.
It’s best to get ahead of this conversation, rather than waiting until it comes up naturally (because naturally, it will). The easiest way to soften the blow is through a clear and positive message. When you introduce your daughter to your family, deliver a line like, “Nora was the first name I loved for the baby, and it is a bonus that it has a connection to Michael’s side of the family.”
If people continue to press you, reiterate your statement. “Nora was our favorite name from the start, and the connection to Grandma is a bonus.”
The complicating factor here is the middle name. You can’t claim you don’t like honor names altogether since you are using your aunt’s name in the middle. Making a distinction between Elizabeth as an honor name and Nora as a name you love with the bonus of a family connection will clear up confusion about whether or not Nora is in reference to Grandma. However, it may add to the stir about why Nora isn’t being considered an honor name.
The worst-case scenario here is that some family members would not understand or accept that Nora isn’t a reference to Michael’s grandmother. You know your family better than I do, so you can judge the probability of this actually occurring. If the chances are low, it may be worth the risk. If the chances are high, you may decide that the insistence of an honor name is enough to strike Nora from your list. Or maybe you feel you would be able to handle it if some relatives hold on to this connection.
How others react to the name is out of your control. You have to decide if you can live with this. Think about how many times you would want to correct people, and at what point it would be worth giving up and letting them make the connection between great-grandmother and -daughter. Would that ruin the name for you?
In all likelihood, any fuss about whether or not your daughter is named after Grandma Nora will be short-lived. It will come up when you introduce her to the world, and after that, probably not often. After all, Nora is going to become her name. Sure, it’s a name she shares with her great-grandmother, but the fresh, present baby Nora will soon become the dominant identity tied to the name.
But in the end, it’s up to you. Is the temporary unpleasantness — and potential hurt feelings — tied to not honoring Michael’s grandma worth giving up your favorite name? Or do you love Nora enough to ride it out?
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