Global Baby Names: Picking a border-crossing name

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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27 Responses to “Global Baby Names: Picking a border-crossing name”

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Taz Says:

April 18th, 2012 at 11:25 pm

I had to find something that worked for my Eastern European husband & in-laws accent as well as my family who are New Yorkers that tend to turn -a endings into -er endings (for example my sister Lisa is called Lee-ser). We almost went for Nina because of how well we thought it would travel, but we ended up settling on Leonie.

Bungo Says:

April 19th, 2012 at 4:27 am

We live in England but my husband’s family are all based in South Carolina. Our first is due in July and I’m conscious of the fact that some of our current picks are quite traditional-sounding English names that won’t trip off the in-laws’ tongues. I’m open to suggestions but don’t want any uber-American names for my (at least temporarily) English bundle of joy.
What I found interesting about this article was that English people pronounced “Marley” as “Molly”. I would have thought this was because they assumed the name was “Molly” but spoken with a US or Canadian accent, it would come out as “Marley”. If it had been seen written down, it would have been pronounced as “Marley”. Also, I at least would say “Claaar-a”, not “Clair-a” for “Clara”.

Lilou Says:

April 19th, 2012 at 5:40 am

British English speakers pronounce Clara as Claarra too. Claira is just an Americanism.

Finuneby Says:

April 19th, 2012 at 7:33 am

Yes. This is the same problem that my good friend and I have. She needs names that not only her husband and her like, but will sound nice in both Texas and France (and not be offensive-long story). My husband and I have been looking for names that will work in Italy, America, France and the UK. He wants a very traditional, popular Italian name and I want a unique off-beat vintage name that leans more French/Brit. My favorite girl name was shot down because it sounds like the word for “laundry” in Italian. It’s become quite a challenge, because pretty much everyone he knows in Italy has one of about 20 names, none of which appeal to me. Our “safe international names” are Leo, Sara, Anna, Sofia, and Lucia. (none of which sound very unique to me). :-/ The other boy name Oliver, sounds silly to him in Italian, but has almost been crossed off my list as well because of it’s surge to popularity here and it being the number one in the UK.

pam Says:

April 19th, 2012 at 8:28 am

When we moved to England and told people our daughter’s name was Rory — used equally for girls and boys in the US — they looked at us as if we’d named her Frederick. And then when she grew up and moved to Paris, the French had a lot of trouble pronouncing those two R’s and the name tended to come out as Wah-wee.

Chiara Says:

April 19th, 2012 at 8:37 am

I don’t have kids but apparently my own name, Chiara is very hard to understand and pronounce for non-italian people.

Amenspanglish Says:

April 19th, 2012 at 8:51 am

Haha! This is exactly my dilemma! We don’t even know which country we will live in yet. With the last name Hernandez, we want a first name that distinctly denotes my half of the culture mix, yet I don’t want it to be butchered in another accent. Pronounced differently is okay, but not ugly. PLUS it has to be one that we both love, as if that isn’t hard in itself. Our culture differences seem to really come out in this situation, I know even couples withthe same culture have culture differences with names! Haha.
Clara was actually one of my faves when I joined nameberry, but DH didn’t seem to go for it. I could always insist a little more.

Anyway, good post Shandley!

notsoclevername Says:

April 19th, 2012 at 9:09 am

My name is quite a doozy in Japan where I spent a couple years. To make things easier while I was there I decided to go by my middle name June. Short and sweet, and easily pronounceable by my peers. “June” is a sound within the language whereas the “dri” of Adrianna (on top of the fact it’s 4 syllables long and I met NOBODY with a name more than three syllables) made my first name too difficult to use. I think this experience made me more aware of the need for names that can travel around the world.

Now that DH and I are trying to start a family, I’ve been pouring over international choices. A name preferably from DH’s language/culture, with a good meaning, that either set of grandparents will have no trouble pronouncing. I make some consideration of how pronounceable it will be in other languages but since I’m leaning heavily towards word names I figure the name can just be translated if it can’t be pronounced. I’m not quite as terribly concerned about the name being uncommon here and being popular somewhere else but I have told DH that if we do choose a name from his language/culture I want it to be at least somewhat uncommon.

keaton Says:

April 19th, 2012 at 12:54 pm

This is something we thought of with my son 4 years ago — we chose Leo partially because it works so well internationally. Of course we pronounce it Lee-o, but I kind of get a big kick out of it when I hear people from other places say Lay-o. Now seeking a similar vibe in a girl name…

thetxbelle Says:

April 19th, 2012 at 5:45 pm

These problems are why Im planning far in advance for babies who will need names that work in the States and France. I want something stylish and unique but not so unique or weird it’s frowned upon in one place even if it’s applauded in another.

Barcelonababe Says:

April 19th, 2012 at 5:50 pm

Liliana (my sis) and Gabriella (me) are two names often butchered in the U.S. However, we have found that many Europeans are familiar with it. These names are very Spanish (i’m 1/2 spanish) and Italian, so that may have something to do with it.

OliviaGabriel Says:

April 19th, 2012 at 7:46 pm

This was my criteria when naming my 4 and 1 year old. With Gabriel here in Australia he often gets called Gabrielle and I get asked if it’s a girls name but my Spanish relatives love it’s phonetic spelling and I love that there is a variation of the name in every country, I don’t mind the international pronunciations and love how it gives extra depth to the name I love so much. With my younger child Violet my relatives lengthen it to Violetta which is also lovely, I have friends who call her Yolande and others Isolde ( don’t know why) 🙂 if I had more children I would definitely stick with my formula and go with something like Estela/lla or Julian/julius . Great post ! I love hearing real life naming situations 🙂

miloowen Says:

April 19th, 2012 at 8:17 pm

My first business trip to Europe many clients had trouble pronouncing my name (Leslie) and even though my middle name is translatable, it’s not how my clients knew me. One of my considerations, then, for my children besides their names being family names would be that you could translate their names easily. Their English names are Caitlin and Thomas, which because they are saints’ names are translated into every European language, and their Hebrew names are not too old-fashioned for them to fit into Israel should either one of them ever make an aliyah. When we were in Italy my daughter’s name immediately became Catari, and I still call her that today. My son was born in Canada, and Thomas — quintessentially classic — fit right in.

marinapini Says:

April 19th, 2012 at 8:48 pm

I love my name! I have never been to a country where people had problems spelling Marina

sara_a Says:

April 19th, 2012 at 11:51 pm

One of the perks of my name is that it travels well. People from all over the world have no trouble when I introduce myself. I’ve learned that Sara has four or five distinct pronunciations depending on where you’re from:
Sar-ra as in “cat” in the North East and Cali
Sair-a as in “air” seems to be generic North American
Sar-a as in “are” certain parts of UK and Austraila
Sah-ra with both syllables the same length and the R flipped is common with Spanish speakers

moxielove Says:

April 21st, 2012 at 3:34 am

My mother chose my name Nicole Marie b/c it was easily pronounced in both english and her native danish, completely unaware of my first name’s popularity (born early 70s)

RijaLovesNames Says:

April 25th, 2012 at 3:21 am

I thought that the pronounciation of Clara, was “Claira” was American, as I’ve heard it pronounced like that on TV.
As far as I know in England it’s more its an “aah” sound in there. Basically everyone i know would pronounce it like Cara just with an “L” in there. Like Cara is CAR(like a Car you drive)-AH, so Clara is the same but with the “CL” intead of just the “C”.
I dont know, i have alot of family around different parts of England (me included, all born here) and i had never heard the pronounciation “Claira” until i watched an episode of “The Gilmore Girls”

bjoy Says:

April 25th, 2012 at 6:32 pm

This was an important consideration for us; my name is “Brittany,” which doesn’t work at all in Spanish (little did my parents expect I would grow up to major in Spanish and travel extensively in Latin America). Because of that, I wanted my kids to have more universal names. Just like a previous commenter, I have a “Rory” baby girl, but her given name is “Aurora.” Aurora translates well into all Latin-rooted languages, whereas Rory can be difficult to pronounce. Both names suit her well, and we love that she has options. Our son’s name is “Sebastian,” which has many international equivalents. We call him “Bash” at home in the states, but know that he won’t have trouble when we travel.

heatherleila3 Says:

April 27th, 2012 at 10:37 am

This is a great topic. Heather is not a good name to travel on. Spanish speakers can get it after a few tries, but it is impossible for Portuguese speakers (if they don’t already speak English). The H and TH sounds are very difficult in many other languages. In Brazil I had to start going by my middle name, Leila, because telling people my name became a bit of a barrier. Leila happens to be a common Portuguese name, with this spelling too. It’s like my Portuguese alter-ego! It’s good to remember that names are part of a language, so an English name might be difficult for someone who doesn’t speak English, just like a Chinese name would be hard for someone who doesn’t speak Chinese.

airavati Says:

May 14th, 2012 at 3:52 am

I’m American, my husband is Canadian, and we’re currently living in India (and planning on having at least one kid while we’re here – long term expats). We’re determined to find name options that fit with English, French, and Hindi – it promises to be a tricky thing, and we may end up playing middle-name-games (each of us have two, and are likely to curse offspring with the same, for a total of three names before the surname!). Hunting down things that work with such varied pronunciations is quite difficult.

sundancer Says:

May 18th, 2012 at 11:42 pm

When I tell people who live in the middle east that my name is Dannielle they sometimes scoff and say that’s a boy’s name. Daniel is pronounced like Dannielle there. The same is true for people in Spain… if I lived there, my name would be Daniela, otherwise my name is very masculine to them. But the French love it!

brandywinefalls Says:

June 1st, 2012 at 7:24 pm

I have a simple cross global name of Monica. I have never had problems with it. Occasionally it is spelled with a ‘K’ and pronouciation varies as I have Austrian family. My Polish doctor pronounces it more like Moon-ekha which my DH thinks is hillarious. Since I’ve grown up with hearing it prounounced in slightly different ways I don’t mind. It’s the French teacher in 7th grade that insisted on calling me Monique, that got me. Though if I were in France or Quebec, I’d be fine with it. Thanks mom for a Latin/bibical name that works well. Also, as boy’s name go, Paul (my brother) has had an easy time. Slight pronunciation variants, but nothing bad eg. Powl.

catie75 Says:

June 8th, 2012 at 7:42 am

If only I had read this before the birth of my first daughter Eva (Evangeline)

We completely love our daughters name but discovered after that my partners Filipino family can not pronounce the ‘v’ so she is affectionately known as Eba…. not quite what we were going for but cute now while she is a little one and hopefully by the time she grows they will get the ‘v’ pronunciation.

It’s certainly a challenge for the next one where we love Xavier

Sarabi Says:

June 13th, 2012 at 4:10 am

I think we navigated our first’s name quite well. ‘Clementine’ is pretty, to me, in English. In French, it’s pronounced Clay-moan-teen, which also sounds lovely when spoken by her French family members. Now, if only it would stop growing on the popularity charts. I’m afraid that in a few years, it will lose that unique and fresh vibe we chose it for in the beginning.

januaryjames Says:

September 26th, 2012 at 2:03 am

Sometimes I wonder if the customs officials can read! Despite the easy spelling of my name I’ve had some really strange pronunciations! You’d think that because it’s a month of the year it’d be easy!

tnagumo Says:

October 5th, 2012 at 5:06 pm

My husband named our daughter Faith because he thought the world needed “a little faith”. 🙂 Then my Japanese parents asked me why we named her a name they can’t pronounce (the “f” and “th” are problematic). I told them they can call her by her Japanese middle name, Maya, which they do. For Maya, I used the two characters meaning “truth” and “to be” (真也). Then I discovered that Maya is also a Spanish name, an Indian (Hindi) name, a Greek name…. lucky coincidence!

Nickelini Says:

January 17th, 2013 at 4:18 pm

We travel a lot, and my husband has family in Italy, so it was important to me that our daughters’ names would travel too.

It was also important that the names fit the surname, which is Italian. Many people in his family here in Canada gave their children Irish names that I think sound very odd with the Italian surname. And although it’s only four letters, “Erin” is impossible for Italians to pronounce (it sounds more like ee-Dihn).

We settled on Nina and Charlotte. Everyone can pronounce Nina, although I’ve had odd glances from Spanish speakers (“that’s her name?” It’s like calling your daughter “Little Girl”), and our family in Italy recognized the name Charlotte and immediately started calling her Carlotta or Carlotina.

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