One of the very first readers of my blog emailed me to ask about the connection between the names Eleanor and Helen. She and her husband had a darling baby daughter, already named Eleanor, a name they loved, which they had happily bestowed in honor of St. Helen. (You might see where I’m going with this.)
It wasn’t until months after Baby Eleanor was born that the mom discovered that Eleanor is not actually a form of Helen, but she wrote to me in a last-gasp attempt to find some loophole somewhere that allowed Eleanor and Helen to be related.
I have a similar story with my own name. My parents had decided upon Katherine Marie for a girl until my mom saw the name Morna in a book of names. She fell in love with this “Irish version of Mary” and wanted to change their girl name to Katherine Morna. Dad wasn’t convinced until his saw his sweet wife go through the rigors of labor and delivery, and as they marveled together at their very first baby, Dad referred to me as Katherine Morna, Mom was overjoyed, and I left the hospital with one of the coolest middle names ever.
I have always loved my name, and knowing that my middle name was an “Irish form of Mary,” until I started learning about name meanings and started poking around in name books and web sites and was never able to find Morna listed as an Irish form of Mary. I did discover that it’s a form of Muirne (as is Myrna), which was the name of Finn McCool/Fionn mac Cumhail’s mother. Its meaning in Irish is sometimes listed as “festive” and sometimes as “beloved,” which are pretty great meanings, and Morna and Muirne are similar to Maura and Muire (which are actual Irish forms of Mary), but it’s clear that whatever name book Mom had read lo those many years ago wasn’t quite accurate with Morna’s connection to Mary.
I hold that intention is as important as “the facts” in baby naming. Eleanor’s parents intended that she be named for St. Helen, and so, in my mind, she is. My parents intended me to be named for the Blessed Virgin, and so, in my mind, I am. Both decisions were made in good faith.
Good-faith naming “mistakes” aren’t the only ones in which intention matter. My husband and I wanted our first son to be named after my late father-in-law (first name) and my dad (middle name). My dad and my husband happen to have the same first name, and while some parents might be thrilled at a two-for-one (and I myself might feel so under different circumstances), I was determined that my son’s middle name be explicitly for my dad alone, and that whatever we came up would feel like an honor to him, and not some weird newfangled quite-a-stretch way of thinking that would be more confusing and irritating to him than pleasing.
So I came up with three options: his first name (if he really felt most comfortable with that, then we’d just use it); his middle name (a fine, solid name); and his own dad’s first name (a family surname). His dad, my paternal grandfather, had died when my dad was a young father, and I know how Dad’s missed him ever since—both the relationship and the advice he wishes his dad could have given him as he navigated fatherhood. My grandfather’s name is also an unusual one, very specific to him and our family, so I thought it was good option to consider.
I wanted my father to choose which name he felt would be the best way to honor him as he became a grandfather for the very first time. When I said Option One (his first name), his reaction was unremarkable. When I said Option Two (his middle name), he shook his head no—he didn’t have any particular attachment to it. When I said Option Three, his eyes filled and he said, “That is a very special name.”
And so my son has his great-grandfather’s name as his middle name, which is an honor name for my dad, and no one in the world ‘gets’ it without an explanation—it probably even comes across as a weird newfangled quite-a-stretch way of thinking to some people—but my dad is delighted. He knows what our intention was, and he feels appropriately honored.
So that’s the loophole I offered to Eleanor’s mom: The intention behind the bestowing of the name can be as important—or more so—than the name’s actual origin or meaning or other specifics. She’d already come to the same conclusion herself, and I think my opinion just gave her extra peace of mind.