Good-Intention Baby Naming

By Kate at Sancta Nomina (Katherine Morna Towne)

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.

Do these stories mean that Baby Eleanor isn’t named for St. Helen, and that I don’t have a Marian middle name? Of course not.

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.

What do you think about the idea of intention trumping the details of a name in terms of importance? Do you agree? Do you have similar examples?

Kate is a writer, lifelong lover of names, wife to a really good man, and mama to their six boys ages 1 to 10. She shares her thoughts on Catholic baby naming at Sancta Nomina.







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23 Responses to “Good-Intention Baby Naming”

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shellezbellez Says:

April 6th, 2015 at 2:44 am

Great article! I have sort of a reverse story. My parents considered naming me for her mom, and finally decided to give me a name with no family ties at all, Jennifer. Well, my dad’s maternal grandmother lived with his mom, but she had had a stroke and couldn’t communicate very clearly. Mom told me she was especially attached to me, though, and that she always tried to communicate something to my mom every time we visited her, but was unable to do so. It wasn’t until after she passed away when I was still a baby that my grandmother just blurted out one day that her own maternal grandmother’s name was also Jennifer, and my mom realized that was what my great-grandmother had been trying to communicate and why she was so happy and attached to me. My mom never intended for me to have a family name, and I ended up with one anyway!

headintheclouds Says:

April 6th, 2015 at 3:16 am

@shellezbellez What a sweet meaningful story behind your name!

My dad gave me my name because he saw that it meant “precious gift” in a baby name book- problem was, that isn’t the real meaning of my name, it’s actually something like “warlike”! He was very confused when I told him about it one day :b he probably saw the meaning of another name on that page, and mixed it up with that of my name. But I really appreciate the thought, so I definitely agree that the intention is what matters!

sanctanomina Says:

April 6th, 2015 at 10:33 am

Wow shellezbellez, that’s a beautiful story!! How wonderful for you!

Aw headintheclouds, your poor Dad! He tried so hard! I love that sentiment, what a great name story for you!

emilybk Says:

April 6th, 2015 at 11:40 am

This happened to a friend of mine – she gave her daughter her own grandmother’s maiden name as a middle. She checked the spelling carefully with family members before the baby was born to be sure she had it right. Then, months after the baby was born and the birth certificate was signed, she found out she had been given the wrong spelling by her family after all. She was annoyed, but took the same attitude – it was the intention that counted.

Thegratiana Says:

April 6th, 2015 at 1:08 pm

My son was supposed to be born on my grandmother’s birthday. As I loved my grandmother very much and wanted to honor her, I chose a name of similar origin with a nickname similar to hers. Her name was Bonnie, so I named my son Conrad, and we sometimes call him Connie. However, no one would know guess the reason that I chose that particular name unless I actually told them why.

sheena_beena Says:

April 6th, 2015 at 3:31 pm

I’m so glad I read this! This happened to me… We had planned to name our 1st child Aislinn Elizabeth. Shortly after giving birth, the midwife asked my husband to fill in our birth registration. DH hits me with adding his mother’s name in, making her name Aislinn Elsie Elizabeth. I hesitantly agreed in the commotion of the moment. As the name grew on me (and more than a year had passed), my own mother casually asked “isn’t Elsie a form of Elizabeth?”. I assured her it wasn’t and went home to frantically google any connection I could find! I was somewhat embarrassed at what I found, but I don’t apologize for naming my 1st daughter after my MIL and my god-mother (my mother’s identical twin). Moral of the story… intention definitely matters AND don’t let DH ad-lib the name while your baby is being placed in your arms! LOL

Aurora Says:

April 6th, 2015 at 9:12 pm

I agree the intention is what matters most, especially if the parents try their best (as everyone in these stories did.) What irritates me is the cavalier approach to origin and meaning in so many baby name books. I know the research is complicated and that one can’t always decipher a name with certainty, but I’d at least like to be told when there is confusion or multiple possibilities, not just shunted off with one most-commonly-used meaning.

sanctanomina Says:

April 7th, 2015 at 6:11 am

I love reading all these stories!

Aurora, I so agree with you — I hate how difficult it is to figure out which sources are trustworthy and which aren’t.

ARead Says:

April 20th, 2015 at 12:30 pm

We also had a sort of reverse good-intention situation with our daughter, Adelaide Iria. I wanted a family name but I liked “Adelaide” more than any family names my mom or grandparents could dig up. After Adelaide was born, my mother in law told me that a recently deceased relative’s mother was named Adelaide, and I found out that my dad had not one but THREE aunts named Irene, which is the English/German spelling of Portuguese Iria.

sanctanomina Says:

April 26th, 2015 at 8:47 pm

Oh wow, how great ARead!

madeliner Says:

May 3rd, 2015 at 6:17 pm

I have a sort of naming mistake! My dad’s side of the family is quite spread out around the country and his parents both grew up as one of many, many children in very poor situations. Therefore, the records of their families are basic, at best, and can include up to 10 different spellings of a person’s name. My middle name is Rose, after my great-grandmother Ivy Rose (called Mimi), as recorded in the US census. When I was thirteen I met one of my great-aunts for the first time, and she said to my dad, “You know, Mimi’s real name wasn’t Ivy Rose. It was Ivy Rosalie. My dad was shocked!
Luckily the names are very close, and I still know that I’m named after my grandmother, but honestly now I wish my middle name was Rosalie! I like it better, haha!

Eleanor=Helen after all? | Sancta Nomina Says:

June 6th, 2015 at 11:20 am

[…] even referenced this “fact” in my article at Nameberry about how the intention behind the choosing of a name matters more than the …, using as an example one of you dear readers who had named her daughter Eleanor for St. Helen and […]

kayjenx Says:

June 25th, 2015 at 6:09 pm

I ended with my first name being a variation of my Grandmother’s middle name. However my mom named me off a tv show lol. But my Grandma and family are happy so. My middle was purposefully the female version of my dad’s. I wish it was my first name. My dad passed away 13 years ago.

Repeating names | Sancta Nomina Says:

August 26th, 2015 at 11:13 am

[…] it ties into what I wrote in my Nameberry post Good-Intention Baby Naming: “The intention behind the bestowing of the name can be as important—or more so—than the […]

Dealing with hard-to-handle saints’ names | Sancta Nomina Says:

October 30th, 2015 at 7:43 am

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Haids1987 Says:

December 15th, 2015 at 3:04 pm

Really interesting read. I like it.

beynotce Says:

December 20th, 2015 at 5:58 pm

My grandmother chose my mother’s middle name, Rae, because to her it was a variation on the English word “ray,” as in a ray of light. This was the meaning my mother had in mind when she passed the name on to me. As I grew into a name nerd, I learned that Rae actually emerged as a given name as a diminutive of Rachel, which means “ewe.” Rachel and Rae are both lovely names, and there’s nothing wrong with a name meaning ewe, but I prefer my family’s meaning, and firmly believe that because that is the meaning that was intended when the name was given, that is truly what my middle name “means.”

In an ever-more-globalized world, I also think it’s important to be gracious about names and keep the good intentions of name-givers in mind when encountering names that, for a variety of reasons, don’t cross cultural boundaries particularly well. No one culture “owns” any particular name, and names are derived organically from all kinds of sources and in all kinds of ways. The same name might have two very different meanings and origins in two different families, and I think it’s sometimes too easy for people (like many Nameberry readers, including myself) who think deeply and know a lot of information about names generally to lean on their sense of “authority” when it comes to names instead of being open to the… well, the *art* of name-giving.

Spotlight on: Ruby | Sancta Nomina Says:

January 15th, 2016 at 3:19 pm

[…] So I’m totally loving the idea of Ruby for the Sacred Heart or for Jesus’ Passion and Death or for the martyrs, and I like that Ruby could also be sort of a Holy Spirit name, based on the red of the tongues of fire that descended upon the Apostles … using Ruby in these ways feels similar to the usage of Cora for the Sacred Heart, and Halle as part of Hallelujah: they require a little explanation but the intention behind the name is impeccable (and you know how I feel about intentions). […]

The Naming of Saint West | – Celebrating Catholic Motherhood Says:

January 20th, 2016 at 1:30 pm

[…] really matters in baby naming—as I wrote in an article on the name site Nameberry, I’ve long been of the opinion that the “intention behind the bestowing of the name can be as […]

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January 25th, 2016 at 12:02 pm

[…] News — perhaps she could even be thought of as the First Evangelist? I’ve often said that intention matters the most, more than a name’s actual meaning etc., so if one’s intention is to honor Mary with […]

Names “foreign to Christian sentiment” | Sancta Nomina Says:

February 23rd, 2016 at 1:01 pm

[…] I’ve said a million times and written that for me, “The intention behind the bestowing of the name can be as important — or […]

Eleanor: Take 37 | Sancta Nomina Says:

March 1st, 2016 at 1:52 pm

[…] feel like I’ve posted about Eleanor more than enough: first that it’s not related Helen, despite everyone’s hopes that it is; then, that it might be related to Helen after all; […]

Names “foreign to Christian sensibility” – – Celebrating Catholic Motherhood Says:

April 20th, 2016 at 12:30 pm

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