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I Named My Son Liam Before It Got Popular

I Named My Son Liam Before It Got Popular

Fifteen hours into labor, a new nurse came into our hospital room and gave us a cheerful hello. My husband and I looked away from the television. The 2010 Winter Olympics were on though neither of us were paying much attention. 

Just after midnight, I’d woken up to my water breaking and because I’d tested positive for Strep B, we’d been told to come to the hospital immediately so I could receive antibiotics. 

Now it was late afternoon and I’d yet to have a single contraction. I imagined a stork sitting on our stoop in Brooklyn, shivering and cursing in the February cold, unaware that we had come to Manhattan to collect our baby. 

The nurse said, “You’re the couple having the girl?”

Travis and I looked at each other. 

“Actually, we don’t know,” I said. 

“Oh!” The nurse lost her smile. “Right, uh, that’s the couple down the hall.”  She scurried out.

“So much for being surprised,” I said. 

Travis shrugged wearily. “She doesn’t know anything.”

But she must have seen our chart, or heard the other nurses talking. I tried to shake off the disappointment. This was hardly a slip by an ultrasound tech at 20 weeks. The finish line was in sight. Theoretically. Maybe this was taking so long because we were not calling her to come meet us. I closed my eyes and pictured a little girl with black hair and Travis’s green eyes. 

Okay, Norah James, I thought. Please come. We’re waiting. 

***

I wanted to give my baby not only a name, but a story. 

As a novelist, I’m acutely aware of the power of names: to name characters is to create their history in one stroke. As an amateur genealogist, I am the curator of our family’s history, which of course includes our names, tied to Ireland and Catholic saints, to whims and songs, to grief and calculation. 

My Brooklyn grandmother was baptized Elizabeth but called Edna after her brother, Edward, who died on St. Patrick’s Day morning, 1913. My Galway grandmother was baptized Winifred but called Una until she came to the U.S., when her sister advised her to go by the more-American name Winnie. My aunt was named Judith because her mother was told appendectomy and miscarriage, or death, those are your choices, but instead she prayed to St. Jude, patron saint of lost causes.   

My 2nd great-grandmother, born in New York to Irish parents, was named Esther, born on April 2, 1858: Good Friday. (Esther… Easter?) Esther had an older brother, Joseph, who died in prison while serving a sentence for theft. There’s no record of the family’s thoughts, if their grief was mixed with anger or with shame, but Esther’s oldest son, whose father was John and whose grandfathers were James and Martin, was instead called Joseph, after his uncle. 

My older sister was born in 1971. She was meant to be named for our mother, Kathleen Mary, but in the hospital’s waiting room, our father read an article about Cary Grant and Dyan Cannon’s new daughter, Jennifer. And so my sister became Jennifer, and Kathleen Mary came to me instead. 

Part of the reason I’d wanted to be surprised in the delivery room was because I wanted to play, to choose two sets of names. I wanted to search for names by meaning, toy with spellings, and rehearse names aloud. I named fictional characters all the time but this baby was my first (and I suspected only) chance to name a real person. This counted, most of all. 

Our boy’s name came first. On the 4th of July 2009, Travis and I went for a walk in Prospect Park. We began talking about names, and it was Travis who mentioned William. 

Wil was the mutual friend who introduced us. He and Travis met in the Masters of Music program at Florida State University and Wil and I were co-workers at a staffing firm on Madison Avenue. “I have a friend I want you to meet,” Wil told me. “He’s really good-looking. I was really disappointed when I found out he was straight.”

The name William would have a great deal of meaning–but it came with a trove of nicknames, none of which I cared for. 

“Liam is the Irish form of William,” I offered.

I very much wanted an Irish name but I knew Travis would never agree to Tadgh or Oisin or Aoife or Caoimhe. Not when he’d already nixed Una as being too peculiar. But Liam was easy to spell and to pronounce. Liam – like Kathleen – was firmly linked to Ireland. So were Aidan and Connor, but I would not even consider them because of their ubiquity.

As far as we knew in 2010, Connor had been sitting in the top hundred names for over fifteen years, Aiden had just shot into the top twenty, and the more authentic spelling Aidan was not far behind. Liam had risen slowly by comparison: in the most recent popularity lists available it was number 75. Who knew it was about to become the most popular boy name of all?

Travis said, “I like Liam.”

The second the words were out of his mouth, before I could even laugh and say, “That was easy,” Wil rounded the corner, on his way, we’d learn, to meet up with some friends for a picnic. Travis and I stared at each other astonished and quite frankly, spooked. 

“I guess it’s a boy,” I whispered.

The middle name and the girl’s name came in August, on another hot day, also in Prospect Park. Travis and I were walking as scores of people jogged or cycled by. I suggested, half-jokingly, James, for James Joyce and Travis pointed out that was his grandfather’s name. He was called Jim, though, so my mind hadn’t gone there. I laughed and said it was perfect then, and added that James Joyce’s wife was Nora. As was one of my grandfather’s sisters. Travis said he liked Norah. (We both agreed we preferred it with an H.)

“Norah what? Rose? Kate?” 

“Norah James,” Travis said. 

From then until February, we continued to toss out names but just for fun. Liam James and Norah James, I would repeat to myself, as though they were two different people, though only one of them was coming to live with us. 

***

Twenty-two hours after the it’s-a-girl nurse fled our hospital room, our baby was born. 

Liam James is now twelve and nearly as tall as I am, with blonde hair and blue eyes. 

When he was younger and the topic of how we chose his name would arise, I was always quick to explain, anxious for people to know that we had not simply pulled a name off a shelf. It was not a lack of creativity that led us to Liam, but namesaking.

Every year, when the list of the year’s most popular names comes out, I bring up the map that shows the top name in each state. First, the girls. Olivias everywhere. And then the boys, which shows, across nearly every state, L-I-A-M.  

I call him. “Liam! Look. You’re still number one.”

He peers at the computer screen over my shoulder, and he does not see thousands of other boys who share his name and think, that’s way too many. He sees what belongs to him, what we gave him: not only a name, but a story.

The photo shows Liam in 2017, the year his name became the top boy name in the USA.


Got a name story to tell? If you'd like to write about your personal experience with your own name, your child's name, names in your family or your culture, we'd love to consider your story for publication on Nameberry. Email us a sentence or two about your idea at clare@nameberry.com

About the Author

Kathleen Donohoe

Kathleen Donohoe is the author of the novels Ghosts of the Missing and Ashes of Fiery Weather, which was named one of Book Riot’s 100 Must-Read New York City Novels. Her stories and essays have appeared in Web Conjunctions, Washington Square, SNReview, Harpur Palate, Irish America Magazine, and the anthology The Writing Irish of New York. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram or visit her website, kathleendonohoe.nyc.