Literary Baby Names: If you name your baby Rudyard….

By Sara

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;

If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two imposters just the same….

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

——-Rudyard Kipling

I like to think that if Rudyard Kipling had provided some baby-naming insight from beyond the grave, he would have added a stanza to his poem “If” saying something like, “If you can name your baby Rudyard, you’re going to get asked a lot of questions.”

“Are you a Kipling fan?” Sort of.

“Wasn’t Kipling an imperialist?” I guess so.

“Wasn’t he a Nazi sympathizer?” Definitely not.

Do you call him Rudy?” No.

“Are you going to call him Rudy?” No.

“What if his friends start calling him Rudy?” That’s cool.

Do you like The Jungle Book?” I do.

“Is Rudyard a family name?” Nope.

In fact, from what I can tell, Rudyard isn’t really anyone’s family name. In the US, at least, there have been fewer than five (but probably zero) Rudyards born here each year since 1880, when the Social Security Administration begins its name records. Gmail underlines my kid’s name as a typo, and for the first few weeks of his life, my phone autocorrected his name to “Rutgers.”

In a recent presentation on parental name choices, Berkeley professor Josh Goldstein called names “precious” when they had many letters, marking a move from the short, ubiquitous names (the Johns and Marys) of previous decades and larger households. Along the lines of “precious,” I think “endeared” may be a good word to describe those names that parents give to reference a star (Gwen), a character (Eloise), or a historical figure (Kennedy). Dr. Eric Oliver from the University of Chicago, however, describes this naming technique less kindly. In an interview with Freakonomics radio, he said that some mothers reference literary figures and characters in their name choices to signal “for lack of a better word… their sense of cultural superiority.”

Cultural superiority? Can’t a mom just think a name sounds nice?

When my husband and I chose the name, our fond feelings toward Rudyard Kipling’s “Just So Stories” (How did that leopard get his spots?) came second. We pretty much thought “Rudyard” sounded really nice. The nicest! RUDD-yerd, rolling smoothly off the tongue, like Clifford or Richard. But, we seem to have inadvertently chosen a name that is unpronounceable by the general public, meaning that most people get so tongue-tied, the name fails to roll out of their mouths at all.

Whereas Clifford is clearly pronounced CLI-ferd, and Richard is obviously pronounced RI-cherd, people get thrown off by the pesky “y” in the middle of our son’s name, seeing it as vowel rather than consonant. People awkwardly call him “roo-dee-ard,” or, in one particularly bad case, “roo-dee-ar-dee.” Hearing his two-syllable name pronounced with four syllables by a maternity ward nurse marked a real low point for me as the recent namer of my son. Roo-dee-ar-dee? What had we done to our baby?!

With most “endeared” names, parents have an easy way to explain unfamiliar names during introductions. “It’s Channing, like Tatum.” “It’s Marshawn, like Lynch.” Even a decades-old reference (“It’s Rhett, like Butler”) can be useful if the star or character is recognizable enough. But when I say that we named him, “Rudyard, like Kipling,” we often wind up no better off than where we started. The cultural example method only works if people are already comfortable pronouncing the cultural example’s name.

What’s worse, 100% of our son’s doctors have gotten his name right on the first try. I feel terribly uncomfortable about how uncomfortable non-surgeons, non-Rhodes Scholars, and non-rocket scientists get when trying to say the kid’s name. Even though we made the same kind of Jungle-Book related naming reference as Ashlee Simpson (who middle named her son “Mowgli”), I doubt her name choice forms such an educational divide. After all, most of us are familiar with the red-diapered cutie from the Disney movie, even if we don’t know how to pronounce the unusual name of the long-dead author who told the tale.

After a few months of experimenting, our son’s name is now, for all intents and purposes, Rudd. I feel great about having given him a lovely formal name that lends itself to the easy-to-pronounce “Rudd” and the very cute associated nickname of “Ruddy.” Our neighbors’ adorable son, Jamison, recently told his mom that every time he forgets Rudyard’s name, he thinks of a redwood tree to help him remember. Heck, I figure out here in the west, even “Redwood” makes a pretty nice name for a kid.

Our Ruddy is only four months old, so we’ve yet to find out whether people get more comfortable with his name as he grows. I think that “Rudyard” will be the name on the roster on his first day of school, but he’ll tell his teacher to, “Call me Rudd.” I picture him being “Ruddy” when he’s on a date and “Rudyard” for his wedding vows. “Rudyard” on the job application and “Rudd” in the interview. And “which is more” (to use Kipling’s words), whatever form of the name comes to suit him, it’s fun to imagine our lovely little babbling baby growing up into any name at all.

Guest blogger Sara is a new mom who likes to crochet, walk the family dogs, and think about the numerical trends in how we name our kids.


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