Name Sage: A Baby Name for Two Cultures

Leena Gray's sister or brother needs an equally distinctive name

Ruth writes:

My husband and I have decided not to find out the sex of our baby. We’re excited about the surprise, but are struggling to pick out both a boy and a girl name.

Our daughter is Leena Gray. We picked Leena because it is familiar to my husband’s Indian family but still accessible to mine, it has some global recognition, and it fit our criteria of being recognizable but not common.

Her middle was going to be Elizabeth (a family name), but a couple months before she was born we decided on Gray instead, after my dad Gary. I’m really glad we did, as I love the juxtaposition between the more traditional and unexpected names. I also really like the family connection. I was named after my great grandmother and have always appreciated having a story behind my name selection.

For the next baby, our criteria are the same, but we’re not necessarily committed to an Indian name.

Despite all that, my favorite right now for a girl is Violet (which my husband is not a fan of). His favorite is Ivy – I’m not sure where the botanical connection is coming from – which I like, but just doesn’t feel quite like “the name”. Perhaps with the right middle or as a middle? I’m also a fan of the Elizabeth nicknames Elsa and Elsie, but worried that they’re too popular after Frozen and that they’re too close to Leena.

For a boy, we’re completely lost. I have some interest in Ezra or Milo, but hubby’s not biting. I feel like it’s harder to find the sweet spot of relatable but not too popular boy names. Maybe this is where we need to dig in deeper to Indian names?

As far as middles for girls from my side, Elizabeth is a family name. My sister is Emily and my sister-in-law is Amelia, so I also like the idea of Amelie or Emilia or some sort of combination, and it’s a bit more unexpected, like Gray.

For boy middles, from my brothers we have Matthew, Michael, James, and John. Also my mom is Dana and has suggested that Daniel would be a great name for a boy.

We’d appreciate any advice you can give. I’m seriously ready to open the envelope to find out if it’s a girl or a boy just to narrow our choices!

The Name Sage replies:

Cross-cultural baby naming can be a challenge. No matter which two (or more!) languages you’re working with, it sometimes feels like the pool of possible names is limited.

That said, I think you’re taking the right approach. A name that is accessible in more than one culture is a good thing in our global age, and it gives you more options than focusing only on Indian names that seem familiar in English.

It also seems like you both favor names that are short, sweet, and complete. Leena, Ezra, Milo, Violet, and Ivy are all names with a lot of style, but no extra frills. They’re not nicknames for longer names, and they’re not the kinds of names that invite nicknaming.

But I do wonder if you’re gravitating towards names that are a little more popular than you might ultimately like? Violet is currently in the US Top 100, and Ivy isn’t far behind. Ezra ranked Number 119 last year. Your daughter’s name is very different, and even the more familiar Lena only ranked in the upper 200s.

Many of the logical crossover name possibilities, like Aria, Maya, and Layla, are also in the US Top 100. They’re great options for families looking for culture-spanning names. But I don’t think they’re distinctive enough to pair with Leena.

Instead, would you consider one of these names for a daughter?

AnikaAnika means splendor in Sanskrit, but it also occurs in several European languages as form of Anna. A name that works in Munich or Mumbai seems like a win! In terms of popularity, Anika hovers in the 500s, as does alternate spelling Annika. Singer Anika Noni Rose voiced Tiana in The Princess and the Frog, and there’s an Anika on Fox’s smash hit television series Empire. Yet this name remains nicely under-the-radar.

Viveka – I noticed that both of your favorite names share the letter V, so I wonder if a V name might please you both. Viveka is another crossover with similar roots to Anika. It’s either the Swedish form of a German name, or could come from the Sanskrit for wisdom. Other V names that might be possibilities: Vera, Veda, Viva, Vivian, and Vale.

Zara, Zora – Like Leena, Zara and Zora are names with several possible origins. They’re tough to pin down, and that gives them a pan-global, modern feel. The Z sound is distinctive, just like the V of Violet and Ivy.

Priya – So far I’ve avoided names that seem like true heritage choices, but I think Priya deserves a closer look. With names like Penelope, Piper, and Paisley so popular, the letter P has great potential. While it’s rarely used for girls born in the US, I think it would be easily recognized as a given name.

MiraMira has roots in Slavic and Sanskrit, and brings to mind words like miracle and admire, as well as names like Shakespeare’s Miranda and the French Mireille. I can imagine Leena and Mira in nineteenth century New York or many centuries in the future.

Yasmin – You’ve mentioned a concern that a second daughter’s name shouldn’t sound too much like Leena. And yet, it does seem like many of the best choices share Leena’s ‘a’ ending. That’s when Yasmin came to mind. It’s every bit as botanical as Ivy and Violet, and with a distinctive sound. Jasmine is a Disney princess, but Yasmin is a culture-spanning import.

Much to my surprise, I found boys’ names easier! A few that I think would work beautifully:

Dev – It’s a common name element in many Indian men’s names, and I saw Devan suggested as an Indian-American crossover possibility. But Dev fits right in with short names like Jack and Max. And because it’s so short, it has plenty of possible origins. Besides Sanskrit roots, it’s easy to imagine Dev as a form of surname like the English Devon or the French Devereaux, too.

Kiran – I think parents avoided Kiran for years because Karen was so popular for girls. But now that the average Karen is a grandmother, Kiran deserves a moment in the sun. While Kiran has Sanskrit roots, Ciaran or Kieran is Irish, and Keir takes us to Scotland.

Nico – One of the names on every Indian-American baby name list is Nikhil, presumably because it shortens to Nick, just like former Top Ten name Nicholas. But there’s also Nico, a name that reminds me of Milo, but might appeal to your husband.

Rowan, Rohan, Roan – Choose your spelling! Rowan is an Irish surname and a tree, too. It’s the most popular form of the name, at Number 412 for boys in 2014. (It’s also used for girls.) Rohan brings to mind The Lord of the Rings, but ultimately comes from Sanskrit, where it means ascending. At Number 633 in the US, it’s rarer than Rowan, but used exclusively for boys. Roan is a true rarity, but another possibility.

KaiKai has roots in Scandinavia and Hawaii, and it’s a used as a name in German and Dutch, too. Add in Cai and it’s also Welsh. It’s not used in India as far as I can tell, but it doesn’t seem incompatible with Indian given names for boys. At Number 177, it’s the most popular name that I’ve suggested. But I do think there’s something distinctive about Kai.

Aran – Let’s end with a name that has roots in Sanskrit, Hebrew, and Irish. The Aran Islands are off the coast of Ireland, and there’s an Aran River in France. It’s a place name in Iran and Azerbaijan, too. The name appears in the Book of Genesis – it’s distinct from the more popular Aaron. Quite the globe-trotting name, isn’t it?

I’m having a hard time choosing a favorite!

Elizabeth works with any of the possibilities as a middle name. One thought: since you have loved ones with Em– and Am- names, you could smoosh them together and use Embeth, as in actress Embeth Davidtz. Zora Embeth, Yasmin Embeth, Anika Embeth.

Or maybe Lily? Lily is a botanical name, but it was once used as a diminutive for Elizabeth. Zara Lily, Viveka Lily, Mira Lily.

When I see them all written out like that, I’m drawn to Anika Embeth. Leena and Anika both hit the right note of familiar, but not overly common, and they honor both sides of your children’s heritage.

For boys’ names, I’ll admit that I’m drawn to Aran. Leena and Aran both seem like names that are familiar, but with a twist. Any of the possible middles on your list would work beautifully, but I do find myself drawn to the sound of Aran Daniel. (Grandmothers are so persuasive!)

Readers, I would love to hear your suggestions for Leena Gray’s sister or brother, and it would be especially helpful to hear if you’ve named children across cultures!

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22 Responses to “Name Sage: A Baby Name for Two Cultures”

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BothCoasts Says:

September 29th, 2015 at 10:54 pm

Just tossing in a boy’s name that one of my Indian students had (although I can’t say what part of India his family was from and what subculture it might be): Arik. (AHr-ryk). It’s a bit of a stronger, less playful sound than Ezra or Milo, but thought I’d toss it out there as an option. I always liked it!

peach Says:

September 29th, 2015 at 11:41 pm

These seem like great ideas….
Zara, Mira, Priya, and Yasmin. Rohan, Nico, Devan, Kiran.

Zara Elsie
Mira Elizabeth
Priya Violet
Yasmin Amelie

Rohan James
Nico Matthew
Devan John
Kiran Daniel

New ideas…
Anaya — Anaya Elsie
Amita — Amita Violet
Anjali — Anjali Elizabeth
Indira — Indira Ivy
Vila — Vila Amelie

Arjun — Arjun Daniel
Darius — Darius Matthew
Amit — Amit Michael
Darshan — Darshan Ezra
Tarak — Tarak Daniel

Good luck! Anything appeal?

Swangirl Says:

September 30th, 2015 at 12:33 am

I actually really like the sound of Leena and Elsie 🙂 I think Elsa is too attached to Frozen and too much like Leena, but Elsie is great! And thumbs up for family connection!

Maybe an Indian middle would be nice? I don’t know many Indian names, but something like Elsie Kalinda, Mira Noor, Ivy Noor or Violet Noor would give you the same “juxtaposition” that you like in your first daughter’s name. I love the sound of Leena Gray and Ivy Noor!

As far as boy names go, the suggestion of Nico is my personal favorite! It’s similar to Milo, but with a little more edge. Daniel is a great name that seems to cross cultures well also!

Good luck! I think you have a lot of really great options! … Oh and Name Sage, your posts are the best. I look forward to reading them every week! 🙂

pamjsg99 Says:

September 30th, 2015 at 3:09 am

How nice that you are waiting until the arrival of your baby to learn the

sex. I happened to stumble upon the name Edana. I do not believe that it has an Indian connection, though. It is a girl’s name meaning, “tiny flame.” I thought that it might be a nice surprise for your mother.

Edana Ivy
Edana Violet

Elise
Viola Ivy
Vivi Iva

As Shiloh becomes more popular, I thought you might consider the following Hindi names:

Shivani Edana
Shiva Edana

Other names to consider:
Esha Violet
Ekata
Gaya Leila
Gita (Gee-tah) Elise – means song; ballad
Aarya Danielle
Aasera (AH sir ah)
Abha – splendour; luminous; beauty
Acala
Adita
Adrika
Amba Violet
Amiya (ah MEE yah) Rose
Anala (ah NAH lah) Elise
Asha (ASH ah); (AH shah)
Chandra Violet
Daya Violet
Dharma Ivy
Giva
Irma Edana
Jayna Violet
Jinelle Edana
Kanya Danielle
Karma Violet or Violet Karma
Kavela Ivy

Good luck to you!

jahanbismi Says:

September 30th, 2015 at 6:57 am

As someone who grew up in the west and is of Indian descent I’m always looking for Indian or Arabic names that aren’t too out there in western culture, I suggest googling Bollywood actresses of European descent since a lot of them have names that easily transfer to western culture while giving their Indian roots some love, here are some suggestion (Sorry I can only think of girl names).

Kareena

Katrina

Alia

Jasmine

Priyanka nickname Ana

Yara

Safiya

Noor

Selma

Ayesha

Joellena52 Says:

September 30th, 2015 at 7:00 am

My husband is Muslim and we opted to give our children one Western or Christian name & one Arabic name. We chose Leena as well, but opted to use the Greek spelling of Lena. Her middle name is Elise which is a French form of Elizabeth. One nickname I love that can stand alone as a name is Eliza.

Priya Elise
Eliza Yasmin

I’ll have to think about boy names.

ashbee Says:

September 30th, 2015 at 9:26 am

Name sage gave so many great suggestions. I’ll try to add just for variety:

Alia / Aliyah
Anya
Freya (Norse, but I had an Indian friend named this)
Hana
Iris
Kaya
Leilah
Livia
Mila
Nadia
Noor
Norah
Sophia / Saffiya
Ziva

An Em- middle that doesn’t end in -a is Emmeline.
Norah Emmeline
Norah Elizabeth

And no, I don’t think Elsa and Leena sound too similar. I think they go beautifully together.

I love the international names Nina and Mina, but they rhyme with Leena.

Aran Daniel is great! I have an Indian friend Krishan (Kris) whose son in Nikhil (Nick). Samir can also be Sam.

ashbee Says:

September 30th, 2015 at 9:32 am

Also, I agree that Leena and Mira are wonderful together.

SimoneKadele Says:

September 30th, 2015 at 9:37 am

I love the suggestion of Safiya! (SAH-fee-uh)

jcubed Says:

September 30th, 2015 at 10:47 am

With our kids, my wife wanted a name that would work with her Indian Muslim heritage, without being too difficult for Americans, like her name is. We named our first son Aref Jacob; his first name is after her second cousin, and his middle name is one we both liked. I later found out that Jacob had been extremely popular in my family 9+ generations ago. In daily life, we call him AJ, so he can generally go incognito with a totally American name, if he wants.

ashbee: If we had a daughter, we were going to name her Nadia Noor, since Noor was my wife’s grandmother’s name. We used the grandmother’s middle name, Jahan, for our second son’s middle name. His first name is Zachary, which is a cognate with the Arabic name, Zakaria.

GermanIris Says:

September 30th, 2015 at 11:08 am

Other suggestions:

Girls: Uma, Tara, Sona, Sheela/Shila, Reena/Rina, Reva, Preeti/Priti, Padma, Nisha, Nikita, Neha, Neela/Nila, Nalini, Nala, Meena/Mina, Maya, Mala, Isha, Ila

Boys: Ved, Ravi, Raj, Nikhil, Naveen, Jay/Jai, Hari, Anil, Amar

LoveBugsMama Says:

September 30th, 2015 at 1:05 pm

Name Sage knocks it out of the park again with her suggestions! Love Annika & Viveca as suggestions for this family.

HPhilps Says:

September 30th, 2015 at 3:38 pm

Lots of good options here to go with Leena. My personal favourites are Priya and Kiran/Keiran.

ashbee Says:

September 30th, 2015 at 8:24 pm

@jcubed: Nadia and Noor are truly beautiful names.

Thegratiana Says:

September 30th, 2015 at 10:18 pm

We are in the same boat as this family, although we used the Indian name as a middle.

Girl: Veda, Arya (Noble), Asha (wish, desire, hope), Jyoti (light), Ilesha (earth lord), Kali (black one), Kiran (sunbeam), Maya (illusion), Mira (sea, ocean), Reva (one that moves), Sarita (flower)

Boy: Dev, Jay (victory), Krishna- can be shortened to Kris (dark, also a name of a god), Naveen (new), Raj (king), we used Vyas (the arranger)

Care Says:

October 1st, 2015 at 12:47 am

So many beautiful suggestions!
Mira Yasmin and Nico Rohan are my favorites!

jesstheebest123 Says:

October 1st, 2015 at 12:56 am

Leena is so pretty!

I really like the name Hakeem for a boy and I think that Leena & Hakeem sound really cute together! I also think that Hakeem James would be a very handsome full name!

Other suggestions

Yael is a hebrew name that means transcend and is pronounced “yiy-elle” Leena & Yeal are adorable together! I also like Yael Elisabeth 🙂

Saya- with names like Maya in the spotlight Saya won’t feel unfamiliar even though it is a very rare name in the US

Kaya- more common then Saya but still not very common and extremely cute!

Layana- I don’t remember where I heard this name but I think it’s beautiful. Leena & Layana share their first letter but I don’t think that makes them to similar

Leena & Teagan
Leena & Freya
Leena & Fiona
Leena & Nami

ashbee Says:

October 1st, 2015 at 9:07 am

@jesstheebest Yael is my cousin’s name and is very popular in Israel. It’s pronounced YAH-elle.

Gerda Says:

October 1st, 2015 at 2:46 pm

@germaniris I think your suggestions are on point. I love them…especially
Leena & Mala
Leena & Maya
Leena & Tara
Leena & Uma
Leena & Sheela/Shila
Leena & Isha or Nisha

Leena & Ved
Leena & Jai/Jay
Leena & Ravi
Leena & Hari
Leena & Naveen
Leena & Nikhil

Daisychain Says:

October 1st, 2015 at 2:52 pm

The problem with Anika is that it’s pronounced quite differently in its European and Indian incarnations. That is, it’s really not the same name, it just happens that an Indian name is transliterated into Roman characters using letter that spell an unrelated European name.

Anika in Euro-America is pronounced AHN-ik-uh or ANNE-ik-uh.

In distinction, the Sanskrit-derived Anika, also sometimes spelled Aneeka, is uh-NEEK-uh.

If you’re looking for a girl name that is truly international and travels well in that it’s pronounced the same or similarly in European and American languages and accents, Anika is probably not the best.

I’d suggest:

Meera/Mira, Anita, Monika/Monica, Natasha, or a that doesn’t have a counterpart but sounds nice in the Euro-American context such as Priya, Anushka, Anjali (that’s uhn-juhl-ie, not ANN-juhl-ie), Anoop, etc.

Nora/Nura is another option, although I’m guessing by the names you’ve listed that your husband’s family is Hindu, and Nora/Nura is a name that’s more familiar in Muslim India.

pixelatedinfants Says:

November 7th, 2015 at 10:42 pm

Isla Elizabeth
Monraux May
Norvia Otteline
Kimberley Adelaide
Sade Uma
Niomi Keygen
Teagen Matisse
Rowine Elvira
Ivana Letten
Ashira Yasemin

hippyhilah Says:

May 22nd, 2016 at 12:38 pm

I live in the UK in an area where we have a really huge Indian community, I know people called Jaimus (goes by Jamie), Ashwin (goes by Ash), Kiran, Aran and Dillon, which are all western-sounding, but Indian too. Also for girls, Diva and Deva, Carmen, Nim (short for Nimisha, but still easy for people to pronounce etc), and Lena. I always liked Veda, which was the name of the main character from My Girl, and also the sanskrit word for wisdom – it’s on my list, even though I have no Indian heritage. I do love the Hindu religion though – despite being a Christian, I see it as talking about all the same things in a sometimes clearer, less confusing way, and if I was from an Indian background, Veda would definitely be top of the list for a girl. Ashwin would be the top for a boy (I’m considering this myself also, because I love Ash, but I’m not a fan of Ashton – and I love that Ashwin means ‘light’).

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