Naming twins: Moving (way) beyond Oliver & Olivia–and why
If a recent New York Times article is to be believed, naming a baby is more anxiety-inducing than ever before. So much pressure to find the one. perfect. name. But what happens when you need two perfect names and I don’t mean in succession. Like virtually everything else to do with having twins, is naming them double the trouble?
There is a real sense in which choosing a pair of twins’ names is just like choosing a sibling set. For me, the same basic rules applied. The names had to be complementary and of a comparable level of originality. They had to roll off the tongue together, because, lord knows, they will be spoken in tandem more often than you can imagine. It would be a bonus if they shared some common, but not overwhelming, feature: a group of letters perhaps or a vague significance of meaning. Better yet, a sense of style. I have seen, for instance, all of my children’s names described as “Antique Charm.” This was a happy coincidence for the first two. For the twins, as numbers three and four, it felt almost like a necessity.
Twins are another sibset, to be sure, but there is an additional consideration. While the twin bond is powerful, it is fragile too. Twins spend their lives being linked in a way that is materially different from consecutively-spaced siblings. Because names are a powerful index of personhood, how they relate to each other can have a special impact on multiples, who are notoriously vulnerable to identity issues. In practical terms, this means you have to think about naming two babies born at the same time as exactly that: two separate babies, who should be encouraged to cultivate two separate senses of self.
Such is the argument psychotherapist Joan A. Friedman makes in her book Emotionally Healthy Twins. The key to raising kids who fit the title is to treat them as unique individuals from as early on as possible. This applies to how you conceptualize and talk about them in utero. It also applies to the names you give them at birth, the ships on which they will sail through the journey of childhood. Opting for names that are sufficiently different is a metaphor of their separate trajectories. The author, a twin herself, recommends avoiding a common first letter or any pair that sounds too matchy. The fact that her identical twin is called Jane was a source of consternation for her as a child, not of fun. “I longed for a name that was different enough from my sister’s,” she writes, “so that people would know me for who I was.”
Distinct names are arguably more important with identical twins, where the very similar aesthetic might make the case for a unique label. And yet, it is often identical twins or same-sex fraternal twins who get the sing-song combinations of Isaac and Isaiah or Ella and Emma (both sets appeared in the top ten twin names of 2012, along with Ethan and Evan and Makayla and Makenzie). This trend of naming alliteratively is another manifestation of what Friedman calls the “twin mystique”: our cultural instinct to conflate multiples at every turn. It is a tendency she warns against.
Our top boy candidates were Eli and Ezra, for example, but we decided not to use them together. The repeat of the opening E and the joint old-testament origin made them too close for comfort. Our top girl choices were Phoebe and Zoe and I don’t think we would have used those together either, for the same reason. Naming twins isn’t simply a matter of putting a finger on your favorite two monikers of the moment. Sometimes it is more a process of elimination, a shuffling around of the preferred names until you find a set that work on their own and as a pair.
For us, it was a process that took a few days once our twins were born because we didn’t know their sexes beforehand. The girl arrived first and we settled on Phoebe. As the lone daughter, the feelings about her name were stronger. We then used Phoebe as an anchor to find Jasper, a name we wouldn’t have chosen if he were a singleton, but one that is now, of course, indelibly his.
Phoebe and Jasper, Jasper and Phoebe. At two years old, they embrace each other’s names with the same pride as they do their own. There was a time Phoebe would say her name was Jasper. There was a time Jasper would say his name was Phoebe-and-Jasper. They are everyday learning more about who they are as individuals and, simultaneously, what it means to be one of a twosome. Being a twin is both of those things. No matter how much they are lumped together, their distinct names will always help them keep sight of their distinct identities.