Ooooops! Baby Name Mistakes

Novelist Christina Baker Kline, whose wonderful new book Bird in Hand comes out this week, writes about how even someone who names fictional people for a living can make mistakes when naming real live babies.  Like when she named her three sons: Eli, his brother William, and his other brother William.

You’d think that someone who spends her days creating and naming characters might have gotten the hang of it by the time she had to name some actual humans.  That’s what I thought, at least.  In fact, I was rather smug about it.  A novelist spends a lot of time, over the course of writing 300 pages, with the characters she names, so you learn to choose carefully.

Names can instantly reveal a person‘s class, age, social standing, and even race. They have positive and negative connotations. And the wrong name can be disastrous. For example, a friend of mine named Brandy is an award-winning journalist who has had to battle people’s preconceptions all her life about her name.  I would never do that to a character!

So why did I do it to my kids?

(Im charitably saying “I,” but for the record my husband was an equal and willing partner in this.)

We named our firstborn William Hayden Baker Kline (yes, four names – bear with me), after my father, William Baker, and a whole lot of Hadens — we added the “y” — in my husband’s family tree. We signed the birth certificate, sent out printed announcements, and received everything from picture frames to baby rattles to blankets with “William Hayden” and his birthdate inscribed.

But over the next few weeks, we began to second-guess.  This child was round and jolly, with curly red hair: a baby leprechaun.  The princely name of William just didn’t fit.  But Hayden – yes!  He was definitely a Hayden, a hobbity child of the heather-grown hills.  It was the perfect name for him, and, we thought, relatively undiscovered.

Wrong.  At a playground in New York City, where we lived, a lovely woman invited me to join her baby group – and when I arrived, there were not one but two chubby baby Haydens, and one even had red hair.

When I got pregnant with our second child, and we learned we were having another son, the name William came up again.  After all, we clearly liked it, having chosen it once.  Hayden wasn’t using it. Why not?  We didn’t quite anticipate the stir this would cause among our friends and family, who thought the whole thing showed an appalling lack of imagination. Two Williams?  Really?

(I am the third Christina — my mother is called Tina, my grandmother Christine — so I think I had a higher tolerance than most, and my husband is exceedingly practical.  It made sense to us )

Well, we certainly didn’t received anymore monogrammed rattles.  And to this day, people tease us about it.  Every now and then, an official form reminds us of our folly — their birth certificates, of course, and even passports both say William.  We could jump through hoops to change it, and one day we probably will.

Which brings me to our third child.  Another boy.  Though my husband and I were raised 2,000 miles apart, in New England and the Midwest, it turned out that we both had ancestors from the 18th century who were farmers in the same Virginia county named Elias.  When we stumbled on this (courtesy of avid geneology-buff cousins on both sides), we were thrilled.  What a happy coincidence! Elias he would be.

We took baby Eli and our two Williams to our 15th Yale reunion, where we were startled to encounter dismay and scorn.  What!  Two Yalies name their son Eli — isn’t that cruel?  Do you realize the kind of pressure you’re putting on your kid?

Honestly, the “Eli Yale connection hadn’t even occurred to us.

(This all reminds me of my English friend Henrietta Pate‘s saga.  She’d been teased about her name as a child and was determined to give her child a “normal” name.  She chose a popular English name, Oliver.  When the nurse bustled in and read the chart, she exclaimed, “How funny!  You’ve named your child O Liver Paté!”)

As it turns out, my sons all like their names just fine.  Hayden is the only Hayden in his suburban high school, which he thinks is great.  William — now a teenaged “Will — appreciates the strong simplicity of his name, and even the story of how he came to have it.  And except for a brief moment in first grade when some girl tried to bully him with an “Eli he lies” taunt, our third child has been content with his as well. (Like his brother Will, he dropped the second part of his name and became plain Eli – “because Elias sounds weird.“) At 9, he isn’t feeling any pressure about colleges, and frankly I don’t think it’ll ever be a factor.  Anyway, he’s already announced he’s going to Princeton, a short distance from home.

Bird in Hand is Christina Baker Kline’s fourth novel.  Her blog, which chronicles the process of writing her next book, is called A Writing Year.  She is also the editor of two books about motherhood: Child of Mine: Original Essays on Becoming A Mother and Room to Grow.

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28 Responses to “Ooooops! Baby Name Mistakes”

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susan Says:

August 13th, 2009 at 12:43 am

I love the name William. It would be tempting to name all your sons William! I feel the same way about the name Elizabeth. If I had had two or more daughters, I would have been tempted to give them all the same middle name – Elizabeth. In “The Great Brain” books, all three brothers have the same middle name – I think it’s Dennis. They all go by their initials. Is Eli sad that William isn’t in his name?

lesley Says:

August 13th, 2009 at 1:11 am

What a great blog!

I knew sisters named Mary Elaine and Mary Eleanor. The youngest at least went by her middle name. I always thought it was a little odd, but it didn’t seem to impact their lives much except for a little confusion at school.

Charlotte Vera Says:

August 13th, 2009 at 1:23 am

Fantastic story! Your two Williams were relatively well thought out, which helps when people come demanding explanations about why you chose to give them both the same first name. I have a couple of friends whose parents weren’t thinking quite as clearly when they were named.

One, a lovely lady by the name of Liliana, was named by her mother after a hospital nurse who assisted in her delivery. She was obviously still recovering from labour, because she completely forgot that she already had a daughter named Lilian.

Another friend, the youngest child and only boy in a family of four siblings, had a father who was so excited at his birth that when filling out the requisite forms, he put his son’s entire name in the given names slot. Yup, you guess it, my friend is now Steven David David on all his official documents.

Amy Says:

August 13th, 2009 at 5:31 am

I know a woman who named her two sons Nathan and Nathaniel…and not by mistake.

Jen Says:

August 13th, 2009 at 7:03 am

I named my first child, a boy, Mason Shane, after much debate. We had originally picked Benjamin, a name my mother adored and I liked quite a bit, and living in a smll town we knew there wouldn’t be a commonality factor. But, alas, we lost out, just as we got preggers, my husband’s stepfather became a grandfather and lo- and behold they named their son Benjamin, so we went with our very close second, Mason, which I ADORE, and his father’s middle name is also Shane. My daughter, who was NOT known to be a girl til birth, we were clueless until she was born, and literally IN LABOUR I agreed to allow my husband to name her IF IN FACT we had a girl, because we could agree on nothing for names, for either sex. And thankfully she was a girl, and he looked at me and said “Madison it is” and so she is, Madison Camille, Madison is a name he has loved for years, and although common I like it as well, and Camille is the name of his grandmother, 86 yrs old now and has SEVERAL grandchildren, and NONE named after her, I swore 2 years BEFORE we ever had a girl if I did I would give her her namesake, and I did, and the two LOVE eachother, and now Gram suffering with dementia still sknows her namesake, and they still adore eachother…

Pam Says:

August 13th, 2009 at 8:08 am

I have to admit that my three children, Rory, Joe, and Owen, are sometimes called Ro, Joe, and O!

Chels Says:

August 13th, 2009 at 9:42 am

I went to school with identical twin sisters, both first name Maria but with different middle names. They went by their middle names.

Karen Says:

August 13th, 2009 at 10:36 am

I’m not sure I see the problem with this at all! The parents liked the name William, but William I was using Hayden, so they still didn’t have their son William, which was something they’d still wanted. If they hadn’t let their first son go by Hayden, this might not have happened, and the second William would go by another name. I think it is a little weirder that parents choose a name and then feel that child “fits” a middle name even better, if they really loved William. It says more about how names seem to have associations that a young toddler’s appearance and emerging personality do or don’t fit.

I can probably count on my hands how many people I’ve known or worked with who have the first initial and go by their middle name, or a fancy name like “Trey” – there is usually a better reason to go by Trey than some nickname of their father or grandfather – their names are usually horrendous and awful. So I wonder how much planning goes into sometimes avoiding the child’s first name on purpose. I find this very curious for an author who develops characters and names them – when you name a child, they have no developed character, so what might emerge as their name could have only partial relevance to what you name them – either by parental choice in Hayden or Elias shortening his name to Eli for practical purposes. This almost says to me, you can’t actually name your own children. They become who they are and almost by chance own the names we give them or find something to call themselves in there.

Ashley Says:

August 13th, 2009 at 11:23 am

I named my daughter Lila and my dog is named Lola. It seemed okay at the time, but it gets confusing sometimes!!

redriding Says:

August 13th, 2009 at 1:35 pm

Things like this happen. I have always loved the name Katharine/Catherine, and I named my eldest daughter Laura Katharine Francesca, but she is known as Laura. I called my third daughter Catherine Julia Felicity, and she is called Catherine. Maybe if I had been sure of having a third girl (as well as three boys), I would not have included it in Laura’s name, but at the time, I just wanted to include Katharine/Catherine somehow.

My husband’s aunts were Elizabeth and Harriet, which sounds ok except that they were known all their lives as Betty and Etty.

Very interestng blog and I will be looking up The Bird in Hand and the other books! Thanks.

Ailsa in Wales

JenMaselli Says:

August 13th, 2009 at 4:03 pm

I have an aunt that named her kids Jimmy, James and Jamie. At least your two Williams go by different names.

L. Says:

August 13th, 2009 at 4:45 pm

My husband’s last name is Dixon and his mother wanted his first name to be Mason. Thanks be to God, my father-in-law intervened. Mason Dixon? Oy!

jodylynn Says:

August 13th, 2009 at 7:04 pm

I had a student one year named Arian, and had a chuckle to myself when i had his sister the following year: Ariana.

choosingtheperfectname Says:

August 15th, 2009 at 1:08 pm

My friend had a child named Frances and then she remarried and ended up with a step-child named Frances. What’s more insane is that both Franceses had the same middle name: Grace. Now they go by Fran and Cissy-Grace.

Tracey Says:

September 4th, 2009 at 12:21 pm

In my husband’s family, we also have two Williams–in one name. My FIL’s name is Guy Williams. Guy is short for Guillaume. He didn’t realize this. He named his oldest William Guy. Two Bill Bills in two generations!

Paula Says:

November 19th, 2009 at 1:12 pm

My sister has three sons–Ian, Sean and Jon. All mean the same thing, but represent 3 different nationalities. I guess that works. My daughter named her first son Sean, forgetting that she had a cousin Sean. I think we all end up messing up names one way or another. We named our first child Janielle–it was too hard for my father to pronounce–he called her Chanel for the longest time.

Sunshinetina Says:

May 20th, 2010 at 11:53 pm

My name is Martina, I have 2 cousins with that name, a grandmother, and 2 aunts with that name.

That isnt really all that odd. I know of a few greek families where kids have the same names as their cousins, parents, or aunts, uncles. Most (at least the ones that I have met) name their first born son after the paternal grandfather, first born daughter after the paternal grandmother, the next kids after the maternal grandparents, and so on. So it is logical to think that you would have two sons, who could be named after their grandfathers who have the same name.
After all isn’t recycling green, and isn’t green in right now.

anne Says:

March 3rd, 2011 at 4:45 am

I know a family that had a son named Daniel with no mn then they had a daughter named Danielle again with no mn then they had another daughter which they named Danielle with Dani as the middle name. They had 1 more daughter after that named Pamela Daniella Susan.

Marie Says:

March 9th, 2011 at 9:38 am

I went to school 50 years ago with twin boys. One was named a perfectly ordinary Peter James but the other poor boy got lumbered with Field Marshall and was always called Field (and sometimes “paddock”). He joined the army as a young man, and made it into the local paper when’Private Field Marshall Jackson” was fined for driving an unregistered tractor along the main road.

Danielle Says:

March 16th, 2011 at 4:43 pm

My grandmother named her two daughters Aileen and Margaret, known as Aileen and Peggy. Both of them suffered from a bad knee that ran in the family. Both of them limped. Say the names out loud if you still don’t understand the irony. Oy!

tavn Says:

May 16th, 2011 at 2:16 pm

I love both names William & Elias. William & Elizabeth are the ultimate classics for me. I love them both…always have and always will. Funny that they appeared as lovers in Pirates.

Anywho, DH will not allow the use of William, so I’m going to try to sneak a Liam in one of our names. Elizabeth has been used on two of my friend’s daughters, as well as my bestie, so that name is axed for me, but we’ve found the variation that we love – Eliza. Harlow Eliza Noelle will be our daughters name.

Siobhan Says:

June 11th, 2011 at 8:30 am

When I named my son Jack, my sister in-law yelled at me because that is the name of her nephew on her side. When I had my Amleia Louise, my sister yelled at me because her neice on my BIL side’s was an Amelia Lousie. Our jack now goes by jack-jack and our Amelia goes by Milly. I had trouble avoiding conflicting names in my own 10 neices and nephews instead of the outlaws!

If my daughter was to be a boy, she might have be named hubby’s names reverse.

Also my name in English means Joan which shares the same meaning as my son.

msmoll91 Says:

July 1st, 2011 at 1:22 pm

We named our son a family name – the Czech version of “Frederick.” To avoid pronounciation issues, we thought we would call him Freddie. People gave us monogramed blankets and inscribed books to Freddie. After 3 months, we realized he just wasn’t a Freddie. Everyone called him by his given name – either by the Czech pronounciation (family) or by the English. He’s now 19 months and I can’t imagine calling him anything other than his given name. One day I’ll explain why his books all say Freddie, but for now, it’s a lesson that some kids just name themselves!

liza Says:

August 10th, 2011 at 12:12 pm

I was the fourth generation Elizabeth and my mother felt very strongly that it should continue. I had literally been raised knowing my daughter would have this name. My husband is Will, Jr. and wanted his son to be William III. Perfectly nice name. I had a boy first, William III, and was on the playground with him just before my daughter was born. There were three Williams with younger sisters named Elizabeth! It wasnt util she was legally named that I decided to reverse her first and middle names, even though the middle one was an unusual family name and had traditionally been used for boys. I am so glad I did. Even though it is long and unusual it suit her perfectly, and there were lots of Elizabeths in her class. I had considered calling her Eli as a nickname, nice and short, differnt from the usual ones, but would have been a “boy” name.

LexieM Says:

September 27th, 2012 at 11:22 am

I’m almost sad your third son wasn’t William Elias.
What a great story, thanks for sharing.

princessgigi Says:

October 4th, 2012 at 10:00 am

Two out of 3 members of the band Hanson go by their middle names; Clarke Isaac – Isaac/Ike and Jordan Taylor – Taylor/Tay and some of their kids do as well – Clarke Everett is Everett (Clarke is a family name from what I understand), Jordan Ezra is Ezra, James Monroe is Monroe and John Ira Shepherd is Shepherd. Will be interesting to see what nickname they use for the new blessing for Taylor and Natalie – Wilhelmina Jane.

EmilyVA Says:

January 29th, 2013 at 7:48 pm

I know two brothers where the older brother is Paul William and the other brother is William. They go by Paul and Will. Also Two sisters whose first names start with A and middle Marie. Their brother’s name also starts with A and his middle is Michael.

names from books Baby Name Blog – Nameberry Says:

June 18th, 2013 at 10:53 pm

[…] new New York Times bestselling novel Orphan Train, by my friend Christina Baker Kline who’s blogged for Nameberry on naming her three sons (and making some mistakes along the way).  Her characters’ names […]

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