Problematic Baby Names
I followed with interest an online name discussion a while back in which the parents had loved the name Zora for years, and when they were finally expecting a girl and planning to use Zora, they were made aware of the Spanish word zorra, which can translate as “fox” but is used as an unsavory term for a girl. “Is this name now unusable?” they fretted, and while the opinions of the commenters were mixed, the parents ultimately decided not to use Zora, despite the awesome reference to Zora Neale Hurston, which had been part of why they loved the name.
I’ve come across other names that have, or have had in the past, difficulty making the crossover between languages or cultures, or which seem downright unusable. Consider these:
Analía: It’s a beautiful Spanish name, a combination of Ana and Lia, or a contraction of Ana and Lucia, and part of the name of popular telenovela El Rostro de Analía, but the first four letters could be a real problem for speakers of American English.
Bertha: Big Bertha was used to refer to any of several big German guns during World War I, but has since become associated with any large object. It’s likely not a name a girl of any size would like to be called.
Fanny: Though it wasn’t uncommon as an American slang term for one’s bottom in the recent past (and perhaps still?), Fanny may be coming around to have more of a sweet-old-fashioned feel, a la Nell and Gracie. (Though beware that it is also a British slang term for vagina.)
Jemima: Oh Jemima, the great love of so many name lovers! Though common enough in England, it’s long been considered unusable in America. The more innocent reference is the Aunt Jemima brand of maple syrup (I’ve seen people wrinkle their noses at the idea of naming a child after a brand of food); the more controversial is the negative racial overtones due to Aunt Jemima’s original portrayal as a Mammy-type figure.
Cohen: It’s not unusual to come across non-Jewish parents in online forums revealing that they’re considering Cohen for a boy—and they are always immediately set straight: Cohen is a royal priestly surname in Judaism, referring to the descendants of Aaron, and use as a first name is incredibly offensive to Jews. (Cowan and Coen are better options if you love the sound.)
Dung, Hung, Phuc: Unfortunately, these Vietnamese names with such desirable meanings as courageous, heroic, and lucky are difficult to pull off in communities that are primarily familiar with American pronunciations.
Mick and Paddy: These nicknames for Patrick and Michael used to be ethnic slurs for the Irish or those of Irish descent. They seem to have moved on from such associations though, at least in America, with some American families enjoying the Irish-ness of nicknaming their little boy Paddy (I don’t believe Mick(ey) has come quite as far, maybe because of The Mouse).
I know there are some parents for whom such considerations aren’t bothersome—they love the names they love, and they’re going to use them no matter what. For myself, while I absolutely respect the parents’ rights to name their children, I would nonetheless take into serious consideration whether a name is likely to cause embarrassment or even misery to a child.
Do you agree with my assessments of the names listed here? What examples do you have of names that are difficult to use, for whatever reason? Would you consider using them anyway?
About the author
Katherine Morna Towne
View all of 's articles
You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
on May 24th, 2015 at 11:37 pm
I would avoid names that sound like bottoms or defecation (Analia, Anise, Fannie, Dung, etc.) simply b/c I would not appreciate being named them.
I don’t think Big Bertha is as well known now as when I was a kid and I actually kind of like Bertha as it is so not Londyn or Francibella. Still, would I want to be named it? Probably not and that is my ultimate test.
I would absolutely use Jemima or China or India or Beulah or Bessie or Dinah. I think these are gorgeous names and it’s time to use them. Also, I would love to be named any of them.
I’ve been on nameberry long enough to not use Cohen, not that I even like the sound or look of it anyway. Faulkner is cool, but better for a large, rangy golden dog. I don’t know if Mick and Paddy are derogatory still or not, but either way they are not handsome names in my book.
It does seem important to remember that one person’s forbidden fruit is another’s joy. Barring Adolf and Aryan and Bloodsucker and other obvious no’s, most names are up for grabs. The names that cause me to flinch are the misspelled ones more so than the odd or dubious ones.
on May 25th, 2015 at 7:49 am
I am American. I was born in America and have always lived there. I never saw a problem with Jemima. It’s just a name, even if it is shared by that syrup bottle character. I think people are exaggerating when they say it’s a cruel name to give to your child.
As for Cohen, I’m not Jewish nor do I know many Jewish people but it still bothers me! Most people don’t even pronounce it right apparently. They think it’s just some update to Owen but I’ve been told it’s co-HAYN, not CO-en. Not an attractive name on the first place, even without being potentially offensive.
Bertha doesn’t bother me, but I personally have a sad experience with the name.
Dung, Hung and Phuc. They seem like they would be lovely if not for sounding like unfortunate words.
I’m tired of Analia, Analeigh or however you want to spell it. Do your child a favor and add that extra n if you like the name. It wouldn’t kill you.
on May 25th, 2015 at 7:49 am
My husband’s grandfather’s nn was Mick. And his family are Irish. Nobody cares. I’m not sure they even know, as it has never been mentioned to me, even when I have helped with compiling family scrapbooks and such.
This leads me to conclude: many off-limits names are only labeled such because someone, somewhere, is commemorating the memory of an otherwise forgotten insult. If a name or term is actively offensive or profane, then certainly, pass it by. Offenses that are a century or more in age? It’s time to move on. My own family-by-marriage is part of one of these groups that is supposed to be offended, and we don’t care! Name your boy Mick. We’d clap him on the back and say how awesome it was to meet someone with Grandpa’s name.
on May 25th, 2015 at 8:54 am
Speaking as a Jew, I wouldn’t describe use of the name Cohen as offensive (though it may be to some more religious Jews), it more just that it makes the parents look very uneducated. Cohen in the Jewish community is absolutely a last name and it is a status symbol, so giving your non-Jewish child Cohen as a first name just screams ‘we have no idea about the history of the name we’re using!’. I think it is extremely unlikely that any Jewish parents would ever use the name. I think pronunciation may vary because all the (last name) Cohens I know pronounce it Co-en or Co-hen.
Speaking as a Brit, calling a child Fanny would probably just be considered a bit cruel here. Although some parents have decided to try and reclaim the nickname.
I quite like the name Jemima.
I don’t like Bertha, although I think that’s more to do with style than negative connotations (although she is also the crazy wife in Jane Eyre).
Annalia is pretty, that extra n is important!
on May 25th, 2015 at 10:50 am
I know a girl named Dung. She pronounces it like “Yum”. She doesn’t seem to take issue with her name, even though people do giggle at it. What’s worse is when we have a substitute teacher and they call out to see if “dung” is here.
on May 25th, 2015 at 11:11 am
Love Jemima. Honestly, my first association with it is Beatrix Potter’s Jemima Puddle-duck, which seems harmless. 😉
on May 25th, 2015 at 6:11 pm
Well, I would probably avoid the name Lucifer or Damien/Damian
Thank yous all around!! | Sancta Nomina Said
on May 25th, 2015 at 8:25 pm
[…] my final thank you to Nameberry for posting another of my name articles: Problematic Baby Names. I’d love to hear your thoughts on that too! And any others you might add to the […]
on May 25th, 2015 at 9:30 pm
You took the words right out of my mouth of Analia! That’s exactly what makes me not want to use it and use Amalia instead. Same with Anaïs that kind sounds like…you know.
And with Jemima I like how the Brits are bringing it back. It’s a jaunty Biblical name with a great meaning but that darn stereotype. Gem can even be a nickname. I’d definitely use it, and I love pancakes anyway hahaaha. The racism stereotypes haven’t hurt Tom have they? Nope.
on May 26th, 2015 at 7:44 am
Some of this is just nuts – not naming your child after a ‘Mamie’ character = don’t use Jemimia BUT I know children called Mamie! Or the association in America with the food making it unsuable? I’ve worked with Americans going by ‘Floss’, ‘Candy’ and ‘Cookie’ (Floss was nn for Florence, Candy was full name and Cookie is nothing like her name but requests everyone to call her Cookie – 40/50s woman)
I think it is important to keep in mind the cultural impact of a name especiallu from a different culture from the one you intend to bring up your child in – e.g. Phuc. Not to say that cultural heratige should be ignored but you should also keep in mind the heritage of the environment the child is living in.
You can find negative connotations with most names if you look hard enough but I would hope that most parents would be sensible enough to take their intended social seting and social stigmas regarding names into account when they are choosing.
However – lets not forget that we all have different social experiences of names; most berries love Alice for example. To me its the name of;
My hamster growing up
The crazy girl I used to work with from Hungary who would casually use the C word most of the day in an open plan office – LOUDLY
Annoying heroine of childhood book Alice in Wonderland – she was SO whiny!
A twilight name
A psycho character in a TV show
– The things to remember is that your perception of a name is just that – a PERCEPTION!
Yes there are names with more widespread appeal or negativity but the meaning behond the name often makes or breaks it for me.
e.g. I’d much rather meet a Phuc named after a beloved relative or special link to parental wishes – like faith, patience etc
than a ‘Rupert named after the actor Rupert Everett cos I saw him in a film once and I liked his accent (the character was nasty tho)’
or a ‘Jessalynnn – I just wanted something different ‘yunnno, and i thnk its classy.’
Personally it boils down to this – if you name your child something with meaning to you it will take on more significance than any accidental cultural crossovers. e.g. a Cohen named after a family surname will have a far easier time explaining that to someone thats offended than someone whose parents ‘just liked the sound’.
If you don’t have any meaning behind your name its easier for someone else to assign a meaning!
on May 26th, 2015 at 10:03 am
I think any name that sounds too similar (or exactly like) a profanity or form of defecation should be off-limits.
In terms of Cohen, as a Jew, I don’t find the first name offensive, just ignorant of what it means/symbolizes. It really is a last name, and is purely of ancestral nature – no Jew would ever think to label himself as a Cohen if he wasn’t one. That would just be ridiculous.
And Bertha won’t be coming back any time soon like her old-lady counterparts… it really is too ‘big,’ in my opinion.
on May 26th, 2015 at 2:48 pm
Analia to me, reminds me of one of my favorites, Analeigh. I still love it, no matter what may be in the name. But the others, I’m not so sure about. Mick and Paddy don’t seem offensive, just not my favorite as names.
on July 29th, 2015 at 10:47 am
Very interesting read. I wonder what everyone’s thoughts on Astrid are? I love its meaning and history but I worry its too easily turned into ass turd.
on August 28th, 2015 at 10:49 pm
@Penguinkin – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mammy_archetype
I’m not sure where you live, but in the US, the “mammy” is a racist trope. It’s not about the name being food related.
As for additions, why wasn’t G*psy on here?
I’m Jewish and, like many people on here, I don’t think using Cohen as a first name is offensive. Obnoxious and misinformed, sure, but not flat out offensive.
(I’ve never heard it pronounced co-hayn, just co-en or maybe cone when said quickly)
on January 3rd, 2016 at 12:39 pm
@thenameprincess – I went to high school with an Astrid and she was definitely called ass turd frequently by a bullying group of boys. So it is a distinct possibility that is the go to insult should little Astrid not be popular.
leave a reply
You must be logged in to post a comment.