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Problematic Baby Names

May 24, 2015 Katherine Morna Towne

 By Kate at Sancta Nomina (Katherine Morna Towne)

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:

Girls

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.

Boys

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.

Faulkner, Fulk(e): As with Phuc, these otherwise innocuous names with great literary connections have pronunciations just far too close to a certain American profanity.

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

Katherine Morna Towne is a writer, Catholic baby name blogger and consultant at Sanctanomina, and author of Catholic Baby Names for Girls and Boys: Over 250 Ways to Honor Our Lady (Marian Press, 2018). She lives in the northeast with her husband and seven sons (ages 1 to 15).

View all of Katherine Morna Towne's articles

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