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Why I Picked a Traditional Baby Name

The positives of choosing a traditional baby name with family ties

By Antonia Malchik

I was sitting at the lunch table in fifth grade when I decided that if I ever had a daughter I’d name her something normal.

I grew up mainly in two different towns in Montana. In the first, all my friends had names I coveted: Katie, Stacy, Tiffany, Angie. Their names were pretty, and, importantly for an early 1980s childhood, normal. My name was not. I was named “Antonia” for Willa Cather’s novel My Ántonia, “Louise” after my maternal grandmother, and “Evgenia” after my father’s cousin who still lived in the Soviet Union where my father had grown up. All of which got shortened to the decidedly unmusical and definitely not normal “Nia.”

By the time I finally had kids of my own I’d mellowed on the “normal” bit but realized instead what I wanted was for them to have names that connected to their heritage, names that had meaning for our family beyond my own personal preferences.

As I became an adult I learned to appreciate what I couldn’t as a child, that names can be like ancestral histories we carry with us. Now, I’ve learned to value my connection to my grandmother and my father’s family and one of my mother’s favorite books, even if I was stuck with “Nia-peeah-diarrhea” for many of my formative years. These names give me a place in far-flung communities I’m always longing to know better.

When I was in high school we moved to a very different town full of ex-hippies, where I don’t think I met a single Tiffany or Stacy. Most of my friends had names I’d never heard before and likely never will again—Zabyn, one of my favorite people, or Koan, my then-boyfriend. It later seemed to me that to give a child a name intentionally stripped of ancestry was to weigh them down with a different class of expectations. We expect you to buck the system, these names said, to be more individual, more thoughtful, more counter-culture even than you might wish.

By the time I had my first child eight years ago this trend had become convention and then passé. How many children do I know now who are named after spices or yoga positions? Most of my friends these days name their children after plants or food or Eastern philosophical concepts, thinking that doing so will give their children a blank slate of personality to fill instead of burdening them with the past.

I understand the temptation.

But the thought of giving my children names without history felt empty. What was the point of naming my daughter, say, “Alice,” simply because my husband liked it? “Alice” is lovely but had no meaning for us. Why not connect her to our family histories, with all their pride and struggle and stories of people gone before? Humans are so often rootless these days, following jobs and loves and desires without always becoming grounded in a culture or community. Why not carry at least one thing from our pasts, the stories that created us?

My daughter is named for my father, Aleksandra for Aleksandr, spelled to reflect the Russian pronunciation that is intrinsic to who he is. Like my own name, it pops up throughout history and literature, connected to characters good and bad, and with a rich enough history that she can create her own meaning out of it more easily than if I’d named her after my favorite tree. My son, John, carries the English version of my husband’s Scottish name, reflecting in a single note his English heritage and my English in-laws’ love of Scotland.

Sometimes it seems like children with non-traditional names are burdened more heavily with their parents’ personalities and hopes than third-generation Harvard-bound Exeter alumni. Our kids will always feel the breath of our expectation, no matter how hard we try not to burden them. I don’t want mine to feel a demand at the outset that they push against societal norms, that they be as completely individual and unique as possible. They already are unique. Giving them a name that has history and roots and meaning connects them to a community that they may never need or be aware of, but that will always be there to brace them when they feel weak and to hold them up when they feel downtrodden.

And they can own and come into their names more easily with traditional rather than newly minted monikers. Instead of their parents creating their names—and therefore meanings—for them, they can take these centuries-old names and turn them into anything they like. There is almost no identity my son can’t form within the name John. If I’d named him Acer, to choose a name at random, he’d be trapped within its uniqueness. It’s hard to be conventional with an untraditional name, assuming one wished to, but with a traditional one you can do almost anything you want.

The truth is, I’m privileged to have names like John and Aleksandra, and middle names like Elizabeth and Henry, behind my children, privileged to have ancestry that gives them a level of freedom from birth, one many don’t enjoy, to decide who they want to be as they grow up and unlink themselves from their parents. And perhaps my expectation that they take that privilege and use it to make the world a better place is enough pressure, without an expectation that they be decisively counter-culture from the get-go.

I don’t believe in throwing off the past. Transmuting it, deepening it, shifting our understanding of it, yes. Walking away from it completely, no. We can no more shuck our ancestry than we can the DNA we were born with, and that includes the names that have come before ours.

Antonia Malchik has written for Washington Post‘s On Parenting blog, ParentMap, GOOD magazine, and many other publications. She can be reached through her website, www.antoniamalchik.com.

This compelling essay was originally published in Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers, which we very much appreciate.

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13 Responses to “Why I Picked a Traditional Baby Name”

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Revlon Says:

March 4th, 2016 at 7:32 am

I love this. I sometimes find myself swept up in the very thing mentioned here, of wanting a child to be unique. What if they choose to be quite conventional? I am quite the opposite in many ways, perhaps they will tire of me and choose to be utterly in the box, which never occurred to me in any way I outright acknowledged. I have always loved the idea of a family middle, but incorporating something meaningful above and beyond what sounds nice is a great idea, even if I do not borrow a name exactly I can still look to my family tree for inspiration.

Alsace Says:

March 4th, 2016 at 11:11 am

This was a somewhat silly read. I didn’t realize that giving your child a less common name was somehow denying them of their heritage and thrusting a specific personality upon them. I have a common 90s name and never once felt that it defined me as a person in any way. I don’t see the connection there. “They can take these centuries-old names and turn them into anything they like.” What does that even mean? Certain names may lead to unpleasant first impressions (misspellings for example) but on a personal level, I don’t see how an unconventional name make it difficult to be conventional. Example, I work with an accountant named Derby. Derby is about as conventional as they come; his name is probably the most interesting thing about him. Would his life be easier if his name was John? I don’t know. What I do know is that he would be the third John in that department.

On the issue of heritage, we do still have last names, don’t we? We passed down my husbands absolutely unpronounceable, chock full of z, c, s, in no predictable order, eastern european surname to our daughter. Our last name screams heritage and you can see the terror on peoples faces when they try to pronounce it. I think naming her Petra or Aleksandra would be a bit of overkill in the heritage department, imo.

I think the author is overthinking this way too much, and that’s coming from someone who is 13 months post-partum and still frequents a baby name website.

Swangirl Says:

March 4th, 2016 at 5:12 pm

I think the author makes some great points! (And has such an interesting and beautiful name herself!) First, the importance of choosing a name that is meaningful to you. Personally, I don’t think that means it has to be one from your family tree, although that is a great idea! But choosing a name because you are looking for something “cool” or “unique” is really a rather dull way to name your child. Like the author said, your child is already unique. And the cool factor is fickle. What was “cool” last year might be “an embarassment” next year. If your child has a name rich with meaning for your family, however, even if his or her name goes out of style, it will still be the perfect name for them!

I also agree with the author in that the importance of roots is so tragically undervalued in our culture. Remembering those who paved the way for us broadens our perspective of our own lives and awakens in us a desire to lead our descendents in a positive direction. When you name your child after an ancestor, you are instilling in him or her an interest in that person, and in his or her roots in general. Great strength comes from knowing and appreciating our heritage.

This was a thought-provoking read. Thank you for sharing!

epowell Says:

March 4th, 2016 at 8:17 pm

I thought this was a good read and not at all silly. I LOVE meaning behind names. (One of my husband’s favorite books is My Ántonia and I think it’s a lovely name.)

My daughter is named Georgia Emiline. We picked Georgia because we liked it. Plain and simple and I am often surprised at the amount of people who ask us if it is a family name or if we are from there. Her middle name is because I am the 6th generation “Emily” in my family but I didn’t like the flow of Emily in the middle. So, I chose Emmeline but changed the spelling (wouldn’t have done that if it had been the first name but middle names are so rarely used) to reflect our family name. I get compliments on our Georgia Emiline’s name all the time.

I’m pregnant with our second child. A little boy. His name is John Milam (pronounced My-Lum). He will go by Milam though. John is from two great grandfathers, one grandfather, and my husband and Milam is the last name of a Texas war hero (we live and are from Texas and both my brothers have traditional Texas names: Travis and Austin). The compliments are already pouring in about his name and how it is so perfect and fitting. I wrote a blog post about his name recently and got so many compliments about how nice it was to honor family and have meaning in names these days. (You can read it here: http://www.emilyjonathan.blogspot.com/2016/03/his-name.html)

I could never just pick a name. I have to like it, has to have good flow, and most importantly it has to have meaning. I feel my children’s names give them roots in our family and in our way of life.

lesliemarion Says:

March 5th, 2016 at 1:19 am

This is not a silly blog! Intriguing. One doesn’t need to agree either to find it interesting.

I find myself drawn to first names that I adore but do not know anyone named — probably because I have taught for close to 30 years and many otherwise great names already seem “taken” or are ruined for me by past students. Our unborn children are named Owen and Cordelia — names I passionately love, do not know anyone named, come from literature, and also originate in our ancestry (Welsh, Celtic).

For a middle, I favor a family name — Michael for my husband, Marjorie for my late grandmother.
And for a second middle, I favor either a loved name that simply sounds good (Owen Michael Russell, Cordelia Elizabeth Marjorie) or something equally loved, but more adventuresome. For me that might mean Afternoon, Morven, Elm, Tangier, Taliesin… A second middle that’s a bit wild won’t box anybody in.

I certainly do think that naming a child Fortitude Bliss Citroen or Bloodrayne Arpo Valor seems more appropriate to a parlor game than to naming a human being. How does one live up to (or down to) such names?

Though the worst fate is to be forever spelled wrong. Illiteracy is a curse, not a legacy.

mykka Says:

March 5th, 2016 at 4:42 pm

@epowell: I dont get it – you’ll call him Milam, then why not name him Milam John? Why most the overused personality-less name go first if you’re not even gonna use it?

As for the original post, there are plenty of traditional or rich history names that arent as overused and abused like John, Michael, William, James, Christopher…

taylorp Says:

March 5th, 2016 at 8:39 pm

“It later seemed to me that to give a child a name intentionally stripped of ancestry was to weigh them down with a different class of expectations. We expect you to buck the system, these names said, to be more individual, more thoughtful, more counter-culture even than you might wish.”

Or it’s just a name that the baby’s parents thought was beautiful and they don’t expect anything from their child other than for them to grow up and find happiness.

“It’s hard to be conventional with an untraditional name.”

In 2016, is it? Really?

“The truth is, I’m privileged to have names like John and Aleksandra, and middle names like Elizabeth and Henry, behind my children, privileged to have ancestry that gives them a level of freedom from birth, one many don’t enjoy, to decide who they want to be as they grow up and unlink themselves from their parents. And perhaps my expectation that they take that privilege and use it to make the world a better place is enough pressure, without an expectation that they be decisively counter-culture from the get-go.”

Look, I love “traditional” names and I’m borderline obsessed with pouring over the gorgeous choices on my family tree. I’m much more likely to gravitate towards Elizabeth or Henry than Zabyn or Koan. That said, I think this article is incredibly presumptuous. How is your mother naming you after a character in her favorite book any different than another woman naming their child after a city they love or their favorite flower? Why does choosing a name that’s meaningful for you and your partner rather than the name of your great-aunt mean that you’re intentionally stripping your child of their ancestry? Why do you think that choosing a less common name traps a child into being “counter-culture” any more than naming your child John or Mary traps them into a life of banality?

epowell Says:

March 5th, 2016 at 10:09 pm

@mykka We like the flow better. I know many people who go by their middle names and it’s never been an issue. I don’t like how Milam John sounds at all. It is funny though since I didn’t ask anyone’s opinion to begin with.

ashbee Says:

March 6th, 2016 at 11:02 am

@mykka It’s rather unkind to insult someone’s child’s name. I happen to think John is a handsome, solid name with loads of character and charisma. Every John I’ve known has made it his own.

I can really relate to this post. I love names connected to other cultures, but I just couldn’t bring myself to name my daughter Saoirse when I don’t have a drop of Irish heritage. On the other hand, my family has always chosen honor names and I sometimes resent feeling obligated to follow suit.

peach Says:

March 6th, 2016 at 11:17 am

I agree with @taylorp on all points.

Expectations of conventional or unconventional life choices are not wholly indicated in a name but reflected in how a child is raised and educated. As someone with a name that was different from the norm when I grew up, it is beneficial to stand out from the crowd for your name. My name has a story that transcends my family heritage.

Of course originality can go too far, unpronounceable, un-spellable, etc. names cause confusion repeatedly. But stepping back from the truly confusing monikers, I see no harm in moving beyond convention, whether it includes family history/ancestry, or not.

In America, where so many people have come to live democratically, there is freedom, not necessarily allowed elsewhere, to choose names with new possibilities and unseen potential: where else would there be a President named Barack Obama?

redsheppie Says:

March 6th, 2016 at 9:50 pm

This is a very interesting read!

My parents put a lot of thought into naming me Scarlet (in 1991, before it was a trend and before anyone had heard of Scarlett Johansson!) My middle name, Elisabeth, is a family name but I always hated how boring it was in comparison. I loved having a name that started conversations, and growing up hearing “what a beautiful name for a beautiful girl” certainly afforded some early ego boosts. I often thought about how thankful I was that my parents didn’t name me something common. I’ve imagined how difficult it would have been to grow up with the name Scarlet and become a vapid cheerleader. A little snobby? Absolutely…but not entirely untrue, as this author points out.

But my name has come to be a bit of a double-edged sword. Scarlet(t) becomes more and more common every single day, and to be honest, I hate that. I know that having a unique name became a launching point for my individuality, as bizarre as that sounds, and now to hear moms calling for their Scarletts on playground annoys me. If it slowly loses all of it it’s otherness…then what? Who will I be? Okay, I’m being a little dramatic, but I can’t help it! I grew up to be an actress. An artistic person from the get go. My name might not be totally responsible, having creative parents certainly played a part. But who will these new Scarlets become? Probably all sorts of people who come to see their name as the foundation for a myriad of adventures. Strange to think about.

Over time I’ve also become closer to my grandmother; the Elizabeth I get my middle name from. I’ve also come to look quite a bit like her and love sharing the name with her. So as much as I’ll always love being a Scarlet, I think I let go of it more all the time. I have to! After all, almost no name can ever belong to just one person. Maybe that’s the point.

Alsace Says:

March 7th, 2016 at 9:56 am

@lesliemarion I don’t find the blog silly. I love nameberry! And I certainly can disagree with something and find it interesting, some of my favorite reads lately have been well-reasoned articles on topics I disagree with, but this article is poorly thought out and pompous.

I’m not against honor names. I considered several for my daughter and have a few on my list for future children. Genealogy is a hobby of mine and I love looking at ancestral names. Oddly enough though, I find the “unusual” names on my family tree to be the most interesting. I have roots in Ireland and have a plethora of relatives named John, Michael, Catherine, Mary, etc. I also have ancestors named Wesley and Melancthon. Their parents became methodists and named their children after their favorite protestant leaders. Consider the context of this in 19th century Ireland (not Northern Ireland, County Roscommon), what a controversy that must have been in the family! I’m not protestant by any means, but I feel a stronger connection to these ancestors because they’ve communicated something down to us through the names they gave their children. I feel the same way about other ancestors with “different” names. I feel this way when I see my ancestors using honor names, although more so on girls as it’s a very common tradition for men.

The author of this article says that naming her son John makes her feel closer to her ancestors. That’s fine. I understand that. What I disagree with – and yes, find silly – is that by NOT choosing an ancestral name, we should feel disconnected from our ancestors. I don’t see my heritage as something that can be connected or disconnected. We ARE our ancestors. The choices they made – going to college, coming to America, (or that were made for them, such as slavery) shape who we are. (My field is statistics and I measure the effects of our background on our decisions for a living.) By naming our children we are contributing to our ancestral story. No matter what name we choose – whether it communicate something about our personal preferences, the trends of our time, or honors our past – we do so in communion with those who came before us and those who will follow us.

ElsaAnne Says:

March 30th, 2016 at 7:12 am

Growing up with an unusual name within my community, (not my Berry Tag), I never liked my name – mainly the style didn’t suit me. The only thing I did like was being the only one! Unusual names can be a blessing, but equally so can traditional ones. It depends on the parents style, but I disagree that a name can determine your life’s outcome, only your actions and choices can.

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