The Kiddy Pool: What’s in a Name?

Every week in The Kiddy Pool, Erin Newcomb confronts one of many issues that parents must deal with related to popular culture.

Naming a child is perhaps one of the most personal and one of the most challenging decisions that parents face. There are a number of factors to consider—tradition and novelty, spelling and pronunciation, familial and ethnic heritage, relationship to surname and sibling names, and meanings. Then there is the reality that while name changes are possible, most of us keep our first names for our entire lives, making an offspring’s nomenclature an important legacy.

We see this kind of naming throughout the Bible, where angelic visitors dictate the names of important figures like John (“God is gracious”) the Baptist and Jesus (“Yahweh is salvation”) himself. Consider, for instance, the names of Hosea’s children, a son called Jezreel after a valley known for its bloodshed and a daughter Lo-ruhamah to mean “the Unloved.” While most parents I know don’t face the pressure of God dictating their children’s names to make theological points, it’s clear that the practice of naming carries tremendous responsibility.

For much of U.S. history, naming trends remained fairly mainstream, with a small pool of names serving the vast majority of families. Yet increasing diversity, greater desire for uniqueness, and more exposure (in the digital age) to naming fashions means an ever-expanding list of possibilities. It might seem like an anything-goes era, but governments throughout the world still regulate (to varying extents) the choices allotted to parents. Take, for instance, the New Jersey couple who lost custody of their son, named Adolf Hitler. Or note that in Massachusetts, names are limited to forty characters (much less generous than New Zealand’s one hundred), all of which must be letters in the English alphabet.

All of these regulations serve as reminders that children are not solely the property of their parents. They belong to their parents, the state, themselves, and God. Finding a name that pleases all of those parties can apparently be quite tricky, but the effects of a naming decisions—whether orthodox or eccentric—can last a lifetime.

About Erin Wyble Newcomb

Erin Wyble Newcomb earned her Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction and Women's Studies from Penn State University. In addition to parenting her daughters, running marathons, and making things with glitter, she teaches in the English Department at SUNY New Paltz. Follow Erin on Twitter @ErinWyble or at http://phdmama.com/.

  • Seth T. Hahne

    Naming is an awestriking responsibility. We sat there thinking, “Holy cats. A human being will be saddled with this identifier for perhaps the rest of her life.” Names affect the way people relate to you and how you relate to yourself. You’re not just giving a kid a thing to be called. You’re pushing that kid in a direction. They may overcome that initial velocity and go in an entirely different direction, but naming sets them on an initial path.

  • Geoffrey R.

    I agree with both of you. Erin, your column reminded me about the early days with each of my children, when I would often stop and realize, “That’s it. There’s no going back. We chose their names, and they’re stuck with them.” In the Bible, name was often associated with a character; and a radical change in character often occasioned a change in name. This pattern is just as evident in the Puritans forebears who helped found America (and in the Native Americans who lived here before). I wonder often Americans today (in and out of the church) choose names on the basis of potential character formation?


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