What’s in a name

March 8th, 2010

Given names

The significance of names has changed over the ages. In Ancient Rome, so I have read, they stopped bothering about first names for girls at some point. In Eastern Frisia, my granny’s home, children would receive the same names over and over again from generation to generation, and if in those big families a child died, the next one born would get that name.

In recent years a tendency towards individualising names has developed. People give their children names they want unique, which sometimes results in weird choices. And there is not always an official at the registry office to pull the emergency brake when the parents’ imagination is running too wild.

But if you go in the other direction, your child might find itself among five other Tanjas or Markuses (popular names in my school days) and get mixed up with them on a regular basis (teachers are only human, too). Very common names also have their disadvantages – especially when the last name is very frequent.

Which brings me to another point in our information age. Once you put your name in cyberspace (which of course you can choose not to do), it is out there for every search engine to find.

Now if you have a rare name, anyone looking for you will find you. That’s fine if you want to be found. But maybe you don’t, still you have to put your name up for a good reason. You’ll want to think about this before you post under your real name.

If you have a common name, the John Smith variety, there is an entirely different risk – you might be taken for someone else, or someone else might be taken for you. Imagine typing your name into Google and have stories of drugs and murder come up as main hits. Now imagine a potential employer looking up the candidate John Smith.

On the other hand, a person with a name like mine will be found very easily and (almost) without a doubt. Just type my name into Google and you’ll soon see that I’m a swimming and inline-skating translator. (Not that this is a big scoop for you who read this.)

I don’t know what the Internet (and more recent technological inventions) will be like by the time your child (or mine) starts surfing, but the current tendency with sites like Facebook and Twitter is definitely steering away from privacy.

But I digress. What I meant to say here about naming your child is this:

Whatever you do, never forget that your choice will affect another human being for life.

Last names

Only fifty years ago or so, this question seemed little relevant. Your child inherited its father’s family name, full stop. But with divorces, emancipation, “out-of-wedlock” children (isn’t that a horrible term?) and new name laws applying, parents often have the choice. Mommy’s name or Daddy’s name? Or both? But in what order?

How often have divorced mothers kept the name of the man they “got rid of” because they had custody and didn’t want their children to live with a family name different from their mommy’s?

Today many couples get married and choose to keep each their own name. It’s understandable. Marriages happen later and later in life. A woman has accomplished things under her “maiden” (I prefer “birth”) name, has maybe written a thesis or won an important sporting event. She wants to keep the name she has grown up with. As I said before, there is a tendency towards individualism in our society, not only in naming your children, but also in first being yourself, and then being someone’s spouse.

In France, women now keep their birth name by default. (Though they can choose to add their husband’s name as “nom d’usage”.)

But what does a name really mean to a person?

In Germany, if you want to change your given name, you need to have a really good reason, such as the adaptation of a foreign name after naturalisation, or changing of names that are ridiculous or otherwise harmful. Just “not liking it” or “having to spell it all the time” will not get you anywhere.

If you have come this far, your parents must have made a really bad choice!

After all, your name, no matter if you know five others of your name, or if even Google won’t find anyone else called the same as you, is yours, though as the joke goes, others will use it more often than you do.

In most cases, your name stays with you for life.

And now your turn has come to make such an important decision for your own baby. How will you name it?

There are many different ways to approach this question. Some parents consult books (and websites), other honour grandparents or future godparents, some turn to saints, others are inspired by their favourite books, movies or stars of the latter. Some choose the names as soon at that famous test comes back positive, others wait until they see their baby’s eyes.

In our particular case, we quickly agreed we needed a name that passes in both languages, which became our main requirement. From my own experience with my name, I pleaded for an unusual yet easy-to-spell name. Neither of us is religious, and in the light of our basic requirement, we opted out of honouring any of the future grandparents.

We found two very lovely sets of names on which we settled a few weeks before we learned that our little darling will be a girl. Her name is ready, and if not written in stone but only in our minds, only some major incident would move us to change it. No, we’re not telling.

All this reflection on names has led me to wonder what it is about a name. Why do some parents choose names following a trend which leads to the child finding itself for her entire school life known as “Tanja P.” or “Steffi K.” because she is one of two or more of the same name in her class? And why do others call their children by names that will unavoidably lead to ridicule, such as the noted German case of “Pumuckl”? (Pumuckl is a well-known German children’s book and animated TV character, a kobold who plays tricks on people.)

There was also the question of what parents are allowed to do and whether there is someone to stop them if they go too far. The answer to the first question is, pretty much everything, and to the second, only the registrar – “officier de l’état civil” or “Standesbeamte” respectively, who represent the interest of the child if the parents’ imagination runs too wild. At least one of the given names has to clearly indicate the gender of the child, this is the most obvious point the guidelines in both countries have in common.

So where does that leave us, you might ask?
I’ll be back in July 😉
In the meantime, I’d be curious to read your thoughts on the subject. 

2 Responses to “What’s in a name”

  1. Dragonlady

    You know how I feel about posting my real name on the web. ^^
    In fact I am in both categories. My name is very common, just not on this continent. A google search will show others with my name but living far away.

    I never found it annoying to have an unusual name. I always felt a bit sorry for the kids who had common names (in my classes there were lots of Nathalie) And you get used to the spelling part. The only thing that annoys me sometimes is when I say my name and the person answers “Huh?” I find that a bit rude. A “sorry could you say that again?” would be more polite. But that’s a detail.

    The last name thing must be complicated.

  2. Tanja

    That’s a very interesting read!
    And I can only confirm one thing (even if I must add that I’m awfully happy with my name): my name is Tanja like you’ve mentioned in the upper part of this posting, and in grammar school it was three Tanjas in my class. This had its advantages though… 🙂

Leave a Reply

Proudly powered by WordPress. Theme developed with WordPress Theme Generator.
Copyright © Cowplanet. All rights reserved.