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Lainey Posted by Lainey at June 4, 2014 15:03:49 June 4, 2014 15:03:49

Hi Duana,

Just wanted to say your kitten column really made me smile (on a crappy day!). Such cute photos, and Otto and Mabel were the names of my great-grandparents (mother's maternal grandparents) so to me they've always gone together. I love that someone else randomly thought of them as a pair.

I've also enjoyed your love for the name Otto over the years, as I think it's a great name and one I would consider if I ever have a son. Although one thing that's given me pause recently is I've done some family research and come to the conclusion that my great-grandfather Otto was pretty racist. I suppose it wasn't unusual for a white man born in 1894 who lived his entire life in Mississippi and Louisiana, and I know my mother adored her grandparents, so I expect they were good people in many ways. And I adored my grandmother, who was raised by them (but left the south right after college and updated her views. Her brother who stayed in Louisiana did not modernize his thinking on race relations as much). So on the one hand I love the idea of a family name, and I love the name itself, but I'm torn about the perception that it would be an "honor" name when the person didn't necessarily believe in things I want to honor. Do you think it matters? It's hard to know how much weight to give it when he's been dead for over 40 years and probably wasn't unusual for his time and place, and my mother and grandmother loved him, and he had other good qualities, but he also had this belief system that I don't want to condone (either in him or in some of my living Louisiana relatives).

I once mentioned the name to a boyfriend as a potential baby name and he said it was "too German" which I thought was a weird thing to say but also made me wonder how my great-grandfather got the name when we have no German heritage on that side of the family (which I suppose is one reason I never thought of it particularly as a German name). I assumed it would remain a mystery, but then last summer my aunt showed me a family scrapbook and included in it was an autobiographical letter that Otto wrote, which included the information that he was born shortly after the Ringling Brothers circus had come through Mississippi, and his older sister was permitted to name him, and chose to name him Otto since she thought that was the handsomest Ringling brother. On the one hand it was delightful to solve the mystery, but on the other hand the letter also included some musings on the aftermath of slavery etc. that lead me back to the question above.

Anyway, this turned into a long digression from kittens. I love your column! Is it wrong to name a (potential) baby after someone I think (know) was racist, if their views on race are not a defining feature about them to other people, and are not at all related to why I like the name?

Best,
Lee

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Wow. What a great question, and one that made me think I had a quick answer, and a not-so-quick one, and then back to a quick one… so the only way out is through, right? 

When I was just a little baby name nerd, I obviously understood the concept that some people are ‘named after’ their grandmothers or notable political figures, but I always assumed it was because parents just liked the name, full stop. 

It wasn’t until much further along in my Name Therapist journey that I discovered the concept of “Honor Names”. That is, names given not just because the names were awesome, but because previous/original bearers were theoretically awesome, and so the child was being named as a nod to all that those people had accomplished or all the love they’d put into the world. As in, you’re honoring the first person by saying they’ve made their name notable enough to be passed on. Right? 

Whether or not you subscribe to the concept of ‘honoring’ someone by passing on your name makes all the difference. It’s one thing to find a name way back in a family tree, and be delighted because now you can use Prunella or Balthazar legitimately and another entirely to want to have all the qualities that Eleazar or Clementine embodied carried through to another generation. 

Obviously opinions on this vary, based on your own opinions, but also on where you live, the cultural rules you subscribe to, and especially, whether or not you would want to name someone after a living relative (so they get to know they’ve been ‘honoured’) versus being horrified at the concept. All this to say, you might feel better about using the name Otto if you take the idea of ‘honor’ out of it and just know it’s a name you liked, that it appeared in your family tree, and that, as you say, your mother and grandmother loved this person. 

But that said, I think we would be hard-pressed to find an older name that we love that hasn’t, at some point, been associated with someone who said or did some unsavory things. I’m not condoning racism or bigotry in any way, obviously, but I have this sinking feeling that probing too hard in the background of anyone we admire, especially those who were born about 125 years ago, might turn up some things we’d find distasteful. 

It’s for a not-dissimilar reason that I have always been skittish about naming people after their own grandmothers or beloved aunts… because the kid who has the name may feel an unconscious pressure to be like that person, in whatever way. I’ve advocated for names that we haven’t heard in a while not because older names are ‘better’, but because there’s more of a chance for a kid to become whomever they’re going to be without any outside influence. Which isn’t to say that names are imbued with any intrinsic qualities, obviously, but that the people still living might assign those qualities to them. 

Which is why I’m not so worried about Otto in your case. As you point out, it was a long long time ago, and the repugnant views your great-grandfather held were, sadly, probably not atypical for the time – but more importantly to me, there’s nobody still living who would assume you were holding those qualities in any kind of esteem and that’s why you chose the name…

…except, possibly, for you. 

Will you be able to let your love for the great name separate itself from what you learned about your ancestor? It hasn’t changed how I feel about the name, but it’s not one I’m going to come up against in any family probes. Furthermore, if you did use the name, would you feel like you had to say, oh it was my great-grandfather’s name? You don’t have to, you know. You can pretend you forgot that information altogether and just loved it, or you can find another Otto to be inspired by. 

In short, your maybe-someday-future Otto doesn’t have to be ‘named after’ anyone but your own desire to give the great name a chance in the sun… as long as you’ll be OK with that. 

I get that some of this is theoretical, but I’m very curious about where you’ll wind up. Let us know! 
 

Photos:
Kevin Mazur /Chime For/ Getty

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