We are expecting our first girl in early summer. To date, we have put a few names on a short list but have yet to decide on one. We both have names that were of average popularity in the late 70’s and early 80’s, and our surname is now a very popular first name that, unfortunately, is commonly bastardized with the use of an “x”.

There is a part of me that is inspired to do something slightly non-traditional (ie. Lemon, Jolie, Alabama), because I see the playing field for names these days being wide open. However, when I suggest these names I get constant eye-rolls. The disapproving group are mostly people 50+ and uber-conservative friends. I can appreciate where they are coming from, but there are very few names that excite me. In wanting to name my child something "different" it is not my objective to create a unique identity for them, it is simply because I like the names and the way they sound.

As a regular reader of your column I am constantly reminded of the so called “Supreme Court Justice” test. I have to ask though, is this really an appropriate test for names these days? Not only is it hyper traditional and speaks to the insane expectations parents now have for their children, but it fails to acknowledge what I see as a broadening “norm” for names. I think by the time our children are of an age when they would theoretically be appointed to the bench, or CEO of a company, the variety of names and overall acceptance of unique monikers will be far more inclusive than it currently is. In 2066 will Madam Justice Rainbow Rollins really be that offensive? No more offensive than Mister Justice Jaxon Davis, I would argue – and there are bound to be more than a handful of those in 50 years.

Am I naive for thinking this way?


So, somewhat unintentionally, this week is turning into a bit of naming rhetoric week, and I couldn’t be happier. I got a lot of mail on Monday about whether to saddle your child with a name that can be pronounced differently, and whether parents are allowed to be annoyed if the name isn’t understood the way they want it to be. 

Then out of that comes your letter, with a question that is not the same, but begs some similar questions. And I love it.

Where does a parent’s right to name a child anything they want to conflict with how that child is seen in the world? It’s a constantly moving border, because, as I often point out, you’re not naming a tiny baby who will live with you their whole life, but an adult, and though their name is their label with which they face and approach the world, they don’t necessarily have any control over it (the number of people who actually change their name is infinitesimal compared to those who have some negative or even mixed opinions about their name somewhere along the way).

So I can’t really tell where you’re coming from with wanting a ‘non-traditional’ name for your child. You say you like the sounds of the names, but is it because you’re sick of the ones you’ve heard on other kids lately and, as you say, they fail to excite you? Or is there also—and I get a little of this from your letter—just a bit of general f*ck you to convention and authority?

Don’t misunderstand my question—I’m a big fan of screwing convention and authority where possible—but I think what makes the difference between doing it well and being seen as someone who’s just making noise for the sake of it is that you have to have a reason. I hope that makes sense. That is, there’s a difference between a protest that’s designed to get attention for a given reason, and destruction of property for pure anarchy’s sake; similarly, there’s a difference between choosing an offbeat or even an unheard-of name because you like it more than the other names, and choosing it just to prove you can.

Like it or not, you are creating a unique identity when you name your child. You would be sure to tell me that you’re not the same as all the other people who share your late-70s-early-80s name, that your name means what you have crafted it to mean based on how you live your life. The same is true of your child, who will try to mold themselves as a model of what ‘Jolie’ or ‘Lemon’ is, based on who they think they are but also, yes, on how other people see them.

Which brings us to the Supreme Court Justice test. When I began invoking it (and it should be noted that I did not make it up), I mostly wanted people to think about adult names for their children. There are people who are really hell-bent on nicknames, or who want to name a child ‘Gigi’ as the full name without giving a fuller, stronger version, and the SCJ test is mostly about making sure the name works on an adult who has a very serious job. As I write this we’re waiting on Obama to announce his pick, and I have no doubt that the person in question will have, you know, a ‘grown-up’ name.

So then your question in two parts is, ‘why can’t a Lemon or an Alabama be an SCJ’. So, lest I be misunderstood, my answer isn’t that they’ll never get there unless they’re named Katherine and William. My answer, on the other hand, is that if you choose a name that can be seen as less serious, like Crystal or Pippi or Racer or Tracker or even, like, Dave, they might encounter some skepticism of their seriousness somewhere along the way, that might make it a little more difficult for them than if they had a name that was generally recognized as a ‘formal’ name. This is where the distinction with Jaxon comes in, by the way. While I might lament the trend of ‘x’ taking over for two perfectly hardworking letters c and k, and while I might think the name Jackson is woefully overused, it’s been a name for eons, and there are long traditions of surnames becoming names. It just doesn’t fall into the same category as a child named Jeep.

But look. I want there to be new names, too, and if we didn’t expand our horizons and name our children after trees or mountains or elements, we’d die of boredom and Elizabeth. I think that ‘Ocean’ is a name that might make people blink today, but would have been called out as incredibly offbeat a generation ago. There are many more choices that are far more acceptable than they used to be.

Which is where I come back to ‘why do you want to do this’? If there’s something that you love—if the sound and the memory of Alabama both really speak to you, then who am I to say no? Alabama IS a name, for a place, so it’s not such a stretch—and it has been used for a name before, of course. The trends of Brooklyn and London as names, despite my wrinkled nose, are in full effect, so that may bolster your argument. Similarly if you love Waikoloa or Kapuskasing or Auckland, and you want to be in that geographical-names trend, I can’t stand in your way.

But one of the ways this gets trickier is when we name people for objects…a place can be understood to be constantly moving and evolving—when you think of London, you can’t encapsulate it in one image. Flower names, though not my bag, can evoke a lot of things for a lot of people. But food names, as I have written before, tend to give the impression of being consumable and thus temporary. Plum or Cherry or Lamby or names that we sometimes choose for pets aren’t strong and substantial enough to last a lifetime on someone who doesn’t yet know who or what they might be able to be.

Don’t worry about the 50-plus naysayers, who are maybe the same ones still tut-tutting at ‘ethnic’ names they can’t understand. The world is changing, and the children who grow up to be the adults who will interact with your adult child are brought up by thoughtful parents like us! But if a name, understood to be a name, gives a child a chance to define who they are, then that’s what they all deserve…right? Which brings me back to my same-old same-old: choosing a name you legitimately love will start any kid off believing their name is worthy of definition and respect.

Let me know!