Hi Duana!

I am French, not pregnant and not intending to be anytime soon, but I like to read your column about name nerding as the cultural differences are always interesting to me. I particularly enjoyed the last one (that I've read, at least) about Vivianne, Vivienne, Vivian, etc. (link)

I am writing about a very good friend of mine who is 5 months pregnant with her first child. She has just discovered that the baby is actually going to be a girl - instead of a boy, as the doctor initially thought. And in a word, the reactions from both sides of her family to this news have been fascinating. I have studied gender and sex (in)equalities at University but I had no idea that the famous quote "one is not born a woman, but becomes one" started so soon in life, before even one's birth! The best example has been her father-in-law, who was so disappointed with the news that he had to hang up the phone when he realised that the baby being a girl was not a joke. When they called him back a couple of days later, he said "Nevermind, you're going to have another one, aren't you?" Needless to say, we were all astonished and my friend cried about it.

Nevertheless, that was not the point of my message, although I think it may influence my point of view on the names. They have (easily) selected two names that they both like: Zoe and Nina.

(I don't know if it's worth mentioning that my friend was born in France from 2 Irish parents but she has a typical English name. Her partner has a typical Basque family name but sounding unusual in French, with two p’s in it. Not the most musical sounding, we like to call him "the farting rat" based on a French-English phonetics translation. They're looking for a name which would be easily spelled both in French and English. Zoe would actually sound better with his family name.)

My question is: how is it that some names are automatically associated with a certain type of personality, even if you don't know anyone who bears the name in question? When they discussed their two choices with their relatives, everyone (including myself) thought that Nina is a name for an outgoing, cheerful, easy girl. A kinky girl. On the other side, we picture Zoe as someone who will have a strong character and personality. Someone rather uncommon, original. I think it might be because of the "Z", which is a strong letter?

Do you have the same perception on these names? Do you believe that we name babies after the personality that we expect from them?

I don't know if this question will interest you as it interests me but I will sure let you know which one they will have chosen in the end.

PS: Here's the delightful reaction of the father-in-law about Zoe as a potential name: "Really? You want to name her like the car????"

I don't know if you've heard about Renault's Zoe car but that idea hadn't crossed my mind.

Thank you for everything!


Best Friday question of all. “One becomes a woman” from day one? I love that this is part of our conversation about names, which goes so far beyond being ‘for babies’.

The short answer is that names are associated with the dominant cultural association that’s common to most. So for example, the cultural association most people have with ‘Veronica’ is sharply divided by age. For older people it’s an overtly religious name, then there’s a faction for whom it is quite sexy, a Veronica Lake/Veronica Lodge hybrid, and then, for the right-thinking, there’s Veronica Mars, who is …not religious… but governed by her own code, a sex symbol for some or a sprite to others. It all depends on your interpretation.

But these associations aren’t universal, which is what makes things so interesting. For example, I might say that parents who choose ‘Sarah’ are basically straight-laced people who want a biblical name that is simple without the overhang of ‘Mary’, and I might be right inasmuch as that’s one facet of the types of parents many Sarahs have—but that doesn’t mean all Sarahs turn out the same way. There are a million degrees of association.

Then of course there are the cultural implications. So for example, Zoe ceased to be an unusual name in North America about 15 years ago. There’s nothing subversive about it anymore, though I agree that the “Z” still feels like it’s a bit of an outlier letter that gives parents a sense of uniqueness. ‘Zach/Zack’ is the similar male name that’s quite common but feels unusual.

As a result, my impression of Zoe is of a friendly, sunny-faced girl who’s in the mix of everything and never feels like an outsider. On TV, ‘Zoe’ is a shorthand for someone who thinks for herself; I’m thinking of ‘Zoe, Duncan, Jack & Jane’, or ‘Zoey 101’—but there’s a reason my references aren’t that current. Zoe isn’t cutting edge anymore. And to reinforce the point, I’d never heard of the Zoe car, but it kind of makes my point…it depends on your influences.

By contrast, Nina doesn’t strike me the way it strikes you—an outgoing, cheerful girl. To me, Nina, which is rarely used in pop culture, has an Eastern European feel, is imbued with drama, has an international edge or at least a transportability. Even though Zoe is technically Greek, it feels like it doesn’t fit everywhere; conversely, Nina is an accepted short form for almost all names ending in ‘ina’, and can often be lengthened in nickname form. Right now its biggest pop culture references are probably Nina Dobrev and, fictionally, Nina Sergeevna from The Americans. The fact that Dobrev and Annet Mahendru don’t look dissimilar reinforces the point, even as I suspect that the name ‘Nina’ for a Russian operative in North America was a bit on the nose.

But if you don’t watch these shows or follow these actresses, you won’t have these influences. There are huge cultural jumps, and language jumps too. For example, I’m not sure your use of ‘kinky’ translates to most English-speaking readers, especially when talking about babies, since it’s generally understood to mean an interest in obscure or unusual sexual practices. However, if you think that phrase probably originates from being not utterly straight ahead, not being straight-laced, not being boring, I can see how the use of the word might take on a different meaning, even though we’re technically using the same language. If I misunderstood and that interpretation of ‘kinky’ is what you meant, I apologize…but don’t necessarily agree.

And that’s the point. The trick here is that you can’t make other people share your associations with a name, nor can you shake them out of theirs. To one person, Beatrice is charming, literary and Shakespearean. To the next, it’s just Bea Arthur, over and over again. But these impressions change. They evolve. The more we hear names, the more our brains like them, until we hit maximum density. Then ‘unusual’ names go from seeming weird, to unusual but useable, to fresh, to overly familiar…you get the idea.

But to answer your final question, yes, I absolutely think we name babies after the personality we expect from them or, more accurately, the personality we hope from them. After all, that’s what’s behind family names - not just an ‘honour’, but hoping that the child inherits some of the ‘original’ person’s traits. Or imagining what kind of person we want our children to be, then choosing the name we think aligns best. Other names their choices remind me of include Stella, Daphne, Lydia, Olive, and Nadine—but your mileage may vary very greatly.

Which is why you (or your friends, in this case) have to love the name for what it is. For how it sounds, how it looks, what it means to you personally. That’s the only protection against whether it’s too popular or too rare, spelled wrong or misunderstood when travelling. If you love the name, you’re in great shape. If you’re not sure about it, each frustrating event essentially becomes the spectre of your doubt Eating Crackers in front of you.

Thanks for reading this far. If you ask a philosophical question, believe me when I say we’re just beginning to get at the answer! And let me know!