Hi Duana,

My husband and I are expecting our second child in December, and are struggling mightily with his name. Our daughter, Quinn, will be three next month and although we struggled with names right up until her birth (and for a few days after), I love her name now. This time, we're expecting a boy and are having a very hard time finding names we both like. 

Well. I got this letter yesterday, and had such a reaction that I realized I had to address it immediately. In fact, it made me throw out all of my conventions for these articles. Answering letters in order of due date, first of all – I’ll freely admit this letter jumped the queue based solely on how I felt when reading it – and actually waiting until the end of the letter to start waving my opinions around. 

You may read the next few sentences and say ‘for that name you threw out all the rules’? But, as I’m sure will become clear, it’s not because of the name itself, but everything that surrounds it (plus, I love breaking rules). Herewith: 

Several family members and friends have made comments to the effect of "of course, he'll be named John," after my late father-in-law, primarily. This would be convenient, as we have so many Johns - all four of our grandfathers, plus several uncles and cousins - that everyone will feel honored. I'm not crazy about this idea, in part due to the expected-ness and feeling like I don't have a choice in my son's name. Also, my brother-in-law is John Henry Z the fourth, and although he and his wife have resolved not to have children, I still feel strange about it. My husband thinks we could call him John Henry Z the fifth, but I don't think that's how it works. 

Oh nooooo. Absolutely not. This must not stand. 

I’ve just taken a deep breath. 

Earlier today, a friend of mine told me a story over text, as we do. One of the details was clearly NBD for her and she breezed right past it, but I was spluttering and choking all, “They did WHAT?” 

After I recovered, I wonder what they teach you in therapy school about transferring your own issues onto the people who are looking for advice. It’s possible I may be doing that now, but in the interests of being me:

This violates every single boundary I have. It’s easily the place where I differ most from other people who give name advice. I don’t prefer family names as a rule, I don’t like them being passed down without thinking, and I absolutely white-hot HATE people assuming you’ll choose a given name because that’s just what’s been done before. 

What else are they going to assume about “John”? His temperament? His career? Obviously that is a hyperbolic concern, but I don’t understand how we got to the point where passing on a name, which is often called ‘an honour name’ is supposed to be interpreted any other way. 

When someone is ‘named after’ someone else, it’s generally accepted that it’s because that someone else, the first bearer of the name, is admired somehow. By giving the name to the baby, it’s insinuating that that first, older, person should be emulated or otherwise nodded to, and this is true in family situations as well as in ‘named-after-a-celebrity’scenarios. Then everything becomes a comparison – how do ‘big Sandy’ and ‘little Sandy’ resemble each other or not? What ‘Sandy’ traits exist? 

This goes double if everyone is thinking of your late father-in-law. When a loss is that close, everyone walks gingerly around any references to the person. On the one hand, I suspect this is where the naming conventions began – it’s a way to say ‘Martin’ or ‘Abelard’ again without everyone wincing. But you think a kid isn’t going to pick up on that? Against all our better judgment, human beings still group similar things together, or create hypotheses about similarities between, you know, similar things. So how is a baby supposed to compete with that, and become his own person? 

So. You have to perfect the look of ever-so-slightly amused surprise when someone says something like this, getting the idea firmly out of their heads, so that there are no surprises, or passive-aggressive recriminations when he’s born. I.e.:

Them: “Wow, it’s getting close now! So of course, you’re calling him John.” 

You: “Oh!” (a pause, in which your face implies ‘wow, why would you think that?’) I think we’ll choose something different – so many Johns in both families, you know?” 

This should work for the more casual enquirer, but neither of us are dummies – families and their pushiness and their opinions are at least half of why this column exists. If you don’t think they’ll be put off by your first answer and will keep needling you, try this: 

Them: “Wow, it’s getting close now! So of course, you’re calling him John.” 

You: “Oh!” (a pause, in which your face implies ‘wow, why would you think that?’) You know, we thought about it… but then we realized how unfair that would be to Quinn.” 

Them: (quizzical look)

You: “Imagine telling one child, ‘Your name belongs to generations and generations of your family and we knew we had to pass it on’, and then telling the other kid, ‘I dunno, we just liked it’? I just couldn’t do that to her.” 

Smile sweetly, and if at all possible, take a big bite or swig of whatever’s handy. 

You’re welcome. So – on to what the actual name could be: 

As far as non-John names go, I think the only names so far on our mutual list are Griffin and Emmett.  I like Emmett, but am a little put off because other "Em" names (particularly for girls) are so popular it doesn't feel unusual even though Emmett itself isn't very common. I thought I'd found "the one" in Abram/Bram, but my husband's response was "that's not a name," so that was disheartening. I love that the nickname is unusual but easy to spell (and pronounce, when read) and the assonance of Abram with our last name (something like Maybelle).  I know there are a number of similar sounding names (Aiden, Braden, Mason, etc) that work similarly with our last name, but those don't resonate with me, largely due to their popularity/trendiness. I'm not completely against a popular name if it is timeless-- I don't want you to be able to guess my kid's birth year based on his name (like my name, Lindsay).

Right. So Emmett is popular – I know about 5 who are eight and under, with my usual caveat about how regionalism matters in these things. There may only be, say,10,000 Emmetts born in your country last year, but if 200 of them are in your school district, it’s not going to feel ‘uncommon’. 

As for Abram and Bram, I don’t agree that it’s not a name, but I do think it’s going to be conflated with ‘Abraham’ an awful lot, so that might be a strike against it. It’s too bad about Graham, with its similar sounds, but maybe you’d like something like Grant or even Grantham? I’m cheating a bit, looking at the next paragraph and the surname-names that are there but… what about something like Hammond?

Before we go on, I’d like to point out that you haven’t given a single negative characteristic for the name Griffin…

Other names I like but my husband doesn't care for: Beckett, Anderson, Thomas, Conan, Graham (which I think he only rejected because it's his boss' name). I like a few ending in "S" on their own (Anders, Brooks), but don't like how they run into the "Z" last name.

Other names that come to mind based on what you have above, and in keeping with Quinn? I’m thinking of Hayden, which somehow seems different than the Aiden-Braydens you reference above, or Baldwin, or Dexter. Also, I hear you on the s-endings that, for lack of a better description, make the name plural – AnderS, BrookS – but what about something with a harder S at the end? Darius or Amos or Alphonse? 

We both also like Rory, but have a hard time pronouncing it, so that's probably out. My husband also proposed Barrett (which I inexplicably despise, despite it being similar to others I do like), and Adam and Theo, which I feel lukewarm about. 

My preferred solution to the "John" issue is to select a new first name and give him both John and Henry for middle names, but I feel pressured to choose the perfect first name to justify defying the John expectation. Please help! 

So I think the ‘John Henry’ middle names are a perfectly acceptable solution to your problem, and further think you have a lot of really good choices above – but the other thing people in your situation do, to varying degrees of their own satisfaction, is choose an international variant of the name, so it’s the same but also different; one mother I know couldn’t bear the family tradition of George, so her son is Jorge, pronounced ‘Hor-hey’, and everyone’s happy. 

So you could go with one of the Celtic-ish variants - Evan or Ian, or the much more rare (and for my buck, more charming) Ewan, all of which would go nicely with Quinn, incidentally. Or there’s Ivan, which should be way more popular than it is (or, dipping back into the Welsh, Ifan). 

All the J-name variants, Johan/nes and co, might suit you or might feel like you’re skirting so close you might as well just go for John in the first place, but there’s also Shawn (and all its spelling variants) and Yannick and the incredible Ohannes, which I love and want to use on someone. 

And usually I don’t advocate for being a peacemaker, like ever, but there’s one name that – well, it’s not for everyone, but if you like it, it could solve all of your problems: St. John. Written like that, but of course pronounced ‘SIN-gen’, which confused the hell out of me when I finally saw my grandmother’s maiden name written down. It’s a long shot, but if it works… 

Remind me, what was wrong with Griffin again? 

Rage against the machine that wants your son’s name to be a foregone conclusion, and please – let us know!