Hi Duana,

Hopefully this email finds you doing well! Your column is always fascinating and insightful. These days, it's also a welcome break from the world. Thank you for the work you put into it.

My husband and I are about to be first time parents and we're having twins. One boy, one girl, due September 21st. It will definitely be a night we'll remember.

Our son will be named/called Clifton after his Dad, Grandad, etc. He will be the V. Unfortunately, our daughter is already giving us trouble. We were set on using our Moms' first names and calling her "E.J." We can picture an E.J., it would be special, and she can use either name in any setting, if she chooses. But, then I had an idea and thought I could rely on my husband to shoot it down. I was so sure he would, and I was so wrong.

Help, please. 

Six years ago, my husband and I left my California coastal hometown for his hometown in Middle America. My 80 year old next door neighbor (and hands down favorite person ever) has made me feel at home in a place totally unfamiliar, and has taught me how wonderful life can be, not just here, but anywhere. Of course I've had my struggles, but she's always helped me get through them. Besides being significant in my life, she has a great name and carries it well. It's not at all unheard of, she's just the first I've met.

Her name is Sabrina and she's utterly charming, just like the rest of the Sabrinas I've met since moving.  In our city, there could be a Sabrina close to our daughter's age in school, her principal could be Sabrina, or she could just as easily be the only Sabrina in the sandbox. Additionally, there's no telling what a Sabrina looks like around here or what neighborhood she grew up in. To me, known but unknown sounds perfect.

Clifton & E.J., Clifton & Sabrina, E.J. F*****h, Sabrina F****h, we need to choose because we're not having triplets. We're at a loss and in desperate need of your advice, whatever that may be. If you have a chance to respond, we would greatly appreciate it. Regardless, thank you for taking the time to read this email. You truly are the best.




Thanks for the really nice words, B. Obviously this column is mainly here to amuse and entertain and I’m under no illusions that we’re saving lives here – but at the same time, I can’t pretend I don’t think anything that helps us understand each other is a bad thing.

It’s one of the reasons I love your letter – because it’s all about making connections between people, and the ways in which other people influence our lives, and most importantly, it’s about how often we benefit from less-than-rigid rules about what constitutes your family.

Sabrina welcomed you when you didn’t feel welcome, and helped you feel like you were going to be able to find a way to make Middle America your home. Now you’re doing it. You’re having a family and putting them down in a place you’ve chosen for yourself. It makes sense that you’d want to honour your parents by choosing their names. I appreciate the reasoning, not least because it sounds like you’re not with them. Clifton has the great advantage, in addition to being a tradition you want to uphold, of being a great name that will fit in and stand out and I love the choice. Don’t overthink it for a second. 

Of course, you’re thinking, ‘Why would we second-guess our son’s name? That’s not the issue.’
But you may, because I’m going to come down pretty solidly in favour of choosing Sabrina. Not just because it’s a great name that, as you point out, doesn’t ‘pin’ your daughter in any particular place or time, or because it goes well with Clifton (even though it does) or because of the influence your Sabrina has had on you. At least, not exactly…

It’s because Clifton is a family name, as EJ would be – I don’t know the order of whose mother is Ermengilde and whose is Jocasta, but I feel like it’s entirely possible that your children could wind up bearing the same names as their own grandparents. This is something that lots of families do, yes, but somehow feels a bit too…I don’t know, cutesy, given that your children are arriving as a matched boy-girl set. That is, the original Clifton and Ermengilde (forgive me, E-initial mom) met and had lives and then fell in love and grew together, but naming them this way might unconsciously engineer all of you to look for your parents’ or in-laws’ traits in them.  This is still true even if the ‘E’ is from your side of the family – I know you intend to call her EJ, but you would be surprised at the number of ‘Big E and Little E!” comments that you’ll receive, or how often people who swear they never cared will preen at her having their name.

By contrast, a name like Sabrina is totally new to your family. In other situations this might seem like a slight, I’m not going to lie – if you had one child who was family named, and then another who totally wasn’t, you might get some eyebrows about why but coming in a pair as they are, you get to incorporate the ‘future and the past’, as it were. 

Because even though we name children with traits of people we’ve known attached to their names, they’re going to recreate them and change and shift the names to suit them. That’s the glory of why no Clifton has been the same, even though soon-to-be-five of them have worn it. The name is the constant, but the situations and lives and families they build for themselves are different. By choosing one family name and one that’s brand-new-to-you, you allow both kids the possibility of writing their own stories.

Now, of course, unless I misunderstand, you still have next-door-neighbour Sabrina and I’m sure she’ll be delighted to know she has a namesake – but by the same token I’d reinforce to your daughter that of course you don’t think she’ll be just like the Sabrina next door, just that some of her qualities made you think favourably on a truly lovely name.

Let us know what you choose, on both counts!