I am a bit of a name-junkie myself, and have carved out what I see as the *perfect* names for our little family. Growing up I was the only "C" name in a sea of "J' names (literally almost everyone in my family, 30+ people!) so I resigned myself very early on to alliterate my own family one day. (My partner says this is "very country" but haters gonna hate!) By the time I was graduating high school I had already chosen the names of my prospective two children, and told him about this on our second date. (I get ahead of myself sometimes, but I'm a planner.) Those names were Cash and Carter. They meant a lot to me then, having been raised by my Grandmother, Jeanette, and our mutual love for Johnny Cash and his music and life story. I went into the music business after high school, so the whole love of music thing really compounded my name love and I always believed they were strong names that would work for either gender.
Cut to 10 years later, we have two boys named: you guessed it! Cash and Carter! (Their dad's name also starts with a C, so that worked out better than I anticipated.)
In the beginning my partner really fought me on our eldest son's name, Cash, because he is of Caribbean descent and strongly proclaimed "you can't name a black kid Cash!" - which part of me totally understood. Thus, the compromise. We agreed to name him Cassius, but call him Cash. It worked out well with a strong male namesake from our respective cultural backgrounds and gives me a longer name to yell when he's in trouble! ;)
Alas, here's my dilemma. The un-compromisable.
I'm pregnant with our third child, and living a twice boy-mom's dream! It's a girl! For years I've been rolling around in my head trying to figure out the ideal "unisex" name that fits out very narrow theme of "Favourite musicians/something musical that starts with C!" (Talk about painting yourself into a corner!) My choices have ranged from Crosby to Cole to Calloway, but I always come back to one name: Cohen. (with Jeanette Rose for her middle names.)
Not only is Leonard Cohen one of my favourite songwriters of all time, but I believe the name is a strong, calm and balanced one that really works on a lot of levels. "Coco" for short? I mean come on with that cuteness!
The problem is: Once again, their dad HATES it. He would prefer a "girly" name like Cora/Coretta or Cadence. While I don't *hate* them, personally I don't want to give my daughter an obviously feminine name for future work prospect reasons (after working in the music business and other male-dominated industries for years I can tell you that there are a lot of workplaces where women will continue to have a disadvantage just because of what's between their legs!) and on top of that, I just can't get beyond the name Cohen. It feels right to me in every way and I've fallen too in love with it to let go now.
So, my partner went on a baby naming site and looking up Cohen and found out its religious/cultural ties to Judaism and immediately jumped on the "cultural appropriation" bandwagon, as the website stated its long-time religious affiliation and its meaning of "priest" in Hebrew. I've spoken to dozens of my friends who are or were raised Jewish and they all LOVE the name and don't think it'll be a problem for us. He even went so far as to ask his orthodox friend at work, who actually gave us his blessing and said it's a beautiful name and only "old school uptight people would care." (Har har for me!)
It's a common given name these days anyway, just not typically for girls. While avoiding cultural or religious appropriation is important to me, I think its a step too far to say that a common name like "Cohen" would (or should) be considered disrespectful these days, particularly with the across-the-board blessing from basically every person we know. This is his only real "holdout" in this name war we've found ourselves in, and neither he nor I are budging on the matter.
So what do I do? I genuinely believe its the right name for our daughter, but I don't want him to resent me for life and there doesn't seem to be a Cash/Cassius compromise down the pipeline for us. How do I convince him that Cohen would be a lovely name our daughter would continue to grow into as she gets older?
Thanks so much!
As soon as I got this letter, I knew immediately that I wanted to respond to it. I knew, too, that I wanted to write something thorough and thoughtful, because you’ve written something that is long and reasoned, and you deserve an answer that addresses all of your concerns. It’s clear that you’re aware of all the ways names can have an effect on our lives, and I appreciate that. And your love of music is pure, and your affection for the names comes through honestly.
So you may be surprised at my response.
You are wrong.
You’re not wrong because you love the name, or because you want to honour Leonard Cohen. You’re not wrong because you think there’s a way to find a compromise, as you did with Cassius-called-Cash.
I’m not even saying you’re wrong because of the particular religious and cultural significance of the name Cohen, though we’ll get into that not-insignificant factor.
You are wrong, because you aren’t listening.
You say you’ve heard all the reasons why Cohen might not be okay to use, but you’ve decided they don’t apply to you. Because you love the name, so it’s okay. But that doesn’t negate those reasons - it just means you’re not hearing them. Don’t believe me? There’s a long history of people saying “I didn’t mean it like *that” when using the words ‘gay’ or ‘retarded’ as pejoratives, and… the effect is the same. Right?
You are pushing aside the reasons people give you for why this isn’t a good idea, and telling us they don’t apply because you asked a Jewish person. Or because your use of the name is out of love for Leonard Cohen. I can acknowledge that those things are true, and still ask, how is this different than a non-black person shouting out the n-word because, they protest, “I love this song!” or saying they can’t be racist because they have a black friend? You are citing the concerns of your husband who, from what I understand in your letter, is a person of colour and might have a different perspective on the matter than you do, and saying they don’t matter, because you’ve decided they don’t. See what I mean?
I get that you asked Jewish friends. I can’t speak to their experiences or their opinions (though I want to point out that it’s hard to tell people something negative about a name, especially to their face, especially if they’ve already said they love it up, down, and around the corner. It’s very possible they may not be telling you all their feelings) but I can speak to my friend. Whose last name is Cohen. Who is very proud of her name, and very irked by the practice of it being used as a first name, and who wants you to know the following, which she’s been taught from birth:
“It's a last name that has serious religious significance to the Jewish people. There are religious honours in a synagogue that only a member of the Cohanim can perform, as well as rules Cohens must abide by.”
This is where the conversations about cultural appropriation come in. It’s not just that Cohen is ‘a Jewish name’ or even a religious name. It’s that you are taking a name that is an honour for Jewish people and just applying it to your daughter. Once again, saying that those honours don’t matter to you. But they matter to Jewish people, and people who care about Jewish people. And that should matter to you.
Around about now, there’s usually an argument that goes something like “What, so can we not use any names from any other cultures? Michelle is French, is that not okay either!?!?”
It’s true. There’s no outcry when parents who are of mostly British origin choose a Greek name like Daphne, or a German family chooses Fiona. That’s because Greek and German cultures haven’t been steadily maligned, mocked, and persecuted for generations. Nobody has literally tried to eliminate these cultures from existence, systemically remove their voices and their power…
… and then, after they fought back and defended their cultures as valid and relevant, after entire races of people were forced to justify their existence and fight against being bought, sold, and exterminated, had their culturally-specific names used as fashion statements.
You can’t stop being Black, or Asian or Latinx or Indian or Indigenous when it’s inconvenient. You can’t stop being Jewish even when there is proven evidence that it might get you killed. So to take the ‘attractive’ part of the culture for yourself, whether a name or a fashion or whatever else, without taking on the parts that are difficult? Well, that’s why the biggest laugh in Black Panther comes when Shuri refers to the white man in her lab as ‘Coloniser’.
You can like something without deciding you need to own it. You can admire something from a distance without jumping immediately to the conclusion that you’re just going to take it for your own. I know you don’t mean to be actively disrespectful. But I suspect none of this is news to you, which is why I’m frustrated, and why I think it’s clear that you’re not listening.
The other problem I have with the use of this name is that you’re only thinking about what giving this name would mean for you, and not what your daughter is going to experience. To wit:
You say you want a unisex name for your daughter because you don’t want her to be judged by having an overtly feminine name, based on your own experience. Longtime readers of this column know I bristle at that idea, because we’re never going to change the perception of girls’ and womens’ names as being weak or less than if we don’t continue to use them. I would venture – and I really hope – that by the time she’s an adult, she and her peers will be operating in a world where that concern is no longer relevant.
But how are you so focused on whether she might be judged for having a feminine name, and not on whether she might be judged for having a culturally insensitive name?
How will it affect her if people tell your daughter her name is ‘rude’ or inappropriate? What will happen when she meets Jewish people who feel the way my friend does? If she falls in love with one? What if she wants to work in a heavily-Jewish place or community and her name is a barrier? Or if she never meets a Jewish person in her life, but does meet people who think her name is distasteful? If she loses clients or customers because they’re turned off by the name?
I know these concerns likely don’t apply in your life right now, or maybe in the one you imagine for her. But I know you love your daughter and don’t want any limits for her, including any about her name. Can you really say with certainty that they’re never going to come up in the next 80+ years of her life? You and your husband acknowledged that there might be reasons for Cash to have another name, Cassius, that bridges cultural boundaries. Can you not see that some of those same bridges might be closed if you call your daughter Cohen?
If someone tells you that there are legitimate concerns, can you take a minute and try to hear them?
How about the actual problem at hand? What to name her?
I am a sucker for musical names, so I like the idea of Cole for a girl, as a neat homage to Natalie Cole, though you may have been thinking of Cole Porter. Crosby’s nice, though for many people maybe evokes hockey rather than music?
Maybe you want to go with Charlie, or even Chaz, for Charlie Parker or Ray Charles or Chet Baker? I like Calloway the more I think about it, and you could still get Coco from it if you wanted to – or even nickname her Cabbie, which even I have to admit is pretty cute.
Or maybe Coco is an homage to Anita O’Day, whose real name was Anita Colton. Or go with Cobie, for Jimmy Cobb. Or Carson. Or, to go back to musical terms, go with Coda (where you could still get Coco) or Canon. Or, if you’ve tied your love of the name Cohen to your love of Leonard Cohen and can’t unpick them, throw the whole tradition out and call her Leona. Or Constance Leona to get to Colie. Or any of a million other names.
Lots to think about.
I know this isn’t what you expected. I’m sorry if this feels like an onslaught you didn’t sign up for. Please know I’m not doing this for sport. But I was sincere when I said that I appreciate your love for names and the lifelong effects they can have. And so I’d rather you hear the tough love from me, now, rather than after she’s been named and it’s too late. I truly believe you can find a name that will give her all the gifts you want her to have, without adding something that may be an unintended struggle – one that overrides any good intentions you have.