Date: July 14, 2011
For most parents, selecting a baby's name is the first and last situation over which they are in total command. So make the most of it. But keep in mind that it's a shared command. Half your job is to prevent your spouse from afflicting your child with a bad name.
Here are some suggestions for the name game:
Poison names that you don't like. When your spouse says, "I've always liked the name Herbert," just say: "There was a Herbert in my fourth-grade class who used to wet his pants almost every day. That kind of ruined the name for me." Most expectant parents are superstitious enough that it will ruin the name for them, too. And if it doesn't, take Herbert's traits and afflictions beyond unattractive into horrifying.
Consider the Jewish technique. This comes in handy if your spouse wants to recycle an unsuitable name in memory of a loved one. Jewish people use just the first letter of the dear departed's name. Thus, the late Uncle Jehoshaphat can be honored by naming a baby Jeffrey or Joshua. This allows for sentiment, but permits you to retire an unpleasant name.
Shake the family tree. See if a good, traditional name like Andrew or Daniel or Grace or Alice falls out. Avoid the quaint and foreign. Your son might not like being named Horace, Clarence, Lorenzo, Pierre or Olaf.
Use the middle name. It can appease a spouse who wants to hang an inventive name on an innocent child. It can grease up a rich uncle or placate a dad who is intent on a namesake. It can pass along Mom's maiden name, nicely connecting the child with that side of the family. A well-wrought middle name can also be your child's lifeboat in case he or she decides your first choice is unseaworthy. Remember: A middle name is like a tattoo on your backside. It's always there, but who knows about it is up to you.
Choose a versatile name. Imagine calling that name around the house. Imagine yourself, angry and formal, saying that name like an indictment: "Richard Matheson Epstein, if you jump up from the dinner table one more time, I'm going to tie you to your chair." (It happened.) Imagine your child taking that empty name, no matter whether it has belonged to villains or saints, and filling it with his own personal magic. Imagine it on the honor roll, on a business card, on a baseball card, on a book jacket or on a theater marquee.
Consider a last name for a first name. Lots of girls are being named Morgan, Taylor, Madison, Whitney and Mackenzie. It's kind of weird when you are in the mall and a mother is yelling, "Madison! Come back here!" I don't know about you, but I look around expecting to see the fourth president of the United States sprinting past Gap. But in a backwards kind of way, these names are cute on a little girl. And if they seem a little weighty, remember that an American woman with a life expectancy of 80 years has plenty of time to grow into it. Note: This kind of naming works best with Anglo-Saxon surnames. For example, you probably shouldn't name your daughter Epstein. (Although if you do, I'll give you 10 bucks.)
Test the name. Does it lend itself to mockery? Little Ria might like her name a little less when a fourth grader calls her "Dia-Ria," and less still in eighth grade when someone calls her "Gonno-Ria." Lana will survive "Lana Banana" handily, but go to pieces the day her classmates start spelling each other's names backwards. Will your children spend their formative years as "Hope the Dope" or "Carter the Farter"? If you have trouble casting your mind into the gutter, hire a consultant. Take your short list of likely names to the nearest elementary school when the boys are being released from detention. For $5, any one of them will be glad to take his best shot at your favorite names. Or they'll do it later for free.
Calm down. The best name is not a big sign that must be carried and explained. Nor is it a strong dog on a leash that will pull its owner in unwanted directions. It is a tasteful garment that really won't mean much until your child puts it on. At that moment, it will acquire worlds of meaning.
Rick can be reached at RickEpstein@yahoo.com.