What’s Your Name Again, Kid?

They say that once you choose your child’s name, be it Kaydon or Atticus, Balthasar or Brady, your child becomes that name. They say that there’s no such thing as Namer’s Remorse.

I’m not so sure.

Sometime around 1976, I trotted off to nursery school and discovered I was one of many girls named Amy. And thus was born a life long obsession with names.

My mother’s one and only baby name book – the guide she thumbed through while naming all four of her children – eventually fell apart beneath my grubby mitts.

“Why,” I’d query my long-suffering mother, “didn’t you call me Chantal?”

“Really,” my mother would reply. “Would you really want to be Chantal?”

I would think about it, scan the page again and ask, “How ’bout Chandra?”

At this point she would ship me outside to play. Sometimes I took the book along and rechristened my dolls things like Faustine.

Years later, I found myself having similar conversations with my husband-to-be. “No. We can’t name our kid Caradoc.”

“Maybe Julius?”

“Do we have to talk about this now? Why not wait until you’re actually pregnant?”

I kept raising the subject, and eventually we reached The Great Naming Compromise of 2001. We would name our firstborn son after his father (Alexander) and our firstborn daughter after my mother (Clarina).

But it wasn’t quite that easy, not even after the ultrasound tech declared it was a boy.

“What will we call him?” I asked.

Alex,” my husband replied.

I mulled it over. Name aficionado that I’ve always been, I knew two things: first, Alexander was already a Very Popular choice. (It ranked #15 in 2004, the year our son was born. By last year, Alexander reached #6. And that’s not counting the just-Alexes, the girl-Alexes, or the creatively-spelled-Alexxes and Alyxes.) My husband veto’d Alasdair. (“We’re not Scottish.”) He didn’t even want to consider Evander or Iskander, though I argued that they were quite close.

My fail safe was this: the list of nicknames for Alexander took up a paragraph, even in that old, much-thumbed through baby name book from my youth.

Factor in my husband’s roots – his parents came from Poland not long before he was born – and I figured I could push an unconventional nickname. “Is Alexei the Polish nickname for Alexander?” I asked, innocently.

“I’ll ask my mom,” he replied, but never did. I looked it up, and found Aleksey listed as the Polish nickname.

Done, I thought triumphantly. All over but the spelling. Alexy, maybe? Would that be a good compromise? I thrilled every time an ESPN reporter mentioned a hockey player named Alexei. My husband is a Huge Hockey Fan. Surely, that would sway him.

Our son arrived and two things happened: first, it turns out that you don’t have a second to think about your child’s nickname. Everyone wants to know, pretty much immediately. And if you don’t tell them, they just assume that the most common nickname is the one you’re using.

Second, much to my surprise, my in-laws called their firstborn grandchild Olušoh LOOSH. In some parts of Poland, Aleksander might be Aleksey. But in their region? Nope. Loosh was cute, but I couldn’t introduce my kid as Loosh. As for Sasha, another possible diminutive, it was veto’d as “too Russian.”

Friends also chose Alexander around the same time, with the intention of calling their kiddo Xander.

But somehow we each ended up with an Alex.

I didn’t fuss about it at first. Because Alexander/Alexei/Aleksey/Alexy/Alex had another name in mind: Aly – the name he’s used for himself since he could first talk.

Over the past not-quite-five years, Aly has stuck. He’s aggressively boyish with wild curling hair. The name he chose for himself is simply the right name. And I respect that.

But I recently had to register Aly/Alex/Alexei for summer camp. At a loss about what name to put on the form, I asked my son, confident that Alexei would win. He’d insisted Alexei appear on his hockey jersey. He tells me that he’s Alexei.

This time?

Alex, he said.

My heart broke.

I fetched from camp a few days ago, and when the head counselor called Alex, more than one little head swiveled. My son popped up, along with another little boy.

“We’re both Alex,” said the other boy.

Then they hugged.

“Yeah,” Aly added. “I’m Alex Sandel. Then there’s Alex Smith, and Alex Jones, and this is Alex Jackson. Plus there’s Alex Hunter, but he’s BIG!”

As we left camp, I queried my son. “There are lots of Alexes,” I said.


“Are you sure you want to be Alex? You can be Alexei. You could be Aly. Or we could choose another name.”

He looked at me like I had three heads. “No. I’m Alex.”

And so we’ve come full circle. My mother hated her unusual name, I hated my super-common name and my kid? He’s perfectly happy to be one in a crowd.

Alex still doesn’t come out of my mouth – to be honest, I don’t think it fits him as well as Alexei. And Dad calls him Aly. (Which could read feminine in some circles, but in Washington DC, reads more like the Arabic Ali – in fact, our Muslim neighbors did a double-take when they met him.)

I’ve read before that kids like having common names, but I’ve never believed it – it was so very opposite my experience. But my husband – who grew up Arthur in a sea of Jasons and Michaels – tends to agree with my mother, a Clarina amongst Marys and Janets.

Aly’s name remains fluid. We ordered his new lunchbox with “Alex” stitched on. But he continues to answer to Aly and Alexei. Who knows? Maybe it will always be that way. I can live with it, for now.

But when Clio comes home and wants to know why I didn’t name her Madison?

That’s gonna be a tough day.


  1. Saranel says

    Great post! My Elijah is three and he goes by Elijah or Lija or Lij but never Eli. (DH has horrible past experience with an Eli.) Anyway, last Sunday Elijah runs up to me after playing some of his friends and he says, “I’m Eli mommy!” Oh no hunny, you’re Elijah. “No I’m Eli. They said I’m Eli!” Who said? “My friends!” And he runs off to play more. This is not good. But two minutes later he announces himself as Axel and by the time we return home he is back to self identifying as Elijah. Crisis averted. It really does make me apprehensive about what he will choose to be called but ultimately it’s his choice.

    Now my daughter is Felicity Elizabeth Louise. She is only three months old and with a four syllable name she has more nicknames then she knows what to do with. Most people call her Felicity but she also goes by: Lissy, Lily, Tilly, Tizzy, Indie, Molly, Liss, Fliss, Flitty, and Ruby Lou.

  2. Chloe-Marie says

    Oh man, when my mom named me back in 1996 Chloe wasn’t even top 100 anywhere.
    Now its like the 5th most popular name for girls in many places and I want to die because I still think it’s a gorgeous name but can’t stand how common it is.
    Fortunately it isn’t common here in South Africa

  3. Panya says

    This is why I can’t use Alexander as a first name — I don’t want an Alex, and I like too many of the other nicknames to choose just one! I love Alexander though, so I want to use it as a middle name.

    I’m going to have the same sort of problem with my daughter though, whom we’re planning on naming Katherine [after my mom, Kathy]. I’d love for her to be Kasia, but I have a cousin Natasha/Tasha. Katya is my second choice, but I fear she’ll end up a Kate.

  4. Kat says

    Awesome story. I can relate to your angst about trying to find JUST the right name with the right circumstances for optimal nickname capabilities; meaning, the one you want. I still have yet to find that name.
    But I think you were successful overall because your child likes his name, and was allowed to call himself what he wants when he wants. Since we can’t predict how our children will like their stand-out or fit-in name, offering them a salad bar of nicknames seems to be the next best thing. I am leaning toward Susanna for this reason, and wishing there were more options for Paloma for the same reason. (I want to call her Lola, but worry that it won’t stick).

  5. JNE says

    Great post! I often wonder how Imogen will react to her name as she grows older. I liked being the only one with my name, but no one misspelled Jade or had a hard time figuring it out based on what was written. Having said that, there was a brief moment around age 10 or 11 when I thought it would be nice to go by my much more common middle name. So maybe age/stage in growing up plays a large part in that part of a group vs. unique individual push and pull.

    Imogen may not be so ‘easy’ in pronunciation or spelling as Jade, at least here in the states. I don’t get to find out before we have to name #2. I’m not sure I want that information anyway. Right now, all I know for certain is “Immy” is the name of choice for referring to herself because she stumbles through the full-on Imogen. And that’s more than fine for me. Part of the appeal of Imogen is that it has a slew of nicknames and I’m fine if she chooses to go with one or another that isn’t my favorite for a spell. After all, it’s her name. And her super common middle (Lily) is always there as a back-up if that’s what she wishes. I know I’ll never be sad that her name is what it is. I just hope there are enough options for her to feel comfortable and happy with her name too.

    As for those who insist on full names, that’s well and good, but rarely practical, even with shorter names. Sure, I do know a James and a David that go by their full names all the time. But most, especially those whose parents insisted on the full name all the time, end up with nicknames in school. My husband’s folks are non-nicknamers. They went with Leigh for their first son (not an odd spelling for a boy in the UK) and that works – no nicknames possible, really. They followed that up with Micheal (yeah, he goes by Mike) and Nigel (which doesn’t really have an obvious nickname, but he’s Nige much of the time among friends). So, short of using a single syllable name, it’s likely your kid will choose to go by a nickname in school whether the parents are thrilled or not… at least that’s what I’ve seen.

    Thanks for sharing about Alex/Aly/Alexei’s current nickname preference… it’s definitely something I’ve wondered about for my girl too… In a few years, I imagine we may be in a similar spot.

  6. chaneltara says

    Great post! I’m kind of the opposite, in that I was given a trendy, modern, misspelled, uncommon name (Channelle) and always hated it. Growing up, there was never any other Chanels (now it’s a little more popular, but still really uncommon, and still considered pretty trashy and strippery).
    On the other hand, I am very into the idea of giving my children a classy, classic, old-fashioned, correctly spelled (and intuitively spelled, I hated that I always had to spell my name out!), beautiful name. Even though I know a Rosemary or Beatrix will still be the only one in her class with that name, at least when she grows up she’ll appreciate having a name with class and history…or at least I hope she will.

  7. Corinne says

    I hated being the only Corinne. I still hate being Corinne, and desperately want to change it!
    Pronunciation issues, spelling issues, nickname issues, the list goes on. My sister went through the same thing as an Aynsley, but my brother will luck out as a Logan.
    I hope my kids won’t go through this eventually!

  8. coolteamblt says

    What a great post! I hated being one of a zillion Kates in school, but my sister lamented being the only Amelia. She always told me she wished we could trade names. She thought Katie sounded like a cute popular girl “not at all like you!” Got to love it. I think it just depends on your child. Everyone is different. At least you put a lot of thought into it and gave him the options. And he’s young, he has plenty of time to change his mind!

  9. appellationmountain says

    Marissa, I love the nns Mari and Maris, but I know what you mean – people are so used to hearing Marissa as a given name, but they’re not likely to know too many – so it doesn’t bring up the need.

    I love Maris, though …

  10. appellationmountain says

    Roseanna is lovely – and I think she’s on the right side of my three-syllable rule (observed rather than invented!) to not necessarily need a nickname.

    Until she comes home with one, of course!

  11. appellationmountain says

    Elisabeth, it might be a difference between boys and girls. It might also be age-specific. At the moment, I think Aly is charmed by the idea of being around so many “big” kids – he’s with 5 and 6 y.o.s in camp. The fact that he shares a name with some of them is yet more proof that he’s one of the crowd.

    Emmy Jo, I’m not so sure that we can guess what our kids will want. I’ve written before about living in a huge metro area, with families from all over the world. (We’re on the Maryland side of DC.) If we still lived in the Midwest, I think my attitude towards kids’ names would be less adventurous. (We lived in Pittsburgh when Aly was born. I think it is one of the reasons I hesitated to push for exclusive use of Alexei. All the kids we knew were Charles and Henry, Theodore, Lawrence, Anthony … the classic classics, with a few picks like Jackson and Avery tossed in.)

    Allison, I agree – it is ABSURD to think that “everyone” will “always” call Alexander or Iphigenia or Caterina or Bartholomew by his or her full name. Three syllables, maybe. But four? It just isn’t within the rhythm of how Americans speak English. In other languages, maybe – Polish and Italian diminutives actually add sounds and syllables, as do many other languages. So my MIL Grazyna becomes Grazykna; my great-grandmothers Chiara and Sara became Chiarina and Sarita. There was a poster at Yahoo!Answers a while back who insisted that her son was always called by his full name: Oliver-William. Maybe by mom and dad …

    In high school, I knew a guy called Michael (didn’t we all?) but he went by Elmo. (Cause really, Mike was taken. And then some.) I had no idea Elmo wasn’t on his birth certificate until I called his house and got a frigid, “There is no one here by that name” from Mrs. Elmo’s Mom. Er – Mrs. Michael’s Mom.

    Tau, there are almost enough of us to get tee shirts printed! I’ve heard the Jennifers have a club.

  12. Marissa says

    My sister’s name is Alexandra, and she went by just Alexandra for her earliest years. Inevitably somehow it shifted to Alex. She’s currently a rising sophomore in high school and is excited to introduce herself in college as either an Alexi or a Lexi. That’s what I think is so great about longer names – even if everyone else’s name is Elizabeth too you could be a Betsy or a Liza or a Lizzy or a Beth or whatever strikes your fancy and fits you best.

    As a Marissa, I haven’t met too many people that share the name since middle school when there were three in my homeroom (but that was all of the Marissas in the grade, oddly enough). I tried to go by Mari for a while sort of due to that but gave it up. Rissa is not an option and Maris doesn’t really sound like a nickname to me.

  13. Tau says

    I am yet another Amy who is obsessed with names. There are four or five on the Baby Name Wizard blog already…

  14. says

    Thanks for sharing your story!

    This makes me feel slightly better about sticking with the naming zone my husband and I have agreed upon (“familiar but not too common”).

    I’ve been wondering recently if, because I know so many rare names, I should pick ones that NO ONE else seems to be using (like Iolanthe, Leta, Lysander, or Hadrian) instead of the more familiar ones we both like (like Clara, Miriam, Frederick, or Wesley).

    Reading this has made me think that my child just MIGHT be happier to be called Clara than Iolanthe, even if Iolanthe is just as pretty in my mind.

  15. Allison says

    I went to interview for a part-time nanny job when I was in college. “His name is Alexander,” his mother began, “and we NEVER call him anything but Alexander.” Emphasis hers, not mine: she actually leaned in and widened her eyes when she said NEV-ER.

    Which leads me to believe that people calling him Al or Alex was had already become an unrelenting source of frustration for her. I can’t imagine why anyone would choose a 4-syllable name and then demand no one ever deviate from it. If you’re that opposed to nicknames, why not just call him Brock, Cale, or Gage and be done with it? Little Alexander would be college age by now, and I wonder to this day if his full moniker stuck intact. Anyway, I can’t remember the rest of the interview, I just knew I couldn’t work for someone so rigid.

    I have heard that some people really like having popular names, and everyone knows kids never want to stand out or be different. However, it seems like for the most part, people with trendy, conventional names like Jennifer resent their ten-a-penny name status. I read once that the single most common cause of baby name remorse is, “We didn’t know how popular it was.” At one time I worked in a dept store where 4 of the 7 girls who worked behind the Clinique counter were Michelle. True story.

    As for myself, there was never more than one other Allison in my entire school, and I appreciated that. Even told my mother so. (My mom swears she wasn’t influenced by Mia Farrow’s character on Peyton Place, but I think she must have been to some degree, even unconsciously.) I doubt my kids will ever appreciate how I ruminated endlessly over their names, taking popularity, perception, alliteration, nicknames, and potential for teasing into account. Seriously, I doubt Spencer will ever even think about it. But I do secretly hope that one day my sweet, beautiful Macy appreciates how hard I had to lobby to save her from her father’s first choice.

    He wanted to name her Madison.

    • appellationmountain says

      Allison, I think Macy will appreciate it. Or I hope Macy will appreciate it. Um, how ’bout I appreciate it? There. That’s a definite!

      Still, I’m kind of jealous that your husband even HAD an opinion.

      • Sharalyn says

        Do not be jealous of husband’s having opinions. It can be horrible sometimes. It tooks us *weeks* and me having a breakdown, then 4 hours of hashing things out to even get a first name for our daughter.

        My husband’s girl name preferences run toward the eccentric yet unwieldy while I like classic elegance (which he calls “old lady” and “fusty”). It was very problematic.

        • appellationmountain says

          A nice point, Sharalyn! It is SO nice to agree, and challenging when your tastes are very far apart.

    • Jane says

      Ooooo I can’t agree with the comment “everyone knows kids never want to stand out or be different” – I spent a good part of my childhood (through the ages 6-10) lobbying my parents for a more interesting name than Jane. I wanted a name that no one else had. It was a major obsession. I have met several other people with the same childhood experience of wanting a name that stood out more, was more interesting, and different.
      P.S. I gave up the parental lobbying at around age 10, but I did start lying to people about my name, telling them I had all sorts of interesting middle names, and spelling my name Jayn for a long time! Cringe! Now I like my name, but it took me until my mid-20s to spell it Jane and be proud of it.

      • appellationmountain says

        LOL, Jane! I attempted to use the spellings Amee & Amme before giving up and becoming Amy Abigail – A. Abigail – Abby. Only to find that hordes of little girls now share my “uncommon” name. Oh well …

  16. Charlotte Vera says

    Great post! So far, I haven’t really had any requests for information about Roseanna’s nickname. That’s fine with me, since Mark and I haven’t really come up with one and both call her by her full name. I’m sure sometime in her life that will change and people will begin to call her “Rosie” (which we both hate), but we’ll stave it off as long as possible. I mean, hey, I managed to go through most of my life without a nickname and to this day most people just use my full name.

    Oh, and Roseanna’s name was a compromise too, being chosen for Mark’s mother. The bad thing? We’re screwed if we have another girl!

    • Allison says

      Uh-oh: “Rosie” is probably inevitable. Are you really that averse to it? For what it’s worth, I think it’s sweet and pretty, very appealing.

      • Charlotte Vera says

        I’m not fond of Rosie because I’ve known SO MANY of them. My husband doesn’t like it because the only Rosie he’s known was a guy!

  17. youcantcallitit says

    Oh, and I think you DID strike a very clever balance for your two children. The deal you struck with Arthur was ingenious, and the nicknames superb. I do hope young Alex discovers the merits of Alexei sooner rather than later though. And I kind of love “Oloosh”!

  18. youcantcallitit says

    Maybe it’s largely a difference between boys and girls?

    I had a similar experience to yours. In my case my parents chose Elisabeth largely because it has so many nickname options, and I could, like Alex/Alexei/Aly, choose what to be called later in life. Of course I was boring and go by the name in full. I do like my name, but it is very common (read: Elizabeth, top 10 almost always). I like that it’s classic, but wanted my children to have more unusual names. I wonder now if I struck the right balance or pushed the envelope too far? We won’t know for a while yet how they will feel. I already have to correct people “no, it’s not Beatrice” and spell E-U-L-A-L-I-E quite a bit. As a name nerd, it surprises me when people are unfamiliar with names that are so common to my own vocaublary.

    And of course I’m desperately trying to strike just the right balance, yet again for #3. That’s surely a while off yet, if at all!

    • Jane says

      I agree with YouCan’tCallItIt – I had the same thought about it being a boy/girl thing – most of the men I know with unusual names, always wished they had more common names, and most of the women I know with common names, wished they had been given mure unusual ones. I can see that Clarina is an exception here – a woman with an unusual name who wished she’d been given one that fit in more easily. Interesting!


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