We love to worry about name teasing.
Strangers and our closest friends alike warn us not to use this name or that one, because it rhymes with something or brings to mind a fictional character or reality star. Or it sounds too much like an unpleasant slang term or obscure medical reference. Maybe it’s plain weird, or other undesirable.
These comments are almost inevitably couched in genuine concern. Some of them come from a good place.
And yet, over the years, I’ve come to hear all of the many comments like this:
I don’t care for that name.
Because fears of name teasing? A handful might be worth pondering. But the vast majority can be safely ignored. Here’s why.
YOU MIGHT BE THE ONLY ONE WHO HEARS THE NAME TEASING
So often someone will comment, “don’t use that name because …”
And I think that never in a month of Sundays would I have imagined that Winnie is too witchy or John sounds like unfortunate slang. Is Alexia a brain disorder? Yes. Is that my first thought? Not even close.
If you worry that someone will spell Annalee with one N, or can’t un-hear that unfortunate rhyme? Then yes, feel free to skip the name. But the overwhelming majority of threats of name teasing? They’re based on something that might never come up again.
CULTURAL REFERENCES FADE – FAST!
About eight years ago, a former colleague named his son Cullen. “But what about Twilight?” I asked, more than a little horrified. “Never read it,” he replied. “And who’s gonna think we named our kid after a vampire romance in another twenty years?” At the time, I thought he might be over-confident. But turns out he was right. I hear Cullen and think nice Irish surname, not Edward and Bella.
Now that my oldest is in high school, I have a built-in test for whether something is still culturally relevant. It turns out that a huge amount of trivia that rattles around in my brain, forming automatic associations, is lost on my kid’s generation.
So when your mom tells you that Vera is a ditzy diner waitress or Beau is stuck in Hazzard County? Reboots happen, but know that there’s a good chance that your children will never get the reference.
MANY KIDS WEAR BIG NAMES JUST FINE
Often we insist that a kid will be teased for having a name that’s different. Too old-fashioned, too new, too foreign, too obscure. But some kids fare just fine as Rocket or Amalswintha.
There are plenty of reasons I think unusual names aren’t a problem, but it really comes down to this: plenty of people have unusual names, and they report all sorts of feelings about them. The same is true for kids with very popular names. They love ’em, hate ’em, or maybe don’t think much about them. Since you cannot possibly imagine your child’s preferences – they won’t be known for years – you might as well trust your instincts.
YOU MIGHT BE WRONG ABOUT WHAT’S TEASE-WORTHY
Of course, plenty of names we warn others about are really The Next Big Thing. I did this for years with Maverick, but really? It’s in the current US Top 100 now, and seems pretty darn ordinary to me these days.
Or back when I was in my late teens, Henry was still a fusty, dusty name in style limbo. Until I met the cutest soccer player with the name – curly hair, even a dimple. Swoon! Henry was instantly transformed for me.
Name teasing imposes our tastes, preferences, and histories on everyone else – never a good idea.
WE SURVIVE AWKWARD SURNAMES, TOO
Related to the point above: rarely do I hear others insist that handing down a family surname is cruel. Though they can be every bit as tongue-twisting and cumbersome as many an obscure given name – more, really. We’ve all come across surnames that sound like body parts or swear words. Remember that Saturday Night Live sketch where Nicolas Cage plays Mr. Ahz-wee-pay?
And yet, we assume that family surnames have value that outweighs any potential awkwardness.
STORIES BEHIND A CHOICE CAN OFFSET FEARS OF NAME TEASING
Have you ever dismissed a stranger’s name choice as downright awful … and then heard the story, and realized it was anything but? Gertrude sounds hopelessly old-fashioned, but when it honors a truly amazing great-grandmother, everything changes. Or I’ll never forget hearing Pharrell explain why he named his firstborn Rocket.
When the reasons are so very rock solid, it can make any worries about name teasing fade into the background.
ALL NAMES ARE SUBJECT TO SOME KIND OF TEASING …
The thing about name teasing is that it’s everywhere. I’ve heard ugly plays on Elizabeth and Joseph, mean comments about Margaret and William. If the most bedrock choices of the last few centuries are subject to such barbs, then really, why bother trying to avoid it?
THE PROBLEM IS THE TEASING. NOT THE NAME.
Because here’s the thing – and this is really, really important.
It’s not the name. It’s the teasing.
Name teasing is a problem for the same reasons it’s flat-out awful to mock someone for the color of their hair, for an overbite or a limp, for their religious beliefs or the language they speak. Add whatever you like to the list … name teasing is teasing. And while I suppose there’s playful teasing, when it crosses the line to cruelty and bullying, it is unacceptable.
Because it’s not about names. It’s about strength and power and authority and all sorts of other complicated things.
It’s no surprise that name teasing often attacks choices that belong to marginalized people – we say that “black” names will never get a callback for a job interview, that foreign names are “too hard” to pronounce. We argue for “normal” names, supposedly as a kindness to the child. And maybe there’s a kernel of truth to that. It might be easier to go through life as Ava instead of Shifrah or Inayah.
But … so what? We don’t insist our children abandon the things that make them special. We don’t blindly buy them “what everyone else is wearing” or insist they give up basketball for snowboarding, because it’s what’s popular now.
We wouldn’t accept our children being teased for their clothing or their religion or … well, anything. Names are just another example.
Your turn: how do you feel about name teasing? Do you worry about it when choosing names?
Image by StockSnap from Pixabay
I simply picked names I liked, even though we got a lot of “ooohhhh…. *long pause* is that a family name?” My kid has been picked on for his name- Martyn. But the kid was a bully and it didn’t really matter what my kid’s name was.
I did remove one name from my list- Ruby! Love it and its a family name, but when I asked my (then) toddler to say it it came out “booby.” And it lost its appeal. 🙂
Elisabeth Williams says
I love every word of this article!! Thank you so much for always being so thoughtful and thought provoking! We are considering the name Barton after a very beloved grandpa.. my only hesitations have been the inevitable fartin’ Barton or Bart Simpson associations.. any thoughts on that name? Baby boy is due to arrive in April.
There’s a balance between checking for teasing potential, and checking for actual unfortunate implications. Which is why I think any parents, even the most private, should ask around for name reviews. Because sure, Andrew is a solid name, and Samuel has a nice history, but I’m sure the young Mr. Smith is going to be angry at you for not realizing the obvious.
Similarly, someone I knew was going to use an “incorrect” spelling of a word name (like Chyna instead of China) as a middle, which sounded lovely…until she googled it, and found out that “[incorrect word spelling] [surname]” is the name of a porn star! It scared her so much she changed the middle completely. On a similar note, a friend made up a name for a story, and it should have been a name that was completely unique. It’s actually a type of plant, like if he made up the name Salyx. I’m glad it was a plant and not, say, a genus of land flatworms.
We have 6 kids, 5 of which may or may not have had someone comment on their names but if so it didn’t bother them enough to mention it. Child #5 has been teased about his name, not because it is considered a ‘bad’ name for any reason, just that it rhymes with lots of other words- his name is Jack.
I have wondered for years whether the family name Virginia is usable these days, and Duana recently wrote a column saying that she doesn’t think it is. Does this fall into the “actually too teaseworthy” category for you, Abby?
When I hear Cullen I think lovely little village in Scotland! Great post as always.
Very nice article kids need this kind of support
I grew up with an usual name, and had slight teasing but it wasn’t awful. Throughout my life, I’ve always faced awkward questions. My mother is Comanche (Native American) and Jewish and gave me her Comanche grandmother’s name (Weckiai). But I have red hair and lighter skin and people are sometimes surprised by the combination of my name’s origin and my looks, occasionally to the point of rude comments and accusations of lying. I like my name and won’t change it,but it makes me anxious about introductions sometimes. I plan to give Comanche names to my children as second middles.
I feel like I’ve been waiting for this post my whole life!
To the point about any name being teasable and name teasing being very common… my experience at 24 has been that name teasing was far less common in my school years than older generations thought, and it seems to be even less common now.
I also usually hear name teasing from other adults, rather than children, either to prospective parents or behind the backs of those with “teasable” names. The few times I’ve heard children teasing about names, it’s been about someone’s last name.
Julie G says
You somehow hit two out of three of my kid’s names in this piece. Lol! Great article and so true!
Dukes of Hazard…reboots. Ha! Clever wit aside this was an excellent and thought provoking piece. Thank you