Talk about baby names long enough, and you’ll realize that all sorts of incredibly sensitive subjects come up when we’re naming human beings. The question of Eleanor or Addisynne, Kwame or Kai isn’t simply one of personal taste. It touches on ideas about gender and class and religion and nation and race.
So I’m not surprised when I get an angry comment. But last week, I got a comment that blew me away. The gist was this: because I do not appear to be from a specific ethnic background, I should not dare to write about the associated names. It was disrespectful, and a lot of other things, too. I knew nothing, nothing! The post should be deleted immediately.
My initial reaction was to reach out, try to connect, maybe to insist that I meant no harm.
There was no indication that the commenter wanted to talk about names. It was anger, pure and destructive and pointless.
It can be problematic to choose names from other cultures. At the same time, we’re always borrowing, without even realizing it. Cross-pollination is the rule in languages, and names, too.
In Duana Taha’s excellent new book The Name Therapist, she advocates for using names from all cultures. And while I struggled with the idea, I think she’s on the right track. Names from the western world cannot be the only names on our lists. It’s just too narrow.
This bears much more thinking, and I don’t have any conclusions. But I would love to hear your thoughts. If you loved a name from a culture other than your own, would you use it?
Now, on to the name news:
- A great list of bold middles, including Triumph, Champion, Praise, and Ladybird. Betcha there’s a story behind every one.
- All about Summer as a baby name. And Winter, Spring, and Autumn, too.
- Speaking of Summer, what a great list of seasonally-inspired baby names!
- And one more here …
- This story about naming daughters from Living with Kids is fantastic: When Will and I were engaged, I said, “I want to have two girls so we can give them each one of our sisters’ names.” And they did!
- Isn’t Serenella gorgeous? I don’t think I’ve heard it before now.
- This collection of names quotes from Nancy is especially rich.
- Looking for names that are known, but rarely used? This series from The Art of Naming is a great place to start.
- Would you use a hyphenated name? I don’t think I would …
- Interesting letter from an Anastasia who wants to be called … Anastasia!
That’s all for this week! As always, thank you for reading – and have a great week!
It looks as if even nutters can bring about an interesting discussion, so bring it on!
But for anyone worried about using names from “other cultures”, it’s useful to remember that most of our traditional “English” names are from other cultures. The fashion for biblical names like Sarah, Ruth and Jacob (and even Olive, taken from the biblical context) was started by people coming back from the Crusades in the Middle Ages – we often forget that names like Elizabeth and Isaac were taken from the Middle East, while the medieval saints names which became popular, like Catherine and Sebastian, made their way via countries like Egypt and Turkey.
And science tells us that every person one earth is related, so none of us is unicultural, coming from a variety of ancestries and heritages. If we could all see our family trees back to where we began in Africa, we would find names from many cultures and languages on each branch.
* on earth, you can see what my subconscious was thinking there! 🙂
I think it’s good to use the kind of thinking we do with any kind of cultural appropriation. Ask ourselves:
Do I have a meaningful connection (other than an affinity for) this culture?
If not, is this culture one that is marginalized in society, especially in relation to my own culture?
If so, what am I giving back to this culture as I use something from it?
In other words, if you or your children have ancestry in a particular culture, of course it is no problem to use a name.
If you do not, is this culture oppressed? If you are of the majority culture, I don’t see a problem using an Italian name, for example, because Italians are not typically marginalized at this time in white America. Using a Native American or a Syrian name though? Move on to the next question.
What are you giving back? Are you teaching your child with the Syrian name about Islamaphobia and donating to refugee relief funds? Are you calling your senators about Native American rights? If you aren’t willing to do these kinds of things, and especially if you don’t feel any calling to, don’t use the name.
the Mrs. says
You bring up a fascinating topic, Abby!
I have five kids. Through the gift of adoption, none of them are biologically related. In our age of science, we’ve been able to give them each their ancestry through DNA testing, so we KNOW what their cultural heritage is. But here’s the thing… my partly Korean daughter is exceptionally tall and looks in no way Asian. My half Nord son is frequently referred to as Hispanic (he’s not–at all). My son with darker skin is labeled as African American even though he is also Swiss, German, and French. It’s remarkable!
Every once and a while, someone will ask if my husband and I named all of our children… because their names do not seem culturally appropriate. 1) How would one know just by looking at them? 2) We’re American. They are all American. Specifically, they were all born IN AMERICA. America is the great melting pot, no? Why is it okay for Greek and French names to be in vogue right now for everyone, but only Native American and Arabic names can be used by those enrolled in a tribe or Muslim? The contradiction seems glaring.
We as a country can track our trends of cultures to emulate: Russian names were big after Dr. Zhivago. Italian names soared after The Godfather. The IRA conflict brought Irish names forefront. And the Harry Potter franchise has inspired a new generation to name their children Luna, George, and even Hermione! No one freaks out about it. We Americans are influenced by so many factors: elite athletes, movie stars, deceased relatives, lyrics in songs, spiritual beliefs… no one has a right to censor these sparks of inspiration. They are inherent to the society we live in. And with the internet, affordable travel, and a wide-spread curiosity to explore, society is a much broader place.
Thanks for making such a tremendously excellent blog. If I read nothing else on the web each day, it’s your site. Truly. I’m sorry to hear about any trolls bringing you down. They are small-minded folks.
Very well said!
I don’t think any name is off limits, either to talk about or to use or to adapt to American use. I get impatient with talk about cultural appropriation. It’s what different cultures have done for thousands of years.
Sarah G says
I’m really liking Ladybird and Ermengarde.
But moving onto the subject of names deriving from a variety of cultures and origins…if you (as many of us do) have a multiple ethnicities in our background but have not been actively raised with knowledge of that culture does that give you the right to ‘talk’ about that cultural group or not? Who gets to decide who belongs? The attitude of the person who sent you the angry email makes me sad that some people see the world distinctly in black and white, wanting to compartmentalize us all.
Oh that’s food for thought. I do love and admire names from other cultures that I would never use because as beautiful as they are, I don’t feel a particular claim to them. I think it partially depends on the strength of the association, but also the way the culture itself feels about the adoption by other groups. I think I would want some sense of whether the culture whose name I admired would find it acceptable on me, not the other way around. Particularly if the name had religious associations, or a specific pattern of use in it’s original context.
Use a culturally specific name? Perhaps not…but talk about it, certainly! Dialogue is so important (and destructive comments do little to aid true understanding).