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What’s In a Name?

I think Catholics are especially good at baby-naming, given that we often have many more opportunities to do so than our non-Catholic counterparts.

Our baby #4 (or, as s/he is affectionately referred to in our home, “Señor/ita Cuatro”) is due to arrive in mid-December. Now that the all-day nausea and bone-numbing fatigue of the first trimester have abated (and I can hold a coherent thought in my head for more than a few minutes) my husband and I have been discussing names. It’s a serious business because we have some strict criteria for naming our offspring.

Our rules are as follows:

1. Absolutely no name that is tryndee or kree8yv, especially if it appears as an entry on the Baby’s Named a Bad Bad Thing website. It must be traditional and have a long history of use as a name. The name must also be easily pronounceable. To avoid this problem, we prefer names that appear nowhere near the top ten on the Social Security Administration’s list of popular baby names, although we’re willing to bend that criterion a bit if the name fits rule #2.

2. The name must have some deep significance to us; for example, a family name or a name from a personally beloved work of literature. In my opinion, it’s a bit of a letdown for a child to ask, “How did I get my name?” only to be told by his parents, “Oh, we just liked it.” But caution is in order. If you, as an Italian parent, have a deep and abiding love for the character “Friday” (“Venerdi” in Italian) from Robinson Crusoe, you may find the judicial system overruling your choice in favor of rule #5.

3. Absolutely nothing gender-neutral. A boy’s name must be masculine and a girl’s name must be feminine. Unlike some parents, we strongly believe that there are essential and distinct physiological and psychological differences between men and women. A name should accurately attest to a person's sex. On a practical level, this helps avoid confusion when filling out school paperwork or job applications.

4. The name must be able to fit into the following context without raising eyebrows or sounding ridiculous: “I’m pleased to present the newest Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, the Honorable ________.” Alternatively, when testing boy names, we occasionally use, “Habemus Papam! ________!” Can you imagine, for instance, “Habemus Papam! 4Real Superman!” Yeah, me neither.

5. Most important, the child’s name must incorporate a saint’s name as either the first or middle name (or both, if possible). A child’s name is a gift given by his or her parents in the first moments of life outside the womb (or sometimes shortly after the 20-week ultrasound—although we prefer to keep the child’s sex a mystery until birth). What better gift is there than the name of a protector, patron, and potential role model for this new little Catholic's life?

A common Catholic tradition is to name a child for the saint’s day on which she is born. Had my parents gone that route, I would have been named Martin (or perhaps Martina?) after St. Martin de Porres. Although it’s a nice tradition, I find myself grateful that my Protestant parents were unaware of this tradition (nothing against St. Martin, of course). If we were to follow the saint’s day tradition with Señor/ita Cuatro, assuming that he or she arrives on time, we will be christening an “Ado” (setting the child up for a lifetime of “Much Ado about Nothing” jokes). Even so, there are many names of saints that won’t work for our new little one; while Saints Adalbert, Glushallaich, and Willibrord, for example, are no doubt excellent Christian role models, they don’t fit our naming rules quite as well as Timothy, James, or Benedict.

With all the above in mind, my husband and I have already chosen Señor/ita Cuatro’s names—one for a boy and one for a girl. Like the baby’s sex, we prefer to keep our chosen names under wraps until baby’s arrival. But rest assured the world has been spared a little Glushallaich.

What is your baby-naming criteria? Do you have any hard and fast rules? Leave them in the comments.

22 comments | Add one of your own.

  1. Titus

    Actually, I’m surprised how many of the names on the SSA’s list are actually, well, names. Most aren’t, but a few are actually quite nice. And I’m somewhat miffed, on a personal note, at the sudden riotous popularity of “Isabella,” a name I have liked for a long time.

    All the rules you list are good. I would tweak #2, however. More important than deep personal relevance (such as that of a favorite literary character, which is no sure guide to a good name), is that it resonate well with one’s last name, especially for a boy. For instance, I have a Germanic monosyllabic last name with hard sounds on both ends. Both some equally clipped and longer, Italianate names simply don’t balance well with it. Likewise, if I had a distinctly Mediterranean name, it would be incongruous to name a son “Hans.”

    That said, the sentiment in #2 is not entirely misplaced: family names are good (helps to have a large family with a well-recorded history and plenty of people of whom you’re not too ashamed; not everyone can foot that bill). But there are times when you just need a name that can’t be pulled out of one of those categories. Then it really is OK to go with “We really like the name, and So-and-So is an inspiring saint.”

    Finally, the kid needs a saint’s name as his first name. Wiggle on the middle name if you have to, but every kid needs a patron saint front and center.

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  3. marcy

    One of the more important rules in choosing for us is; the name can not be confusing so we have no louise and louis … and absolutely no names of cities or states …that can’t happen.

    We do favor the preserving of the family name for example the mothers maiden name is used for a middle name. William Byrnes Doran or William Vorheese Doran Or Annie Doran Meacham it is a cool way to trace family heritage.

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    1. Cecilia

      I don’t know… you’d be surprised at how terrible people are at spelling. I get asked how to spell my name all the time, and I don’t think it is too weird or off-the-wall. A bit rare, yes. But I wouldn’t go by that rule… I can’t help it that others can’t spell! :)

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  6. Joe @ Defend Us In Battle

    I think that some boy/girl names are nice – and don’t necessarily break rule #3.

    For example: Josephine.

    Also – I think that Catholics have their own version of TRENDY names, but for a good reason: Kateri, Gianna, Benedict, John Paul.

    We need to be careful when making names rules not to be too Kantian.

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  7. SUZANNE

    Here are the rules my husband and I came up with:
    1. Nothing that could be confused with a cheese; Brie, Colby…
    2. Nothing that is otherwise a noun in its own right; forest, storm, summer…
    3. Nothing that is the proper name of a place; Dallas, Austin…
    4. Nothing that has been the last name of a president; Clinton, Jefferson…
    5. nothing that has been the name of a commercial enterprise; Ward, Tiffany, Kohl…
    6. Nothing that ends in la, sha, or fa.
    7. Honor those who came before in the hope that they will intercede on his/her behalf.

    Most of the above are for fun, bu the last one really matters.

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  8. Titus

    I think that some boy/girl names are nice – and don’t necessarily break rule #3.

    For example: Josephine.

    That’s just the feminine version: it’s not androgynous. It also happens to be a beautiful name. Lot of great names have perfectly legitimate masculine and feminine forms.

    6. Nothing that ends in la, sha, or fa.

    I don’t think this is precisely what you’re driving at, but that’s not a good rule for an Italian (of course, if you’re not, then it’s fine).

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    1. SUZANNE

      I don’t mean to be racist or ethnocentric with sha, fa la rule. I mean that it would be inappropriate to name a child Shoesha, Soofa, or Trala. Do you pronounce the last “Traila” or “Tralla”? I’ve seen all of these names in public schools where I have taught. There are worse examples… but they would seem racist while being true. Laticia, Sophia, and Estrella are all beautiful names.

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  9. Lindsey

    We are only picking picking names that are easy to spell and four letters long for the first name. It’s the tradition on my husband’s side of the family to have 4 letter names, so we went with that for the first name and family names for the middle. We picked Zoey for our daughter.

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  10. Buster Adams

    1. First boy is named after the Father
    2. First girl is named after a Grandmother.
    3. First middle name (for both boy and girl) is always Mary (after our Blessed Mother)
    4. Names after the 1st boy and girl can be relatives names or Saints names.

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  11. Seth Peters

    My wife and I were entirely univocal on this matter: nothing trendy, something biblical or saintly, and preferably a family name. We had five great aunt Ritas, one of whom is a twin with Cecilia, and she wanted to honor her grandmother since we had a girl…so we named our daughter Rita-Marie Cecelia. My wife being a teacher was hesitant about hyphenating a name, but it sounded quite sonorous to our ears, and it makes her name distinctive from the many Ritas in the world. We have some great boy names picked out too that follow the same criteria, but I’m not at liberty to divulge those until we actually have a son.

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  12. Danica

    I love this article, JoAnna, it is so true and funny!

    I think a new “rule” I have for baby naming: If you share your name ideas with coworkers and they reply, “oh, that’s super Catholic, isn’t it?”, then it’s a winner!

    Reply

    1. JoAnna

      Haha, that’s a great litmus test too. :) We have an unintentional Holy Family theme going on with our kids’ middle names (they are Mary, Joseph, and Elizabeth so far) and we get a lot of comments on that when people know their full names.

      Reply

  13. Colleen

    Stumbled upon your blog. I am also due in December.
    We are expecting #6- a boy. I won’t bore you with the list of our names, but I will tell you that we like Saint names that have a fun and doable nickname for today. For example, Ambrose “Brody”, Ignatius “Nate”, and Benedict “Ben”. What about Maximilian Kolbe and instead of the popular Max use “Kolbe” or use “Quinn” for Thomas Aquinas. Happy name hunting and I like your rules.

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  14. Kimberly

    I think (you linked to it) “Baby’s Named a Bad, Bad Thing” is pretty offensive. The author even had the audacity to mock a deceased child’s name. Pitiful. Not to mention there were a few mockings of my own kids’ names, which happen to be saint names, though not all that common. Hmm.

    Our kids are named for a saint (first name) and for a family member (middle name), but we have variations. For instance, our kids’ first names are sometimes last names of saints….like naming a child Vianney or Kolbe (we have neither – just an example). And naming a child after a family member is also subject to variations. For instance, Jameson instead of James, or Miryam instead of Mary, or Francesca instead of Frances.

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