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Name That Baby!

Baby Names: How to Pick a Great Name
Baby Names: How to Pick a Great Name
name_baby_art
Zeva Oelbaum

As with many expectant parents I've known, a feeling not unlike "buyer's remorse" struck my wife, Gwen, and me just as our doctor announced the sex of our baby-to-be. Don't get me wrong -- we were overjoyed that the ultrasound showed a healthy girl. But suddenly we were questioning a decision we thought we'd settled years before: namely, the name.

Was our choice too traditional? Too safe? Too boring? Was the name that seemed right five years ago -- even five days ago -- still the one we wanted? Why did our dream name for a girl seem to lose its luster just as the dream was about to become a reality? And even scarier: What else might we name her?

"It's not all that unusual for parents to question their initial choices -- especially these days, when more parents are looking for distinctive names," says Barbara Kay Turner, the Redding, CA-based author of four baby-naming tomes. "They want something that's unique, something personal that distinguishes their child in a world where too many things are impersonal."

Perhaps this helps explain the rash of eJennifers and Jeffrey.coms born in northern California before Y2K's Nasdaq crash. (Let's just hope the kids are all right.) In fact, Turner notes that more parents than ever are creating inventive names: changing traditional spellings (Cameryn, Jaxon), varying common names (Travis begets Tavis, Kenneth becomes Kennan), or combining different ones (merging Mary and Shawn into Marshawn, joining Alexa to Anne for Alexanne).

She also identifies globalization and the ubiquity of the media as strong influences on current trends. (Shania and Charlize are gaining popularity, for example, as are names from other cultures, like Ramón and Than.) Turner also notes that parents are beginning to scour the history books for antique inspiration (Jenna, Hedra, Beryan). "It's one way to search for a new name among old ones," she explains. At the opposite extreme, her most recent book, Baby Names: A New Generation, presents, among others, exotic suggestions culled from science fiction.

In the end, however, Ramala or Lwaxana just didn't seem right for our baby. And having spent countless hours scanning the lists of boys' names before settling on one for our son, Jacob, now 5, Gwen and I found ourselves looking for shortcuts this time around. So began our quest to find interesting ways in which new (and not-so-new) parents chose their children's names.

1. Go for unique. Jill Clark and John Anthony of Cheltenham, PA, perused several books while Clark was pregnant with their first child. They found Gianni, which equals Johnny in Italian. "We changed the g to a j and after staring at it for a month noticed that 'Ji' is an abbreviation for Jill and 'an' is short for Anthony," says Clark. They named their daughter Jiana and, she says, "I don't think we could have picked a better name."

2. Memorialize a beloved place or time. James and Michelle Giesey of Elgin, IL, decided to call their son Austin because Michelle discovered she was pregnant on a trip to the Texas capital. Robert Simonson and Sarah Schmerler of Brooklyn, NY, conceived their first child in Venice. So they gave their son Asher, who was named after his maternal grandfather, the traditional Italian middle name Benvenuto, which means "welcome."

A place name can be a town, a country, or, in the case of Kelly and Jeff Huddleston of Gainesboro, TN, a street. "There was a street near our home called Avalon," Jeff says. "One day we were discussing possible names and just then we passed by the street sign. We looked at each other and said, 'Avalon.' It made me recall our second date. We were listening to Van Morrison, and my wife commented on how she loved the song that was playing. That album happened to be Avalon Sunset." This leads to a corollary:

3. Pay tribute to your favorite music or TV character. Sara Stewart of Woodstock, GA, named her son Coda after the title of the final Led Zeppelin album. "His full name is Coda Jason Stewart," she says. "I figured if he ever didn't like the name Coda, he could go by C.J."

Shilpa Patel-Paul of Greenwood, IN, kept Shareena, her favorite name from Guiding Light, secret for many years because she was afraid someone would take it. Fortunately, no one did, and her daughter, Shareena Paul, is now 5 years old.

4. Honor thy pregnancy craving. "Our fifth daughter's name is Molly Marie," says Jean Hoffman of Battle Creek, IA. "I insisted on the initials because I craved M&Ms during my pregnancy."

Hmmm. Had Gwen and I actually carried through with this suggestion, Jacob's name might now be Cocoa Pebbles.

5. Celebrate the nearest holiday. It's not unusual for December baby girls to be named Noelle, but our daughter was due closer to Thanksgiving. David Levy of Cincinnati, whose wife was expecting their son in November 1999, can relate. "We were joking about naming him Butterball or Perdue," he recalls. "But when we landed on Tyson, we realized it was the best name we'd considered." It went to the top of their list, where it remained. And just in time, it turns out, since Tyson was fully cooked (so to speak) by October.

We weren't so sure about this. With Gwen coming down to the wire, we figured Thanksgiving would be a rather low-key affair, and Stove Top somehow didn't seem suitable. Then we had a revelation: What if somebody else chose a name for us?

6. Use a baby-naming service. These are proliferating on the Internet; a quick search-engine query will turn up at least a half-dozen services that, for a fee ranging from $15 to $75, will provide five or more names selected "just for you." We used one such service, which asked us for a variety of information (friends and family members we might want to honor, ethnic names we prefer, trendy or traditional tastes, and so forth). Forty-eight hours later, we received six interesting choices: Delia and Madelyn (variations of Gwen's mother's name, Madeline), Cathlyn (my mother's middle name was Catherine), Claire, Elise, and Ashling. Well, maybe.

7. Allow the siblings to decide. Marjorie and Robert Sims of Cordova, TN, had run out of ideas with their fourth child on the way. "My two oldest children were riding in the car with their dad," Marjorie says, "and my husband asked them, 'What should we name the baby?' One said, 'Benjamin,' and the other said, 'Joseph.'" Benjamin Joseph Sims is now 6 years old.

This seemed like a great idea, so Gwen and I asked Jacob for a suggestion. "Harriet Flowertree," he said. Next!

8. Let the baby name itself. Julie Gibson of Orange Park Acres, CA, says she and her husband, James, kept playing the name game for days after their third child was born: "Finally, we narrowed it down to three names. My husband leaned over the bassinet and said the first one, and the baby cried. He said the second one, and the baby cried. He said the third name, and the baby cooed. The name our baby chose is Matthew, which means 'gift of God,' and we truly feel that he is our little gift."

Nice. Here's one that's maybe not so nice.

9. Sell to the highest bidder. Jason Black and Frances Schroeder of Mount Kisco, NY, made headlines last summer when they put their third child's naming rights up for auction on Yahoo! and eBay. The minimum bid: $500,000. They hoped that a corporate sponsor's beneficence would allow them to buy a home and start a college fund. "You see it with buildings and concert halls," Black told me. "This seemed like the logical next step."

Maybe to them, but not to a number of journalists who found the idea distasteful. (On the Today show, Katie Couric told Black she thought it was "creepy.") The couple, who have two older daughters, decided to end their pursuit. They eventually gave their baby boy the old-fashioned name Zane.

Meanwhile, Gwen and I had reached our wit's end. What was there to do? That's when, suddenly, the skies brightened, the heavens opened, and our path became clear.

10. Leave it to fate. "My husband placed five names we agreed on in a hat and picked one out," says Veronica Rodriguez of Aurora, CO. Sounds easy enough, but even this process isn't foolproof, as Autumn Conley of Springfield, OH, discovered. "I decided that whichever name I drew first would be the baby's first name and the second would be the middle name," says Conley, who had been told that she was having a boy. "I ended up drawing the name Drystan Tyler. Ironically, I gave birth to a girl!" Conley wound up naming her daughter Cissy Alanis. (Cissy is Conley's mother's name.) "Just make sure to choose a boy's name and a girl's name -- in case Mother Nature decides to overrule the ultrasound," she advises.

Finally, sometimes a new parent simply finds the (arch)angels at her side. "I liked the name Gabriel, but my husband didn't want to name our son after an archangel -- funny, since his name is Michael," says Loralee Nolletti of New York City. Nolletti, whose husband was out of town, went into labor a month early during a snowstorm. The first taxi driver that she and her sister, Julie, hailed didn't know where the hospital was. The second driver knew where he was going. "As we were pulling up, Julie pointed his identification out to me," says Nolletti. "His name was Gabriel. That's when I said, 'Julie, I've just named my child.'"

Gwen and I hoped that fate -- or at least common sense -- would shine down on us in a similar fashion. In the meantime, we resolved to remember Barbara Kay Turner's advice: "Parents obviously want to do what's best for their children, but there are some names that should never be given to a child." Think twice, she warns, before choosing joke names and those that are so distinct that they're difficult to spell and pronounce. "Remember, a name is for a lifetime," she says, "unless it's really so bad that a child later decides to change it."