Naming Children for Life

Recently, my wife recorded a new greeting for our landline. Yes, we’re dinosaurs who still have a landline. Our phone company made upgrades to their system, forcing us to record a new greeting. I had to listen to it for the first time yesterday and hated it. She identified me as Jerry, a name I rejected many years ago. She is one of the few people I allow to call me that. She’s my wife, I love her, and forty years of history are hard to change. The story behind my name preference is one that a lot of people share. It reminds me that names themselves are intrinsically interesting. After all, naming things is the first step in language acquisition. In all languages, the name for mother starts with an “M,” a sound babies can make using their suckling mouths. And the word for father begins with a “D” or “P” for the same reason.

My cat knows his name, as do many pets. He also knows “food,” “mousie,” and “catnip.” The first human speech had to have been associated with naming things in the environment. Nouns come first, then verbs. I like the fact that some countries, like Sweden, have name police. People whose job it is to keep parents from giving their children “unique” names like Dweezil or Moon Unit. Rich celebrity kids who go to private schools can get through life with such monikers, but not most of us. As a teacher, I have seen some bizarre names in my career. And not just ignorant spelling like “Myshell” instead of “Michelle.”

My point is that if your child’s nickname as an adult is “Mr. Redundant,” you clearly failed the first important job of a parent. There are many methods on how to pick a child’s name. Obviously, there’s more than one right way to do it. But there are, just as clearly, wrong ways to go about it. Picking the first seven letters of the alphabet, curse words, or infamous historical figures, such as Hitler, are all great ways to mess your child up from the start. Ignoring the Johnny Cash song “A Boy Named Sue” is also a good rule of thumb. Children do not need names that create obstacles to make them “stronger.” Exhibit A is that research shows that teachers treat students with common names that are spelled in expected ways much better than students with odd names or unusual spellings. On top of that, beginning readers and writers do not need the extra stress of long names to practice with. This includes hyphenated names.

I understand parents wanting to carry on family and cultural traditions (e.g., Thurston Howell IV, “Ivy” for short, Tanisha, Jesus, Mohammed), but these are problematic for the child. Again, studies show that ethnic names on resumes do not inspire interviews as often as names that are more common culturally. My father, born into a French Canadian family, was christened with a solid pair of French Catholic names. It wasn’t until he joined the Navy at 17 that he discovered the county clerk, who hated the Canadian immigrants, had given him two traditional Anglo Saxon names. So the world calls him “Joe” while his family calls him “Bernard.” It’s confusing to people and, I’m sure, contributed greatly to his prickly disposition.

Diminutives and nicknames are another hazard of naming children. “Dick” for “Richard” is a prime example. It probably doesn’t matter, but I wonder if Jon Winters would have been as big of a success as Jonathon was. Letting the world dictate your name or nickname gives other people great power. Politicians understand this fact. Republicans tried to duplicate their success in defeating “Hillary Care” by coming up with “Obama Care.” Although the jury is still out, this may have backfired. People like a lot of the details of the Affordable Care Act such as not losing their insurance when they acquire an expensive disease. As they encounter the parts they like, their opinion of the president rises a little as well due to the name.

The story of giving up my name, “Jerome,” and then reclaiming it began in eighth grade. As a younger child, I liked the nickname “Jerry.” It was one of my favorite cartoon characters and was easier to write. But in my religious studies for confirmation class, I learned how important Jerome was to Christianity. He was an important scholar and created the first common language (vulgate) bible. By translating the Hebrew and Greek versions into Latin, he made it possible for ordinary people to study the bible. I was impressed and claimed my given name. I, too, was a scholar and wanted to do great things. But, in the fall of 1964, actor Danny Kaye launched a variety show with a nebbish character in it named “Jerrrome.” Endless teasing followed, as did my retreat to “Jerry.” And I remained Jerry for many years.

Then came my mid-life crisis. I loved my wife too much to look for a mistress. And I couldn’t afford a sports car on a teacher’s salary. I noticed, however, that I liked it when strangers called me “Jerome” when reading loan apps, etc. A small bout of introspection brought back the memory of why I changed. So I reclaimed my name. It helped that I was being transferred to an eighth grade teaching assignment. A sense of justice spurred me on. It was actually quite easy. I announced myself as Jerome, and it stuck. Long-time friends and family continued with Jerry, but I accept that. One only has so much control over one’s life. When new people who come into my life become confused, I simply tell them my preference. And, if necessary, the back story. Most people are not only accepting but supportive. Advocating for yourself always plays well with the kind of people I want to be friends with. It is also a litmus test to weed out those I probably don’t want to stick around.

In forty years as a teacher, I have had to learn thousands of names. It’s not always easy, but I worked hard at pronouncing them correctly and learning them. “What’s in a name?” Shakespeare asked centuries ago. An entire life is my answer. It is the first and most important page in anyone’s story.

1 Discussion on “Naming Children for Life”
  • I agree that one’s name shapes one’s destiny. I remember being the last person on the attendance list in school, and the teacher would get to my name and pause, waiting for me to fill in the blank, rather than risk embarrassment by saying it wrong. I find your point of teachers treating kids with mainstream names better than kids with non-traditional ones interesting, as does my husband Darcy. We have both grown up with our share of judgement for or against us because of our names. One girl when I was quite small called me “what’s-your-face” because she couldn’t remember my name. Yeah, names shape who we are.