Friday, October 06, 2006

WORDS: A Rose by Any Other Name Might Be a Jerk

Before Sam was born, when people would ask us if we'd picked out names already, we'd unhesitatingly tell them, "Yes!" And then we'd proceed to tell them the names. Clearly, we were naive first timers, because I've since learned that conventional wisdom dictates you don't tell anybody, so as to avoid unsolicited opinions from the peanut gallery.

But we were pretty confident with our choices, and the name "Sam" generally met with a positive reception. (And if anyone ever did say anything negative, I've completely forgotten about it. This is why it's okay to be a jerk around me. I rarely remember bad manners.)

"Sam," people would repeat after us, with a little smile in their voices. "That's a good name."

"Thanks," we'd reply modestly. "We know."

At the time, we thought we were totally bucking convention. "Nobody's using the name 'Sam'," we'd cackle gleefully to each other. "This is awesome!" And then Sam was born, and since then I've met FOUR other babies and toddlers named Sam in my 'hood. Oh, well. I don't mind, and it's nice to know that there are so many other people out there with excellent taste.

A few months ago, I was talking to my fellow Bored Housewife Anne-Marie, who also has a little boy named Sam, about why we picked the name. "I don't know," said Anne-Marie. "It just sounded friendly. 'You can always count on Sam. Sam's got your back.'" I agreed.

It turns out we weren't just blowing smoke up each other's butts. According to the Baby Name Wizard, Sam ranks high on a "likeability" poll they conducted. (The poll was spawned by this earlier post.) Other names perceived as friendlier than average include Charlie, Tom, and Jack for boys, and Molly, Sarah, and Katie for girls.

As interesting as these informal statistics are, what's more interesting to me are the comments at the bottom of the post. Some people said that while these names are friendly and all, this fact may explain why they've been commandeered by pet owners, rendering the names unattractive for use on human beings. (My good friend Charlie will attest that he can't walk past a dog park without hearing his name called out, usually followed by the phrases "Get the ball!" or "Don't eat that!")

Other people mention that these so-called friendly names are pretty white. I'm no expert on the subject, so I'm not in a position to comment. Though Samuel L. Jackson or Sammy Davis Jr. (bless his soul) may wish to chime in.

Still other folks agree that "it seems very superficial to choose a name for that reason - because it's 'likeable'." And it's this sentiment that I tend to disagree with. Since when did being likeable become a bad thing? And sorry -- superficial? What?

When I think about it, the qualities that make a person likeable are not trivial or commonplace. When I imagine a truly likeable person, I imagine someone who is intelligent, sensible, honest, loyal, and fun. How many people do you know who fit this description?

I believe that we grow into our names and faces. By the time a person is 35 or 40 years old, their character can be read on their face as surely as words on a page. And I believe that we spend our lives wrestling with the names we are given, either trying to buck against the ideas we imagine our names embody, or trying to emulate them. And it goes from there that I believe that giving someone a name should give them something to aspire to.

In these crazy, dog-eat-dog, increasingly libertarian times in which we live, I think likeability -- true likeability -- is going to become an increasingly rare quality. Intelligence, common sense, honesty, loyalty, and a sense of fun -- these seem like pretty worthy goals to me.

But what do I know? I'm named after a popular country-Western singer. I've clearly got an axe to grind. I'm interested to hear what other people think -- of their own names, and the topic of names in general.

(Ups to Shona for the linkage!)


Petunia said...

My own name is accually a nickname so I'm continually getting, "Is that short for Rebecca?" to which I have to explain, "No. It's just Becky. My dad couldn't spell Rebecca." Yes, that's really the reason I was named Becky. But I think the name suits me to a T. That's not to say that I have always liked it. I think Rebecca is a much prettier name and would have loved it as a child, and often didn't correct teachers until they asked the above question. But I have come to appreciate the uniqueness of having a nickname as a real name. And besides, no other name suits my curls and freckles quite so well.
By the way, I am a first time responder but a longtime reader. Thanks for all the interesting topics.

Anonymous said...

I have yet to meet someone (in person) who shares my name. I love that. I'm almost universally the only 'Griffin' anybody has met.

The first born sons in my family all get 'G' names and I think that I got one of the only good ones. (My brother got the other - Geoffrey)

Now I'm wondering what I'm going to name my son, whenever it is that he comes along.

katherine m. miller said...

It's kind of amusing that those are the friendliest names--Tom, Charlie, Jack, and Sarah are all in my name pool for those hypothetical children I have. Sam's great because it's both friendly and Samuel is a strong , honest sort of name.

But I totally agree with you on people growing into names. My mom always insisted that I was Katherine--no nicknames--and I think it's a name representative of my character, both good and bad. My brother's the same. His name is Carter and he's both gregarious and flashy, and very compassionate, in a Southern hospitality way.

Anonymous said...

Three years before my daughter was born, my soon-to-be husband and I were dreaming of our first born. We got exactly what we dreamed of: a witty, independent little girl with pigtails who would just as soon climb trees as anything else. I knew then I would name her Kate because I thought it was strong and beautiful at the same time. Just like my Kate is today.

I, on the other hand, got saddled with Kim, which recalls the glorious 1970s (Kimberly Drummond anyone?)and compells people to call me Kimmy. Never in my youth, mind you, just my professional, adult life. Odd.

Anonymous said...

I'm a (female) Jaimie. I'm 30 and when my parents heard this used as a female name shortly before I was born, they thought it was quite unusual (of course, it has since become much more popular for girls). When I was younger I didn't particularly like having an androgynous name. I still think that I will give future offspring a name that is unmistakably male or female.

Now that I'm older, I do like the name Jaimie, however. I think it's friendly. I find that men think of it as a "sexy tomboy" kind of name (not that I am in fact a sexy tomboy, but the positive association is nice).

As for friendly names in general, I like Kate/Katie/Katharine. I seem to have lots of them in my life, all of them nice.

Anne-Marie said...

Funny that you mention dog names... It's certainly no coincidence that hubby's dog in childhood was named Samantha, Sam for short. I wouldn't say Sam was named after Sam (is this confusing?) but even if he was, it's ok.

As for me, living in an anglophone society, my name gets butchered constanly. I don't know if it's the way I say it, but no one can understand 'Anne-Marie' when it comes out of my mouth - which is odd, since it's composed of 2 of the simplest names out there....

p.s. - Libby/Alex - your situation reminds me of my best friend in childhood - her 'real name' was Nicola but she was always known as Posie. Now, in her adult years, she's once again Nicola at work but Posie with good friends...

Anonymous said...

When I was younger, I didn't like my name. It was too weird and people were always adding letters and pronouncing it wrong (still are, actually). I thought Christine would have been a way better name for me. No offense to the Christines out there, but I was wrong. I had to grow into my name, but now that I have, I'd fight for it. I like that it's still relatively rare outside of France, so people still don't really know what they're up against when they meet me.

Everyone I know adds something to their name, so the names always trace back to the first time I heard them and the first person I knew who used them, and then the others along the way. Randy will always be a friendly, soft name to me because it was my dad's. Cheryl will always be cool and sentimental. Grace will always be kind, Mike will always be excitable like a puppy and a little insincere, you get the drift.

I don't like giving pets people names, so I started making them up. Random collections of letters that sounded all right together. It's not like they know the difference.

Anonymous said...

My childhood dog's name was Sam and I've long thought that if I had a kid I'd like to name him after Sam. Partially because it's a good strong name but also partially in honor of the dog who was my best friend when I couldn't cope with actual people my own age. (Had he been named Fido or Chumpy I doubt I'd be so willing to name a child after a dog but as many have said - Sam's a good name all around.)

Anonymous said...

I went through the obligatory adolescent phase where I didn't think my name was cool or exotic enough.

What a waste of energy.

Jane is a solid, lovely name, if I do say so myself.

Anonymous said...

I was named a nickname as well. While the name "Kate" is now used as is, as a child I was always asked what my "real" name was. I hate to be called Katie more than anything in the world. Not because it isn't a good name, it is, it's just not me.

Em said...

I'm pretty neutral towards my name--Emily.
What I don't understand are the increasingly bizarre variations on a family nickname--any combinations of the following:
Emily Jean-Lou(ise)


Odd because Jean and Louise are nowhere in any part of my name, nor were they names my parents considered giving me, as far as I know; and my middle name is Dianne.

And pretty much every kid in my family fell victim to the parents-pick-a-name-and-think-they'll-be-the-only-one-and-come-first-day-of-school-there's-five-in-the-class.

Anonymous said...

As a child, I was annoyed that no one ever pronounced my name right (it's like the first two syllables of "faraway," not like "terra"), and it struck me as very pedestrian, despite the Hindu goddess and the Gone With The Wind plantation and the Harp Of. What name did I wish I had? Crystal.

Then when my mom married my dad and he adopted me and gave me a new surname, my problem was that my full name -- Tara Ariano -- is hard to say and sounds like one word, "Tarariano," unless you deliberately stop in between. Plus most people couldn't pronounce either name right. I thought for sure I would take my husband's name when I got married -- whoever he was -- just as long as it didn't start with a vowel. But when the time came to do it (betrothed to a guy whose surname started with a "C," no less), I couldn't do it. By then, I had grown into my name and the idea of changing into a different person, in a sense, made me feel weird. Also it was a lot of hassle to change over all my cards and my passport and stuff and hardly seemed worth it.

Now, after almost thirty-two years as Tara (and twenty-five as "Tarariano"), I'm cool with both -- even though some people I've been friends with for a decade STILL call me "Terra."

Anne-Marie said...

Forgot to add...

When Sam was born, there was 1 other baby on the maternity ward. His name? I'll give you one guess - a hint, it rhymes with 'ham'.

What the hell????

Rebecca said...

I'm named after my great-grandmother, and it's always struck me as being a good, old-fashioned name. Most people go by Becky (or Becki), but I never liked being called that, so it's always been Rebecca for me.

(Had I been born a boy, my parents would have named me Paul - sometimes I wish they'd given me a female version of the name, like Paulette or Pauline.)

Anonymous said...

My name feels different depending on where I am. In Scotland, where I grew up, it's a pretty common name - there were two of us in my class at school. When I moved to England it became much more unusual but was still generally understood and pronounced properly.

Now I'm in Canada, I get called "Shauna" more often than not - I'm not entirely sure if it's just the Canadian accent or that the name Shauna is quite common here. I'm learning to wildly exaggerate the "oh" sound when I introduce myself to people now.

Claire said...

I'm not sure exactly where 'Claire' ranks on the likeability scale, but people are forever telling me that I suit it! Growing up it was pretty popular with girls in my year, but now in the world of work, I only know one other Clare...

I went through a phase when I was about twelve, of trying to get teachers and friends to call me Claire-Rachael. I had a thing for hyphens, I guess.


Anonymous said...

When I was younger, I used to get annoyed because relief teachers at school would ALWAYS get my name wrong during roll call (any person that sees the letters d, a, n, a and e together and comes up with 'Diane' should probably brush up on their skills a bit more before teaching a grade 5 class.

But now, I love my name. I am so grateful that my Mum chose it for me. And you are right, it gives me something to aspire to. With a fairly uncommon name like Danae, I feel I have a ticket to be a bit more of an individual, to be things that I want to be. Of course the whole 'there is only one me' is true for everyone, but growing up in a small town, I literally was the only Danae.

Another weird thing is having an uncommon name makes you quite possesive of it (or that could go for common names as well I guess). The first time I ever met another Danae, I felt a bit of resentment towards her in the way of "that's MY name, how can you be named that too??? I am Danae!". But I soon got over that. And feel quite proud about the fact that there are younger Danae's around that have been named after me :)

Anonymous said...

I rarely meet anyone with my name - I get a lot of "oh, my grandmother's named Alice". And I don't think of myself as having a nickname, but quite a lot of people call me Al - mainly people I've known for years and years and people I work with. I'm always introduced as Alice though.

And I love my name. I wouldn't change it for anything. I think it really suits me.

What does annoy me is when people call me Alison. Sometimes they mis-hear the name, and that's fine. But a lot of the time, people think Alice is short for Alison. Irritating.

Anonymous said...

Another popular kid/dog name is Bailey. I work in an animal hospital and people are always so surprised to hear a bajillion other people named their dog (Golden and Labs especially) the same. Gosh darn you, Party of Five!

Anonymous said...

My mother is Irish, and my name is spelled Caitlin and pronounced in the Irish way, as Cathleen. In Ireland (and England) this is well understood, but in the US and in Australia, people always called me kate-lyn. As a kid I sort of hated it, but now I appreciate that it helps me keep in touch with the Irish side of me since I've spent the last almost 15 years living outside of Ireland. And honestly, I can't imagine being anything else. I tried to go by Cath for a while, but people turned it into Cathy which I hate.

Anonymous said...

Curious. The main reason I think of 'Sam' as 'likeable' is due to Sean Astin's portrayal of Sam in Lord of the Rings...

Beth said...

My family has a ridiculous habit of calling people by their second names. It wasn't until kindergarten that I found out that my name is actually "Mary" and not "Beth," which I had been called since birth. Identity crisis at 5 years of age. Whenever someone has a kid, I tell them I don't care what they name the kid, as long as they promise to give them the name that they want to refer to them as!

Anonymous said...

I've had a lot of people tell me they like my name. I was named after my grandmother Lillian. I usually go by Lill (much easier but as I get older I think I like the whole name better). I had one very special man call me Lilly and now he's with someone else and I wont let anyone else call me that. Funny that I found this blog today. My birth mom (I also have a step mom) died this weekend and obviously she's the one that named me this name.