Sneaking a little peak into David Whyte’s essay on “Naming,” I see that he suggests that we name things in order to control them. I hadn’t thought about it that way, but giving something a title does suggest some kind of mastery.
When I named my children, I wasn’t looking for control, but I certainly examined every other aspect. A good name had to have a shortened version, I thought, for when they were young: a version for snuggling and teasing and playing. A child’s full name should have lots of syllables. When angry or frustrated, calling out the entire name, one emphatic syllable at a time, is much like counting to ten before reacting. It gave me, and the offending child, a moment to think.
I believed their names ought to be something that would adapt well to any situation. So that, if they grew up to be doctors, or lawyers, or the president, for heaven’s sake, the name would hold up to the position. There were no “Bill”s or “Tom”s serving in the highest office of the land! This was before Jimmy Carter tossed that theory out the window. The names of my children would stand up to any possibility, because I believed they would be capable of anything.
Names should not be mock-able. My daughters would take on an unusual surname; there was no choice in that. We were careful, though, to avoid rhyming sounds or alliteration. We considered “Rebecca,” but balked because the shorted version would be Becky. Becky Bonesteel was not a good sound.
Names ought to have a solid and dignified history. Other people that carry the same name can influence how that child is perceived in the world. Which is probably why Adolf is such an uncommon moniker.
I loved the name Jennifer. Misgivings came from one girl – not in my grade – from elementary school, named Jenni, who wore raggedy clothes. They were over-ridden by another child called Jennifer, who was always clean and neat and had beautiful long dark braids. My husband and I saw the movie, Jenny, starring Alan Alda and Marlo Thomas. I loved Marlo Thomas, too. So, Jennifer was the name chosen for my first child. For her middle name, I chose Marietta. Sister Marietta was my fourth grade teacher, as kind as she was beautiful. Jennifer Marietta. Jenny.
Such an exceptional, successful name added pressure for meeting all of the same requirements when choosing a name for my second child. Just to make it even more difficult, I decided that the number of letters in the shortened version should match up, and that the number of syllables should be the same. Of course, the influences should be just as strong, and all of the rules about dignity and mock-ability still applied.
Katherine Hepburn was one of my favorite actresses. I’d seen most of her movies and loved them all. She was funny, but strong; she never played the fool. She seemed ahead of her time. Katherine was also a family name. My Aunt Katie was named after her grandmother, so it went way back, in my family. Actually, my aunt was named after both of her grandmothers, Katherine Elizabeth. And, after months of torturous experimentation with baby name books, trying out every other possibility for a middle name, we came to the conclusion that no name complimented Katherine as well. A regal name; a name with history; a perfect name for my second daughter. Katherine Elizabeth. Katey.
Now, as adults, they have both gone to using one-syllable names: Jen, and Kate. Sometimes I wonder if their names had nearly as much influence in their lives as I imagined they might. Choosing their names, though it seemed of utmost importance at the time, probably had much less to do with the adults they have become than a million other decisions I made along the way!