Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Creative Baby Name Train Wreck

Dear Cyndie,
A young relative of mine has just welcomed a new baby girl into her family. She and her husband are planning to give the baby an unusual name with a creative spelling. 

Unfortunately, when you pronounce the name according to their spelling, you get a recognizable word that produces surprise and then laughter, and not in a good way. I have noted this reaction to the baby’s printed name several times, so I know I am not the only one making this connection. 

Do I say something, or not?

Dear Friend,

Do you ever wonder what leads parents to give a child a name with an ill-conceived creative spelling that, when pronounced, produces unflattering surprise and laughter?

I do. I wonder why they are not thinking ahead to every time that name is read aloud, said aloud, printed on a resume or listed in a company directory. Why they are not thinking about how it would feel to live with that spelling. And, most of all, why they did not listen when the unflatteringly humorous pronunciation was pointed out to them by their own parents, friends and loved ones.

Surely, at some point in the naming process, someone close to these parents said something like, “Sayid is a wonderful name. But why did you spell it “sighed?” Or, “I received your baby’s birth announcement. She’s darling, and her name is “Analyze?” 

Or even, from their blunt uncle, “You’re not really going to name her “Medusa” just so you can call her Maddy, are you? You know that Medusa is mythical Greek monster with a hideous face and snakes for hair who will turn you to stone if you look at her. Here, check Wikipedia if you don’t believe me.”

All of these statements, of course, are potentially hurtful. They unmistakably imply that the parents are ignorant and lacking in judgement.

These statements are also intrusive. Naming a child is his parents’ prerogative, in every sense of the word, and parents are entitled to great deference on the matter.

Even so, if a baby’s parents really were contemplating “Medusa” as a baby name, I think it’s safe to say that intervention would be warranted. Not because the intervenor has any kind of right to name the baby or to criticize the parents, but because there are some times in life when the duty to mind one’s own business takes a back seat to the duty to provide information to a person who is making a decision.

The trick, of course, is knowing when to speak up and when to keep your thoughts to yourself. I suggest you ask yourself four questions.

One, is your concern over a preference (a name you don’t care for) or a problem (Medusa)? If you simply don’t care for a name, you should welcome the opportunity to learn to love it. But if there is an articulable problem with the name, you might consider saying something.

Two, do you have the kind of relationship with these young parents that allows you to bring up a sensitive topic? If you are close, your relative might expect you to bring such facts to her attention. I, for example, would be shocked if my sisters and close friends did not tell me important information they knew I lacked. Such a conversation would begin, “Okay, but have you thought about . . . .”

However, if you know that any comment from you will be taken the wrong way (i.e. they will think you’re trying to criticize and control them no matter how objectively reasonable your point), you might decide to keep mum. Hopefully, though, your affection is so steady, so sure, that a potentially offensive and hurtful comment can be taken as information instead of insult.

Three, is the information you wish to convey important enough to risk hurting their feelings? Is it important enough that you will feel peace about any rift that develops between you because of your actions.

Four, would your information be novel, or would you be the eleventy-millionth person to pile on? If you are the sole source of the information,  you should be more willing to risk a rift than if you know that many other people have already expressed the same concern.

So, how do these factors shake out in your case? It seems like you have a legitimate (rather than preference-based) concern, and a baby’s name is at stake. Names are a big deal. They last a long time. You will have to evaluate for yourself whether your relationship can bear the weight; or, conversely, whether your relationship is close enough that your young relative would expect you to bring such a fact to her attention.

I think your claim is most likely to fail on the fourth question: Is seems unlikely that no one has brought this ill-fated pronunciation to these young parents’ attention. Surely someone—a friend, a relative, a co-worker—has said, “I like the name Annalise, but do you realize that spelling reads “analyze” because you used ‘es’ instead of ‘se’ at the end? Hey—it also reads ‘Anna lies!’”

In fact, I suspect that if you call this young relative’s mother and, in a pleasant tone, mention the baby’s name, she’ll let you know that, Yes, she is aware of the ill-conceived spelling, and Yes, the problem has been brought to new parents’ attention. And Yes, they are sticking with it. If that is the case, you are better off saving your breath and your personal capital.

Finally, before you talk to anyone, I suggest you do some research. It is possible that the objectionably word has a historically negative connotation that has faded or even reversed in recent years. The name and spelling could be a family name, a reference to popular culture, or common in a language other than English. 

Whether those considerations should overpower the unflattering creative spelling is a matter for debate, but they would indicate that the spelling was chosen purposefully, despite its defects, which would weigh against your interference.

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