So you’ve had a child. You’ve named her and sent her out into the world. A few years later, she hits a snag you never anticipated: maybe her name rhymes with “dick,” or it means something unfortunate in another language. Either way, she’s catching hell for the moniker you once so lovingly bestowed. Now what?
Such is the dilemma of a letter writer Slate’s Dear Prudence column, the parent of a 4-year-old whose name is fine in one country, but comical in another. They write:
Q. Unfortunate Name: We recently moved abroad and will stay there for three years. Our 4-year-old son’s name has an unfortunate meaning in the local tongue. It’s a common word but unflattering for a child (think “jelly” or “rat”), and he’s getting teased. He’s been learning to laugh it off, and it’s getting steadily better. But the teacher recently suggested he pick a new name, and since then, it’s “teacher said” and “I want to change my name.” I think the teacher is way out of line (he’s being teased, not excluded or bullied). Am I being too hard on my son?
It’s important to remember that a name is both everything and nothing. It’s what you’ll be called for life by everyone you encounter, so it is enormously resonant, and yet, people are named dumb things all the time and the world keeps spinning. I personally think of names like dressing for the job you want—I gave my daughter a name I thought sounded cool, important, and practical, but just vintage enough to not be common except among people collecting Social Security.
But that is a reflection of my own taste, is it not? And now my daughter will either become like her name in a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, or succeed in spite of it. In a way this is what we are all doing with our names, given to us often before we’re even born by people who don’t know us yet.
Here are the only two important things to remember if you find yourself in the midst of a naming freakout:
- Definitely consider the name, but remember that you don’t know what you don’t know. As this list of things the writer wishes they knew before naming their baby elucidates, it might be easy to guess that Patty rhymes with Fatty, but you can’t necessarily predict that six other kids in your daughter’s class will be named Olivia.
- All other kids are wildebeest gargoyle jackanapes. You might think you picked a name that is immune to vicious taunts, but hey, Moore rhymes with whore. Kids are known cosmic limit testers, and often, they’ll work with whatever materials are provided.
As for the letter writer’s actual dilemma, I can see this going a few different ways. The first solution, which is Prudie’s take, is to go ahead and assimilate to a culture, even though they don’t intend to stay, for the sake of making it easier on everyone. “The teacher is not suggesting changing your son’s birth certificate, but making a tweak so that he doesn’t have the burden of spending the next three years in misery,” she writes.
But then I think about the scores of people who shortened their names or changed them altogether to blend into a culture (ahem, ours) that was relentlessly and needlessly suspicious of anyone whose name didn’t seem “normal” enough, and I think, fuck you! to that teacher. The kid is laughing it off. Everyone’s point of view can be broadened here, and everyone can get over it.
When a lone Hispanic kid showed up in my super rural homogenous hometown (town slogan: 93% humidity—93% white!) in 1st grade with a name that sounded bafflingly complex to our ears, everyone laughed and scrunched their noses. It’s not a perfect analog, but eventually we got the fuck over ourselves and learned how to say it.
In the comments section of the Slate article, there is an anecdote in every direction for changing names/using nicknames: one from the guy who changed his name and regretted it; one from the gal who persevered in spite of it; one from the man who changed his and believes it made all the difference. One person kept her strange name and suffered for it: “I appreciate their efforts, but I cannot tell you how many times I wish they had just named me Anne after my grandmothers,” she wrote. And many others commented whose names were meh and simply made do.
Which is why I agree with Prudie, insomuch as I don’t think the parent should make the issue about the teacher at all, but rather try to isolate how the child actually feels about this—yes, even a 4 year old. Because even though I would never advocate kowtowing to bullies or altering yourself to the public’s whims merely to fit in, which I believe is one of the most overrated experiences in the history of humanity, I believe strongly in giving individuals generous space to craft their own identities over a lifetime, mistakes and all.
People often say kids are too stupid to pick their own names, but I disagree. A commenter mentions the Chinese practice of giving kids a “milk” name and allowing them to choose their own name at 13, which is incredible power, for better or for worse, not to mention a great lesson about the arbitrariness of names.
Adaptability is wise, so long as true identity is not sacrificed. And besides, what’s the worst that can happen? After all, you had your shot, and you picked “rat jelly.”