Sunday, 8 January 2012

i have given you my soul; leave me my name!


i've been inspired by annanonymous' post on naming to reflect on my own choices of names as a parent. she makes the point that:

The names which top the 2011 lists are indeed fairly middle class, and the trends in their popularity suggest that 'generic' is what parents are after: they're choosing names that don't stand out too much. There's actually a lot of comfort in conformity.

while this may be true of the western world, the opposite seems to be the case in the indian subcontinent (and particularly india & pakistan). of course i don't have research to back this up, only my own personal experience. but that experience strongly suggests that having a unique name is the over-riding factor for this group of parents. they will try to find a name that no-one has heard of.

i wonder if this is because families are generally so much larger there, so the likelihood of a name being used by cousins, nephews, neices, uncles, aunties, brothers and sisters for their own children are pretty high. since they don't want to have double-ups with relatively close relations, they try to find something unusual.

since there's such a variety of names anyway, based on the many languages and historical influences, no-one actually cares if a name is easy to spell. also, many naming traditions in the region don't include a "family" name - there isn't a common name that everyone in the same family has. so there isn't that sense of conformity that you might find in a western tradition.

which is not to say that there aren't rules. giving names is a very serious matter for muslims. there are quite a body of writing and thought around giving names to children. the name should be one that has historical significance - ie one that was held by a person of good quality who led an exemplary life. hence why the most popular boys name in the world is mohammad (in many spelling variations), though very few of them are actually called by that name. it just forms a part of their full name. as a side note, i've often wondered why christians in the english-speaking world don't use "jesus" as a name much more often. it seems to be used in the latino culture a lot more.

names should also have a good meaning and not be an embarassment to the child. in fact, it's seen as the right of a child that the parents should choose a decent and sensible name. so, even if names are chosen because they are unique or unusual, parents in the indian subcontinent do make an effort to ensure that it won't be a cause of ridicule. not that i believe anyone should be ridiculed because of their name, but i guess it's a protection of the diginity of the child.

a name is the most important part of a person's identity, but one that they initially don't get to choose. and while many do choose to change it in later life, most commonly married women in the west, that initial name does seem to form a part of who you are or how you are defined. there isn't really any other way to do it - children aren't able to make a decision about it until they are at least a few years old, and at that age are likely to make a decision they'll regret later in life. so one of the most important things about you is beyond your control, at least for quite a few years. and even then, changing a given name is likely to cause some hurt to the parents who took the time to choose it for you.

names are such a contentious issue - any post about changing names on marriage will often be attract the most comments on feminist websites. it's something that many of us intrinsically place a lot of value on. it's something about us that we want other people to get right. i think my name is pretty simple, being only 5 letters, but i keep a list of all the ways people manage to get my name wrong when i say it to them over the phone. it includes angie, angela, eugene, as well as some not so nice ones. and i make an effort to say it very slowly and carefully, because i know that as soon as people hear the first syllable, they stop listening and assume the rest. the fact that i have a very kiwi accent and they can't see i'm a woman of colour helps in their assumption that i have a traditional european name.

the pronunciation of such a simple name is also an issue. the average nz'er wants to say the first syllable with the same pronunciation as the word "an" as in "an apple", though the correct pronunciation is "un" as in "unforgettable". the second syllable comes out as "jim" even though it's quite clearly spelt "jum" and i take the trouble to say it that way. i certainly don't mind people who make a first attempt without having heard me say it getting it wrong. but it does bother me when i've said it for them, slowly and clearly, and they insist on saying it wrong. grrr.

as for my own children, i bucked the trend of unusual names to go for very traditional and common ones for my own children. in fact, i decided on the name for my first child when i was 15 years old, having read about the most famous historical figure to hold the name, and admiring her greatly.

it is apparently traditional in some cultures for the paternal grandparents to choose the name, or for the father to do it. i find this really difficult - my own position was that i was the one who had gone through all the pain and hardship of bearing and giving birth to this child, which should surely result in my having the right to choose the name. pretty one-sided i guess, but at the time, i felt really strongly about it and couldn't have borne the thought of someone else choosing a name for my babies.


Lucy said...

The best advice I have heard on names is to imagine your child being introduced as the chairperson of the board/next President of the United States/etc. If the name you're thinking of would sound totally ridiculous, maybe think again.

Now of course there are issues about this advice in terms of what it renders valuable (conformity, achievement in certain spheres), but the general message - can your kid live with this in very public situations? - is a good one.

Annanonymous said...

Really interesting post, stargazer - it did occur to me that I was speaking about my own experience of NZ culture only, and I should have made that explicit. The potentially monocultural aspect of naming practices was partly what I had in mind with the Margaret/John comment! Of course, NZ's increasingly multicultural society has brought with it a new diversity of names (and I would have hoped it increased people's commitment to respecting each others' heritage by trying to pronounce names properly, but your own experience suggests that may not be the case). In a sense, I felt that gave me 'permission' to depart from the 'norm' a little further with my own son's name, reflecting my own values and culture in a way I might not have if I'd named him a generation ago. He's named after a particular public figure, but his name is also linked strongly with Scottish culture and history (my dad being a Scottish immigrant), and isn't so common outside Scotland.

stargazer said...

thanx annanonymous. i wondered as i read your post (and other stuff around this) whether there's any research done around how many people are choosing the 10 most popular names. ie say in 1970, 300,000 parents chose the top 10 names but in 2010 it was only 100,000 parents? are nz'ers getting more diversified in their choice of names, are fewing of them actually choosing the conformity thing? you don't get any sense of that from the way this issue has been reported in the MSM.

@lucy: i think it's an important thing that naming should be for and about the child, not for and about the parent.

Anonymous said...


Hugh said...

@Stargazer: If you are curious about the popularity of the top 10 names, the DIA have that information and would probably release it as part of an OIA since it's unlikely to require significant collation.

Hugh said...

What's everybody's opinion on choosing non-anglo names for children who don't have non-anglo heritage? I.e, what if two pakeha NZers decide to give their kid a maori or chinese or japanese or indian name? Is that cool and to be encouraged, or does it represent appropriation?

Brett Dale said...

Ricky Gervais once said "If your last name is Dumpty, don't name your kids Humpty"

I also think its strange that people would name their kid after someone famous.

stargazer said...

@brett, agree with the first part of your comment. as regards the second, it would depend what that famous person was famous for. it could be that naming your child after that person could provide a role-model or inspiration for that child, a way for them to learn about values and actions that are important. you could do the same things without giving the child that name, but i think the name gives an added connection that makes those things more real. as i say in the post, i chose the name of my first child when i was a teenager because i was inspired by that person for a whole range of reasons - her intelligence, her leadership skills, her influence, her generosity etc. i don't think that's strange.

Lucy said...


To me it really, really depends on the context. Pakeha parents in NZ giving their kids Maori names generally makes some sense given that they'll almost certainly have contact/involvement with Maori as a language and people, though it'd be pretty weird if they didn't - for instance, I'd find it weird and appropriative if Americans moved to NZ and gave their kids Maori names, as I would if NZers moved to America and gave their kids Native American names.

I think the key question is whether it's a name from a culture you have connections to. Giving your kid a name from a culture you have no connections to, just because you like it - even if it's a sincere and well-researched liking - is going to force your child to put up with a whole lot of crap about why they have a name that doesn't fit their background, *and* will probably come across as appropriative. By giving a kid a name from a culture you are associating them permanently and strongly with it. That just seems very risky if they are not going to have other ties to it, at best.

Scar said...

Names are an incredibly fraught issue for transgender people; I angsted a lot about my old name and chosing my subsequent new name, once I had decided to transition.
It's interesting that you talked about hurting your parents by chosing a new name - this something that is inevitable for most trans people, unless we already have a gender-neutral name (and like it) or have amazingly supportive parents.

I couldn't really do right on this count, because my parents hated me for changing my name (my middle name was my grandfather's name) and they then hated me for changing it to something too similar to my grandmother's name (can't fucking win, can I?)

There are so many considerations for changing your name as a trans person as well; you need to pick something that is going to reflect the person you're going to be, even though you haven't even begun to explore who you really are.
In my case, I was also conscious of picking something that was age-appropriate (i.e. something from around my birth year) and something that didn't sound too 'tranny' to me.
These are, I feel, especially important if you ever want to blend with cis society and be considered 'normal' (which I do).
Calling myself "Shakira Alexis Beyonce Hufflepuff" would obviously cause some problems and warrant lengthy explainations :-)

I chose an incredibly common name and my last name is incredibly common, so this helps keep me 'blend' even more. There are a couple of hundred people on Facebook with the same name as me, for example.
Picking a really unique name is perhaps a little dangerous for a trans person, since it makes you easier to find and more of a target.

The phone thing that you raise, Stargazer, is interesting, because when my voice didn't pass on the phone, people would try to make masculinised versions of my female name (so if my name was 'Rachel' they would say 'Richard'), or ask for my 'real' name.
Sometimes they'd just tell me flat out that my name was wrong - such as this conversation:
Me answering phone: "Hello Rachel speaking."
Guy: "I'm after Rachel."
Me: "This is Rachel speaking."
Guy: *pause*
Guy: "You're Rachel?"
Me: "Yes"
Guy: "But you can't be, you sound like a bloke!"
(Obviously Rachel isn't my name, but it works for this example)

So I share you pain with the whole phone thing. People can be asses on the phone and assume all sorts of crap when they can't see you.

stargazer said...

wow, thanx for sharing scar. i've heard of a little bit of a similar experience to yours from people who converted to another religion and choose to change their name to reflect that. a lot of them tend to choose a name that sort of sounds similar to or has some of the same letters as their original given names. and some of their parents aren't too chuffed about it either. must have been really difficult for you.

i recall watching an interview with yusuf islam (formerly cat stevens) who spoke of how moved he was when his father started calling him yusuf just before the father died. yusuf's original name was stephen, and he often gets criticised on blogs and other places for disrespecting his parents by changing his name.

i guess i'm just as bad, because when one of my children decided she didn't like her name and wanted to change it, i really really didn't like the idea and told her so. i did feel offended somehow, maybe because it wasn't related to a change of identity for her. but perhaps i should just chill out a bit more?

Scar said...

I can see how it make you feel a bit put out; perhaps liek you didn't pick a 'good enough' name for them or something?

How would you feel if one of your children came out to you as trans and wanted to change their name to a differently gendered name? Would that make it easier, knowing it wasn't because you'd chosen something they didn't like - rather that it didn't fit their gender?

stargazer said...

i won't lie to you scar, a change of identity of any nature would be difficult. in that situation, i think her name wouldn't really be so important. most often i get asked "what if your child chose not to cover their hair" and my response usually is "i'd tell them i was disappointed in that choice, but i wouldn't force them to wear it". but a whole change of identity to a different religion or a different gender, yeah i would struggle. in the end though, i would hope the fact that they are my child and i love them would win out over all other considerations. i certainly wouldn't abandon them or refuse to talk to them or anything like that. i'm really sorry if this answer is hurtful to you in any way.

Scar said...

Well, you're not my parent and I've already been through that stuff with my own parents, so it doesn't have the power to hurt me anymore.
But I would hope that unlike my parents, you would be supportive of your daughter, no matter what happens as she grows up.

My concern would be that she could pick up on your disapproval (as I did with my parents - kids are far more sensitive than we give them credit for) and that it would hold her back and/or damage her somehow (as it did to me).

I've often joked that if my partner and I have children (whether via the wonders of medical science or through adoption) that they will probably turn out to be rugby playing accountant Mormons, just to spite us.
But we have promised to be 100% supportive of anything they do, even if it's something we don't like - hell, I'll even go along to rugby matches with them and make an effort to enjoy it :-)

Annanonymous said...

I'm really glad you shared that, Scar. I've wondered from time to time how I'd feel if one of my own kids is transgender. I think there would be a bit of cognitive dissonance at first, because gender is such a fundamental thought category - it's the way we're taught to view the world, even if we challenge gender norms. I can't imagine loving my kids even a teeny bit less, and I think I'd continue to uncritically believe the sun shines out of their bottoms. What I'd be afraid of, though, is seeing my child go through the rough time that so many transgender people have. Of course, that experience is a little easier when you've got your whanau in your corner.

Scar said...

Kids go through all sort of rough stuff growing up; kids with holes in their hearts, kids with cancer, kids with lisps, kids with bad acne, etc, etc,
Being trans is still treated as being fundamentally different to the other things some people have to deal with growing up - and it shouldn't be.

Hugh said...

"I think the key question is whether it's a name from a culture you have connections to"

It is, but what counts as a connection?

Hugh said...

To be a bit less blunt about it I am not sure I am personally comfortable with the idea that just growing up in NZ represents a substantial enough connection to Maori culture for one to take a name without appropriation.

There's still a lot of anti-Maori prejudice in NZ, after all.

Lucy said...


I think what constitutes a connection is a grey area and will pan out differently for different people. I don't think there's any hard-and-fast rule you can draw beyond "think really, really carefully about why you're doing this."

Personally, I have a pretty high degree of connection to Maori culture for a middle-class Pakeha - I took Maori-te-reo through most of high school, was in the kapa haka group, etc, etc - but I'd probably not be comfortable giving a kid a Maori name. But that's how I feel about it. Someone else in the same position might feel differently, and I know people who did.

And I'm not going to come down in judgement on it always being problematic, or always not being - if nothing else, I think the most important consideration is how the people from the cultures where these names come from feel about it. And I'm Pakeha, so.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating topic - I followed you here from CK's post on emotional abuse.

Names are a funny thing. When I got married I opted to change my surname mainly because my married surname would be a nicer name. But it did feel a little sad saying goodbye to my maiden name. And I didn't like my maiden name....boring 4 letters that every man & his dog had which incidentally was not my biological surname either. I would have loved to have been known by my biological surname but my parents would have been greatly upset so I just to upset my biological family instead.

So the married name bypassed all that stuff. My first name - boring too but would never have thought of changing it. My brother did. He changed his first name after a celebrity & kept our father's (not biological) middle name & surname. I found this really hard to swallow. Our parents were fine but for me as I was the one who said his name before he could see it his new name has always felt foreign.

Children - a hard one. You have to choose a name that suits a baby, a toddler, a small child, a child, tween, teen, young adult & adult. We chose a lovely easily spelt french name (we were going to go for a gaelic Irish one!) that has a lovely nickname that was borrowed from a friend who used it for their first child's middle name. We had no sentiment attached to it. Just liked it and I find that babies are just babies when they are born....they almost seem nameless and have to grow into their name.

Anyway great post - will keep an eye on you guys :)

stargazer said...

@unsolicitedious: thanks for sharing your experience and your kind words. that sounds like a really difficult choice re the name of your parents vs your biological parents. muslims really don't have surnames as such though often they will known as "son of" (bin) or "daughter of" (bint) then their fathers name. we also don't have legal adoption as it's done in the west. it's more of a fostering or guardianship arrangement, which can be legally recognised, but a child always has the right to know who their parents are, and cannot go by the name of "daughter/son of" their non-biological parent. so it means that children brought up by other than their biological parents don't have that dilemma and retain their family connections.

Anonymous said...

@ stargazer - thanks. It wasnt actually that difficult...I was being a little tongue in cheek as don't spare too many thoughts for the biological side. :)

My parents only had permanent guardianship of us but they would have loved to have adopted if they could. We were legally known by our parent's surname as it made life a lot easier at school etc so the whole world wasnt privy to our business. I changed my name legally to theirs once I turned 18 as made it easier for university records to match up with my school records = just less questions. For me there was never a lot of emotion to it, I just thought my biological name was prettier! :)

These days adoption in NZ is, from what I have gathered, open so children know who their biological parents are......which is probably why many couples opt for IVF rather than adoption as quite often you end up adopting the family & their baggage.

Very interesting that Muslim's don't have surnames....kind of makes the process a lot simpler! But what about marriage - do you become the wife of? And interesting adoption is not actually an option. Do you know what the reasoning is behind that?

stargazer said...

no, muslim women traditionally never changed their names after marriage. they always had a separate legal identity and they never lost that on marriage. their personal property and wealth never transferred to their husbands on marriage.

those muslim women who migrated here back in the 70s and possibly even the 80s were forced to adopt their husband's names though, or their passports wouldn't be considered valid. really annoyed my mum at the time, and i've talked to other muslim women who really hated that.

re legal adoption, as i said it's because a child has the right to know who their parents are and it was deemed that society also has a right to know their where their biological roots are. that aspect of identity is not considered a personal matter. as i said, this doesn't mean that you can't be brought up by someone else, and that other family can definitely love you as one of their own. they just can't change or hide your identity.

Scar said...

as i said, this doesn't mean that you can't be brought up by someone else, and that other family can definitely love you as one of their own. they just can't change or hide your identity.

This would seriously suck for trans people, who wanted to conceal the details of their birth :-(
Do you know what the laws/regulations are with regard to trans people in Islam are, Stargazer?

stargazer said...

@ scar, the identity thing i was talking about relates to adopted children. you don't have to advertise your family history as such (no surnames, remember), but you can't act like you belong to someone else's family.

as to your second question, that's a bit of a minefield and i'm not sure that i'm ready to go into it. it's also culturally dependent as well, and you'll find that has an impact.

Scar said...

My family disowned me for being trans, so how would that work if I wanted to claim some cool, supportive people as my parents instead? Say for the purposes of staying stealth?
Would that be a no-go?

And yes, I did some reading today on the subject of transgender Muslims. Suffice it to say that, unsurprisingly, the views of Islam aren't any more progressive than Christianity.

stargazer said...

well, they could be your legal guardians, you could call them your foster parents. they just couldn't be your legal parents. the stealth thing would be a no-go. you're best option would be to move to another city or suburb and not bother telling people who your biological parents were, except where absolutely required on legal documents (many of which would be protected by confidentiality). but even with legal adoption, unless you moved from where your biological parents were living, then people in that community would tend to know your family background.

katy said...

"as a side note, i've often wondered why christians in the english-speaking world don't use "jesus" as a name much more often."

As far as I understand the (very popular in the Anglo world) boys name Joshua is a variation of Jesus. People of that name in that place at that time (such as the son of god) would (allegedly) have been known as Yeshu'a.