Name game

My friend named her kid after a dog. At least it's a good, solid name.

Published May 17, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

My parents swear that they were not offered money to name me Susan, that they had not joined the cult of the actress Susan Hayward and that they did not name me Susan because everyone else was doing it. They say they didn't know that everyone else was doing it. They insist that they just thought Susan -- my grandmother's name -- was a nice name, with nice nicknames, neither too obscure nor too common. Bzzt! They were wrong about too common, since the name Susan, while not abundant in their generation, is huge in mine. From nursery school through high school, I was never in a class without at least one other Susan. I frequently have conversations that begin, "Hello, Susan? This is Susan. Did you hear about Susan?"

The name dates me almost as well as a birth certificate. If there are two women, Susan and Brittany, which one is the mother and which one is the daughter? And which is the father, David or Justin? This may be why some Susans change our name: we don't want to be pigeonholed: "Hello, Sophie? This is Sigourney. Did you hear about Sierra?"

Why do names suddenly become popular? It's easy to understand why names stop being popular -- when people have had time to notice that every Tom, Dick and Harry is named Susan, they switch to Brittany. But why Brittany? It can't just be the sound -- there's a charming fuzzy-leafed herb called Dittany of Crete, with the fabled power of drawing arrowheads out of wounds, yet do you meet little Dittanys? If it's the French connection, why just that province? Where are the children named Normandy, Burgundy, Corsica, Armagnac? What makes the breeze stop whispering Louise and start hollering Jessica?

The Susan situation is why middle names are vital. We Susans need middle names to fall back on. Ideally a common first name is accompanied by an unusual middle name. Don't just silt up the interior of your child's appellation with extra surnames (Bob Smith Jones). Make it Bob Theodoric Jones. Conversely, if the first name is the unusual one, give the child at least one easy middle name as an alternate. Don't stop at Hepzibah Roosevelt Umiak O'Leary Podzorny, make it Hepzibah *Mary* Roosevelt Umiak O'Leary Podzorny, so if she gets tired of being asked if she's the noted serial killer Hepzibah, she can be Mary. Though I kind of like Umiak. Some people think middle names are needless frou-frou. But in addition to offering choice, they are also vital in dealing with government bureaucracies, which give no sign of going away in our children's lifetimes. Consider this all-too-plausible scenario:

I know that when you, Chris Place, married Leslie Hard, and the two of you took hyphenated surnames, you were confident you were the only Hard-Places in existence, and that when you chose to name your first-born Rocky, you believed your choice was unique. Delightfully unique. (In Europe they have laws against that sort of thing, but this is Liberty Hall.) You didn't bother with a middle name because you didn't want his name to be too long. Yet when little Rocky -- or Rock, as he will prefer to be called when he has outgrown babyish nicknames -- establishes a credit rating, he will infallibly find that he is being confused with other Rock Hard-Places, that he is getting their nasty mail from the IRS, their phone calls from angry creditors and their death threats from ex-girlfriends. This is a confusion that would be easily fixed with a middle name. (No. Not Andy. You've gone far enough down that road already.) Why not Umiak?

Perhaps you think that a name like Umiak might attract too much comment, especially from other children. But it is useless to try to come up with a name that children can't mock. You cannot be sure, as you are cradling your tiny Zenobia, the ink barely dry on her birth certificate, that some up-and-coming band is not busily rehearsing their breakthrough hit, "Wake Up, Little Zenobia," "A Boy Named Zenobia," or "Oogle Me All Night Long, Zenobia (The Oogle Me Oogle Me Song)." Besides, if other kids want to make fun of your kid, believe me, they will find a way. On the other hand, you can't give in to the dark side and go for the laughs by calling your child Prettyboy Fish-face so that he will be appropriately named no matter whom he takes after. A name should not actually indicate to other children that you hate having kids and would have preferred a rescue greyhound.

Pets are easier to name. We once named a calico kitten Pizza, thinking this was clever, original and descriptive. At her first visit to the veterinarian, the receptionist chirped that this was the second cat that week named Pizza. Appalled at being duped by the zeitgeist, we wanted a new name. But we couldn't decide between Potrzebie, as homage to the great creative intellects at Mad magazine; and Ham Fighter, as homage to the great Japanese baseball team, the Nippon Ham Fighters -- and as an apt description of her feeding habits. Our compromise was Potrzebie Ham Fighter (take that, veterinary receptionist!), Zebie for short. But had Zebie been a child, at her first well-baby visit, being exclaimed over by the medical receptionist, we would almost certainly have felt that it was too late to amend the birth certificate to read Potrzebie Ham Fighter McCarthy instead of Pizza McCarthy. And the reproaches would never end.

Really, vet clinics can be very helpful. When choosing to name a child, a list of the most popular names for animals, culled from local clinics, can be at least as useful as baby name books. A veterinarian friend thought long and hard before naming her son Max, knowing that Max was the single most popular name for dogs that year. She made the decision with her eyes open, because Max is such a fine name. And while she guessed her Max would not be the only Max in his school, she also knew that other children would not goggle and say, "What kind of a name is Max?" the way they would on Umiak's first day. Similar considerations would apply to the names Lady, Duchess, or Tigger.

By Susan McCarthy

Susan McCarthy is a San Francisco freelance writer and the author, with Jeffrey Masson, of "When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals."

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