Expectant parents, back away from the baby-name books

I collect names. I love spotting a new one (my job working in naturalization records, etc. at the national archives means I get many opportunities to collect and find new muses), saying it, relishing the syllables and imaging what type of person is a Josefina or a Beryl or Basilia or Louise. But many of these names I will never have the chance to name a child, for the elemental reason that I won't have more than a few kids, and I have scores of names on my "short" list. The other major reason is that many of these names, though romantic and incredible in my mind and when I write them out in notebooks, are serious handles to put on infant babies that will have to wear them the rest of their lives. Some, like Francis/Frances, are harder to wear as they can sound dated. And some are just stupid (see here).

A recent article points out that as more and more names, variations, and spellings are used in our age, the name you give your cute little newborn does mean more, says more about you as a parent and your child's household, than it might have fifty years ago. According to Wattenburg, a name blogger and one of the article's sources:

According to Wattenberg, it took a list of six names to cover half of the population of children born in England in 1800 (U.S. Social Security Administration records don't begin until 1880). By 1950 in the United States, that number was up to 79. Today, it takes 546 names to cover half of the population of U.S. babies born.

What that means, Wattenberg said, is that names send more tailored messages now than in the days when there were significant numbers of little Johns and Marys running around.

This is an extraordinary increase in a short span of time. And we don't add this many names without handing at least a few kids some very heavy handles. As parents seek out that perfect name--unique, yet appealing--baby name books have swelled to include 14,000 of them (a number that includes many spelling variations). But baby names are the same as salad dressings and ice cream: more choices doesn't really help at all, and in fact is probably more detrimental.

And so, the buyer's remorse effects have also been increasing:

Some are frustrated because their unique baby name keeps getting mispronounced. Others learn of some distressing association with the name after they chose it and stamped it on Baby, she said. But most parents she hears from simply feel that another choice on their top 10 list would have fit their baby better.

Another effect? NAME HATRED. There are some names that absolutely make my skin crawl. I feel sorry for the generation who carry these monikers. There have been surveys of the most-hated names, and many include names with many spellings, like Caitlin (the traditional spelling) or Mackenzie.

The ones I loathe made the list, too. All the Jaydens, Braydens, Craydens, Aidens, and Kadens (what?!). Also still-hated are those kind of creepy ones like Heaven, Destiny, and Precious.

We weirdos who are fascinated by names spend time each year observing, reviewing, critiquing the names that wound up on the list of most popular baby names of the previous year. But I think it's healthy to look at lists on the other end--and to continue to make lists like this--of the most-hated, yet popular names, if to serve no other purpose than as forewarning for expecting parents. Beware the Jaydens!

No offense to anyone whose name is Jayden or Precious.

If you are the parent of someone named Jessyca, then please, take high offense by me. What on earth were you thinking, giving your poor daughter that name? If you don't want to give her a common name, go for Josefina or Basilia. But at least spell it right. (This is a real name, and a real pet peeve.)

Being Yi Jie Xie

"Yi Jie Xie, how do you keep your white skirt so white?" For some reason, I have never forgotten this sentence, uttered to me on a hot summer day in Yangzhou, after an afternoon watching Chinese students play table tennis against American students with quite sub-par abilities. We were walking back to our own dorms, I was with a few other Americans who were in the same study abroad program. We had spent so much time together in class, learning about one another in the context of China, that we felt more comfortable calling each other by the Chinese names we had adopted.

It seems so far away now, my summer as Yi Jie Xie. I can't recall the names of the other six students who took on Chinese nomenclature with me; things like Facebook have ensured I know them best now by their given, English names. But I still adore my Chinese name, and the months, weeks, days I spent introducing myself with it. I also did wear skirts almost exclusively, and so that is also emblematic of the Chinese summer heat, of wearing the same few outfits and hanging them to dry so many times that by the end they had none of their original shape or structure. Not that these items needed much in the first place.

By the second month of being there, you just sort of sink into China. All the jitters, counting the days, complaining of heat, squatter-bathroom situations--they all become mundane, part of life, and you relax. Six of us stayed for the full two months, and you could tell us apart from the five newbies; they had all the nerves and questions and panic and dietary questions we had had four weeks earlier.

I was Yi Jie Xie, very tall and blonde girl who wore skirts. I had sunk in. I knew which drinks and snacks and brands of bread I liked best from the market on campus. I knew where to buy the best bananas for breakfast. I had my canteen for my morning jasmine tea, and I never really brushed my hair. I had discovered John Mayer's album Continuum, which lullabyed me through long nights on a Chinese mattress. I talked to my family once a week on the phone. I learned how to ask in Mandarin when the Internet repairman would be arriving. Once, I was out late after dinner with my roommate, and I had to pee so bad, I went over by an old demolished building site and did my business behind the remnants of a wall.

Recently, I finished reading a book written by a Chinese American woman who was adopted from Taiwan by American parents in 1972, and in adulthood, she went back and began a relationship with members of her birth family. What struck me most about her six sisters was their penchant for changing their names. Several of them had had at least two Chinese names, legally changed time and again, and an English name as well.

It always seemed so cool when I met other students, my counterparts, who had taken on English names, as they could pick anything that sounded pretty or cool or modern or traditional or meaningful to them. Janet, Rose, May--things like this. Simple, and also often not set in stone. It struck me that this is often how I feel, and wish I could express, in my own name. Can't I be more Chinese, and just switch my name as it feels right? I'm afraid there's far too much legal and bureaucratic attachment to my name here. My school, my work, online names, paychecks, social security, passport, taxes... eek. How does anyone change their name in this age? And then there's the question, what would I even change it to? I like Jess, Jessica, and I especially like Claire, my middle name, even if I love many other names that are not mine. I wish sometimes I would have gone by my middle name. But many people love and know me as Jessie. I like that a lot too. There are names I love so much, but I cannot imagine selecting one of them, a "best," to somehow become mine. I could not. But I really like the idea of flitting through life as several people. It is perhaps so intriguing because it seems so impossible in 2012.

But I also love that I spent a summer as someone else who is the same as well, as Yi Jie Xie. That's what my friends knew me by. In China. I had another name entirely. How amazing is that?