In this post, an East Coast liberal struggles with her inner bitchy flibbertigibbet to overcome her irrational dislike of unconventional names.

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The other day read a newspaper article that mentioned a young boy named “Xzayvior.” I found this name mind-boggling. In some ways, I admire it because it leaves no doubt about how to pronounce the child’s name, but my honest knee-jerk reaction was, admittedly, judgmental. Did the mother not know how to spell Xavier*?

Grappling with a swirl of emotions about this creative name, I did the obvious thing: I took my confusion to Facebook to see what other people thought. I tried to frame my Facebook post as a question and to minimize any sort of judgment on Xzayvior and his mother. Instead, I asked some questions (the tone of which probably implied judgment despite my efforts), such as why a parent seeking an original name would settle for creative spelling when he or she could make up a name from scratch and not rely on the sound of preexisting names?

A bunch of people responded with their own funny and witty thoughts before one of my far-left friends (I’m pretty far left, but some of my friends are so far left that they make me look conservative) basically called me out on my judgy nature by replying, “All names are made up.”

I’m glad he called me out on being judgy because I know it is not kind of me to criticize the child’s name or the mother who gave the name. I also know that my opinion on the matter is irrelevant because parents can name their kids whatever they want.

That said, my friend’s argument doesn’t hold up. Saying “all names are made up” is like saying “all words are made up.” True, at some point in the development of language every word we currently use was made up by someone. Its meaning was agreed upon by other people, and now we all use it. It is also true that new words (neologisms) enter the language all the time. That said, I think most people would reject the notion that “all words are made up,” because most words have a long history of usage and agreed upon meaning. The same is true of names. Some time in history, there was a first person ever to be named Ann. Ann’s parents made up that name. Then a whole bunch of other people copied Ann’s parents, and now Ann is a traditional name with a history behind it. If a parent today claimed, “I made up a brand new name for my baby. I’m calling her Ann,” that parent would be met with much guffawing.

So, my friend called me out but didn’t help me arrive at any answers about why people invent spellings for otherwise traditional names. Further, I was troubled by how judgmental I felt about Xzayvior’s name. Why did I feel entitled to judge when I knew full well it was none of my business? Why did it matter to me at all?

The simple fact is that we humans are programmed to judge. Human nature is hard to override. We all make judgments of others based on appearance, clothing, the cars people drive, and, of course, names.

Little by little, I’ve been trying to train myself to interrupt that impulse to judge, or, if I can’t interrupt it to, recognize it when it happens and reframe it, but the question of unconventional names has proven particularly challenging for me. I’ve learned to nod in appreciation at clothing that might have once made me shake my head. I’ve learned to look at actions and behaviors that used to cause me to raise an eyebrow and to say instead, “You never know what another’s life is like.” But the names, the names, the names. Those have been harder for me to understand.

I suppose my interest in names and how they affect people begins with my own name. When I was a child, I hated that I was named Diane. Even though I knew I was named after my mom’s sister who died in infancy of a rare heart condition, I couldn’t appreciate my name. If you said “Diane” in a crowded room, ten women my mother’s age would turn around, but no one my age. My parents gave me an old person name instead of a cool, young name like Michelle or Jennifer. Apparently “Diane” is a popular bourgeois name in France, but here in the USA, it peaked in popularity in the 1950s. As a kid, I particularly hated that the only nickname “Diane” lends itself to is “Di.” The boys in my elementary school liked to call me “Di” with such jerky enthusiasm that it felt like they were actually hurling a curse at me. “Why don’t you just die, Di-ane?”

I grew into my name eventually, but those first scars of youth — the constant sense that my name made me different and left me an open target for mean kids — linger. So maybe that’s why these unconventional names strike me: I think of Xzayvior and the bullying he might face based on a name he had no say in, and I shudder.

Of course, almost any name can be a source of teasing, so perhaps name-based bullying is just part of youth. My husband has a perfectly WASP-ish name. Todd. A totally normal but not very common name. Nonetheless, he experienced name-based teasing. “Retodd” is an obvious contender, especially here in Massachusetts where pronouncing the letter “r” is often optional. You don’t need an odd name (odd like Todd, hahaha) for your name to be used against you. In other words, I can’t use the claim unconventional names cause kids to be bullied to justify my antipathy.

Similarly, I recall a chapter from Freakanomics or maybe one of their podcasts that thoroughly debunked the idea that the names our parents give us set us up for success or failure. Me and others like me who have a natural and not fully conscious tendency to judge unconventional names might think these names doom a child to a life of strife or cause “A Boy Name Sue”-esque hatred of one’s parents, but apparently that is not accurate based on the data.

I recently learned of a fascinating phenomenon known as the “backfire effect,” which helps explain why it is so difficult for a person to change his or her mind about core beliefs, even when presented with compelling evidence. Our minds are like carefully constructed castles made of the central beliefs, both conscious and unconscious, that guide our lives. When one of those beliefs is challenged, our minds respond with the same fight-or-flight impulse we would use if our actual, literal castles were under siege. One of my beliefs (formerly subconscious) is that good names are traditional ones. When I see a name that is not traditional, I reject it, criticize it, maybe make fun of it. I’m subconsciously protecting my mind-castle.

You see, I grew up Catholic: Catholic school from kindergarten through high school, then a brief lapse into secular school for college and grad school, and now 15 years of teaching in a Catholic school. Typically, Catholics give their children Christian names — either saints’ names or biblical ones. In fact, I know many Catholics who do not go by their legal first names, whose parents wanted them to have creative names or Gaelic names or something like that, but the Church required everyone to have Christian names. So they are officially Mary _____ or Christian ______, but they go by whatever fills in the blank. I think this Church rule has since been relaxed, but it was still in place when my peers were being given names. Because of this longstanding Catholic tradition, my life experiences have taught me that certain words are names and other words are not names. Subconsciously I expect people to have Christian or Biblical names, and my brain is confused by other types of names.

Except of course when I become consciously aware of this process, it is quite clear that my mind-castle does not need to protect itself against unconventional names. I happen to have been raised in a community that valued using traditional names. Other communities, perhaps Xzayvior’s mother’s, value creativity and originality over tradition. Maybe Xzayvior’s mother would feel similarly judgmental of my name and deem it boring.
With this awareness that my mind-castle is not under any threat from the unconventionally named children of the world, I can appreciate the beauty of creative names. After all, why shouldn’t a child’s name be as unique as he is?

*Xavier, a saint name (St. Francis Xavier), is traditional but uncommon. Even when spelled conventionally, it causes much confusion. Some pronounce it “EX-avier” and some pronounce “Zav-ier” and in Spanish it is pronounced “Ha-vier”). Damn. Names are tricky.

novelist, teacher, sourdough enthusiast, dog-lover, folkie and a whole bunch of other things, too.

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