Happy Mortal

This life, well-lived.

Naming Humans


So popupstorybook and I are having a baby. One of the many awesome/crazy/weird things we get to do together is name our baby. What does it mean to name a human? How do you choose a good name? I have no clue. The criteria that I have been using include: a name I like, a name that doesn’t remind me of someone stupid, a name with significance (family or otherwise), and a name that is within certain social parameters (i.e. a name that doesn’t invite ostracizing).

One thing I have discovered in this whole naming process is that people love to name! One of the first questions we get when people find out we are having a baby is, “Do you have a name picked out?” When that question is on the table we have a choice. We can a) deflect and say we haven’t narrowed it down or b) offer up a couple names on the shortlist and watch the person struggle to react in an appropriate way. [Side note: being pregnant affords all kinds of opportunities for social experimentation, like observing how many people will touch a stranger’s belly without asking].

Whether we go with option a or b, 90% of the time the person throws in their two cents. “I’ve always liked the name Chopper.” “Bukelele is such a cute name.” etc.  Why is naming such a kick? Even when I was a kid I was always jealous of Adam in the biblical story when he got to name all the animals. BTW, I think I would have done a better job–the deer mouse!? At least Spanish Adam had the sense to name it ratón ciervo.

I’m all up in it. So I thought I’d throw some of it into the cyber womb and see if it gives birth to any other ideas . . . Your thoughts?



  1. Knowing what a source of chaos I am, and was as a kid, and that my parents were as kids, I’m pretty sure I know what my kids will be like.

    So, if I have a daughter, her name will be Eris. If I have a son, his name will be Loki.

  2. I think naming is a kick in the pants, especially a baby, because it doesn’t happen often, it’s a unique moment, and you actually get a part in the whole act of creating that you understand–that you can grasp. I mean, we talk about “sperm” and “egg” and “zygote” and so forth, but I’ll admit: I don’t get how bumping uglies leads to something so beautiful. I mean, even with a doctoral understanding of DNA replication and cell duplication, I still think I’d be speechless over how something comes from what was once nothing. But then, I don’t get how Mt. Rainier got formed, no matter which geologist might try their theories on me, I would still be in awe at that local mass of wonder–an awe that comes from mystery. And aren’t we all, each of us, a mystery when we really pause and reflect on the conscious wonder that makes us–me “bafooka,” you “willwonder,” I mean, “willwindow”? In the mystery, it sure is nice having a common utterance with others–names for wondrous things–because then we can spend little time on establishing what the object of our affection is and much more time sharing gratitude.

  3. Always liked Loki. Good names.

  4. Thanks for the comments bafooka!

    I resonate with the sense that naming is one way that we participate in the act of “creation”. It feels like we have much more control in this arena than we do of what happens in the womb. It’s also interesting to note that naming is a form of citation. We don’t pull names out of thin air. Generally the names we choose are names we like because they remind us of someone important to us, they carry a meaning we appreciate, they seem to fit the current fashion, etc. When we give a specific name, we are citing a pre-existing name with its own associations.

    The new person bearing the cited name will imbue the name with new associations. And on it goes down the chain(s) of people. I suspect that this is another reason we enjoy naming: it brings past and future together. The name carries with it pre-existing meaning and its new iteration opens up unpredictable possibilities.

  5. The influence of language, which so often goes unnoticed…Like our Greek teacher used to say: Words get meaning within context rather than carrying significant meaning wherever they go. A word can mean something different in one paragraph on how to build a desk versus in a paragraph on whether God exists or not versus on the sign that warns against feeding the zoo animals.

    This makes for quite an enjoyable metaphor, I think. We are each individuals, indeed, yet like the dependence of a word on context for its meaning, so each of us depends on the community we meet to be meaningful humans.

    Who would I be, if upon birth, I was somehow–hopefully accidentally–left in some deserted area, with no contact with humans, just my mama ape who happened to find me? Without human contact or the potential to procreate, would I have HUMAN meaning? Certainly I would have meaning. I’d be conscious. That’s in my DNA. But would I have, or could I find, HUMAN meaning?

  6. In our culture names don’t carry much inherent history–with the exception of the last names of a few rich and political families.

    Like everything in America, the name has been sacrificed on the altar of individualism. The meaning of a name is projected forward into the person’s future. It’s an empty sign that they fill with meaning.

    “Brad Pitt” doesn’t mean anything to me as a set of definitions. But as a sign? It calls up the image of the man who has made his name famous.

    After all, don’t we live it the country where people say that they want to “make a name for themselves?”

    What can that mean except that the names are a sign that looks forward for definition, at least until the person in question has “made it.”

  7. Yeah, I really like the language metaphor. I think in some ways it is more than a metaphor, if we extend our definition of language to encompass any sign or significance/signification.

    That last question is a can of worms! Do we need human socialization to be human? Or are we just humans in any situation? I guess that all depends on your definition. I haven’t found a definition that I like yet of “human”. This is especially true because every definition is also a prescription (i.e. Live up to this definition or you are not human). I don’t think this means we shouldn’t define, I just think we should look before we leap and ask who our definitions will exclude.

    That’s one of the reasons naming is fascinating to me. To what extent does a name shape and determine the trajectory of a person’s life. For instance here’s a study cited by ABC, that suggests resumes from people with ‘white’ names are downloaded by job recruiters 17% more often than resumes from people with ‘black’ names. I don’t know if the study is conclusive [if there are other factors at play]. But it’s this type of thing that could make naming a trajectory-setting activity.

  8. You raise a good point about the general “loss” of history when it comes to names in America. I’d like to point out that this serves as a comment on names presented within the frame of a national ideology that seeks to assert hegemony over its constituents. This ideology (which is certainly not monolithic and uniform) works both to level and to create hierarchy.

    Leveling: You are not Scandinavian, Latino, or African. You are American (or Certain Ethnicity-American). This idea is part of what “holds” the nation together.

    Hierarchizing: As you mentioned, some names (and nationalities) are more American. Some people say that if the U.S. population is more than a certain percentage Hispanic, then this will no longer be America.

    However, there are other ways to view at the people that inhabit this land besides the America ideologies which seek to level and make hierarchy in this way. For example, as I described here, you can understand people’s identity (and names) in terms of Global flows, which have unique and convergent histories. I don’t think we can make the same assertions about names when we take this view. That is, I don’t think that any ideology completely dominates all of our significations. The name Guldhammer may not be nationally known, but it is internationally known.

  9. Naming is interesting. I think that people often view it as less important than it is. For example I’ve read some studies that say women’s names determine how they will be treated throughout their lives. Like women with a name ending in “ie” or “y” (eg. Candy, Stephanie) are treated with less seriousness. And women whos names end in “a” (eg. Victoria) are treated more seriously. And women with names that are unisex (eg. Jessie, Joey) are treated with a more unisex attitude. I haven’t seen any studies on mens names, but I’m sure there must be some kind of equivalent.

    When I name someone I am determining what peoples first response to them will be. If I give you an artsy name people will think you are cool, if I name you after a famous literary person or scientist they will think you are smart, biblical names are religious, nature names mean you have artsy/hippie parents, generic names mean you are boring, don’t stand out. It’s the first thing people will know about me in school, in life and on my resume.

    When I name someone I am determining a part of who they will be and how people will respond to them. That’s why so many celebrities change their names. They want to determine how people will react to them. How to market themselves.

    And anyone who says a name isn’t important needs to stop and think about how upset they would be if their kid came to them and told them that they were legally changing their name because they didn’t like their birth name. Why are names so important to us.

    Why can’t I decide if I want to take my husbands name or keep my birth name. Do either of those actually describe me?

  10. Pebble, I concur. Names are determining factors in the social trajectory of a person’s life. Your comments made me think again about how strange it is to be naming a baby. Part of me wants to forget about the serious side of naming and just see what emerges (too much pressure!). I know that no name is a perfect super-name (except willwindow), so I should just aim for something that works, right?