Friday, May 30, 2008

Name Constraints

This whole name-a-kid-for-the-rest-of-his-life thing is tricky. I wrote a little bit about our quest to pick a name while avoiding family taboos here. Basically, we are working under a number of naming constraints (some religious, some cultural, some self-imposed, ...). They include:

1. In traditional Jewish custom, you name children with either a first name or a middle name (or both) that honors a dead relative. When I say "honors," I mean that the name typically starts with the same first initial as the person you're honoring. So, if you're honoring someone named Shlomo, you don't need to name your helpless infant Shlomo, but you would typically choose a name starting with "S." And when I say "dead," I mean that the person you're honoring really does need to have passed away, or else it's really rude (kinda like wishing they were already dead). In our case, we're planning to honor my maternal grandmother.

2. It is also traditional in Jewish culture that you not pick a name that anyone in your family already has, which is also considered rude, not to mention bad luck. So, if poor dead Shlomo was extremely beloved, leading to a run of cousins named Steve, Saul, Sadie, Simon, and Samantha, you have to find something new that hasn't been used yet. In our case, the letter of the alphabet that we're working with is great for girls names, but a bit lacking in good boy options, hence the conflict with my brother, who is trying to honor the same grandmother. We're also limited by the fact that a whole lot of our cousins had children before us, so the limited number of boy names for this particular letter has already been diminished some.

3. In Japanese-American tradition, children born in the U.S. are given good ole American first names, and Japanese middle names. The middle name typically honors a relative. Here, "honors" means "given the exact same name" -- none of this single-letter stuff. There's usually no restriction on who is honored, but see constraint (1) above. This combination of constraints is causing us some problems because the people we would normally like to honor (eg, S's paternal grandfather) was already honored, while he was still alive, by giving his name to be S's middle name, which would then violate constraint (2). So, we need to find someone to honor who nobody else wanted to honor until now. Tricky.

4. A lot of Japanese names are a bit awkward for English speakers to pronounce. Note here that "English speakers" includes S and most of his family, since the family has been in the U.S. for several generations and none of them actually speak more than a few words of Japanese. So, we're trying to find an ancestral Japanese name that is also fairly short. (For example, if it were a girl, we'd be thinking something like Yoko, but without the breaking-up-the-band connotations.)

5. The letter that we need to use for constraint (1) doesn't exist in Japanese. So, it's impossible to fulfill (1) and (3) with the same name. Thus, constraint (1) will need to be the first name, leaving (3) to fill the middle name.

6. Our last name is a bit unusual -- see constraint (4) on pronouncing Japanese names in English, and then add that the last name is unusual even in Japan. We've been calling our in-utero baby Barack mainly because our last name more or less rhymes with Obama, and we're fans of puns. We're not truly going to saddle the kid with a name in common with a presidential candidate, regardless of party affiliations, but the point here is that not very many names "go" with our last name.

7. Another implication of us being Jewish: we'd prefer to pick a Jewish-sounding first name, particularly since the middle name and last name are obviously Japanese. It doesn't necessarily have to be Hebrew, but names that sound too "waspy" or New Testament are out. No offense here, because I do like a lot of waspy names, but we just won't be going that direction. The ironic thing here is that Barack is actually a good Israeli name....

8. Regardless of how we meet constraint (7), we will need to pick a Hebrew name as well, for use on religious occasions. Usually, the Hebrew name sounds something like the English name. In our case, we will also need a Hebrew middle name that sounds something like the Japanese middle name. And let me tell you -- not a lot of shared linguistic roots between Hebrew and Japanese.

9. The final constraints are more personal preference. We don't want a name that is too common, but we also don't want to stick the kid with something too unusual. He's going to stand out enough being both Japanese and Jewish (an unusual combination that S has been dealing with for quite some time, but only as an adult). I'd also like a name that has nickname possibilities. I've always been Nicky -- it's not short for Nicole, nobody has ever called me Nick, and I was always a little sad that I didn't have a pet name. Same with S. So I'd like to find something that has a cute "short" form that Barack can choose to use or abandon later in life.

The search continues....

22 comments:

  1. Oh wow, and we were having enough trouble finding a name that is similar in hebrew and english eg, rachel but that is not in current use (and between them, my 4 sibs have 11 names (2 middle names, to honor everyone) and still honors someone (but trying to avoid names like morris). the japanese angle adds a whole new twist to the drama! Good luck, I can't wait to see how it all works out ;)
    kol tuv,(all the best)
    Yael :)

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  2. WOW! Such a thought-provoking post..and a great way to learn different cultures!

    here from NCLM.

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  3. Naming your child must be like putting together a crazy difficult jigsaw puzzle. Good luck! It makes me very grateful that our naming task was only as hard as finding a name we both could agree on.

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  4. Oh My! I was having a hard time and we didn't have really any constraints like these! Good Luck! I am sure you will find the perfect name! Congrats n your pregnancy! Here from NCLM

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  5. I'm enjoying your blog so much -- I actually went back to when you were 13 weeeks along (same as i will be tomorrow) to see how it was for you -- the NT exam description was hilarious! thanks for making my day,
    Yael :)

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  6. Here from NaComLeavMo! Oh wow, this post made my head spin. The naming thing is very tricky -- it was hard enough for me to name our dog! Good luck meeting all your stipulations. :)

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  7. What a challenge!!! Barack may actually be your best option. good luck!

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  8. I do not have religious contrainst but i have many discussions with myhub that are VERY similir to your naming constraints

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  9. Man, you guys have it difficult. You may want to try talking to someone at the synagogue. Usually, they can come up with lots of different English names that have counterparts in Hebrew. My rabbi "invents" Hebrew names by sticking to something close to go with names that don't really have counterparts. Example: My sister, Elle, (not her real name, but this works), has Elana as her Hebrew name.

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  10. So complicated! LOL. Well, at least your baby will know you didn't come up with their name on a whim!

    PS - You are due on my birthday! Too cool!

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  11. wow. THAT is intense.

    But wait, what's wrong with Shlomo Yoko Obama??

    heh.

    Here from Nacomleavmo - but will TOTALLY be back to find out what you guys figured out!

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  12. Oh my goodness! Good luck to the two of you- that does seem difficult! Hopefully you will let us know what you decide on!

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  13. And I thought picking out a name was difficult--I just wanted to make sure it could be easily spelled and didn't set off any alarm bells when I googled it :)

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  14. O my.
    That is a lot of things to consider.
    What a great post, I feel like I learned a lot about a few different traditions. I will HAVE to check back later and see what the final name turns out to be!
    Here from NCLM!
    ~Jodi

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  15. Wow, that's complicated. You could write a dissertation on that problem!

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  16. I never knew the full details/reasoning of the first 2 - thanks! If/when we have a child, I will definitely follow those rules (I'm a secular jew but I like to honor these types of traditions). Best of luck in your naming!

    (via NCLM).

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  17. Wow, and I thought just battling it out with my husband would be difficult. (:

    Good luck figuring it all out!

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  18. Oh my! My brother-in-law's wife is Japanese and I was awed by the trouble they had in just picking out a name that would work in both places (they settled on Liliko and she's called Lily by her American family). But you guys really have it tough! Good luck!!!

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  19. WOW, I so totally get the name thing, not to the level that you have to go, but ours was hard to!! Good Luck with that. LOL Congrats on your little one, and thanks so much for visiting my blog.

    Visiting from NCLM

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  20. Hi from NaComLeavMo! Sorry to say, but this post is really funny. ;) Not in a "laugh at you" kind of way, but in a "I can't believe the hoops you have to jump through" kind of way. ~LOL~ Naming our son was ridiculously easy. Being Italian I wanted to name him after someone in the family, and I always wanted a son named James (after my favorite uncle who died at age 33). DH wanted a kid named after himself. Luckily his middle name is James. So we named our son after his dad and call him by his middle name - perfect! :)

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  21. I thought I had a hard time picking out names for my daughter (my dog ended up picking the final two out of four--but that's a story for another day). I wish you the best!!

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  22. Holy cow!

    I had a hard enough time choosing my sons name... on my own and with only my own personal constraints. (eg. no nature names, no location names, etc.)

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