What’s in a Name? A Raisin Perhaps?

By ZAC UNGER Special to the Planet
Friday January 02, 2004

So we’ve got a second baby waiting in the wings, just paddling around in that ever more cramped fetal health spa, waiting for his call-up to the big leagues. In fact, by the time you read this, he may already be here, or, if it turns out to be a busy decade for Berkeley-related news, he may already be a teenager. In these waning days of relative calm the second most important conversation around our house (after “Do you think we’ll go absolutely bat-poop insane raising two babies under a year old in a crappy student apartment?”) is about what we ought to name the new addition. 

The root of the problem is the desire for originality. We could just name him John and be done with it but we cling to the fantasy that a name defines a personality. And since my main reason for having a kid is home-growing someone to amuse me, I’ve got to start him off with an interesting name, if only for my own sake. Of course, every one of us has marginally true stories about tragically named people we’ve met—Flamingo, Truckstop, Latrinia—so extreme originality can certainly backfire. 

In finding the fine balance, those of us who have babies to name run up against the problem of the “Collective Cool,” that unfathomable force that makes us each believe that our own taste is unique and edgy. The Cool exists everywhere, from food to fashion to travel. I happen to actually be on the leading edge of The Cool, while you only think you are. For example I discovered distressed wood while you were still cooing over blond Nordic armoires and stainless steel end tables. And brightly colored Guatemalan peasant clothing? I was ahead of you on that one pal, way ahead. The problem is that when everyone else catches up, it doesn’t matter who was there first. The inevitable end result is a bunch of people standing around the hors d’oeuvres table wearing Rigoberta Menchu’s sweatpants and feeling stupid.  

Nowhere does The Cool exist more oppressively than with respect to baby names. While you can simply burn a pair of pants, a name is something you’re stuck with, and the consequences can be devastating. I’m sure my parents thought they were being hip and countercultural when they named me Zac, but it turned out there were three of us in my preschool class. Similarly, 10 years ago my wife had the fantastic suggestion to name her cousin’s boy Max. Nowadays you can’t throw a cinderblock into a sandbox without hitting half a dozen of the little guys. 

This presents a Catch-22: any name that I favor is rendered unusable by the simple fact that I favor it. Zeke appeals quite a bit, therefore it’s out. Same with Milo but I’m sure everybody else loved the Phantom Tollbooth every bit as much as I did. Finn is a nice one, but I know a couple of dogs so named, and there is no better harbinger of up-and-coming baby names than that. Some friends have tried to time-warp The Cool by choosing retro names like Bea and Hersch. It’s a decent strategy, but sometimes an old Jewish man’s name is just exactly that. “Hi, this is my son Saul. He can’t come to playgroup because he has bunions.” Perhaps the only solution is to go with names that you actively dislike; look for a wave of Adolfs and Brunhildas to hit the preschools in coming years.  

The Social Security Department maintains a website that tracks the thousand most popular names by year. My friend Alex turned me on to the site after discovering that due to various feminine spellings of his name—Alix, Alexx, Alecks—his name is now primarily for girls and he is fast becoming the Leslie of the 21st century. Manly-man that he is, he’s changing his name for sure and is at the moment deciding between Lance, Rod, and Peter. Tracking names on the website has become something of an obsession of my mine lately. True, Zeke is still only the 351st most popular, but it’s up from 655 a decade ago, and I don’t like that trend. Also, I don’t believe there is a uniform national spread here; it doesn’t matter if Milo is only at 819 if everybody in Berkeley has named their kid that. I don’t want to move to the Rust Belt just so my boy can have an original name, but I’ll do it if I have to. 

Perhaps the worst advice is “just wait until he pops out and see what name fits him.” If everybody did that, most babies would be named either Winston Churchill or Raisin. Actually, now that I think about it….