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Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Baby Naming Issue: Name Meanings

R writes:
My husband and I are expecting our first child November 2nd. We don't know yet if it will be a boy or a girl, but we have names picked out. We recently looked up the girl name in one of those baby name books, and it essentially means unlucky girl. This doesn't bother me because I think name definitions are kind of silly, but it does bother my husband. What do you think? Does the definition of a name matter?

Hm. This is tricky. But overall, I'm with you on this and think it doesn't much matter.

For one thing, many definitions aren't "real," per se. That is, some names don't actually mean anything; someone at some point just made up a definition for it. Many names appearing in the Bible have meanings based on Biblical stories---but what did the names mean before the Bible stories? Other names come from another language and do in fact mean their meanings---but only in that other language. Other names are words from our own language and come with the meanings of that word: Grace, Patience, Peace, Ireland, Ivy, Rose, Hunter, Mason, Tanner, Archer, Piper, Ruby. Chastity. Moon Unit.

Different baby name resources can list completely different meanings: one of my books says the name Hannah means "he has favored me," and another says it means "gracious." We've had the issue raised a couple of times on this blog that Hannah is "the same name" as Grace, because it means gracious. I don't think sharing similar meanings (if they even DO share a meaning) makes two names "the same name," but plenty of people do.

I remember in elementary school standing around looking up the meanings of our names---but I was the one who brought in the baby name book, and almost no one in the class knew their meaning already. And even being a huge baby-name fan, I don't know the meanings of my kids' names without looking them up.

The names Mary and Maria and Miriam all mean "bitter," but there are nevertheless hundreds of thousands of Marys/Marias/Miriams. Elizabeth means "pledged to God," but it doesn't mean she has to be given up to the local nunnery. Delia means "born on the island of Delos," but she doesn't have to be. The name Dawson means "son of David," but his daddy's name doesn't actually need to be David. The name Melissa means "bee," but she needn't buzz or make honey.

In fact, sometimes with things like this, I like to ask myself the question bluntly: "Do I believe that using a name that means 'unlucky girl' will have an actual effect on my daughter's actual luckiness?" And in my case, I answer that question no. In my opinion, baby name meanings are only for fun. If I found a name I loved and it meant something negative, I don't think it would bother me. ...Much. I guess I wouldn't use a name that meant something like "unwanted child" or whatever, but that would be because I wouldn't want my child to wonder about it.

But we're all likely to be at different points on the spectrum on this issue: some of you will agree with me; some of you will go even further ("Names have meanings?"); some of you will be way at the other end, choosing the meaning before you choose the name; and most of you will be somewhere in between. Where are you on the spectrum?


brooke said...

I am not huge on name meanings, but I do look up meanings of names I love. I know Thomas means twin and Iris is rainbow. I must admit that I sidelined Cecilia when I learned it means "blind one." Unlucky girl is too much for me. Perhaps there is an alternative? Celia took Cecilia's place after I learned the most accepted meaning is "heaven."

Jennifer said...

I love the names Mallory (which I think may be the name in question)and Tristan but their meanings were deal breakers for me for the same reason as R. Could have something to do with the fact that I took Spanish and so I have the association of "mal" meaning bad and "triste" meaning sad. I dunno, but I definitely couldn't use either of those names.

Alison @ Wholesome Goodness said...

Oh, what a good post! I struggle with this very issue. To me, how a name sounds and looks, its style, and its cultural connotations are more important than the meaning. Yet my husband is *very* into meaning. That makes sense, of course, given that his name is Just!ce, and his brother's name is Nob1e. His family is really into meaning names, and since I absolutely adore my husband's name, I'm more open than ever to naming a child based on meaning. And yet, am I really ready to give up my favorites in favor of Verity and Honesty? I don't know. What to do?

Anonymous said...

Meaning doesn't affect me at all. If I like a name and it has a nice meaning, then that's just a bonus for me. :)

Vicki said...

I look at meaning but it doesn't effect my choices. I chose based on what I like and give it its own meaning within my family. My boys have names that mean different things but to me they are the names of two children that I love very much and that's all that's important.

Fine For Now said...

Most people don't know the meanings of names, just as you pointed out.

My name means ewe (sheep) and my sister's is basically oxen, but no one know's that, and even if they did, who cares! :o)

Sarah said...

I agree, I don't think the meanings are real.

Leah said...

my name means "weary" or "forsaken". It has always kind of bothered me. That said, I have to admit that so far I have had a very blessed life and have not spent too much time being weary, and I have never been forsaken! The only time my name has ever been a problem is when people discuss meanings.

Mairzy said...

I was part of a culture that put heavy emphasis on name meanings. When they ran into a name like Mary, "Bitter," they did research until they came up with a positive meaning. "Mary" comes from "myrrh," a plant which when broken gives off perfume. Switching to allegory (they LOVED allegory), then a woman named Mary can undergo suffering but still have a beautiful spirit.

My own daughter's name means "laurel," which is easily translated into "victorious" (as in, winning laurels). I was pretty good at spinning name meanings at one time. I thought name meanings were very important. It was only when I realized how widely names vary from book to book that I decided it wasn't so important.

Still, for those who care, a good name meaning can be affirming. I love my name's meaning. So you could use "unlucky girl," and see if you can rework it into something positive.

Butterfly Chaser Photography said...

I agree with the last poster who said "see if you can rework it into something positive". My little sister's name is Rebekah, which means "bound" not the most pleasant of meanings, right?

However her middle name, Abigail, means "The father's joy" or "the father's love", so altogether her name means "Bound to the father's love" which is quite appropriate, as she has him wrapped around her little finger. :)

I think meanings are the icing on the cake for naming, and add to the story of why the name was chosen. My name is way too common, but I have always liked it because my parents picked it because of its meaning and how they thought the meaning fit me. (Yes I was a naming enthusiastic as a child, perhaps other children aren't so curious as to why each name is picked instead of others?)

Perhaps there is a special reason you picked the name Mallory (assuming that is the name) that you could emphasis to the child instead of the meaning? "We named you Mallory after mommy's good friend who is a very strong, intelligent person and we knew you would have those qualities as well."

Bethtastic said...

I'm someone who doesn't care much about meanings. Heck my name is Beth. That is Hebrew for house. Heh. I think it's funny, really. Whatever. I don't think there's a person in my world who hears my name and thinks - "Man, she's a house." Perhaps someone in Jerusalem might...but again, whatever.

Our daughter is named Tara. I think that means hill. But again, I don't care.

I go for names that I like the sound of, and ones that fit with our last name...and fit our style. Meanings don't mean anything to me, I suppose.

Everyone has his/her own preference. Go with your gut! :)

Frazzled Mom said...

I don't put too much stock into name meanings. Especially when I found out that different sources often give different meanings to the same name, which leads me to believe the none of the meanings are really accurate.

I find it funny when some people speak with such authority on a name's meaning because they read it in their baby book, and then I look it up and find a different meaning.

Personally I wouldn't worry too much about "unlucky girl."

Barb @ getupandplay said...

I think you can create a new meaning for a name in your family. My name, Barbara, literally means "barbarian" (although some baby name books spin that to be "mysterious stranger"...) The reason my mother chose it, however, is that it is the name of her twin sister and I am her first daughter. So knowing that I am named for a family member (who ended up not having children of her own) makes my name special and meaningful, despite its rather derogatory traditional meaning.

Ashley said...

R - you are speaking to me, Mama! We have the same issue. And, yep, it's about Mallory (in my case). I think it sounds great with my older daughter's name. It's of a similar popularity and style. What makes it even more complicated is that we want to use my parents' initials. [We used hubby's parents' initials for our first daughter.] So, M & G. Mallory is the ONLY M name that "works" for us. Our favorite "G" name, we used for Daughter 1's middle name.

This is why I pray for a wanker. [Even though, I would LOVE sisters. *sigh*]

Good luck!

BTW... I LOVE the idea of spinning the bad into a "good" story. I might try that, too.

Steph the WonderWorrier said...

I like looking up name meanings, but I definitely wouldn't consider them important enough to cancel out a favourite name.

I'm more the type who remembers the meaning of a name if it's a really good name meaning, or totally forgets about the name meaning if it's one I don't like.

I don't think it really "means" anything. You'll come across all kinds of different "meanings" in different sources.

Choose a name first because you like the name. Don't worry about the rest. :-)

Anonymous said...

My full name means "everlasting, flowery island of hazelnuts" (or something to that effect). And that didn't stop my parents from giving it to me! I say go for the name you like and put a nice spin on it!

Anonymous said...

I'm pretty focused on name-meanings. If it doesn't have a 'good' meaning, it's out. When we found out we were pregnant with our girl, I really loved the name Avery. But then, Avery means 'elf ruler' and what if she turned out to be short?! There's no way I could live with it. Maybe for a middle name.