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Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Baby Naming Issue: Is an Altered Honor Name Too Much of a Stretch?

C. writes:
Children are not anywhere close in the future for me right now, but I have been thinking of names and ways to honor my family members. My grandmother's name is Irma, and I would like to use that name somehow. The problem is she strongly dislikes her name, and I am not a huge fan of it myself. The way I went around this was trying to find names that are similar. I thought of "Marie" and figured it could honor her since the letters to form "Irma" are included with an extra "e'.

Long story short, my question to you is do you think that Marie is too much of a stretch to honor my grandmother, Irma? I appreciate your help, thank you very much.

You're asking a specific question, but I'm going to broaden the topic and answer more generally: it's the sort of question that comes up frequently, and I've been meaning to write a post about it for the reference section.

I have two tests for whether an altered honor name is too much of a stretch---one test for each of the two reasons I'd use an honor name.

1. The first reason I'd use an honor name is to remind me of the person. I think of my grandfather every time I think of or tell the story of Rob's middle name, which is my grandfather's name. The test for this one, then, is "Will the altered name make you think of the person being honored?" It very well might: maybe every time you think of the name Marie, or every time you talk about the name with your future daughter, you'll think of the clever solution to your grandmother disliking her name, which will of course make you think of your grandmother. Or maybe it won't: maybe the name Irma would bring your grandmother instantly to your mind, but the name Marie has completely different associations for you, or you'd feel funny giving the explanation for it. The answer to this test will completely vary from situation to situation, because there are so many different variables: the person thinking about it, the person being honored, the particular name being used, the particular reasons for not using the actual name, etc.

2. The second reason I'd use an honor name is to please the person being honored, and to show them how highly I think of them. (Or to please/show other family members, if the honoree has died.) The test for this one, then, is "Will the person being honored get this message from the altered name?" That is, will your grandmother Irma feel honored by having a namesake Marie? (Mira would be another possibility.) Maybe so, especially if she wouldn't want her own name used, and if you explained it to her as a workaround for this problem. You could test things out by bringing up the topic with her now, before there's the pressure of an actual pregnancy---just a nice chat about all the family names you might want to use someday. She may even have a suggestion: her maiden name, her middle name, her mother's name, her sister's name, a name she always wished had been hers, her birthstone, her favorite flower, etc.

As part of this test I do an exercise where I turn the question around so it's me and my name. It doesn't work perfectly in this particular case (because I can't think of a name that could be made out of all the same letters as my name), but for example I'd ask myself if, as a Kristen, I'd be honored by a great-granddaughter named something other than Kristen---and how far away from my name could it get before it didn't feel like an honor anymore. Would I be honored by a little baby Kristin? How about by a little baby Christine? Kiersten? Kirsty? Krystal? How about by a baby Tristen or Trista or Christian? A baby Kira? Karys? How about by a Katelyn? A Tessie? An Eirlis? And so on. At which point do I stop feeling any personal connection to the name being used?

And because we're on the topic of avoiding using a name someone has always disliked: If it seems important not to try to honor someone by using a name they dislike, it seems important to make sure the substitute name is not also one they dislike.

In general, my opinion is that every step away from the original name (either given name or always-used nickname) decreases the honor considerably---but that this can still be okay as long as everyone realizes that and treats it as such. The only time I get bad feelings about such things are when someone uses a name that's way off ("We named the baby Amelia after you, Grandma Mildred!") and wants the honoree to respond at exactly the same level of sentimental joy as if the actual name had been used. If I were Grandma Mildred, I think I'd be more pleased if someone instead said to me, "I was looking at a name book and noticed that both Amelia and Mildred were listed as long forms of Milly. So now your names are connected in my mind, and her name always makes me think of you!"

I also find it reassuring to keep in mind that even though an honor name is a great way to remind us of the person and show the person how highly we think of them, it's not the only way to accomplish those things. Sometimes a name just doesn't work out as a baby's name, but there are many other ways to honor and remember someone you love.


Lynnette said...

Swistle already hit my immediate suggestion, which is Mira. Same letters, same rhythm, much more current.

Anonymous said...

What about Isla (eye-luh)? You have the first and last letter the same, Isla is an adorable name and is unique, not popular as of yet!

Kathryn said...

I immediately thought Mira was a better fit. A direct anagram is better than an almost one. I think putting yourself in the honoree's shoes is great advice. Would they think it is honoring them? I would first defer to a middle name or last name. If not something quite similar. I have thought about honoring my grandmother Emma with Emmaline. Sometimes, I think certain honor names are too much of a stretch, as with the case of Irma > Marie. Irma is totally lost in Marie. Most non-namey people think of names in those terms. If it were me, I'd likely just stick Irma in the middle. :)

Kathryn said...

*don't think of names in those terms.

Anonymous said...

I agree Mira is a much better fit for an Irma honor name. Middle name would also work & you can leave the name as is. Another option would be to match the meaning of Irma. says Irma comes from the Germanic root for ermen, which meant "whole, universal". Emma shares the same root.

Sophie said...

Why don't you use Emma? Emma comes from Erma, which is similar to Irma.

Liz said...

Personally, I think that any name other than the exact name is a stretch. I think using a different name is more offensive than it is an honor. It's telling the honoree that you don't like their name. What kind of honor is that? "Oh Aunt Irma, we wanted to honor you, but your name is too ugly so we're using Marie instead. Aren't you happy?!"

But this is just my opinion :)

liz said...

I'm with Swistle on the suggestion to ask your Grandma.

plantingoaks said...

In my opinion, unless both you and your grandmother giggle with pleasure and glee over how clever the substitution is, I would try to find another basis for the honor name. (Swistle listed some good ones - middle name, other family names, place names or items associated with her) I'd rather have a direct link to something more obscure than an unclear link to her first name.

Anonymous said...

This doesn't exactly answer the bigger question of how to honour someone without using their exact name, but might help in this case. As a Titanic-era Leonardo DiCaprio fanatic, I apparently still remember that his mother's name is Irmelin, and although I also quite dislike the name Irma, for whatever reason I kind of love the name Irmelin. (It may have something to do with the harsh "irm" sound being balanced out by the smoother, softer "elin", but really I don't know. The heart wants what the heart wants.)

Anonymous said...

the main point I got from this is that the grandmother doesn't like her name either, so she wouldn't be offended by a variation. i think Mira and Emma are great suggestions, especially if the namesake doesn't like her name, but wants something from her name carried on.

Jilian said...

This is something I've struggled with too. My father passed away and I REALLY want to use his name for a son. Wayne as a middle name would be my first choice - but my husband REFUSES. Richard isn't something I'm fond of due to the nicknames (even though my dad did go by Dick). When I found Ryker in the name books as a surname of Richard I thought I had my solution. It was fun and current - to me it definitely made me think of my dad and smile. But alas - my hubby couldn't get behind it either :(

We have the same issue with girls. We'd like to honor my husband's mom who has passed away using Cecilia. His sister let us in on how his mom always hated the name. (She went by Anne (Annie) and his sister has already named her daughter Annagrace (Annie).) We had already wanted to switch it up to Celia. Which I think is just fine. I do wonder what she would think - but we'll never know. We'll always think of his mom - that's what matters.

What are your thoughts Swistle on where you put the honor name? For our daughter it would be Alta (after me) Paisley (given name) Celia (honor name) Last name. Granted that 3rd name would rarely show - but my husband also has 4 names (same exact layout) so I feel it's a bond with him as well.

Swistle said...

Jilian- I think it goes in order, with the first name being the highest honor---but I think of the middle name slot as ideal for honor names. Second middle name does have a bit of a tacked-on feeling, but it's still a nice gesture.

Anonymous said...

We used "Grace" for our daughter's middle name to honor her grandmother "Nancy" because the meaning of the name "Nancy" is "full of grace." We always tell her this is why we named her Grace, so I think that fits your first criteria. :)