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Monday, April 23, 2012

Baby Name to Consider: Salem

A. writes:
I'm due with my first - a boy - on August 29th. My maiden name is Salem, and my married last name is Ceder.

What do you think about Salem Ceder for a boy? Too much alliteration? Is "Salem" too odd for a first name? Yes, I know about the associations with the witch trials and cigarettes :)

Thanks for any help!

Using the mother's maiden name as a first name is one of my top favorite baby name ideas. It's rare for it to work out: most surnames don't work as first names---and even among the ones that do work, many then don't work with the baby's surname, or aren't to one or both parents' tastes.

My opinion of Salem is that there are two reasons it doesn't work: (1) the negative associations you mention, and (2) the way it fits with the surname.

The Salem witch trials were a horrifying time in U.S. history. Terms like "witch hunt" are still used to instantly remind us of how people can become evil themselves in their efforts to find evil in others. The cigarette association pales in comparison with that, though it's also an issue. (And I think with this particular surname it can sound like a new kind of cigarette: Salem Slim, Salem Menthol, and Salem Cedar.)

Nevertheless, the name is being used, so the associations are clearly not as overwhelming as they are with, say, a name like Adolf: according to the Social Security Administration, in 2010 there were 67 new baby boys and 66 new baby girls named Salem. The unisex nature of the name is another issue, either positive or negative depending on what sorts of names you'd want to use for future siblings.

Salem Ceder might be okay alliteration-wise; I don't like the way the name sounds when I say it aloud, but such things are almost completely subjective and the next person could love the way it sounds. I think a bigger issue is that both Salem and Ceder are strong word names. The sudden double mental imagery (witch trials, then cedar chests; or cigarettes, and then cedar trees) is a lot of imagery for one name. Or the word-like surname can turn the first name into an adjective: Atlas Cedar, White Cedar, Salem Cedar.

I think all these issues are hugely reduced (if not eliminated entirely) if the name is instead put in the middle name slot. Then you get the mother's-maiden-name tradition, which is a great one, AND you get to use a name that would be a great name without the association problems and surname conflicts.

Let's have a poll over to the right. [Poll closed; see results below.]

Poll results for "What do you think of the name Salem?" (476 votes total):

I love it! I'd want to use it! - 20 votes (4%)
I like it! I'd want to consider it! - 44 votes (9%)
I like it for someone else's baby - 122 votes (26%)
No particular opinion - 28 votes (6%)
Slight dislike - 148 votes (31%)
Strong dislike - 114 votes (24%)


Amanda said...

I don't dislike Salem but I don't like the way it sounds with Cedar. :(

I always feel a bit ick when I tell a parent that I don't like their choice (which I would only do if asked and likely only on the internet).

If you love it, go for it. I've heard far worse alliterations that end up working out fine.

Nicole said...

I actually kind of like Salem... I don't know if I see it as more of a girl's or boy's name though. It does sound a little sing-songy with Cedar as a last name, though.

Tara said...

I like it! I get the bad associations, but as a non-smoker I didn't get that one immediately, and as a history nerd I didn't find the association with the witch trials a deal breaker.

Natalie said...

I didn't think of any of the negative associations with Salem. I like the name. The flow into the last name is a little iffy. First I thought you may like Sawyer, but that doesn't flow well either.

Meggie said...

I'm not totally against Salem if you love it -- people might end up calling him "Sal" as a nn.

I think it might be better in the middle name spot.

just some ideas:
Elliot Salem Cedar
Stuart Salem Cedar (lots of alliteration!)
Caleb Salem Cedar
Harrison Salem Cedar

jonniker said...

My associations with Salem are totally positive, given that I've lived there and it's a fantastic city that really embraces its witchy history and turned it into something to celebrate.

I DO prefer it as a middle name, only because of the way it sounds with Cedar, but under different circumstances, I wouldn't object to it as a first name, by a long shot.

Alice said...

i agree with many here - i actually do like the name quite a bit, but i don't love it with your surname. another vote for middle!

Anonymous said...

I knew a high school age girl named Salem and thought it was unexpected and lovely as a first name. Despite having known a girl Salem, the name remains unisex in my mind and I think it would be equally nice on a boy. I really wish it went with your married last name better. Salem Cedar is a bit much-I'm not a fan of alliteration. Unlike Swistle, I don't think it sounds like a new cigarette so much as a type of tree Red Cedar, California Cedar, Salem Cedar which might actually be a plus for some people. I don't think Salem Cedar is unusable, and it is a name I really like- but I'd probably move it to the middle slot with your last name.

Laura said...

One of my children is adopted from Ethiopia and the name "Salem" means "hello" and "peace" (although its spelled several different ways in Amharic--Selam or Selaam or Salem). So those are my associations which are positive ones. Unfortunately I'm not crazy about it with your last name but agree with Swistle...perfect middle name! Best wishes.

AirLand said...

I like Salem. Being from the NW, the association I make is to the Oregon capital, which isn't positive or negative for me.

With your last name though...

1) It's alliterative, and both names have the same number of syllables and letters. That would be too much for me.
2) It actually sounds like more of a girl's name to me (in combo with your last name)... even though I think Salem alone sounds very gender-neutral.
3)I think it sounds like a tree you might find in Oregon.

It would work great as a middle name though :)

Anonymous said...

I don't like the name Salem for a boy but I do like it for a girl. Perhaps that's because I know a female Salem and she's as sweet as can be.

Ali said...

I'm in the minority, but I really like Salem as a name, and the alliteration with Ceder doesn't bother me.
For me, the greatness of the mother's-maiden-name namesake outweighs a LOT of style/rhythm issues, and really only gets trumped by a seriously unusable name (I can't use my own maiden name b/c it is the given name of an evil ex in the immediate family, for example). But Salem Ceder is honestly just cute to me--no negative to outweigh! It works as a middle name too, of course. But I really like it with a very classic middle name. Salem Thomas Ceder? Salem James Ceder?

Courtney said...

I like the name Salem. I considered it for my own children as I am from Winston-Salem, NC but my husband didn't like it. I like it more for a girl name, but it works for a boy too. I do think the same sounds of Salem and Ceder are a bit much. Would you consider calling him by a double first name like Salem Michael (or whatever his middle name might be)? Also, I like Swistle's suggestion of using it in the middle name place.

Laura said...

I really like Salem as a name because of it's meaning - peace. Growing up also in Winston-Salem, the name means much more to me than cigarettes or witch trials. I actually know several people in their twenties named Salem, but they are all women, so I think of it as a female name.

I agree that Salem Cedar is too much alliteration, however.

lacey said...

Ditto what Ali said---I think that the name is lovely, and that with your last name it's still lovely. Lovely all around. Regarding the "horrifying time in U.S. history," I think that (a) like people have shown here, that's far from being everyone's first association, and (b) it can be beautifully reframed in that Forrest Gump way---I've always thought that was so beautiful. Do you remember? He said, "Now, when I was a baby, Momma named me after the great Civil War hero, General Nathan Bedford Forrest. She said we was related to him in some way. And what he did was, he started up this club called the Ku Klux Klan. They'd all dress up in their robes and their bedsheets and act like a bunch of ghosts or spooks or something. They'd even put bedsheets on their horses and ride around. And anyway, that's how I got my name, Forrest Gump. Momma said that the Forrest part was to remind me that sometimes we all do things that, well, just don't make no sense."

Sarah said...

My thoughts are that if you made it to adulthood without horrifying memories of negative Salem associations, then odds are so will your son.

Personally, I think it's a lovely name and that you should go for it if you love it!

Heidi said...

My first thought was that I really liked it, and it didn't occur to me that it would be anything other than a boy's name. (And I say this as someone who wrote a term paper once on the Salem witch trials; the added bonus is that my husband is very indirectly related to one of one of the hanged "witches"!) However, I don't like the sound of the first name with your last name, but it would be lovely as a middle name.

Anonymous said...

I think it's a great name, and I just don't think the terrible historical event is integrally connected to the place name, even if the association is there. (For history nerds: it's not even integrally connected to the place: the accusers and suspects were centered around what is now Danvers.) As others have noted, there are other Salems, and there's the derivational connection with Shalom, which is lovely. Also, how would the "witch hunt" idea be relevant to your kid? Would you be worried that people would be inclined to think of him as a victim, or as a persecutor? Given that the witch trials as a phenomenon are generally regarded as a collective atrocity--an instance of mass hysteria--I have a hard time connecting the negative association with an individual's name. (As a native of the area, I have a much stronger antipathy to the more popular name Logan; who wants to be named after an airport?)

I don't mind the alliteration, either.

vanessa said...

too much with the last name, and the association is terrible--as someone who has done a lot of academic work on the witch trials, I cannot imagine it being something to celebrate.

Anonymous said...

When I hear Salem, I just think of the city. No negative associations at all.

phancymama said...

I adore maiden name used as first name, but I sadly think you might have gotten the short straw with this one. The association is problematic, and strangely enough, the witch-trial association is stronger with your last name than it would be with a last name that-is-also-not-a-noun.
Also, count me as another who says I don't love the way it sounds with your last name. I have run into a similar problem--think my maiden as Pearson and husband's as McPherson.
I vote middle name if you like that idea. And Cedar is a fabulous last name in general, so there are many names that would be awesome with it. Good luck!

Elle said...

I do like the sound of Salem, but in my opinion, the negative associations are too strong to use it as a first name. And I don't have a problem with alliteration in general, but I don't like Salem with Cedar.

I think that Swistle's suggestion of using Salem as a middle name is a great solution. You still get to pass on your last name, but without any of the potential problems.

The Mrs. said...

The first name/surname combo have a lot going on. For some reason, I immediately thought of Cedar Sinai hospital in California, then Salem, Oregon... then witch trials (which led to thinking about Arthur Miller's The Crucible)... which is a shame because the name Salem is cool, but I'd wedge it in the middle name spot.

"Family name," is an excellent way to diffuse any raised eyebrows he may encounter.

Best wishes!

Vegas710 (St) said...

I LOVE the name Salem! We worried about so many things that now seem silly when we were naming our girls. Our first was a daughter who we wanted to call Elliet. With our last name starting with 'T', I kind of freaked out for a bit that people would think we were huge E.T. fans!! She's almost nine now and no one's ever made the connection.
If you like the name (and I'll repeat, I love it!), go for it. :)

Annie said...

A big thanks for Swistle for your response, and for all of you readers for your input! We'll let you know where we land come August!