This blog has moved! Please join us over at!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Baby Naming Issue: Using a Student's Highly Distinctive Name

A. writes:
I'm wondering about the etiquette around a certain naming issue that I'm having.

I am a teacher and one of my students (a girl) goes by an "old man" type of nickname. It's kind of like she goes by "Elliot" -- a name that is identifiably masculine, but that doesn't sound ridiculous on a girl. Unlike "Elliot," however, this name is not popular for boys or girls -- in fact, it's never been very popular. The most popular that it was was #273 and that was back in the 1800s. It hasn't even been in the top 1000 since 1968. The long-form of the name (as opposed to the nickname) was given out more often, but even it barely ever broke into the top 100 (and this girl is definitely not going by the long-form of the name). This student has a common and feminine name, but she's gone by this unusual male nickname for as long as I have known her and everyone (students, teachers, even her mom) calls her by it.

In addition to this girl being a student of mine, her mom is also a teacher at the school -- so her mom is a colleague of mine. And our staff is small and all the babies that have been born to staff members are welcomed with a big announcement to the whole school community.

So here's my problem. I LOVE this girl's nickname and would love to use it as a middle name for a future daughter. But I don't know whether it would be TOTALLY awkward. It would be obvious to everyone involved that I'd never thought of the name (or even heard of it, really) before meeting this student. Would that be embarrassing? Like I'm naming my kid after a student? Would the colleague/mom of the girl feel weird about it? She's not my best friend at work and she can be kind of critical, so I don't know how she'd react.

And I would feel weird for the student as well. The student is well-known and popular, but also pretty shy. I'm pretty sure I'm not her favorite teacher, so it's not like she'd feel super-honored or anything. It's already pretty awkward for her to be the kid of a teacher and have friends in her mom's classes. I'd hate for her to feel even more awkward when a teacher names her kid after her!

Just as a reminder, I'm only thinking of using this name as a middle name -- not as a first. But it would be impossible to hide the middle name from the staff and students at the school -- and awkward to try! What would be the best way to go about this? Should I just give up on the name? Talk to the mom in advance? Talk to the girl in advance? What would make the most sense?


I have two different answers. One is for if you're right now pregnant with a baby girl, and the other is for if you're not.

If you're not, I think what makes the most sense is waiting to see if it will be an issue at all. Maybe by the time you're naming a baby girl, neither the student nor her mother will be at your school, or maybe you'll be at a different school where no one has ever heard of the student. Or maybe by then you won't still want to use the name, or maybe the other parent won't want to, or maybe you'll have changed surnames and there will be a clash, or maybe your favorite first name will sound bad with it. Or maybe you'll only have sons. Or maybe by then the student's mother will have said wistfully in the staff room, "I just wish there were OTHER girls with that name! She loves her nickname but hates being the only one!" Or maybe you'll have a boy first, and this student will end up babysitting for him and become so special to your family that it will make perfect sense to give your next baby her name as a middle name.

If on the other hand you're currently pregnant with a baby girl (or you're pregnant and not finding out the sex until the birth), and if the other parent also wants to use the name and it's great with the first name and last name, then let's see if we can figure out a way for you to do it.

I agree it seems like the awkwardness/weirdness of it is not avoidable. Our goal, I think, is to see if we can reduce it to usable levels. I'd start by scouring your family tree and the other parent's family tree. I mean, SCOUR it. Go back as far as you've got, and search every twig. Let's say this student's name were Clementine, and she were going by Clem. Search to see if you have ANYTHING like that in your tree, either first names or surnames. Clement? Clemence? Clemmie? Clemens? Clemmons? VanderClem? ANYTHING. If you find anything, you can now say breezily "It's a family name." And as everyone looks at you a little incredulously, you can add casually, as if suddenly realizing there could be offense taken if it sounds like you're NOT naming after your colleague's daughter: "And of course, Clem Johnson is such a nice girl, it definitely helped the name catch my eye!"

If there's nothing in the family tree, I think I would take an intermission and consider again whether the awkwardness/weirdness is worth it. We all have these names, I think, where we really really want to use them, but there's some reason we just CAN'T: name of husband's ex-wife, name of our daughter's half-sister or step-sister at her father's house, name of a celebrity, name the other parent hates, name that is hilarious/embarrassing with the surname, etc. I mean, it's not that we literally CAN'T use the name, but at some point the issues overwhelm it and we reluctantly cross it off. These names become excellent conversation material later, especially with other name enthusiasts: "I wanted to name a son after my dad James SO BADLY! So of course I end up marrying someone with the last name Bond." or "I'm STILL mad at Alan for hating the name ____! That's been my favorite name since I was a CHILD!" And it can be fascinating to the child to hear what other names were considered.

Are there any names very similar to the nickname, that you might like just as much? This is where my stand-in name isn't going to help with making a list---but I'd look for names that rhyme with the nickname, or have similar sounds, or are from that same style category. I might browse the 1800s name lists for similar guy nicknames, or see if there were any similar guy nicknames in the family tree.

If you come through this intermission strengthened in your resolve to use the name, I think my own strategy would be to start talking about baby names with colleagues (you don't have to give away the first name you're actually going to use, if you want to keep it a secret---just mention other names you've considered), and start mentioning that you're "thinking of using" the middle name Clem. This would give everyone a heads-up, which I think would go a long way to reduce the anticipated awkwardness after the birth. (I wouldn't ask the mother or the student if it were okay to use the name, unless you're prepared/willing to abandon the name if they say no.) I'd come up with some responses ahead of time to things I thought others might say. Them: "You mean...after Clem Johnson?" You: "Oh, not really---but of course that's where I first heard the name, and she's a great girl so it certainly didn't HURT the name. I just found it really grew on me." Or "I'd liked the name already for a boy, but having Clem Johnson in my class is how it occurred to me I could use it even if I had a girl."

Does anyone have any other ideas of how to pull this off with the least awkwardness possible? And let's have a poll over to the right to collect general reactions to the idea. [Poll closed; see results below.]


Anonymous said...

This is such a non-issue, first and foremost, because she wants to use it as a middle name, not a first. My solution would just be to say to the mom, "We're thinking of using Elliot as our baby's middle name because we love your daughter's name so much." My guess is that if the mother is not a lunatic, this is going to continue to be a non-issue and she might even be honored that someone loves her daughter's name enough to use it for themselves.

Jen said...

I agree it isn't as big of an issue since it's a middle name but I still couldn't do it myself, so I answered no. I would qualify that my answer would change if it were remotely a family name.

Also? It's killing me not to know the actual name.

Anonymous said...

Definitely use it. I regret taking certain names off the table because someone else I knew had used it, etc. I don't think it will be an issue at all.

Anonymous said...

I picked I can't decide on the poll. It's so hard to say for sure without knowing what the name is. Your example of Elliot made me think-oh use it, it's got enough use as a girls name recently it should be no big deal. But then I looked at names in the bottom 20 from 1968 and didn't see anything that seemed to fit. I like Swistle's stand in of Clem-which could also be short for Clementine, Clematis of Clemency which are used for girls. So maybe there is a recognized girl name you could use in place of the boy nickname used by your student? I also liked the suggestion of finding names that sound like the name you have in mind.

AirLand said...

Ditto that it would be more helpful to know the name. Inquiring minds want to know!

Can you tell us what it is without spelling it out? e.g., Clem = Lem with a C at the beginning or Elliot = sounds like Ellie-ette

liz said...

I chose "can't decide"

If this question has immediacy, talk to your colleague like Anon up above said.

Anonymous said...

Friends of mine chose the name Eben for their baby boy, even though another friend's adult brother (with whom they were acquainted) had the name. At first it was a little awkward ("did you name him after Eben X?"). But after a while, the baby became Eben in his own right. It helped that they weren't close friends, and as their circles drifted further apart, it became a non-issue.

In this case, I'd be even less concerned about it, since the questioner is hoping to use it as a middle name. It feels a lot less like "stealing." My advice would be to talk to the teacher friend in advance, however, to let her know that you're planning to use it. She'll probably be flattered that you love the name so much.

Anonymous said...

Ok I just want to start I have to much time to wast at work. I think I figured out what name it is. If I am correct, it is the name of a female character in a well loved children's book/movie
just starting with a different letter but with the same sound. (This book has in it's title a popular girls name)If I am correct in this I would change that first letter and say you actually liked it from the book and seeing the name on a real person helped cement your decision on using it on a girl.

Claire said...

Since it sounds like you aren't terribly close with your coworker or her child, I wouldn't stress about it, and if anyone raises an eyebrow to it, you can always put the burden on your significant other and say that they loved the name/it's part of their family tree. Since it's really no one else's business what you choose to name your child, if lying about it helps ease the situation, go for it. It's not going to hurt anyone.

Also, odds are if you're a teacher, you've come in contact with a lot of students who might share a name of a future child of yours. Aside from this child having a more unusual name, what makes her any different than you naming your daughter something more ordinary that you might also have in your class this year (or any other). I doubt anyone would be like "Oh, Jacob? Like that kid you taught last year/have in your second period class?" Don't worry about it.

Anonymous said...

I would just like to mention this... when I was a child my dance teacher had a baby. We had all talked about names in dance class, and she finally told us the name she chose: Antonia nn Toni. The problem: there was an Antonia in our dance class. Even though she said she didn't name her after Antonia, it was obvious that's where she got the name. We were all a little hurt and offended. As if Antonia was her favorite.

So, my thought is: if you're worried about offending the parent, then just ask her. I don't think you will offend her and who really cares if you offend one person anyway? ;) BUT... you should think about whether the other kids will find out and how they would feel about it. You don't want to hurt the relationships with the kids.

Caroline said...

I would simply ask the colleague.

I am so intrigued by what this name is now! I have heard of Elliot as a girl's name before, so I am very interested about what this name is!

Melissa said...

I chose Cant Decide because I thin it depends on the name.
I'm dying to know!

Bree said...

I did a little sluething and I'm 99% sure that I figured out what the name is, and I kinda love it. (Don't worry, I'm not stealing it, nor will I tell everyone.) It's not THAT far out of left field as far as names go, but it would likely be a big stretch to try to convince anyone that it came from anyone but that student.

Because I don't think that it's a one of a kind name, maybe you could find another "old man" nickname that is similarly quirky but different enough not to be an exact copy. You could look at it as being inspired by the name style of this student but still having the same effect.

Do you have a first name chosen for your future daughter? Maybe Swistle and Co. could come up with something that would fit with it?

Jenny said...

The name is Fern spelled with a V instead of an F. I couldn't stand not knowing and it was pretty easy to figure out with the stats given. Now I'm just curious what the girls full name is...

There are lots of ways to go about this. If you're dead set on using it I would just find something about it's meaning that you love. It means "alder tree", and if you look into the symbolism of the alder tree there are tons of things you would probably connect with. Or go the route of saying your husband's great-great-grandmother was named Laverne. Whatever you choose to do, don't ignore the awkwardness. Say something to the mother like, "I hope you're not upset that I used ____ as my daughter's middle name. I probably wouldn't have considered it if it weren't for your ____, she brought life to the name that I may not have realized." Or something.

Or you could just use Fern :)

Bek said...

So, with enough time while nursing, I think I figured it out... Rhymes with Fern perhaps? Anyway, if it is the name I think it is, I would say that there is a fairly well-known designer with the name, so she's hardly the sole bearer of the name that could be in a person's consciousness.

That being said, it'll be awkward no matter what. I would personally not use it because the awkwardness alone would keep me from ever feeling totally comfortable with the name. You know?

BUT I think it's also ok to just say, "Yeah, we liked this name, so we used it." People glean inspiration from everywhere - TV, books, art, family trees, and names they just hear around. Why can't you use a name you've heard before?

It all comes down to personal comfort I think...

Anonymous said...

If the speculation above is correct on the name, I have a friend from growing up whose name is Veronica and we always called her by the nickname being discussed. So maybe you could use that names as your base?

Anonymous said...

Could you or your husband discover a lifelong love of Jules _____? Maybe the extra E on the end would even make it more feminine for your daughter.

If you're a fan of elaborate lying, you could even invent a story wherein you started with Jules, but someone vetoed it because of a hated Julie/Julia/Julien/whatever, and knowing a presumably adorable little girl named ____ helped you think of the perfect compromise.

(I'm 28 weeks pregnant with either a little girl who will be named after my friend's sister who he idolizes but I've never met, or a little boy who will be named after my husband's friend's fat balding brother/roommate. Sometimes you can't win)

Ms. Key said...

I'm a teacher, and I worry all the time about what names will come along in my classes before I get a chance to name my own children... already a few co-workers have used baby names that I also really like, and while I know that shouldn't stop me... it doesn't feel a bit like, "Oh, you named your baby the same thing _____ did?". It just isn't as nice as the name being "yours". I know it shouldn't matter, but it totally does.

So let alone co-workers, but the KIDS. Oh, the sheer number of kids we work with! I would be okay naming my child a name if it wasn't currently in my classroom, because that could be "coincidence"... but as soon as the name is currently in my room, I can't even consider it. And, if the child was a behaviour case or a child who took a bit of extra attention. Well, the name is totally done for me.

For example, there's a boy in my class whose name I really love. However, I've decided to give up on it. I have spent a lot of time working on individualized planning for him to support some social-emotional needs... if I *EVER* named a child his name, I would never hear the end of, "Oh, because ___ was a favourite student of your?", etc. (Not that he's a favourite, but he just takes up a lot of my time and others know so much of him).

So, that fear of the jeering or the comments... it's very real, and I hear where you are coming from. It's part of our reality, working with so many students each year.

I think you'd be safer for a middle name, but I don't know. I personally think I'd just take the name off the table, because I'd find it too stressful if it was me. Teachers can be a bit gossipy and catty at times in the staff room, I find.

Ms. Key said...

Oh my, sorry for the typos in my above comment. I'm home with a potential sinus infection, LOL. I meant it DOES feel like, "Oh, you named your baby after ___".

Tommie said...

My name is Tommie. I was named after my dad. My parents swear they were not hoping for a boy. My name is not short for anything like Thomasina or Thomasa. It's just Tommie. I have met three other female Tommie's in my lifetime.

When I was in junior high I had not yet met any other Tommies and to be honest, I sort of hated my name. My band director and his wife had their third child during my seventh grade year. When this child was born, they named her Tommie. My band director's name is Don. I don't remember his wife's name.

He took me aside in the weeks following his daughter's birth to let me know that they'd chosen the name because I gave them such good feelings toward it and they just loved it so much.

I was so very flattered and this went really far toward me learning to appreciate my less popular name.

And for what it's worth, I was never teased for being the teacher's pet or anything. I think there might have been mention of the name once or twice and then it was just dropped.

photoquil said...

Really, how long will the girl be a student there? A few more years? The baby will be your child for life, and will wear the name for life (hopefully, ha-ha). If you really love the name, the idea that this girl and you might feel awkward for a few years is minuscule compared to the fact that the name you love will be on your child forever.

I say do it.

phancymama said...

I am torn also, and do think that it all depends on if you are currently expecting or not. If you are, I agree that it would be a good idea to talk to the mother and the student and explain that she brought the name to your attention, and you would like to use it.

If not, then I'd simply wait. I moved states six months after my kiddo was born, and some of the names I would not have considered then (co-workers, friends, etc) I would consider now, since I am out of touch with those people.

I think a great idea is finding a similar name--that would also be a great treasure hunt!

good luck!

Anonymous said...

If the above speculation about the name is correct, I suggest "Ferna". It's a traditional feminine name and old enough that you could use the family tree excuse if anyone seems put out by your choice. I've also seen it spelled "Firna" and the additional slight change could make it seem even less like you used the name because of the student. Or, you could actually use Fern-the sounds are so close, especially considering it'll be in the middle slot.

Anonymous said...

I suggest putting an a on the end of the name. I know two ladies with that name. Or an Ella at the beginning, where it becomes a different and distinctive feminine name. Or lie about having one in your family history. Or add an e and say you love the author. And use it if you love it and eventually it wont mean a thing to anyone at school. Its only in middle spot. They dont have copyright rights on a name.

Anonymous said...

Are you planning on having other children? Could you wait a couple of years until the girl is out of your school and it is a little less awkward? I also do love Fern and it sounds so similar.... if this is not the name, could you give us more hints???

Megz said...

If you are pregnant then obviously baby names will be on your mind. I would start a conversation in the staffroom, asking a group of teachers how they chose their childrens names. No one would think such a topic was weird and maybe the mother would open up with her own story.

If that doesn't work, or if you are not pregnant, I'd ask the mother one day, out of curiousity how her daughter got her nickname (since you say it's nothing like her real name). Depending on the answer, that could sway you one way or the other about using the name. You could close the conversation by saying something like "That's such a cool name/meaning/reason. My grandfathers name was Clem and I've always had it on my list of favourites". Or something like that.

If you decide not to use it, a similar but more feminine name is Bernice. Or you could use Bernie.

Other unusual old man names that come to mind are Winston (Winnie), Marvin, Mervyn, and Harvey. In fact I can really see Harvey being used on a girl the same way Charlie is now.

Good luck, and let us know what happens!

"A" (the original poster) said...

Swistle, thanks so much for your response and the responses of all your amazing readers. I am impressed with the tenacity and curiosity of the folks who are attracted to this site -- the ones who were inclined toward sleuthing are absolutely right about the student's name! When I showed my husband the comments, he was in a state of pure shock. He just kept staring at the computer and saying, "Oh my God. How? How did they....?" Ha! He just doesn't understand the persistence of name nerds!

Oh, and for those who were interested in learning the student's real name, it actually has nothing to do with her nickname at all. Her real name was the #3 name of 2011, if anyone is interested. So yeah, the nickname itself isn't associated with her real name.

I especially appreciated the advice of the folks who shared personal experiences with similar situations, like Mrs. Key and Tommie and the Anonymous poster with the dance class story. These stories have given me a lot to think about.

I will be sure to send an update if we end up having a daughter. At the moment, I am not pregnant yet, so I am going to try to heed your advice and put it out of my mind for now. I love this site and really appreciate everyone's thoughtful comments!

Sandy said...

Here's a thought... Are you planning to go back to work after having your baby? If not, that might make your decision a lot easier.

I say go for it!

Jenny said...

That's her real name? How strange!

Anonymous said...

Just chalk it up to her daughter being part of the trend of masculine-sounding cute-girl nicknames. Even if this particular name is unique, the trend is not. You can say, "Oh, we decided to use Elliot's name because we love the trend of masculine-sounding girly nicknames, but so many of them are getting over-popular. You have hit on one that isn't overly-popular! And I love it too!" People tend to get weirdly possessive of names, but, that's their problem not yours.

Michelle T. said...

I had a piano teacher named "Verna," so perhaps that would be a good alternative? Very similar, but clearly a feminine name.