This blog has moved! Please join us over at!

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Baby Naming Issue: Dealing With Negative Associations

M. writes:
Forgive me if you have covered this already, but I am curious if you have an tips on dealing with negative name associations. 


1. The name Adam has always been a frontrunner on our boy list.  I love it - simple, classic, and (up until recently) a name where someone says "I don't know an Adam
who isn't a nice guy".  BUT - now all I do is associate the name [with a recent crime].

2. I was googling to find out the original spelling for Anneliese (another favourite) - and came across "the real exorcism of Annelise Michel", and I can't get her
anguished black and white photo out of my head!

Please help!

A negative association does sometimes completely ruin a name. I can say "Try not to let it," but what would that solve? If the association now springs to your mind every time, the name is ruined. The best I could advise is preventative measures when possible: if you know from past experience that a single negative association will be impossible to get out of your head, have someone else help with the Googling.

Fortunately, time takes care of most such things. For awhile after a major crime, a hit movie or book, a big scandal, or an unfortunate session on Google, the names of most of the participants will be too strongly associated to use. We've had several letters mentioning that the name Grey/Gray has been ruined by the association with the popular 50 Shades of Gray book series---but it's hard to picture that effect being permanent. New books, movies, crimes, and scandals are always coming along to kick the old ones to the backs of our minds.

Unusual names will have longer-lasting problems: the names O.J. and Adolf still have strong associations, even though quite a bit of time has passed. But Charles Manson didn't permanently ruin the name Charles, in part because there are so many other people named Charles to weaken that association (though I suspect the name Manson isn't going to join the surname-name trend). There have been so many other people named Adam, I doubt it will be ruined, either. It may still be ruined for your own use, however, just as the name Charles was probably ruined for people who were shocked and upset by those events at the time.

You could try to manually dilute associations by deliberately looking for other people with a possibly-ruined name. Find every Annalise/Anneliese you can, and look at their nice pictures and read their pleasant and ordinary histories and look through their insufficiently-privacy-controlled Facebook walls. Watch some Adam Sandler and Adam Levine videos, and then read the biographies of Adam Smith and Adam West, and then watch Mythbusters and enjoy a little Adam Savage.  Etc. Each time the unpleasant association pops into your mind, replace it with one of your new images; leaf through them like a little mental deck of cards.

I notice that many teachers have problems with name associations at a more minor level. I answer only a fraction of the letters I get asking for help with association-free names, mostly because there's no way they can list for me all the names that have associations for them. One solution is to choose a very unusual name, never before encountered---but then if there ever IS an association with that name, it will be an intensely strong one. Another solution is to choose a name so common, there's no way a single association can stick to it---but then of course there will be many, many new associations made all the time. It's hard to know what to do. Which is better: a bigger mental deck to flip through, or a deck that doesn't have to be brought out so often?

I have one anecdote about a negative association that was taken care of by a combination of dilution, an overriding association, and time. My high school boyfriend had a relatively common name; I'm going to use James as a stand-in for that name. We dated quite seriously for two years, and then had a series of terrible break-ups. For years afterward, I couldn't even think about him without getting furious and upset. And a little over ten years later, I gave my first son the middle name James. There were several things going on: (1) the name James is very common and diluted; (2) my grandfather's name was also James, and I wanted to name a son after him; (3) more than a decade had passed, and I'd had two serious relationships since then.

Does anyone else have suggestions for dealing with negative associations? Or anecdotes about negative associations fading (or not fading) with time?


Auntie G said...

I've got one: my first husband's first name was a common and terrific name. Our divorce was not messy but the circumstances leading it to were. Seven years post-divorce, my sister broached the subject of using that name as her son's middle name -- it was a family name on my BIL's side...and again, a great name. I was totally fine with it at that time and in fact a bit surprised that it would even be considered an issue -- though I probably would have felt differently if it had been a more unusual name. Anyway, my nephew actually GOES by his first and middle names together, so ANY bad association I might have had with name is completely replaced by my darling nephew. To the extent that as I consider any future children of my OWN, I'm really digging a female variant of the name and sort of forcing myself to think, "Well, would my CURRENT husband be bothered in any way by this? I mean, to me, they are completely different names!!" :) So, yes, bad name associations can DEFINTELY fade, even when the circumstances are horrible. And a common name like Adam has so many other positive options. If you love the name and YOU can get past it, I wouldn't hesitate to use it. Good luck!

Anonymous said...

Google can be such a curse! I have a filter for some of the nastier things on the internet but when I googled the name Elske, which I thought was a really beautiful and unique substitute for Elsa, I got NOTHING but offensive, bordering on pornographic, pictures of women. The thought of a hypothetical daughter googling her name at school and setting off the security alert absolutely killed the name for me. On the other hand, a name like Annelise brings to mind any number of great people. Anne Frank's full name was Annelise, and while her story is terribly sad she was such a courageous, gifted young woman that I think any daughter would feel it was a positive association. The name Adam is even more tried-and-true. While one Adam may have committed a terrible crime, many many other Adams were well adjusted, wonderful people. Like Swistle said, it is really a matter of how much you find yourself dwelling on a negative association. It may pass or it may not, but there are many great names out there if it doesn't!

Anonymous said...

**Me again, Annelies is actually the correct spelling of Anne Frank's name. But that name with its many spellings is beautiful, I'm sorry you're having a hard time getting past the association.

Anonymous said...

I understand what you mean. When my friend told me she was naming her daughter Emily Rose I thought of the "exorcism Of Emily Rose" right away. I did not mention it to her. I would definitely name my girl Emily which out a problem but the whole name freaked me out. On the other hand, a dear friend named her dd Zamarrah- not to long after "The Ring" came out- which featured and evil little girl by that name. At first I kept thinking that but years later I don't associate her with that movie at all. It's such a unique name and fits her perfectly. I think the association does go away but with time but then again- it was never the mom's that saw the association, only me. Might be harder for a mom since we are more protective of our own kids? I'm not much help after all.

Karen L said...

If you plan to have more children maybe you could tell yourself that you'll save those names until you're certain that the association will pass. You're not exactly losing the name, just being patient. But then when this baby arrives, if you really don't want to be patient, then you'll know that you've gotten over the negative association.

Maybe a poll would help you determine whether the public considers those names unuseable, if you're worried about public opinion of the name?

Maybe you'll find that almost every name you'd consider would give you some google results that are as negative as for Annaliese. Which is to say: since you can't let google ruin EVERY name, maybe you can't let it ruin (almost) ANY name. (Or maybe you've googled several names and Annaliese has been uniquely ruined for you, in which case, my point is moot.)

I do kinda think that googling a potential name is a good idea for due diligence but a grain of salt is needed. Case in point: the sad truth is that googling just about ANY non-obsolete female name will result in mostly NSFW-images. It's just the proportion of those images, that'll tell you whether something is primarily NSFW-associated.

Guinevere said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Guinevere said...

We actually wrote in to Swistle a year and a half ago about whether Rupert was usable in spite of the Newscorp scandal breaking at the time and the increasingly high profile of Rupert Murdoch.

I am really happy that we used the name anyway, and even used it with the middle name that we had been thinking might be wise to avoid because it's Mr Murdoch's son's name (he also started being mentioned in news reports at that time).

I think in all that time, the name Rupert has garnered a LOT of positive feedback and only twice has someone commented on Rupert Murdoch, and both immediately commented something to the effect that it was nice to be able to wipe the slate clean with a better association (our son).

What helped convince me while pregnant that it was okay to use the name is to read about lots of other Ruperts out there, fictional and otherwise. That definitely got the taste out of my mouth, so to speak, and along the way I discovered some new favorite books for both myself and my older son to enjoy.

But once the baby was born, the baby started being everyone's primary association for the name (everyone we know, that is), and I really promise that will be the case for you and your friends and family as well. The only exception I can think of is if you and your family were particularly touched and affected by the [tragic news story], like if it happened in your town or if it hits particularly close to home in some other way. It also helps if a little bit of time can elapse between the tragic event and the birth of a real live baby, and furthermore, you can say something to the effect that you think it's important that the perpetrators of [terrible crimes] not be given sole dominion over ruining a long-favorite name because the very reason that people commit such terrible crimes has to do with the fact that their names become forever immortalized.

If I were you, the Anneliese association would definitely be exorcizable from my brain with a little bit of time and reading about other Anneliese characters and historical figures. :) Recruit the assistance of a librarian - I did, and it was very helpful. I really hope that you will find the association fading quickly if you add more positive cards to the deck. I have a dear old woman friend named Anneliese, and it's a terrific association for me.

The Adam association might be more tricky to use for a baby born during the next few months, because of its freshness and how deeply it has shaken up so many... but I do think that if you have long loved the name, I encourage you to keep trying to build up your mental image deck of cards and with the passing of time it may become more usable. May I suggest that the very lovely, kind, handsome baker and artist who runs my very favorite cafe/bakery is an Adam, who always reminds me of what Peeta in the Hunger Games would have gone on to do if he'd lived in a happy utopia instead of a distopia?

I am a teacher and there are definitely some names that students have ruled out for me, because those are strong PERSONAL associations. (Happily, though, the names I like are very much on the less common side, so it rarely comes up.) I think a non-personal association is much easier to override because a media figure, etc., is, at least within certain limits of notoriety, not quite as immediate in your head as a personal association.

Good luck reclaiming those names!

Gail said...

Well, my older daughter has an unusual name that she shares with a previous girlfriend of my husband, which is how I first learned of the name, which I loved--I'd never heard it before. I knew this girlfriend peripherally before he and I started dating--the two of them were in my larger circle of friends. And several years later, when we were then a couple, I was actually the one who suggested the name when we began talking names. It helped that when their relationship ended, she moved to a different part of the country, and I could still have chosen to let myself be reminded of her, or bothered by the association, but my love of the name won over all prior connections. Mind you, this was in the pre-Facebook era. I think it's a whole different kettle of fish these days. My only regret in having chosen this name for her is that I later learned it was not only a unisex name, but one used only for males in Great Britain. She, however, loves her name.

Manday said...

I think that it is important to remember that as much as you try to prevent negative associations in advance, any name can be the next name to break it big in a bad way. The next shooter might share a name with my son, and there is nothing I can do about it. No matter what, the name will be my son first and foremost.

Liz Botts said...

I have two things to add to this discussion.
One suggestion I have is that if you really love the name, find a different association that will outweigh the first. Like, if you love the name Adam, find an Adam who can eclipse anything else in your mind so you associate with that instead of the other.
My second suggestion would be to remember that once the child is born all you will associate the name with is that child. That's been my experience anyway. :)

Anonymous said...

I've been having sort of a similar issue. My husband and I love the name India, but we have received negative feedback from people regarding the history of the name (it's popularity in Britain due to the exotic appeal of colonized India...and also the current negative association with being somewhat oppressed and impoverished). What do you all
think? I think it's a lovely name but I don't want to burden our daughter with a beautiful but heavy-hearted name...

Anonymous said...

I had a crush on a Karl for far too long in my life and my father-in-laws name is Carl... I don't think I could ever use Carl as a middle name for that reason!