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What’s in a Baby’s Name? Parents’ Hopes and Dreams

No one who’s ever pondered naming a child believes that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. If Josie were named Feygie or Jemima — well, to be honest, I could no more imagine her being named Feygie or Jemima than I could imagine her fox hunting with Princess Anne.

A few weeks ago, journalist Peggy Orenstein wrote a story in The New York Times Magazine about her attempts to choose a name for her yet-to-be-born baby. She dropped a few hints about which name was her current top contender, and immediately my mamele friends and I became obsessed with figuring out the name in question. E-mails flew around the Internet. Everyone speculated. In one of those “Damn, I forgot the Internet is a village” moments, someone forwarded my original e-mail, with its stalker-like guessing games, to Orenstein, who took offense. Whoops. Sorry, Peggy.

But why did we care so much? Only a few of us are pregnant. (And I am not among the expecting. Sorry, Mom.) I am a big fan of Ms. Orenstein’s, but she’s no J. Lo. Her celebrity isn’t enough to warrant this level of interest. So what’s going on here?

Pamela Redmond Satran, the co-author of “Cool Names for Babies” — being released this month by St. Martin’s — and the classics “Beyond Jennifer and Jason, Madison and Montana” (St. Martin’s, 1999) and “Beyond Sarah and Sam: An Enlightened Guide to Jewish Baby Naming” (St. Martin’s, 1992), hypothesizes that parents today realize that names convey all sorts of messages about identity.

“Nowadays, there’s a lot of raised consciousness about the power of names to evoke an image of class, gender and style,” she told me. “We’re much more conscious of how branding works, and we’re more obsessed with celebrity culture and the whole idea of image.”

I realized that my friends’ e-mails weren’t really about the Orensteinian fetus at all. We’d moved on to talk about how we’d chosen our children’s names, how we were obsessed with the idea that our choices were becoming too popular, which other names we’d considered and why we’d rejected them, what our moronic husbands wanted to name the baby. What we were really talking about was who we were, who we wanted to be, how we wanted our children to be seen in the world.

We all want our kids’ names to say something about our values. How identified are we as Jews? Which relatives did we wish to honor, and why? Are we classic and old-fashioned in our choices, or are we trendy and wild? God help you if you choose a name that’s either too outré or too popular.

That’s why the Social Security Administration’s “popular baby names” Web site is a huge locus of parental addiction and time-wasting. The site lists the most popular American baby names by decade. When I plug in “Josephine,” I learn that in the past 12 years, it has risen in popularity from No. 417 to No. 262. We’d named her after my husband’s beloved Papa Joe — but lots of people have grandfathers named Joe, and lots of people are rediscovering old-fashioned names. Oh God, have I chosen the next Sophie or Ruby? Will Josie be the name every Jewish-hipster spawn seems to have in 2010? (Satran says no. “Names like Josephine and Helen will never be top-10, because they’re simply not pretty enough,” she says. Um, thanks.)

We all seem to want names we consider unusual, but not too unusual. Why, among all the elderly Jewish bridge-player names (Max, Sophie, Sam, Rose, Lily, Jacob — the ones my friend Judith calls “nose-hair names”), have only a handful experienced a renaissance? Where are the Mildreds, Ethels, Arnolds, Hymans and Melvins? “When it comes to name trends, there are narrow circles of acceptability,” Satran says.

As much as I goad her, Satran refuses to discuss which Jewish baby names will be trendy in the future. “Is there such a thing as a Jewish name anymore?” she asks rhetorically. “You can’t generalize about all Jews anymore than you can generalize about all people from New Jersey.”

Well, I enjoy generalizing about people from New Jersey. But I do see her point. Perhaps a different classification system is in order, one not based entirely on religion or state. In her new book, Satran lists “Cool Bobo Names,” or names favored by “bourgeois-bohemians.” “Bobos” are left-leaning, PC urbanites who want to seem educated and arty and pride themselves on their lack of snobbery while simply displaying their snobbery in newfangled ways. In other words, they share a lot of characteristics with Jews. And guess what: Among my e-mail-exchanging friends, almost every one of our kids’ names was in this section of the book: Josephine, Ella, Alice, Jack, Sophia, Lucy, Sasha, Maisy, Gus, Henry, Isaac, Jasper and Jonas.

“Bobo names sound classy but not snotty, familiar but a little quirky, family-feeling but fun, traditional but in a cool ‘Auntie Mame’ way,” Satran says. In other words, they’re names an acculturated but identified Jew might love.

Lisa Keys, the Forward writer who did an “unscientific but weekend-killing” survey of Jewish baby names a year and a half ago, also seemed to find that the borders between Jew and bobo were, to say the least, porous. In an examination of birth announcements in Jewish newspapers in 2001, she found that Jews gave their children “Jewish” names (biblical, Yiddish, Modern Hebrew or “Sounds Like Your Grandparents’” names) 59% of the time, and “American” names (Samantha, Emily, Tyler, Ryan) 41% of the time.

But there’s no better canary in the baby-naming coal mine than the Pottery Barn Kids catalog. My friend Marybeth had the bright idea of scouring the catalog for names used as monograms, since this wannabe-bobo cultural document is a fine barometer of baby-name trendiness. The names therein included Henry, Jackson, Lucy (which appears five times — tragically, this is the name of Marybeth’s 3-year-old), Quinn, Kacy, Amy, Dylan, Annabelle (which was almost Josie’s name), Elizabeth, Sam, Jack, Isabelle, Maddie, Mia, Hannah, Benjamin, Sophia, Eliza, Lauren and Sarah. I cross-referenced that list with the names in the Company Store Kids catalog, and found overlap with Isabelle, Lily, Amy, Sam and Maddie. Other Company Store names included Daisy, Emily, Justin and the ubiquitous (though not among Jews) Kaitlin. If you don’t want your child’s name to be tomorrow’s Joshua or Jessica, steer clear of anything you see embroidered on an overpriced crib blanket in the pages of these testimonials to conspicuous consumption. Hey, just get back to real basics and give your kid a Yiddish name. That way, when you call “Roizl! Velvel!” on the playground, you can guarantee that 20 kids won’t come running.

Write to Marjorie at [email protected].


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