The Process of Naming: A (very exhaustive) guide to Baby Naming

Hello World!

Still nameless for the moment

The Barn Owl and I take naming very seriously in our family, as we really believe that the process of naming is very important. This is something that has been on my mind lately, as we are still looking for names for Baby #3.  As one of my favourite authors, Ursula Le Guin once wrote, “For magic consists in this, the true naming of a thing.”

In most cultures around the world, naming is so significant that there are elaborate rituals and ceremonies surrounding the giving and receiving of names. Some countries even have strict official laws and have government-run departments and committees that have the final say in giving approval to names. In our modern society, companies are playing top dollar to the ad industry in order to establish names for their products and businesses, even conducting extensive market research to find the best names to represent the uniqueness of their brands. So…what could be more important than the name of a child who will be unique in every way?

Since the Barn Owl and I come from different cultures, we try to pick names that will best represent the unification of our families. It is not an easy task. This is why both J and Little E have English first names and Chinese middle names and we have slightly different criteria for choosing each one.

So here’s our:

Barn Owl and Debs G’s Exhausting Exhaustive Guide to Baby Naming

 1. Names should have positive meanings and associations

Apart from considering the root etymology of names (we try to avoid names with sad or depressive meanings eg. Mara which means ‘Bitterness’), we always try to think of people that we know who will share the same name as our child. These have to be people whom we deeply respect or value and whose characters we would be happy for our child to emulate.

This can include historical figures. I mean, nobody in their right mind nowadays would ever name their child ‘Adolf’, which used to be pretty popular name because of its kingly associations. Unsurprisingly, it’s a name that has never been in favour since the events of WWII.

We also consider fictional and pop-culture characters, especially from contemporary popular fiction, because we know our kids will be growing up surrounded by people who are familiar with these names. For example, we ruled out the name ‘Lucius’ although it is a lovely derivative of the latin word ‘Lux’ for ‘light’, solely because J.K. Rowling chose to bestow it upon one of her Deatheaters.

2. No part of the name itself can be used as a cruel nickname

The last thing we want to do is intentionally name our kid something which we already know for certain that they will come to feel ashamed of. This includes name short forms and derivatives, not forgetting initials! This means not naming our kid something that will spell out ‘P.I.G’ or ‘E.G.G’ and considering how the name sounds when read (or mispronounced). For example, this Singaporean politician’s name has been the butt of many silly pun jokes just because of the way it sounds in English, and the name ‘Naomi’ mispronounced could end up referring to a braised noodle dish.

Of course, school children can be very inventive when coming up with nasty nicknames for people that they do not like, however, we do what we can to try to mitigate this situation. It’s not foolproof though – I recently met up with an old friend whose name has been mispronounced for most of her life, and she was bemoaning the fact that she purposefully shortened her daughter’s name from ‘Mikayla’ to ‘Kayla’ in order to avoid mispronunciation (“Mickey Lah”), only to find that people ended up calling her child ‘Kai-lan‘, the cantonese name for chinese broccoli.

This applies to the chinese name as well. Chinese wordplay is a source of great amusement as there are many homophones in the language that have vastly different meanings. For example, the Aged P often speaks fondly of his friend at school named Cheng Wah, which very poetically means ‘a splendid situation’. Unfortunately, the poor guy’s name also sounded like ‘qing wa‘, which is why he spent his schooling years affectionately known to all his mates as ‘Froggy’.

3. The names are easily pronounced by both sides of our family 

This is a little bit more challenging when choosing the Chinese name than choosing the English name, but the main reason for this is because the Barn Owl should be able to say the full names of his own children without difficulty!

Our method of getting around this is to find a way to describe the Chinese name by comparing it with a similar sounding English name (bonus points if that name has a great meaning too). For example, J’s middle name sounds like the name ‘Ryan’, if it is pronounced with a Scottish accent!

4. The name has a pleasant sounding cadence or musicality when paired together with the last name

That is, it rolls off the tongue smoothly. For this, we tend to consider the English and Chinese name separately, because that’s how they will be most commonly used.

Chinese names are generally quite musical in nature anyway, just because each chinese character in the language follows the traditional four tone classes and this is taken into account when pairing characters to form names. Many parents will use meaningful four-character idioms (known as ‘cheng yu‘) or existing famous poems to choose names. Some families even have generation names which, when strung together will form a beautiful poem.

For English names, we focus more on the rhythm and flow of the spoken name.

First of all, we try to mix up the combination of syllables in each part of the name to make it sound less like reciting bland Shakespearean verse. This adds a little variety in the rhythm of the names and which syllables are stressed when they are spoken aloud. For example, our last name has two syllables, so we tend towards names that have an odd number of syllables.

Secondly, we think that the name should not sound too similar to the surname either by rhyming with it or repeating any part surname. Rhyming and repeating names don’t necessarily sound bad, but they can certainly invite ridicule, such as in the case of poor ole Maj. Major Major Major from ‘Catch 22‘. I mean, if one’s surname is ‘Lin’, why saddle your child with the first name ‘Finn’ or ‘Gwynn’? It would be like naming a cartoon character.

5. Names must be tested by the Focus Group 

In our case, the Focus Group is usually the Aged Ps and the Outlaws, and we also take our siblings opinions into account (A Becky Lee will insist on it). Sometimes a trusted friend or uncle/auntie will be consulted too. What we normally do is talk to them about a few name options that we are considering, just to see if there are any very violent negative reactions to the names.

6. Follow your gut feeling 

In our case, after going through lists of names, we have always found that there will be one particular name that stands out amongst all others and will continue to stick in our minds. The Barn Owl and I eventually come to the same unanimous decision about a child’s name and have the same gut feeling that it is the right choice. This will sometimes mean throwing out all the other rules!


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