Writers are largely preoccupied with words, rolling them around like unpolished rocks in our minds and on the page until smooth, glistening sentences emerge. For some, it can take a painstaking amount of time to determine whether the leaves on a tree are evergreen or olive-hued. My low point arrived when I had a heated internal debate over whether or not a tapenade could be “slathered.”
Despite being control-freak wordsmiths, though, we have almost no control over the most important word in our lives: our name. There’s no mental ping-pong over what we’d like to be called happening in utero, no roundtable discussion with fellow crying newborns in the nursery about whether we should be called “Arthur” or “Arlo.”
I’ve been deeply fascinated with names since I was a child—their cadence and candor, how they flit off of the tongue—and how powerful they can be. My childhood stories hammered out on a chunky Royal typewriter were filled with elaborately noir-named female detectives (Thora Marigold Dell) and anthropomorphic unicorns with Victorian surnames (Cornelius Thurston Vandenberg). A pair of Norwegian Elkhounds I raised as a child were christened with long, rambling pedigree names (Sophia Amalie Adelheide and Kristian Thor Gunnar) more befitting a royal toddler than a fuzzy sidekick.
Such a quirky interest isn’t something that’s easy to chatter about at slumber parties or sock hops, and certainly wasn’t a way to make my fellow middle schoolers think I was less of an odd duck. Fortunately, I found a name-loving tribe in the wilds of the Internet: baby name message boards.
My message board home base, Nameberry, is full of name enthusiasts actively discussing the way that names flow together—mostly in preparation for their own child. There are several moderators who serve as elders, calling back trends from decades prior and making lofty recommendations with the help of regulars concerned with syllables, consonant sounds, and how to blend a poster’s family heritage with personal naming taste. Among others, there are message boards for naming boys, girls, pets, and characters in a novel. There’s an entire vernacular to learn in order to be able to use the forums effectively: “Berries” are users, “sibsets” look at how sibling names work together, and “teenberries” are a cluster of teenage-name lovers. It’s not unusual to witness an intense discussion about whether “Daphne Jane” or “Daphne June” has a better aural flow.
What I love most about these baby names websites, and the message boards therein, is that they’re places of eternal optimism about the future. There’s nothing but pure, radiating excitement about the days lying ahead and unabashed hopefulness for new life. When situations feel grim or the world feels dire, it’s easy to swaddle myself in a community that’s not only thinking long and hard about words, but words that will name people and things that will inhabit a brighter tomorrow. A soon-to-be named Clara might be a future Supreme Court Justice, an Ezra could help craft an international peace treaty. In many ways, those name choices will have helped them to reach those lofty goals.
The importance of a solid name in the formation of one’s life can’t be overstated, as ancient myths mused and psychologists have proven time and time again. Romans firmly believed nomen est omen (“the name is the omen”) and that one’s name helped guide a person’s profession, personality, and social status. This belief—backed by lots of anecdotes and some research—spawned the theories of nominative determinism (the idea that one’s name directly impacts what he or she does in life) and aptronym (the notion that a name is often aptly suited to its owner). Even psychologist Carl Yung illustrated the uncanny connection between one’s name and one’s beliefs when talking about fellow psychologists in 1952. The names of his colleagues (and his own name), when translated from German, often mirrored their psychoanalytic styles. “Herr Freud (Joy) champions the pleasure principle, Herr Adler (Eagle) the will to power, Herr Jung (Young) the idea of rebirth…” he said.
Unlike the majority of words—which possess, more or less, one definition—names are constantly changing with the era, stockpiling references, nuance, and weightiness in society’s mental bunker. For decades, the only pop cultural touchstone for the name “Blue” was as the middle name of Elijah Blue Allman, the lovechild of Cher and Gregg Allman. Now, “Blue” and “Ivy” are hardwired together as a single, unbreakable phrase in celebrity-loving Americans’s DNA. No name is safe from future bastardization or shape-shifting.
This is also true of our personal history, as we interact with people who change (for better or worse) our perceptions of our secretly held favorite names. The name Celeste sounded goddess-like to me for years, until I had to greet a painfully shrill barista named Celeste over coffee every morning. Now, her pitched trill of the word “latte” is all I can hear in conjunction with the once heavenly name.
Baby names are weighty in their reflection of macro-trends as well, often incidentally reflecting the political climate and economic conditions of an era. The Social Security Administration devotes ample time and resources to tracking trends in baby naming, reporting each year the top 100 baby names. It’s not difficult based on names trends—the cyclical loop of Biblical, patriotic, and progressive names—to read the cultural mindset of the era. The name “Diamond” rose in popularity throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, peaking in 1999 at the tail end of an opulent, boom-economy decade. If baby name forums are peeks into the future, the names of your friends and family are looks into the past.
“What about your name?” my mom asked me last year, a little hesitantly, as I railed about a family friend’s unfortunately named newborn.
While I can’t quite claim to have reached the “princess” status my first name implies, my last name is eerily spot on. “Baird” is directly derived from the word “bard,” indicating someone who makes their living as a storyteller.
I laughed. “For better or worse, I’ve ended up a pretty clear case of ‘nomen est omen.’”