There is a kind of physiognomy in the names of men and women as well
as in their faces; our Christian name is ourself in our thoughts and in
the thoughts of those who know us, and nothing can separate it from our
existence. Unquestionably, also, there is a luck in names, and a
certain success in satisfying the public ear. To select fortunate
names, the bona nomina of Cicero, was anciently a matter of such
solicitude that it became a popular axiom, A good name is a good
fortune. From a good name arises a good anticipation, a fact novelists
and dramatists readily recognize; indeed, Shakespeare makes Falstaff
consider that the purchase of a commodity of good names was all that
was necessary to propitiate good fortune.
Imagine two persons starting in life as rivals in any profession,
and without doubt he who had the more forcible name would become the
more familiar with the public, and would therefore, in a business
sense, be likely to be the more successful. We all know that there are
names that circulate among us instantly, and make us friends with their
owners, though we have never seen them. They are lucky people whose
sponsors thus cast their names in pleasant and fortunate places.
It is a matter, then, of surprise that among civilized nations the
generality, even of educated people, are so careless on this subject.
Now evil is as often wrought for want of thought as for want of
knowledge, and as a stimulant to thought in parents the following
suggestions are offered.
It is not well to call the eldest son after the father, and the
eldest daughter after the mother. The object of names is to prevent
confusion, and this is not attained when the child's name is the same
as the parent's. Nor does the addition of junior or senior rectify
the fault; besides, the custom provokes the disrespectful addition of
old to the father. There is another very subtle danger in calling
children after parents. Such children are very apt to be regarded with
an undue partiality. This is a feeling never acknowledged, perhaps, but
which nevertheless makes its way into the hearts of the best of men and
women. It is easier to keep out evil than to put it out.
If the surname is common, the Christian name should be peculiar.
Almost any prefix is pardonable to Smith. John Smith has no
individuality left, but Godolphin Smith really reads aristocratically.
James Brown is no one, but Sequard Brown and Ignatius Brown are lifted
out of the crowd. Some people get out of this difficulty by iterating
the name so as to compel respect. Thus, Jones Jones, of Jones's Hall,
has a moral swagger about it that would be sure to carry it through.
It is often a great advantage to have a very odd name, a little
difficult to remember at first, but which when once learned bites
itself into the memory. For instance, there was Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy;
we have to make a hurdle-race over it, but once in the mind it is never
Remember in giving names that the children when grown up may be in
situations where they will have frequently to sign their initials, and
do not give names that might in this situation provoke contemptuous
remark. For instance, David Oliver Green,the initials make dog;
Clara Ann Thompson,the initials spell cat. Neither should a name be
given whose initial taken in conjunction with the surname suggests a
foolish idea, as Mr. P. Cox, or Mrs. T. Potts.
If the child is a boy, it may be equally uncomfortable for him to
have a long string of names. Suppose that in adult life he be comes a
merchant or banker, with plenty of business to do, then he will not be
well pleased to write George Henry Talbot Robinson two or three
hundred times a day.
It is not a bad plan to give girls only one baptismal name, so that
if they marry they can retain their maiden surname: as Elizabeth
Barrett Browning, Harriet Beecher Stowe. This is the practice among the
Society of Friends, and is worthy of more general adoption, for we
should then know at once on seeing the name of a lady whether she was
married, and if so, what her family name was. In Geneva and many
provinces of France the maiden family name of the wife is added to the
surname of the husband; thus, if a Marie Perrot married Adolphe Lauve,
they would after marriage write their names respectively, Adolphe
Perrot-Lauve and Marie Perrot-Lauve. The custom serves to distinguish
the bachelor from the married man, and is worthy of imitation; for if
Vanity unites in the same escutcheon the arms of husband and wife,
ought not Affection to blend their names?
Generally the modern ie, which is appended to all names that will
admit of it, renders them senseless and insipid. Where is the
improvement in transforming the womanly loveliness of Mary into Mollie?
Imagine a Queen Mollie, or Mollie Queen of Scots! There is something
like sacrilege in such a transformation. Take Margaret, and mutilate
the pearl-like name into Maggie, and its purity like a halo vanishes,
and we have a very commonplace idea in its stead. If we must have
diminutives, commend us to the old style. Polly, Kitty, Letty, Dolly,
were names with some sense and work in them, and which we pronounce
like articulate sounds.
There is no greater injustice than the infliction of a whimsical or
unworld-like name on helpless infancy; for, as it is aptly said, How
many are there who might have done exceedingly well in the world had
not their characters and spirits been totally Nicodemused into
It is certainly a grave question if in the matter of Christian names
our regard for the dead past should blind our eyes to the future
comfort and success of our children. Why have we so many George
Washingtons? The name is a great burden for any boy. He will always
feel it. Inferiority to his namesake is inevitable. Besides, this
promiscuous use of great names degrades them; it is not a pleasant
thing to see a George Washington or a Benjamin Franklin in the police
news for petty larceny.
For the most part Old Testament names are defective in euphony, and
very inharmonious with English family names. The female names are still
less musical. Nothing can reconcile us to Naomi Brett, Hephzibah
Dickenson, or Dinah Winter. And to prove that the unpleasant effect
produced by such combinations does not result from the surnames
selected, let us substitute appellations unexceptionable, and the
result will be even worse,Naomi Pelham, Hephzibah Howard, Dinah
Neville! A Hebrew Christian name requires, in most cases, a Hebrew
Some parents very wisely refuse for their children all names
susceptible of the nicking process, thinking with Dr. Dove that
it is not a good thing to be Tom'd or Bob'd, Jack'd or Jim'd, Sam'd or
Ben'd, Will'd or Bill'd, Joe'd or Jerry'd, as you go through the
world. Sobriquets are to be equally deprecated. We know a beautiful
woman who when a girl was remarkable for a wealth of rippling, curling
hair. Some one gave her the name of Friz, and it still sticks to the
dignified matron. Wit, or would-be wit, delights to exercise itself
after this fashion, but a child's name is too precious a thing to be
Fanciful names are neither always pretty nor prudent. Parents have
need of the gift of prophecy who call their children Grace, Faith,
Hope, Fortune, Love, etc. It is possible that their after-life may turn
such names into bitter irony.
For the sake of conciliating a rich friend never give a child a
disagreeable or barbaric name. It will be a thorn in his side as long
as he lives, and after all he may miss the legacy.
A child, too, may have such an assembly of unrhythmical names that
he and his friends have to go jolting over them all their lives.
Suppose a boy is called Richard Edward Robert. The ear in a moment
detects a jumble of sounds of which it can make nothing. If many
Christian names are decided upon, string them together on some
harmonious principle; names that are mouthfuls of consonants cannot be
borne without bad consequences to the owner.
The euphony of our nomenclature would be greatly improved by a
judicious adaptation of the Christian name to the surname. When the
surname is a monosyllable the Christian name should be long. Nothing
can reconcile the ear to such curt names as Mark Fox, Luke Harte, Ann
Scott; but Gilbert Fox, Alexander Hart, and Cecilia Scott are far from
Among the many excellent Christian names, it is astonishing that so
few should be in ordinary use. The dictionaries contain lists of about
two hundred and fifty male and one hundred and fifty female names, but
out of these not more than twenty or thirty for each sex can be called
at all common.
Yet our language has many beautiful names, both male and female,
worthy of a popularity they have not yet attained. Among the male, for
instance,Alban, Ambrose, Bernard, Clement, Christopher, Gilbert,
Godfrey, Harold, Michael, Marmaduke, Oliver, Paul, Ralph, Rupert,
Roger, Reginald, Roland, Sylvester, Theobald, Urban, Valentine,
Vincent, Gabriel, Tristram, Norman, Percival, Nigel, Lionel, Nicholas,
Eustace, Colin, Sebastian, Basil, Martin, Antony, Claude, Justus,
Cyril, etc.,all of which have the attributes of euphony, good
etymology, and interesting associations.
And among female names why have we not more girls called by the
noble or graceful appellations of Agatha, Alethia, Arabella, Beatrice,
Bertha, Cecilia, Evelyn, Ethel, Gertrude, Isabel, Leonora, Florence,
Mildred, Millicent, Philippa, Pauline, Hilda, Clarice, Amabel, Irene,
Zoe, Muriel, Estelle, Eugenia, Euphemia, Christabel, Theresa, Marcia,
Antonia, Claudia, Sibylla, Rosabel, Rosamond, etc.?
There are some curious superstitions regarding the naming of
children, which, as a matter of gossip, are worth a passing notice. The
peasantry of Sussex believe that if a child receive the name of a dead
brother or sister, it also will die at an early age. In some parts of
Ireland it is thought that giving the child the name of one of its
parents abridges the life of that parent. It is generally thought lucky
to have the initials of Christian name and surname the same, and also
to have the initials spell some word. In the northwestern parts of
Scotland a newly named infant is vibrated gently two or three times
over a flame, with the words, Let the flames consume thee now or
never; and this lustration by fire is common to-day in the Hebrides
and Western Isles. There is a wide-spread superstition that a child who
does not cry at its baptism will not live; also one which considers it
specially unlucky if anything interferes to prevent the baptism at the
exact time first appointed. In many parts of Scotland if children of
different sexes are at the font, the minister who attempted to baptize
the girl before the boy would be interrupted. It is said to be
peculiarly unfortunate to the child if a priest that is left-handed
christens it. In Cumberland and Westmoreland a child going to be
christened carries with it a slice of bread and cheese, and this is
given to the first person met. In return the recipient must give the
babe three different things, and wish it health and fortune. We have
witnessed the last-mentioned custom very frequently, and once in a
farm-house at the foot of Saddleback Mountain we saw a very singular
method of deciding what the name of the child should be. Six candles of
equal length were named, and all lit at the same moment. The babe was
called after the candle which burned the longest.
We have mentioned these superstitions as curious proofs that our
ignorant ancestors considered the naming of children an important
event; and we should feel sorry if they tended to weaken in any measure
previous thoughts. For, careless as we may be of the fact, it still
remains a fact beyond doubt, that the name of a person is the sound
that suggests the idea of him or her,it is a portrait painted in
letters. Therefore we cannot be too careful not to give one that will
be a shame or an embarrassment, or which will even condemn the bearer
to the commonplace.