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On Naming Children by Amelia Edith Huddleston Barr

From, Maids Wives and Bachelors

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 forgot.

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 nothing!”

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 surname.

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 ridiculed.

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 despicable.

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.


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