On Strange Names and the Curse of Individualism

From a 2001 Report from the Social Security Administration

Living and working the African American Catholic Community I have been subject to some time with names that are often unpronounceable. It is a controversial practice even in the Black community for parents to name their children all sorts of crazy, made-up names that are often intentionally misspelled.

DeQuanna, Sharkeisha, LaDarrius, Shamyra, Marketta, Shontella, LaRochelle, Shandrika, Charmonique, Myosha, LaKeisha, DeQuan, Rhondella, Raviona, Rominthia, Tomika, LaVenia, Trishela, LaTasha, ABCDE, Tyeisha, Mootron, Knoshon, Keyshawn, Tarquisha, Q’J’Q’Sha, Laquintas, Jamarcus, JoNathans, et al.

I trip over this especially at Baptisms when I am supposed to solemnly pronounce the name of the child. Even after the irritated mother tells me the third time, I still can’t get it right. But why be angry with me? Why name your child such a strange name? Its all so crazy. They put in apostrophes where none are needed and there seems a minor obsession with the letters ‘Q’ and ‘K’.

Now some may speak of racism, but I have been in the Black community too long to be deaf to the fact that an awful lot of African American folks hate the practice too.

Oddities are spreading to other ethnic groups too. In a recent article in The Atlantic Phillip Cohen writes:

The number of girls given the name Mary at birth has fallen 94 percent since 1961…..The modernization theory of name trends, advanced most famously by the sociologist Stanley Lieberson, sees the rise of individualism in modern naming practices. “As the role of the extended family, religious rules, and other institutional pressures declines,” he wrote, “choices are increasingly free to be matters of taste.” Mary—both a traditional American name and a symbol religious Christianity—embodies this trend.

Second, America’s Christian family standard-bearers are not standing up for Mary anymore. It’s not just that there may be fewer devout Christians, it’s that even they don’t want to sacrifice individuality for a (sorry, it’s not my opinion) boring name like Mary. In 2011 there were more than twice as many Nevaehs (“Heaven” spelled backwards) born as there were Marys. (If there is anything more specific going on within Christianity, please fill me in.)

The Full article can be read here: Why Don’t Parents Name their Daughters Mary Anymore

I have referred in this brief article to the “curse” of individualism, because frankly I think some of these names become a hindrance later in life and mothers trying to be creative and individualistic, often saddle their kids with troubles later. Frankly people don’t like to be embarrassed, and when someone tells you their name and you can’t pronounce it, or have to ask again, and even a third time, social relations, and things like job interviews tend to go badly. I mean how do you even pronounce Q’J’Q’Sha? A lot of things break down when you can’t even pass the “go” of exchanging names.

As you might expect, many of these children given strange names, end up going by other nick names. Like “Q” or Shawn or something easier. But really they should not have to, and their strange names will still have to come up at formal occasions and all the awkwardness. And even some of the names that are more pronounceable convey a kind of strangeness that makes people uncomfortable. While not necessarily fair, strange names convey an impression of the person who carries it. We tend to read a lot more in to names that perhaps we should, but the tendency is pre-conscious and is unlikely to change that much.

Interestingly, in Biblical times people were more creative with names than currently. However, they were careful to name their children with a name that was intelligible, that actually meant something. For example, Jesus means “God saves,” Michael means “Who is like God?” Sarah means “princess” and so forth. Thus, observing the essence of a child, the parents named the child on the eighth day after birth.

Controversial article? Sure. But don’t turn it into a race thing, there’s plenty of divided opinion in the African American community as well. Also if you feel offended, try not to take it personally. It is a cultural trend that is being critiqued, not you. The bottom line, in a culture where strange forms of individualism are increasing and exotica is proudly displayed by more and more, it’s good every now and then to ask about limits and encourage some moderation.

By the way, my name almost backward is Epop Selrach if your looking for a clever new name….for your pet, that is. 🙂

51 Replies to “On Strange Names and the Curse of Individualism”

  1. Maybe the drop demonstrates a more humble attitude about the name of Mary in that it is a name to be given great honor and not one which we should lightly presume to bestow upon our own child, especially in the times we are in. Perhaps, for some, the attempt of the parent to give their children a unique name demonstrates their feeling that their child is “Unique in all the world” – an attitude which loves all human life. But, it may also demonstrate a very poor attitude of the parent: one which suggests that they are not at all concerned about raising their child in the model of Mary. Just an alternative observation.

    As a child, I did not like my name. I was very serious in urging others not to call me by my given name. I wanted just to blend in. So, I get what you mean…

  2. My youngest sister went to junior high with a girl named – I kid you not – Crystal Chandelier.

    1. A certain sign of the times perhaps. May Crystal be loved for her soul, and may her name be a “light” to those who seek loving and warm friendship in the Light of God.

      1. My sister delivered a baby and the mother named her baby girl Placentra – her spelling of, you guessed it placenta. I live among three Indian reservations and I hear a wide assortment of names, however all of the members of the tribe that are Catholic give their children Christian names and Traditional Indian nicknames.
        i.e. Thomas Marion “little bear” Whitefeather

    2. Was Chandelier her last name? That kind of thing does happen, of course. Two of my math professors years ago at the University of Alabama were named Derrick Lane and Margaret Memory; they were both good instructors with the weird sense of humor one expects from a mathematician. I was surprised to find out from a buddy in my dorm, though, that they were married to each other. In this case, the bride chose not to take her husbands name because she did not want to be Margaret Memory Lane!

  3. You’re right in saying race has nothing to do it, since it’s a red herring in this case.

    There are children being named after Internet memes, fictional characters, tropes, numbers and mathematical equations, and sexual and vulgar words.

    Filial piety needs to return to our country – if for no one else than the children.

  4. I certainly don’t like individualized names, and while the law only requires a baptismal name to be in line with Christian sentiment, I think priests should encourage the use of a saint’s name, which was done traditionally for good reasons. That being said, some of the best Catholics I know were not named for a saint that used the particular form of their name (this is a problem peculiar to English-speaking Catholics…) or do not have a saint’s name at all (at least I don’t think it’s one) for a first name.
    There’s nothing wrong with Mary; in fact, many saints were named Mary (middle name) or First name (Mary), and it was common in French families to give everyone the name Marie in some order.

    1. thank you for your comment and my family and i wholeheartedly agree with you – GOD bless you always in JMJ

  5. Some comedian (sorry – can’t remember who) said that whenever parents are choosing names for babies they should go out the back door and yell the name ten times as if calling the kid home for supper and see if the name still sounds as good.

    Blacks aren’t the only ones making up names or reaching for the exotic. I knew a white couple who named their first two daughters Cinnamon Violet and Honey Lavendar. As Dave Barry says, I swear I am not making this up. Those are real words and they are pronounceable, but as names they sound like names that girls with daddy issues give themselves when they sell their bodies. And while those names may be cute for babies and toddlers, when those girls get to be teens and adults, they will likely be assumed to have daddy issues because of them.

  6. The irony in our family is that the names that have caused the most controversy are derivatives of Mary and James. My wife loves Moira and Seamus (Irish for Mary and James). I like them both as well, but the difficulty in pronouncing and/or spelling them (unless you’re Irish) is a problem. So we agreed to make Moira a middle name instead. And, regrettably, Seamus the dog was made somewhat infamous this election cycle.

    But chin up Mary! It’s been a far worse ride for Jane. Only 800 girls in the U.S. were named Jane in 2010.

    1. I like those names! Must be the Irish in me…I think it would be quite nice to name my children names that would be familiar in Ireland, even if I need to use the English form of the name.

  7. Well, there is no rule that one must be baptized with the given name on the birth certificate. Ideally, one should receive a saint’s name at baptism, recognizing of course that some saint’s names were unique when they were baptized, such as Kateri. But others with non-saint names took a saint’s name at their baptism, like Cuauhtlatoatzin (try pronouncing that) a/k/a Juan Diego.

    Whatever the ethnicity, whether unpronouncable or a name that rolls off the tongue, perhaps this traditional practice needs to have a come back? I know that I got in trouble in some circles a few months ago when I wasn’t all that comfortable with Sister Cutsey Secular Name, wondering why she didn’t leave the world behind and take a saint’s name in religion. A name means something, or at least it used to. A name is more than a mere arbitrarily designation, it signifies who and what the person is, just as the name of God signifies who and what He Is.

    So let their given legal name be Qpal#asdf*welwe. But one would think that parents would think it rather cool for them to have a second name, that they be Christened at baptism with, you know, a Christian name. There are some rather cool saints out there, and it would be rather nice to have them as one’s patron as well.

    Then again, you could just take the Ellis Island approach and name them whatever you think is right, regardless of what the parents want.

    1. Kateri is the form of ‘Catherine’ in her language though. So it’s not unlike St Juan Diego taking that name in Spanish, which was his language at that point in time.

  8. Names have meanings to them. They tell the meaning of who you are, so if you choose a name that has no meaning to it that means you mean nothing. Take my name for instance David Ian, beloved and gracious, then add in the name I choose for confirmation , Nathaniel meaning God has given. That is an awesome name to have, I didn’t choose it that way. God has graciously given that name to me, David his beloved.
    Names also have an importance in other places as well. I remember reading a book about an exorcist and in it he said that when exorcising a demon he has to ask for its name. When it reveals its name and he calls it by it’s name: he has more power over it to exercise it. It also tells what that demon is there to do.
    Names are so much more important than we truly give them credit for.

    1. It’s interesting about the fact that knowing the name of another gives one power over that person. As a school teacher I tried to learn the names of the children quickly, because, when a child was inattentive or misbehaving, just saying his or her name was effective.

    2. Yes names do have meaning to them. Our modern culture leans much more towards Lewis Carroll’s views on language and names than it does Tolkien’s.

  9. Growing up with a very long and German last (maiden) name, the misspelling/mispronunciation of which could easily end up as an expletive for excrement (and often did, no joke!), I am very sensitive to “unique” names and was determined that I would marry someone whose last name was infinitely easier than my own and name any children I had something easy and normal. I scored on both counts. We named our son Joshua Michael and our daughter Lara Elizabeth, and the spelling on our daughter’s name was as “creative” as we dared to be.

    The thing is, I was teased a lot about my last name and it wasn’t pleasant. And while I don’t think I’m scarred for life over it, I just really did see the point in saddling my kids with something I know will get them teased. I love them and don’t want them to curse me for making them into the name on the class list that teachers dread coming to. I hope they will appreciate that bit of consideration later in life.

    1. For the longest time in my life I hated my middle name. I thought it sounded funny and I never heard anyone with the name Ian. It wasn’t until I grew olded that I learned to like that name especially after I found out the meanings of my names.

  10. For all of the children who may find this blog and who actually have the names which are mentioned above as being “crazy, made-up names,” please don’t take it the wrong way. Even though they are not traditional, the name belongs to you and YOU make your name very special indeed. Your name does not make you who you actually are; YOU make your name into a name which represents a very special, beloved person. True Msgr Pope?

  11. As a “Mary” name owner, I think my parents did a good job!

    When naming our child, we combed the saints’ names and picked a well known one. Unoriginal? Sure, but every time I meet a little boy named Finn or a little girl named Bella I wonder whether their parents are big “Glee” or “Twilight” fans, and how they’ll feel about the name in 20 years. I’d be super happy if someone hears my kid’s name and their first thought is of a bible story or a saint. In any event, a saint’s name seemed like an auspicious starting point for a child who I hope will one day be one.

  12. I think Mary is a beautiful name. I knew someone who claimed that he had legally changed his name to Cobalt Blue. Very funny video.

  13. I actually like my name though, that was not the case in 2nd grade when we were asked to research our patron saint ;-). With age comes wisdom and a better understanding of how names impact those who bear them through life. Names have significance. As catholics, we should always look first towards the saints for inspiration. They are our heroes.

    That some parents in contemporary society place their personal interests before those of the child, should come as no surprise. They are so self absorbed that children are viewed as yet one more extension of “them”. Take for example a Texas couple who were sports fans. When their first son was born, the mother left the naming decision up to her husband. He chose to name his son: ESPN (http://nbcsports.msnbc.com/id/15168029/). Or the couple caught up in social media that named their daughter: Hashtag (http://mashable.com/2012/11/27/parents-name-baby-hashtag/) At least they left off the “#”. What a burden for these children as they progress through life. These names simply reflect parental selfishness, with no thought, care or interest for how their children would be perceived by their peers.

    May our Lord continue to bless your ministry here on the web! Thank you, Monsignor, for your daily postings.

  14. Individualism is getting a bum rap in today’s disgusting culture. For Christian Americans it used to mean to identify, develop and express your God given talents and to act, not with the herd, but by your conscience, ie. with high character. Today individuality has more to do with acting out in ways that draw attention (negative or positive) to yourself. It’s more like a mental illness.

    The Catholic church used to teach this basic character make up of a Christian to Catholic people when I was a child. Being a show boat as today was not considered “individualism” rather to was viewed as a lack of dignity, character and self respect.


  15. i agree very much with you – we are Ethiopians and for us names from The Holy Book are very important and without a true Christian name one cannot recieve baptism – what you have to understand is this” many african amrican are going away from their Christian roots and are now following the movement of quanzaa, which is something we do not really know in Ethiopia – in fact we have NEVER heard of it – my name means flower and sister of MARYof HIS Holy Hands, whereas my beloved mother’s name Zennebesh Ghebray Tibebu, means the one by whose birth brought rain from HIS Holy Hands (on my mother’s day of birth it rained after a drought of 7 years)…and the list goes on
    i personally appreciate your article for more reasons than one, and i firmly beleive that you are NOT being racist but simply a man of GOD who expect his flock to give real Christian names to their children – that’s how it always was in the old days, and i humbly thank GOD that we still follow that path in Ethiopia –
    for the world, we pray with love and with humility

  16. i like this trend. it makes it easier to Human Resource Managers to decide to people who reply to online resumes.

    1. One of my HR colleagues deliberately chose gender-neutral names for her children (male and female) so that their résumés would not be judged through the lens of sex stereotypes.

  17. I have the impression that the stock of saints’ names increased with missionary activity, with people keeping their old names when being baptized – I suppose St. Bacchus was an example of this, and with this repeating as the Gospel moved into new lands and languages – for example, Celtic, Germanic,Slavic saints’ names. Thereafter, I suppose there tended to be a good bit of contraction, with people naming their children after saints.

    May saintly people with ‘new’ names produce in due season new saints’names! Meanwhile, is confirmation the main traditional opportunity to add a familiar saint’s name to your other name(s)?

  18. Pity those employed in telephone customer service who must deny who they are, forbidden to use their actual first names in business transactions and must call themselves something more conventional/recognisable instead – I have this heard first hand from a relative of a friend. How sad and regretable (but perhaps understandable from the employers’ point of view: an institution’s trustworthiness is percieved via its public profile, presenting good grooming and clear diction are important.)

  19. My Mom named me after St. Catherine of Alexandria, virgin & martyr, November 25. I tried desperately to be born on that day, but the nurses held me back, holding my Mom’s legs together until the doctor finally arrived at 12:15 am on November 26. The nurse in charge thought that I would be born stillborn; she stayed after shift’s end to console my Mom! Well, “No way! Give me life!” …I am deeply appreciative for both the strong patroness and the mainstream name. …Cathy is my legal name. Mom also liked “Wuthering Heights”! Ha!

  20. Catholics are required to take the names of saints in order to be baptized into the Church. Father, by not insisting on the traditions of the Church and your obligation to teach the Faithful the true path aren’t you ever bit as much of the problem as your flock you are accusing?

      1. Code of Canon law (1917), 761 stated: “Pastors should take care that a Christian name is given to those whom they baptize; but if they are not able to bring this about, they will add to the name given by the parents the name of some Saint and record both names in the book of baptisms.”

        Of course you will say that the 1917 is no longer valid. Sadly we see in the article above the result of the Church’s fifty year “modernization” program.

        1. OK, but try not to be more Catholic than the Pope and do the “frowning on” thing and criticism of clergy and faithful who do not necessarily share your view that the naming phenomnenon is the fault of the Church. Why is it that certain Catholics always insist on turning on fellow Catholics and insist that everything is the Church’s fault? Perhaps the critique should remain at the level of the culture where the problem really is. It is not just Catholics who are engaged in this problematic form of individualism regarding names. How about a little less of the internal bickering (carp, carp carp) and a little more support for those who venture forth into the culture and seek to engage it. I never cease to be amazed at the lack of support I often get from certain fellow Catholics who want to nit pick that (for example, I didn’t quote Aquinas or use scholastic categories, or that, or that if only I would just get with the program and reject everything that happened after 1965). It just gets exhausting sometimes. Does it occur to you David that I and other clergy and lay faithful who go forth to engage the culture have enough incoming flack? And then we have to deal with being fragged from behind. Keep your powder dry for the real opponents.

  21. I shudder every time I hear a Catholic naming their child one of those “creative” names. And it’s getting more and more frequent these days. I believe (part of) the problem is that of identity. Like I explain to my children, we are Catholics – that’s our identity. That’s who we are. Our very identity is wrapped up in the person of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit through our baptism. That’s why have the great priviledge or calling God Father. Being aware and paying attention to this IMHO would make us want to identify with the great saints – to see them as signposts to heaven and ultimately, to name our children after them.

  22. One summer I worked at my college graduate admissions office. One of the three women was pregnant and the other two begged her to name the baby after them if it was a girl. Sherri and Rita both pleaded the merits of their name. As a joke, I said, “why don’t you combine the names and name her Sherita?”. Sure enough, when I visited them later, the African American coworker proudly showed me pictures of baby Sherita. Who knew I’d be guilty of contributing to this phenomenon. As a convert, thanks Monsignor for adding more to my Catholic guilt. Lol.

  23. Did Canon Law once require the giving of traditional names? If so, and if it is no longer required, when did the law change and why?

  24. What surprises me is that girls’ names are affected so much more than boy’s names. There is a related tendency of girls to be given names that are traditionally boys’ names. Perhaps the worst example I have seen is that of a very pretty girl in a class I taught who was named “Michael” by her dad, who apparently wanted a “junior”. She insists that it should be pronounced “Michelle”, and she has added an “e” to the end (I’m not sure why she didn’t just change the spelling to “Michelle”).

    1. Not entirely a new trend. The names “Shirley”, “Beverly”, and “Evelyn” were originally male names (acutally, they were originally surnames, to be exact). Charlotte Bronte wrote a novel titled “Shirley”, (published in 1849), in which the heroine has to keep explaining that her father wanted a boy, and named her Shirley anyway. I believe the use of boys names in the 20th century was originally an attempt to sound upscale, sophisticated, social registerish and all. “Oh, yes, it’s an old family name, don’t you know.”

  25. Well, my husband and I went for traditional in naming our son and ended up with unique to boot. His name is Macarius Alexander Cyril ( Mac for short). All 3 are canonized saints and bishops if Jerusalem. All three have great qualities that we want to hold up for our son. Best of all, together they mean “blessed warrior of the Lord”. I did worry about him growing up with a challenging name, but for us, the connection to the name and to Church history made it worth it.

  26. Many of these children with odd names are also born out of wedlock. It is all interconnected; society is in a state of moral implosion.

  27. Catholics who give a saint’s name to their child are offering him a great gift. Their child is offered special protection and guidance from his patron saint who can help him and intercede for him before the Lord through prayer. Also the child can be taught about his saint parton’s life and be encouraged to develop the same virtues.

  28. Actual names (no last names): Cobra Jet, Tequila, Princess (there were two women with this name), Sir, Mister. I know these names because they are on court records (criminal court). Before naming a child, one should see if they want to be called these as an adult.

    1. Princess, at least, could be regarded as a translation of Sarah. In reality though Sarah is more accurately rendered as a female form of chief or ruler. I think the real problem with the name Princess is that it no longer conveys the role of noble service, dignity, and leadership that it once did. Consider, for example, St.Elizabeth of Hungary, St.Margaret of Scotland, or St.Bertha of Kent – all princesses and all renowned for for their dedication to serving the poor. Princess nowadays evokes images of pinkness and delicate “femininity.” Hardly worthy of noble pilgrims of faith like the aforementioned women.

  29. Where do “Marie” and “Maria” fall on the list? Could other forms be replacing “Mary”?

    We named our daughter “Marie” instead of Mary because in our opinion it sounded better. (You, of course, may disagree.)

    After meeting some children with interesting names, six-year-old Marie is of the opinion that “You should give your children grown-up names.”

  30. I wish people would go back to the old fashion way of name selection. They choose the first name for their child and on the day of the baptism the god-parents choose the middle name, also know as the christian name.
    I talked earlier aboutmy own name and its meaning, now I will talk about how I came about with this name. Before I was born my mom selected the name Timothy Andrew. Yeah that’s it. But on the day I was born, I like the way my dad tells it better, he had a vison from God and he said to name me David. Well to everyone’s surprise I came out with a full head of red hair on the top of my head and they all thought, “This is not a Timothy Andrew.” My dad looked down at me and said his name will be David. It wasn’t until I was baptised that I received my middle name from my God -parents, Ian.

  31. My daughter’s first name is that of several saints, and is the same as that of one of my husband’s aunts, who is a nun. Being on a nun’s good side is a good thing. 🙂

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