The Other National Pastime: Unusual Baby Names

Image by Pedro Reyna (CC BY 2.0)

Choosing a name for your baby is a culturally fraught decision. So much is at stake: will it invite bullying? Does it correctly channel the parents’ attitude toward the cultural zeitgeist? Is it optimized for relatability and uniqueness? In the New Yorker, Lauren Collins shares the story behind her second child’s name, a boy whose mixed Franco-American heritage added several layers of complexity to the process (who knew that a Kevin could never be taken seriously in Paris?). She also looks at the broader context of naming conventions in the U.S. — yet another realm in which American exceptionalism has played out in bizarre and unexpected ways.

In the U.S., as the law professor Carlton F. W. Larson has written, the selection of a child’s name falls within “a legal universe that has scarcely been mapped, full of strange lacunae, spotty statutory provisions, and patchy, inconsistent case law.” Generally, you can’t use a pictograph, an ideogram, a number, an obscenity, or a name that is excessively long, but the regulations vary wildly from state to state and are often the domain of randomly applied “desk-clerk law.” It’s unclear whether you can call your son Warren Edward Buffett, Jr., when you have not actually procreated with Warren Edward Buffett. There are stricter and clearer criteria for naming dogs and horses than there are for naming people. (The American Kennel Club prohibits, among other things, the words “champ,” “champion,” “sieger,” “male,” “stud,” “sire,” “bitch,” “dam,” and “female,” while the Jockey Club recently went to court to block the registration of a filly named Sally Hemings, which has since been rebaptized Awaiting Justice.) Some of the rules have more to do with keyboards than with child protection. In California, amazingly, you can be Adolf Hitler Smith, but not José Smith, because of a ban on diacritics.

The exuberance of American names has been one of the country’s hallmarks since its founding. In sixteenth-century England, the Puritans started using their children’s birth certificates as miniature sermons. They produced some doozies: Humiliation Hynde, Kill-sin Pimple, Praise-God Barebone (whose son, If-Christ-had-not-died-for-thee-thou-hadst-been-damned Barebone, eventually went by Nicholas Barbon). Charles II largely stamped out the trend during the Reformation, but the Puritans continued the practice in the New World. The Claps—a Roger and Johanna who immigrated to Dorchester in 1630—produced a virtue-themed progeny that included Experience, Waitstill, Preserved, Hopestill, Wait, Thanks, Desire, Unite, and Supply, making them perhaps the Kardashians of Colonial Massachusetts.

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