Whats in a name?

Occasionally I will have a conversation with expectant parents about names. For the most part, I have found that they are not asking for my opinion. Most parents treasure the responsibility of choosing a child’s name and do so with care. They have a process which is unique to them. Many parents do not reveal their name choice until the child is born. A few are still struggling with the choice when the child has arrived. I try to respect the choices that parents make and, as I told our son when he and his wife were expecting, “We already know we are going to love this child whatever name is chosen.”

Still, I am surprised at the choices that parents make. There is a preschool in our church and between the three classes there are nearly 100 3- and 4-year-old children. Each autumn there are colorful posters with the first names of each child posted in the entryway of the school so parents can learn the names of the children as they wait to pick up their child. Each fall, I am attracted to those posters and make time to read all of the names. I get to see some names that are common and frequently-used. Some classes have more than one child with the same first name. I also get to see names that are less common and, from time to time, I wonder about the correct pronunciation of a name. Sometimes I speculate on the origins of a name, wondering if it has a specific national or ethnic history. Sometimes I look up a name to find out what I can about that particular name by searching a naming dictionary.

There have been a few names that have become part of stories I tell to others. I am very careful not to comment about a child’s name in front of the child or directly to a parents with anything more than to say it is a pretty name, or to inquire about whether it is a family name or a new name.

I have a granddaughter who has a less usual name. Emmala is not recognized by the spell correction on my computer. I had to teach it to the computer. Her personality is such, however, that by the time she was 3 years old she was introducing herself to strangers. She’d march right up to someone and say, “Hello! My name is Emmala. E-M-M-A-L-A Emmala!” She doesn’t want to be called Emma or Emily.

So I caught my eye when I saw a news story about Southwest Airlines’ apology to a family after an employee apparently made fun of a child’s name. Traci Redford and her daughter Abcde (pronounced ab-si-dee), were boarding a plane at California’s John Wayne Airport when a gate agent, surprised at the spelling of the girl’s name, laughed and took a photo of her boarding pass. I think that the apology was in order and I hope that the airline does some careful education of their employees about how to behave when they encounter an unusual name, but I also have a bit of sympathy for the employee. I, myself, have told others about a child named Abcde. My standard joke has been to say that I wonder what they named their second child and how you would pronounce Fghij. I have never made those comments in front of the child or her family, but I have been less than respectful of the name. And my story is not about Abcde Redford. The article I read states that in 2014 there were 328 children in the US named Abcde.

Frequently I discover that children have unique spellings to names with common pronunciations. La-a is pronounced Ladasha. I’ve heard stories of this spelling, but have never met a person who spells her name this way. I suppose it would be more confusing if the name were Le-a, which might be mispronounced as Leah. As far as I know Cody, Coady, and Kody are all pronounced the same. I think that when parents chose unusual spelling it might be a good idea to expect occasional questions about pronunciation.

Then, again, I’ve got it easy. My name is Ted. And that is all there is to it. I am not named Edward or Theodore and called Ted. My name is just Ted. The family story is that my father said, “If they’re going to call him Ted, why not name him Ted? I’ve appreciated the name. People rarely misspell it. When I order coffee in a shop, the cup comes with my name spelled correctly. This isn’t the case with our son, whose name is Isaac. He used to send me photos of the various ways his name as misspelled on cups in coffee shops. Our daughter, Rachel, also gets variations on the spelling of her name. I taught both of our children that their names are a bit challenging to spell in English because we have a different alphabet than Hebrew the original language of their names. The way that English and Hebrew treat vowels is different and the letters of the alphabet don’t line up exactly, so there are variations on how to transliterate words. At the time our children were named, we believed Isaac and Rachel to be the most common English spellings of those names. Neither seem to have suffered for our choice.

I’m not sure that the same can be said of Abcde. According to the news article about the incident with the Southwest Airlines employee, the 5-year-old felt mocked. The article quotes her mother: “She said: ‘Mom, why is she laughing at my name?’ And I said not everyone is nice and not everyone is going to be nice and it’s unfortunate.”

Each person is unique and I understand parents’ desire to have a unique name for the special child that they are welcoming into the world. On the other hand, I have met some wonderful people with whom I share a name. I don’t mind that there are others with my name.

You can’t judge a book by its cover and you can’t judge a person by their name. We all could use a bit of restraint and a dose of compassion in our relationships with others.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!