The complexities of baby naming, and some very bad baby naming decisions

I met a woman in Iowa last year who has five brothers and one sister. Her brothers are all named after Biblical characters whose names begin with the letter J:

James, John, Jesse, Jude, and Joshua.

Oddly no Joseph. Also no Jesus, though I suppose that might have set too high a bar for the poor kid. Job might’ve made for an interesting name, too, but perhaps her parents were ready to use all of those names if any additional boys were eventually added to the family.

Her sister's name is Anne. Named after their grandmother.

The woman who I met is named Amanda. When she was born, her parents hadn't yet chosen a name for her, so they asked a random mother in an adjacent hospital room what she had just named her newborn. The woman said, "Amy," so Amanda's parents named their newborn Amy, too. But because they thought that Amy sounded like a nickname and wouldn’t be professional enough for a possible future CEO, they officially named her Amanda but called her Amy.

When Amanda/Amy went to kindergarten, there was already an Amy in her class, so her teacher told her that she needed to be known as Amanda at school. So Amanda/Amy was Amy at home and Amanda in the classroom, which led to people occasionally think that Amy and Amanda were two different people. Amanda/Amy would occasionally be told things like, “Hey! I heard your sister Amanda did well in the science fair!”

“I’m Amanda,” she would say. “I did well.”

“Then who is Amy?” the confused person would ask.

It’s kind of crazy that Amanda’s parents invested such time and thought into the naming of six of their children but allowed the seventh to essentially be named by the person who happened to be occupying the room next door.

Right? Amanda is fine with it today, but I can’t help but wonder what her parents could’ve been thinking. Naming a brand new human being can be hard. I understand this. But this Amanda/Amy story struck me as especially crazy.

Then again, I’m also overly sensitive to the naming of babies given my last name. My father’s name, for example, is Leslie Jean Dicks. Leslie and Jean are more often girl’s names, so rather than using either one, my father decided to go by the nickname Les for his entire life.

Les Dicks. I’m not kidding.

Perhaps this seemed reasonable to him at the time. After all, his brother and his uncle were both named Harry Dicks.

Not Harold. Just Harry. I’m not kidding again.

My grandmother – their mother – was named Odelie Dicks, so perhaps these awful name combinations were simple acts of spite. “I had to suffer with Odelie Dicks for most of my life, so now it’s your turn to suffer.” My grandmother wasn’t the nicest person in the world, so this is entirely possible.

Like Amanda/Amy’s parents, my grandparents also had seven children, and the majority of her kids had more reasonable names:

Brian, Sheila, Diane, Nancy, and Neil.  

Five out of the seven named work just fine. Not a bad percentage, unless of course you’re Les and Harry Dicks.

As you might imagine, there are many other first names that do not pair well with my last name.

Jack, for example, which is a name I like but could not consider for my children. Also Holden. Richard. Abel. Scarlett. Basically any name that could also be a verb or adjective is dicey.  

My wife, Elysha, and I were keenly aware of this when she got pregnant and we began talking about baby names. 

Elysha didn’t have a name for three days after her birth. Actually, she had a name, but only for a moment. Her parents initially named her Jordan, but the doctor told them that Jordan was a boy’s name, and “life was hard enough already.”

If only he had been around when my father or uncle were named.

Adhering to the doctor’s warning, Elysha’s parents unnamed my wife. Then, only after the hospital threatened to put the name “Baby” on her birth certificate, did her parents finally name her. My father-in-law had a secretary named Alicia who neither he nor my mother-in-law liked very much, but they liked her name, so they changed the spelling (invented a new spelling, really), and finally my wife had a name.

As Elysha and I began tossing around possible names, she said that she loved the name Clara for a girl. It was the name of a character from Cynthia Rylant’s children’s book The Van Gogh Café.  

I thought she was kidding. “Clara?” I despised the name. It was an old lady name. It sounded like the kind of person who Betty White might play pinochle with on Wednesday afternoons.

I saw the fallen look on Elysha’s face when I said these words. I loved my wife. I still do. I hated being responsible for that face, so I offered to think about the name. “Don’t ask me about it again,” I warned her. “Maybe I’ll come around.”

Remarkably, I did. About two months later, I awoke one morning and found myself inexplicably loving the name Clara. I couldn’t believe it. But I didn’t tell Elysha that morning. I waited nearly a month until she called me from work one day. “I just had the worst day ever,” she said.

As she launched into a recounting of the day’s misery, I stopped her. “Wait,” I said. “I have to tell you something. I love the name Clara. If we have a girl, I want her to be Clara.”

The day’s misery was forgotten.

Clara’s middle name is Susan, named after my mother, who passed away two years before her granddaughter was born. It turns out to be a bittersweet name for me. I love knowing that my daughter carries my mother’s name with her, but hearing it spoken aloud is a painful reminder about all that my mother has missed since her death, including the birth of both of our children.

Three years later, my son was born. We named him Charles Wallace after the character in Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. Elysha and I are also fans of the poet Wallace Stevens so that was an added bonus.

And if you’re wondering about my name, I was originally meant to be Bartholomew.

Bart Dicks.

My mother said that she saved me from my father’s stupidity and convinced him that Matthew was a far better choice.

But perhaps it wasn’t stupidity on my father’s part. Maybe it was just plain old spite.