Proper names are poetry in the raw. Like all poetry they are untranslatable.
— W.H. Auden
Sylvia’s favorite baby doll recently got her own name. Until a week ago, she was called, simply, Other Baby. People often asked about her doll’s name, and she never knew what to say. The question completely silenced her, and it made me feel a little sheepish, too, for some reason. Why doesn’t she just name the doll? I wondered. It seemed like we could just pick one. Theo and I suggested several, but none stuck.
Her other cribmates have been named for a while. Theo immediately dubbed her stuffed lion Icicle. Sylvia named the dolls Blue and Dotdotdot, one after the doll’s color and the other, apparently, after the ellipsis. On some level, I admit, I am pleased that my child named a toy after a punctuation mark. That clearly just rolled off her tongue. Sometimes, though, you don’t have a proper name at the ready; sometimes it takes time to land on the right name; sometimes there is never a name name. When I was a kid, we called our friendly cat The Other Cat, or, when specificity was called for, The Black and White Cat. Sylvia may come by her naming practice genetically.
It took my husband, Adam, and me a good couple of days to name our children. We came to the hospital each time with a long list of names on full sheets of paper—lists that required considerable narrowing down even after we ruled out the other gender’s options. Friends have taken much longer to arrive at their children’s names.
It’s a lot of pressure, bestowing on an hours-old being the name by which he or she will be known and, hopefully not, but possibly, judged for the rest of days. You wonder how the chosen name might affect the individual they become. I remember the weight of this task. I remember looking at newborn Theo intently and waiting for him to tell me what his name really was. Either he never did or I never properly understood him; we made our decision an hour or so before we checked out of St. Vincent’s. It’s turned out well—he seems like a Theo, whatever that is. Of course, I suppose for us that is him, in all his parts and their greater-than sum.
Does a child grow into his or her name, or does a name gain its meaning from the child? Theo named his sister Baby Squash months before she was born. He stuck to this name, and it didn’t take long before we did, too. When then-three-year-old Theo learned we’d named the baby Sylvia, he was dismayed. “No!” he tearfully declared, “It’s Baby Squash!” Honestly, it also felt that way to Adam and me. It was a good six months before the name Sylvia superseded Baby Squash in our house and finally began to sound like it referenced a real person. Sylvia said her own name only relatively recently, and it sounds joyful in her voice
Two cousins and a couple friends are awaiting babies in the next few weeks, and I’ve been wondering about their naming processes. When my sister-in-law was pregnant, I helpfully sent her a list of names featured in songs, mostly country-western (a genre with plenty of belt-out-able names, but mostly for girls). I still have our name lists, and I remember writing each name out, seeing what it looked like in my handwriting, how it sounded, how its rhythm worked with possible middle names. I remember trying to imagine what a child named Lachlan might be like. Whether an Isabel would be fundamentally different from a Ramona.
Everything is possible when you’re compiling the name list, every physical trait, turn of personality, character of laughter, path of development. The realm of infinite possibility begins to narrow when the baby is born, pausing briefly for a deep loveliness of time that doesn’t call for any name at all. Then it focuses, finally, on the name. At that point, the profusion of possible children vanishes and their consideration seems eons removed. You’ve arrived at the beginning. I suppose our paths to parenthood follow this track, too: We might be any kind of parent, and then, when our baby is born, we are instantly these parents of this child, and our evolution proceeds from there.
I am working on a long piece of fiction, which means, among other things, that I am naming a lot of characters. The process is akin to child-naming, naturally, and I have been tempted to dig up our baby-name lists when I’ve been stumped. The difference here is that I can try names out on different stages of my characters’ lives, figure out whether they resonate, and then change them around again. Some names suggest themselves as correct from the get-go, as I suppose it is with some children. Others take several tries before finding their fit, and even then some don’t settle. For me, this means that a character’s name might be central to creating the character herself, or that I have to build the character in his entirety without the shaping assistance of a name. Both are interesting, though the latter is more frustrating.
In naming characters and thinking about my friends and relatives preparing to name children, I have been running through scores of possible names. Many of these recall people I know and love, or know and don’t love, and others remind me of people with whom I’ve lost touch. Many are the names of people I never knew but whose place in family history make them important to who I am and who my children are.
I love names. I love them on family trees and on lists, on people real and imaginary, on pets and cars, on old pieces of correspondence. I find them romantic, mysterious and fun to write on large sheets of blank paper. I also like the way that a name is both familiar and unknowable, even the names of those closest to me—how a name begins to carry the complexity of a person, and how it reveals that every relationship incorporates more than I can articulate.
Sylvia named her doll Punkin. Someday, she may be Pumpkin, but she is definitely Punkin right now. Romantic and mysterious may be slightly elaborate in describing the name Punkin, but I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt. It may be a bit silly, but it does feel like the name filled a hole and perhaps added some definition to my two-year-old’s nurturing instincts. Besides, it’s seasonal.