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Building a Baby Name with a Template — or Not

The overall structure of the name may seem like a pretty standard template in our American culture, but that doesn't mean you can't do something different when choosing a name for your baby. Use the following sections to discover your own unique name template, or just stick with the standard first-middle-last template with a splash of nickname thrown in.

Legal names: First and last names

To understand the variety of names available and some of their histories, it helps to know something about different types of names. In American culture, there are two basic types of "official" names: surnames and given names. Surnames are fixed names shared by a family and usually inherited from a parent. Given names are chosen for each individual (normally by a parent, although people sometimes choose their own later in life).

Whatever you call your child on everyday occasions, some version of the name will be your child's "legal name" — the one filled out on official forms. Given names and surnames may be treated somewhat differently on a legal basis. Surnames are expected to be fixed and stable: If you shorten your given name from Jonathan to Jon, it's less critical than if you shorten your surname from Johnson to Johns.

If you're a member of a couple that have both kept your original surnames, the birth of a child may be the point where you decide that something must be done. But whether you've already combined your surnames or plan to do it for your child's name only, a double-barreled surname brings its own issues. When you analyze how the name sounds, the surname will be the equivalent of that piece of enormous furniture that you have to arrange the rest of the room around. You will, in effect, be giving your child four names and will need to take them all into account when considering sound, rhythm, initials, and the rest. And yet there are practical reasons for having both parents referenced in the child's name. So, if the two of you are using different surnames and you don't want to saddle your child with a hyphen, this is one of those times when a middle name can come in handy.

Middle names

Middle names behave like given names in both legal and social terms: They are chosen for the individual rather than being shared automatically based on family ties. Historically, the middle name had a number of specific functions, but today you can think of it as a "second chance" in designing a name. If you can't make up your mind between two names . . . use both! If both parents have their hearts set on a particular name . . . use both! If you're torn between giving your child a cutting-edge, fashionable name and something more traditional and conservative . . . do both! The middle name can be a wonderful safety valve against putting all your naming eggs in one basket. But there are also some traditional uses for the middle name that you may want to consider.

In some communities, one of two given names is reserved for a name with religious associations: the name of a saint, or a name indicating a particular devotion. When Catholics use a confirmation name as part of the legal name, it may become the middle name.

It's still the case that a child's surname is most commonly inherited from the father, so the middle name is sometimes used to bring in the mother's family name or some name traditionally used in the mother's family.

Socially, we usually distinguish between first names (the name a person is normally called by) and middle names (an additional name that may or may not be used in combination with the first name). At various times, there have been informal rules about what the middle name should be and how it should be used, but today it's pretty much a free-for-all. No one will think twice about someone going by the middle name instead of the first name.

Nicknames

Nicknames may be a diminutive form of a person's given name (so-called because they're either shorter than the original name or because they originated as affectionate childish forms of the name), for example, Tom for Thomas. Another type of nickname may be something unrelated to the legal name, such as Ronald Reagan's nickname Dutch.

Although you can't predict which nicknames of the second type may attach themselves to your child, you may find yourself considering what diminutive nicknames your name choice may lend itself to.

If you definitely want your child to have a nickname, try the following naming ideas:

  • Pick a name that already has nicknames associated with it. If the name already has nicknames associated with it, you can give your child a variety of options of what to be called.
  • Keep your eye on the "old standard" names. Usually, the more popular a name has been and the longer it's been around, the more likely it is to have nicknames associated with it (and the more different ones there are likely to be). So old standards are a good choice if you want to offer your child an array of nickname potential.

Conversely, if you want to discourage the use of nicknames, try these naming strategies:

  • Pick a name that currently has no nicknames associated with it. If you want the name you pick to be used as your child's name, this is one way to make sure it is.
  • Pick a relatively new name. Newer names generally haven't had a chance to develop nicknames yet, or haven't been popular enough to need them yet.
  • Pick a single-syllable name. This won't prevent nickname suffixes being added if people really want to. Jade could, in theory, be turned into Jadey. But one-syllable names are less likely to come with existing nicknames attached.
  • Pick a name that originated as a nickname for some other name. Although people may mistakenly use the original form of the name instead, they aren't likely to substitute a different nickname for the one you choose.

If you do pick a nickname to be your child's first name, you eliminate options. A woman named Margaret has the option to go by Margie or Meg or Maggie or Peg. A woman named Margie or Meg or Maggie or Peg doesn't have the same social permission to go by Margaret or one of the other nicknames. A man named Thomas can be Tommy as a boy, Tom to his college friends, and return to Thomas if he has a profession where a little extra gravitas is an advantage. But a man named Tommy has to make it fit all occasions. Just as you can use middle names to expand your child's options, the careful choice of a formal given name rich in nickname potential can give you the best of both worlds.

Additional names

Particular communities or cultures in the U.S. may use other categories of names. Catholics may take the name of a particular saint as a "confirmation name," but it would not normally be used every day or become part of the legal name. Observant Jews will have a Hebrew name, which may be the original form of their everyday name, or may be unrelated to it. It's not at all uncommon for people of Chinese, Japanese, or Korean heritage to have a name in their ancestral language and an "American name" as well. Often the two are similar in sound, although unrelated. For example, a woman with Hsiou- as the first part of her Chinese name may use Susan as her American name.

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