What is the correct response when you see a parent about to condemn a child to a lifetime of ridicule? The question occurred to me recently when my neighbor showed off his newborn son and announced, “We’re thinking of calling him Oscar.” Oscar. In Anglo-Saxon it means “divine strength.” In modern-day America, it is synonymous with processed meat. A kid would need divine strength to live down the wiener-related taunting.While some countries, including Germany, have laws to protect children from bad names, Americans must rely on the judgment of parents, or, in the case of Little Oscar (let the abuse begin), on the intercession of kindly neighbors. But how, exactly, does one intercede? One can’t just say, “Oscar. Now there’s a stupid name.” Had I known about a book called What Not to Name Your Baby-a catalogue of affronts like Skeezix, Moon Unit, Wilmer, and Hortense-I would have lent it to my neighbor and waited for him to stumble across the entry on page 24, between Orville and Oswald. Instead, I said, “If you haven’t made a firm decision, I know how you can find the right name for your baby.” And I told him about the computer technique I had discovered when my wife and I were about to name our daughter. It is a simple trick, yet there has never been a more reliable gauge of a name’s awfulness or aptness. When you try it, you might even decide to change your own name.
Like all humane parents, my wife and I were searching for a name that would, if not guarantee our daughter’s happiness and success, at least not render her unemployable. Baby-naming books were of little use. It did not help us to know, for example, that Emily and Madison are currently the most popular names for girls, matched by Jacob and Michael for boys. Why should I care what’s popular? Tattoos are popular. Derivation was not much of a guide either. The knowledge that Michael means “who is like God” might be a source of inner satisfaction for Michael, but it will always be his little secret. The fact is, our society doesn’t much care about derivation-otherwise people named Bertha (“bright”) and Kermit (“church”), beautiful as their souls may be, would not be consigned to what must surely be a living hell.
The true test of a name is, and always will be, how other people respond to it. And, unless that name is unique, people’s response will depend heavily on their experience of other people who bear the same name. So, in selecting a name, you want to know what associations it is likely to trigger in somebody’s brain. That means you need to get a good look at some real-life Jennifers, Dimitris, Ezekiels, Maximilians, Kazuos, Tiffanys, or LaToyas, and see what fires in your brain. You want to stand them in a row and size them up-give them the white-glove test. And now you can.