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Net-Powered Naming

Some people are saddled with names they hate. But thanks to a new twist on a familiar technology, today’s parents can avoid ghastly mistakes.
September 19, 2003

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.

You will have guessed that the technique with which I vetted my daughter’s name, and which I urged my neighbor to try before sending his child down some desolate, bun-strewn path, involves Googling. All I did-and I told you it was simple-was go to, type in a name, and hit “search.” I repeated the process for each name on our short list. Google scoured its collection of 425 million images and gave me page after page of faces from around the world, snapshots of people with nothing in common except the burden or benefit of a shared first name. Arrayed before me were 9,740 Olivias, 93,300 Emmas, 103,000 Rachels, and on and on.

Snapshots reveal a great deal. They provide clues about class, income, occupation, education, hobbies, relationships, and tastes. Is the person pictured wearing surgical scrubs or military fatigues? Playing backgammon or ice hockey? Polishing a telescope or a Camaro? Smiling or smirking? On the giving or the receiving end of a giant facsimile check? Alone or with “the gang”? And if the latter, does the gang appear to be sober? Plucking these unsuspecting people out of the ether and scrutinizing their hair, their attire, their homes is voyeuristic in the extreme. But it’s important to remember that a child’s future is at stake.

You don’t have to sift through many pages of such photos before patterns emerge. In the search I did, certain names (which good taste forbids me to identify) belonged disproportionately to people who looked untidy or depressed, or who had on way more makeup than I would want my daughter to wear. Other names were attached to people who seemed stuck in low-wage jobs or had wretched-looking husbands. Of the names on our list, Anna was the clear winner. With their bright eyes and friendly, open faces-and tendency to be pictured receiving an award-Annas were people you would want to hire or marry or see your sons marry. And that is the crowd with which our daughter will be forever associated.

When, just for the heck of it, I ran a Google image search on my own given name, I marveled at how wisely my parents had chosen. The search also confirmed what I had long suspected: that Davids (kind and intellectual-looking, with hints of a dark secret and a penchant for beards) and Daves (outdoorsy types who play air guitar and mug for the camera) are entirely different people.

You might be curious to try the technique on your own name. Besides testing variants and nicknames, you can study how your name “plays” in different cultures. (Before or after the name, type “site:” and then the abbreviation for the Internet domain of a particular country-for example, “” for Australia, “” for Spain, or “” or “” for the United States.) Even if you don’t like what you see, you will at least have a better idea of what you are up against.

I don’t know how many prospective names my neighbor subjected to the Google test. But I know that, when it came to Oscar, my technique set off alarm bells that only the most obstinate parent could ignore. I asked the dad how it had gone. “I saw a lot of dogs,” he said with a shrug, as if to imply that the test had failed to work as advertised. Do you mean to say he actually disregarded the warning signs? you are no doubt wondering. Here’s a hint: Does bologna have a first name?

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