Monday, September 01, 2003
Playing the never-ending name game Story by amy Eagle, Illustrations by Marc Stopeck
So, you've finally done it. You've put away the books, you've settled the arguments. You've found a name for your baby that you, your spouse, your friends and family agree on. You've honored your heritage, religion, sports affiliation, musical and/or literary tastes. You've checked the history books to ensure you haven't inadvertently named your child (as my husband and I did) after a hero of the Confederacy (or Union, depending on your politics). It's been tough, but you did it. You're done.
Not by a long shot.
For one thing, after you send out the birth announcements, you're never going to use that carefully chosen name again. Whatever you chose, it is wrong. It is ungainly and unaffectionate, and doesn't suit your child at all. Your kid is gonna need a nickname, and you're probably going to saddle her with a doozie. So Sarah becomes Snicklefritz, Matt becomes Mugwump and Joe becomes Doodlebug (finally, just Bug).
Please be careful. Childhood nicknames have a way of sticking. My mom has a friend who is known universally as Pud-rhymes with good, short for Pudding. This woman is in her 60s. And while everyday use has deconstructed Pud into a perfectly normal name for those who know and love her, your kid may not be as sanguine about answering to Monkeybones year after year after year.
And then there's you. Are you a Mother and Father? Mommy and Daddy? Mom and Dad? Maybe you're more of a Mama and Papa, or even Ma and Pa. Maybe you're too hip for all that: Susan and David. No matter. Your kid will settle this one for you.
If you're lucky, he'll settle the Naming of the Grandparents too. But if he doesn't start calling them some sweet little baby thing, you're going to have to decide who's Nana and who's Grandma so you can keep them sorted out.
Heaven forbid there are more than two to sort out, as our family trees get increasingly complicated. What, for instance, does your child call his grandpa's longtime girlfriend? I like Aunt for close female friends, but the Aunt/Grandpa dichotomy is just so wrong. My dad's girlfriend answered this for us admirably by calling herself Gigi. It's what her real grandkids call her-short for Grandma Graham-but we spell it out because it is so lovely and exotic. I think it should enter the lexicon as the name for all such grandma-like gals.
And your sister-is she Aunt Laura or just Laura? Do you care? Does she?
Once you've named your family, you can move on to your friends. It never occurred to me to refer to my friends by anything other than their first names, so my son did likewise. It wasn't until someone introduced me to her son as Mrs. Eagle that I realized, hey, my kid is an impudent brat. Or could be taken for one.
It made me consider whether I really wanted him to have reason to believe that children and adults are equals, or whether the honorifics Mr. and Ms. (or Mrs. for those so inclined) might serve as subtle reminders about respecting one's elders. As a girl, I called few adults by their first names, and I don't recall feeling overly formal or distant from any of them. I loved Mrs. Maulson and Mr. Spera, but I also knew they didn't fit into the same sphere as those few near-familial adults (such as the aforementioned Pud) I did call by their first names. I also remember how it was a badge of adulthood to drop the honorific with some women I'd known since girlhood-when Mrs. Nott, for instance, became Anne.
I'd like to introduce some of that clarity into my son's life, so I'm trying to use titles more often. But I admit it's tough, because I'm lazy and, with so few other people using them, it feels forced.
While I appreciate my son's preschool teacher wanting the kids to feel both comfortable and respectful-hence the odd construction Ms. Valerie-I'll be happy when we get to grade school and good old Mr. and Mrs. (or Ms., for those so inclined). In fact, I want everyone to return to using last names. It eliminates the false intimacy of being on a first-name basis with everyone and make it much easier to locate people in the phone book. Plus, it gives parents fewer things to name.
After all, we have body parts to worry about. Oh, they all have names. It's just that as you move through the vocabulary list of your child's anatomy, you may find there are some names with which you're not exactly comfortable.
If you have a boy, it's pretty easy. Thanks to Lorena Bobbitt, "penis" doesn't make anyone blush anymore. Even Dan Rather says penis. Granted, there are some testicles down there, too, but those are extra credit. You won't have to talk about those for years, unless your little boy, like my friend's, reaches down there some day and cries out in amazement, "I have eyeballs on my penis!"
Girls are trickier. OK, vagina, that's easy enough (thank you, Eve Ensler), but that's hardly satisfactory. Externally, the vagina is more absence than presence. What's present, when your little girl looks down there, are-oh my, are you really going to have to offer her an awkward term like labia? (Or worse, the Latin lesson of majora, minora and clitoris?) Until we have a promiscuous female president who can normalize these terms, you'll just have to grin and bear it.
As your child gets older, she'll pick up on the Biblical power of naming and claim it for her own. She may, as my niece did, rename herself. She may even rename you-at least in moments of high angst. But someday she might have children of her own, and those children are going to have to call you something. If you want a say in the matter, you're going to have to get back in the game.
In the meantime, your kid's going to want a kitty. A kitty who, you should note, will probably play a role in family lore for years to come. And that kitty's going to need a name.
Amy Eagle is a writer and mom (not necessarily in that order) in Homewood.