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Simcha Fisher: On unusual names

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Elon Musk, who said his son’s name is pronounced x-ash-a-12. CREDIT: Daniel Oberhaus, CC BY 2.0

New baby X Æ A-12 has people discussing names

Probably because it’s so nice to talk about something besides COVID-19, the internet had a lot of fun mulling over the name of Elon Musk’s new baby, which is apparently ‘X Æ A-12’.

I wasn’t able to work up much of a sweat over two eccentric celebrities giving their child an eccentric name.  Hey, no one seems to have hired a third world surrogate or a CRISPR technician to assist with the production of the child, and there’s no evidence anyone attempted to legally marry a chandelier or anything. The parents are a man and woman who are in a relationship of some kind with each other. This being the year 2020, that’s as wholesome and normal as it gets.

But the name. In general, I’m opposed to giving children names that are not pronounceable, because . . . why? (I’m also against giving children unusual spellings of common names, which strikes me as the worst of both worlds.)

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Life is hard enough without having to introduce yourself with a name others will ridicule, says Simcha.

I’m strongly opposed to giving children names that will automatically put them at a disadvantage with most people, because it’s in any way a joke, or designed to shock or offend. Life is hard enough without having to introduce yourself as Ima Hogg or Judas Panzer Boi or something.

What you name your child says something about you; but more importantly, their name says something to the world about them. They are individuals who exist outside their parents’ sphere, and their name should reflect this.

But what about names that are just unusual? My name is, especially in these parts, but it is a real name, and my parents presumably chose it because they liked the sound and the meaning of it (it’s Hebrew for “celebration” or, more broadly, “joy” or “rejoicing”).

While it’s unfamiliar to most people I meet, I don’t think it’s disagreeable to them. The only other Simcha I’ve come into regular contact with is a male politician from New Jersey with a similar Twitter handle, and whenever someone gets mad at that Simcha, this Simcha gets tagged, and then I can sit back and enjoy not being the kind of person who’s responsible for the deaths of countless schoolchildren just because I couldn’t be bothered to push through legislation regulating the placement of crosswalks, or whatever. L’chaim!

I used to hate having an unusual name. It made me stand out when I wanted desperately to blend in.

I used to hate having an unusual name. It made me stand out when I wanted desperately to blend in.  I was already shy and never fit in, and in a world of Jennifers and Ashleys, I felt like my name might as well have been ‘Gorgonbody’ or ‘Blephescule’.

I felt like I had been set afloat to blend in among a pond of gently bobbling water lilies, but there was rotten meat on my head, and also I was on fire, and made a gurgling noise. So I went by a cuter nickname, or by my more common middle name, or even, for a short time, by my nickname spelled backwards (when I was leaning into the whole “You think I’m weird? I’LL SHOW YOU WHO’S WEIRD” strategy).

A baby given a name to remember: Guido Reni’s depiction of St Joseph and the young Jesus.

This didn’t shift until I entered college. It still wasn’t a name I would have chosen, but it gave me what so many people want when they first move away from home: The chance to instantly be someone different, right from the get-go.

Now I love my name, and I’m glad it’s unusual. This despite the fact that it gets mangled routinely, and most of the attempts people make to pronounce it are ugly: Sa-MACH-uh. Smirka. Simba. Smitch.

More often than you’d think, people just glance at it, shrug, and decide it’s probably just ‘Sandra’. Sometimes people get it so wrong, I sincerely don’t recognise it as my name, and keep sitting there blithely leafing through Vogue while an increasingly desperate phlebotomist keeps yelping out her nonsense into a baffled waiting room. But that’s not my fault or my parents’ fault; that’s the fault of whoever was supposed to teach her phonics.

The upsides of an unusual name

If you’re thinking of giving your child an unusual name, here are some of the benefits I’ve felt in my own life:

People do remember you. This may not be a bonus for everyone, depending on how often you find yourself doing things you hope to live down; but it’s incredibly useful if building name recognition is part of your job. (It’s no Howard Bell, but it’s not bad.)

It can be an opportunity to learn patience and kindness. I know people who get angry when strangers don’t know how to say their name, but I’ve never understood this. It’s no fun to call out an unfamiliar name and know you’re probably saying it wrong, so I always try to be reassuring, and automatically feel tender-hearted toward people who at least make a stab at it.

This is helpful to me, because I am shy and anxious, especially when meeting new people. Oddly enough, the “I’m so sorry”-“Oh, no, it’s no trouble at all” dynamic has been the beginning of many a fine relationship. In this cruel world, we need all the help we can get.

It can also be a social filter. There are, of course, people who dislike me and deliberately use my name as a way to mock me, and this strikes me as so insanely childish and petty, it instantly robs them of any power over me. It was difficult when I was growing up, but now it’s a useful filter that sorts out people I don’t even need to worry about.

There’s a built-in ‘secret club’ possibility, especially for me, since most of the people who know how to say my name are Jews. When someone recognises my name and knows the authentic way to pronounce it (with a soft “kh” sound, like the “ch” in “Loch Lomond”), I instantly feel a sense of kinship and warmth, as if I’ve unexpectedly gotten a secret handshake or spotted a family crest in an art museum. Just think, people named ‘Jeff’ and ‘Ann’ will never know this particular thrill.

I can think about why my parents named me this. There were times when I resented being called ‘Joy’, and found it humiliating, because I knew perfectly well (or thought at the time, at least) that there wasn’t anything joyful or joy-inducing about me; but now it seems like something to live up to.

I think of my parents welcoming a new baby girl into the family and deciding that her name would be joy, and that baby was me! That’s not a bad thing to know. It’s a good thing to know that someone thought your arrival in the world was something other than business as usual!

How about you? Do you have an unusual name? Have you changed your opinion about it over the years?

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