What’s in a Name?

I am obscurely glad to learn from this Times human-interest story that Kansas center Sasha Kaun is from Russia. Otherwise, he is at the age where any parent naming their child “Sasha Kaun” would’ve had to deal with everybody thinking “Sasha Kaun Sasha Kaun everybody Sasha Kaun…” Yes, I am both a Bad Person and a Child of the 80’s.

It’s a reminder, though, of how many ways names can go wrong. This is a question of more than academic interest, of course, because we need to come up with a name for FutureBaby in the reasonably near future (we considered and rejected sticking with “FutureBaby”). I checked a book on names out of the library– it’s got graphs in it, so it feels like science!– and we printed out some names lists from the Internet. I haven’t really put a serious effort into this yet, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about in idle moments.

The Sasha Kaun problem is just one example of the problem of names that sound like other things when said in full. Everybody knows the horrible, possibly apocryphal white-trash examples like “Ima Hogg” and the like, but there are perfectly innocent ways to stumble into the same failure mode. At NIST, I worked with a guy whose surname is Lett, first name Paul. One of his friends from graduate school referred to him as “Paul Space Lett” for the audible pause he always inserted when introducing himself. He said that his mother chose a first-name middle-name pair, and it never noticed what happened with just first-name last-name.

And then, of course, there are the thousands of people named “Dillon” or “Dylan” who named their male children “Robert” circa 1960. Not much you can do about that one.

Happily, “Orzel” doesn’t sound like a lot of other things (we pronounce it “or-ZELL” for the record, though I think the original Polish pronunciation would put the emphasis on the first syllable), and it’s unlikely to be picked as a stage name (it’s down the list from “Humptybert Slaptypants”). There are still some run-together trouble spots. Names ending in “r” might feed into the most common mis-hearing of the name (“Rozelle,” or variants thereof), and names ending in “a” or “o” risk turning into complete mush in the middle when said quickly.

My line of work introduces some problems as well. I imagine that everybody trying to think of a baby name (well, everybody who isn’t George Foreman) has the problem of names picking up associations from acquaintances, but it’s particularly bad for people in education. I see a lot of students, with a lot of different names.

There are some perfectly reasonable names that have been forever tainted for me by students who were complete boneheads. No, I will not give examples. There’s really no chance that I would agree to a name that makes me think “that annoying kid who sat in the back and played with the computers during lecture,” though.

On the other hand, there are also names that have positive associations because of good students with that name, but, that turns into a negative, too. It would create the weird situation of having it seem like we were naming FutureBaby after some student of mine, and that’s just weird.

(Aside: “Bilal” is right out, guys. You can stop suggesting it.)

The other big thing I know about name selection is that whatever we choose, whenever we choose it, we’re not telling anybody. I remember asking some couple of our acquaintance whether they had a name chosen, and they said “Yes, and we’re not telling you.” They explained that no matter what name you pick, there will be somebody who has a bad association with it, and will feel free to tell you all about it before the baby is born. Most people, though, at least those not raised by wolves or Internet trolls, have enough common sense not to say that sort of thing when presented with an actual baby.

So, you’ll just have to wait to find out what FutureBaby’s real name will be.


  1. #1 Natalie
    April 5, 2008

    If you care about how many other people will have the same first name as your child, and like graphs, you might want to check out the Baby Name Wizard at: http://babynamewizard.com/namevoyager/lnv0105.html Lots of fun to play with.

  2. #2 Nelson Muntz
    April 5, 2008

    From one of the ‘Overheard in’ sites:

    Angry woman to friend: I have a contention with the way people pronounce my daughter’s name. I did not name by daughter ‘Lady Nasty’! I named my baby girl ‘La Dynasty.’


  3. #3 Gilipollas Caraculo
    April 5, 2008

    Parents should give some thought before inventing (or copying) deliberate misspellings of familiar names. For a girl, Melanie is fine, while Melony is not. In the latter case, the little girl at some point will reach thelarche, and then some little boy will notice her name is ‘melon-y’, and the jokes will start, about how melony she is, or isn’t, as she matures through her teen years. If she then killed her parents, she’d want me on her jury.

    In the same way, Nicole is fine, while Nichole is not. Some little boy will notice her name is ‘Nic-hole’, and then the jokes will start about her hole. This is grounds for justifiable homicide, if you ask me — and a free legal name change.

  4. #4 Janne
    April 5, 2008

    No suggestions (“Moon Unit” has a sciency ring, though, don’t you think?). However, the site below is a good source for what _not_ to name your child.


  5. #5 Wilson Fowlie
    April 5, 2008

    Some years ago, in Scott Adams’s occasional DNRC newsletter, there were a few issues in which people had submitted names they’d heard that sounded weird when put together or had some other odd property.

    There was a small number of “La___” names given as examples (in the class of ‘LaToya’, and ‘La Dynasty’ above, though neither of these, as I recall, were actual examples). The only one I remember was some guy who claimed that he heard some woman talking to her daughter, “LaTreen” (no idea how she actually spelt it).

    When he (or someone else in hearing) tried to explain what it meant, she said (he further claimed) that she didn’t care because she liked the sound of it anyway.

    I haven’t decided if I believe it or not, but it’s at least mildly amusing either way.

  6. #6 The Ridger
    April 5, 2008

    Well, for what it’s worth, Sasha’s name is almost certainly Aleksandr.

  7. #7 Uncle Al
    April 5, 2008

    Simple name test: Enter a clothes closet, shut the door, shout then name ten times as loud as you can. Yer gonna be doin’ that a lot. No overbearing ethnicity.

    Max, Jim; Tarkus if you are naughty re Johnny Cash. Llewellyn is excluded. Don’t stick him with something by which he’ll never be called. Eduard/Edward will be Ed.

    Altaira is nice for a girl. End a girl’s name in a voiced vowel to be seductive. She will hate you forever for a terminal consonent (e.g., Mildred). No (concatenated) White trash names (Shoshonna, Cheralynne are out). No ambiguous gender (Sidney is not cute). No variations of Elizabeth. Don’t ask a doctor on the fly – you’ll end up with Empyema (an admittedly easy entry into Affirmative Action).

    Look up Web statistics on what is popular. Don’t choose those. A dozen gals named Ashley are not improved by adding Ashleigh. It screams bleached hair either way.

  8. #8 asad
    April 5, 2008

    You get points for referencing Eddie Izzard in this post.

  9. #9 Chad Orzel
    April 5, 2008

    Well, for what it’s worth, Sasha’s name is almost certainly Aleksandr.

    That’s what I suspect, but the sports media are often amddeningly vague about what’s a name and what’s a nickname. Even the Times, which is so uptight about naming style in other sections, routinely uses what I’m pretty sure are diminutive forms of names in referring to athletes.

    You get points for referencing Eddie Izzard in this post.

    I spent an inordinate amount of time watching clips of Dress to Kill on YouTube this morning looking for that bit. I love the bit about the moon rocks:

    “We asked for diamonds, or sherbet, or a squirrel with a gun. And what do you bring back? Fucking rocks!”

  10. #10 CCPhysicist
    April 5, 2008

    I’d recommend something like Mochagrande Orzel, one that would lead the casual reader to think that the child is a member of a (unique) minority group. Imagine reading that on an application form! The short version, “Mo-Oh”, would even work should s/he wish to become a rap artist or rugby star instead of a scientist. ;-)

    Hey, you have to admit that Mochagrande Orzel would be rather mellifluous.

  11. #11 Chad Orzel
    April 5, 2008

    I spent a few minutes going through the top names of 2007 while watching the UCLA-Memphis game, and realized another simple rule: No girls’ names ending in “-elle.” I’m not sticking FutureBaby (should FutureBaby turn out to be a girl) with a rhyming name.

  12. #12 Ani
    April 5, 2008

    Steven Levitt has an interesting chapter on baby naming in his book ‘Freakonomics’. The chapter is entitled Perfect Parenting, Part II; or: Would a Roshanda by Any Other Name Smell as Sweet.

    It’s an economist’s view of naming (it’s a bit ‘sciency’). It discusses high-end names, low-end names, and whether names really matter.

    For expectant parents, I think it’s worth a read.

  13. #13 Chris Koeberle
    April 6, 2008

    Ima Hogg, at least, is definitely not apocryphal. And with your last name, you don’t really have much choice in the “will this name be difficult to google for?” department (I’m pretty much doomed there, too).

  14. #14 Colin M
    April 8, 2008

    Quirkology, by Richard Wiseman, has a very interesting chapter on how names affect people’s lives. I don’t have the book at hand here, but the facts are along the lines of “People are likely to marry someone with the same initial letter of their name — even after controlling for a variety of potential confounding factors”. I found it fascinating.

  15. #15 Chris Koeberle
    April 14, 2008

    After driving past a sign for Michael P. Otto which I misread as “Michael Potto,” it occurred to me that “William Henry Orzel” would probably be an awful plan.

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