The Name Game / by Tara Kaushal

July 2011: Looking for baby names? Find out eight things every modern parent must know.

Photograph courtesy Sahil Mane.

Photograph courtesy Sahil Mane.


When did naming babies become so damn hard?!”
A few generations ago, no one really gave a second thought to baby names. It was thumbs down to individuality, thumbs up to cultural naming formulas. So the first-born of Keralite Christians and Palghat Iyers carried the dad's parent's name; the second kid got the mom's parent's. There's the Maharshtrian rule: generic first name + father's name + ancestors' village+kar... and so on, right?

Cut to 2011. One of our mothers tells me that she and her husband have been agonising about what to name their to-be-born since she conceived. “That's it, I'm calling him Bozo from Love Story," she laughs, then adds seriously: "We're so fed up that sometimes I wonder if the quest for the perfect name is a waste of time. What's in a name anyway? ”

A Lot's in a Name

In his study on names published in the Journal of Human Resources, Professor David Figlio asserts that people should be more aware of the power of names. Agrees psychiatrist Dr Dhawale, “Most people form a mental image when they hear a name, and create an opinion from the get-go. If children are treated differently because of their names, they are bound to behave differently.”

Oh-ho, that's a lot of pressure! Don't worry, help's here. I've come up with some modern-day guidelines for parents-to-be to get their babies' names just right. Why don't you write in with your name suggestions to help Baby Bozo's mother, and others, out!

1 Avoid the usual: (Particularly if you have a common surname.) Today, getting first name-last name email IDs and a website, and being easy to find on Google is a huge advantage. Though the Pooja Mishra I know is a much-talked-about banker, her achievements are buried under thousands of 'hot' links to a VJ. Unusual spellings of common names have pitfalls too: “People just assume the spelling of a common name,” rues Archhana from Pune. “Though I always specify, I have heaps of misspelt documents and most get my email ID wrong.”

But, choosing too off-beat a name—Gwyneth Paltrow's daughter's called Apple—is also a no-no. In his book, Baby Name Report Card, psychology professor Albert Mehrabian says, “Parents who make up bizarre names for their children are ignorant, arrogant or just foolish.”

2 Explore unisex names: Though we've heard unisex names—Gurdeep, Rahat, Misbah, Prem—not many see the point. Karan, whose parents are the unfortunate combination of a male Anju and female Chirag, says emphatically, “I will never give my kids unisex names. They just cause complications and confusion.”

But, there are advantages. Mehrabian's study on instinctive reactions to unisex names found that men with unisex names are perceived as caring and giving. Unisex names on women were associated with power and success. More important are Figlio's findings: “Girls whose names are judged more feminine are often typecast.” According to his study, they are less likely to pursue advanced maths or physics, traditionally seen as predominantly male, because people would not expect them to. So if you're hoping to open a world of opportunities for your little girl, stay away from too feminine-sounding a name.

3 Check associations: Adolf... there, you thought it yourself, didn't you? Choosing a name with instant negative (or positive) connotations is not a good idea. Will a Shah Rukh ever emerge from his namesake's shadow?

4 Check meaning: No matter how lyrical a name, don't subject your child to it if the meaning is not inspiring, or at least neutral. I've had conversations with a Suvidha and a Manoranjan, and they tell me it hasn't been pleasant. “I'm used to it now, but come on, 'entertainment'?!”

5 Translate: Our kids will interact with far more people and languages than ever before. A Google search to figure out what a name means in popular languages and cultures is absolutely essential. “My parents had no clue,” Sushi George tells me, “and I was blissfully unaware too... until Jap food invaded India.” Don't get too cautious, just avoid the major bloopers, like Hardik!

6 Try the name-initials combo: We've heard the PK Tuli/Dubey jokes, and Bose DK even made it into a song... In real life, an unflattering name-initials combo can provide fodder for a lot of bullying. Think hard before naming your young one Bhavesh Ravi Arora, okay?

7 Simplify: It's no wonder that you know Abdul Rashid Salim Salman Khan merely as Salman Khan. Three words in a name is just about as many as will stick... any more will just complicate official paperwork. So will long names with unusual spellings.

8 Nip nicknames: How many people do you only know by their nicknames? An accepted shortening is fine, like Rajeev to Raju; it's the childish Tuntuns and Papoos that children struggle to shake. As loving as nicknames are, their overuse can throw your children's private/public identity and fuel complexes.

Author Khushwant Singh was once a Khushal: “I hated it because of its abbreviation Shalee... At school, boys tortured me by chanting a doggerel: Shalee Shoolie, Bagh dee Moolee (This shalee or shoolee is the radish of some garden). I got rid of Khushal and changed it to Khushwant to rhyme with my elder brother's name Bhagwant.”

What are the options you're considering for your babies' names? Have these tips helped you find what you're looking for? Send in your shortlists and suggestions... and save Baby Bozo from getting that name!

* No names were changed to protect identities!

This article appeared on Yowoto—a now-defunct parenting website startup that I helped incubate as Editor-in-chief—in July 2011.

While I’m now a firm childless antinatalist, my politics weren’t fully formed when I took this short-lived assignment to explore the digital side of publishing (though it was never a good fit). Nonetheless, some of the articles I wrote at the time are interesting.