Monday, May 27, 2013

What's in a Name?

"People's fates are simplified by their names."

Elias Canetti 

In the first year of medical school, I learned every name there is for every part of my physical body, and the names of every bit of physiological sorcery that keeps me alive. In my second year, I learned the names of the legions of diseases that physicians have demystified from the darkness of ignorance, the names of the microbial demons that plague us unseen and the names of the chemical weaponry we harness to subdue them. If you are ill, I will find out the secret name of what ails you, and with that name comes its nature, and more crucially its weaknesses. There is power in names, and there is mastery in their knowledge. This is one of the primary reasons I chose Galen's burden as a profession: I wanted to know them. I wanted to gain intimate ownership of my own mortal vessel. I wanted to know the names of Death so I will not fear it.

Okay, that's enough purple-coloured grandstanding for one day.

Thing is, names are a big deal to me, so when the time comes to naming my firstborn son, I spare a great deal of thought on it. Being ethnically Chinese but having no knowledge of the written Chinese language proved to be a colossal handicap so I decided to give the kid an English name, the language my thoughts are written in, because it is the only meaningful way I can participate in shaping his name. Meanwhile, the task of coming up with the Chinese parts of his name was taken up by my wife.

Before my marriage, before I even embarked on this footpath to fatherhood (and in fact, long before I even decided that I wanted a child), I have identified the criteria by which to guide me in this task of naming - and possibly deciding the fate - of the newly-born. Some are arbitrary and some are sensible. They are as follow,
  1. It must not be the name of someone I personally know or one that is too common. I don't want them thinking that I named my kid after them, or even give them enough fuel to insinuate such a thing. Also, I don't want common names because they are unimaginative, unoriginal and undistinguished. John? Which John? Even my given name (the last two words of my three-word name) is pretty common for those that have the same surname I do. On my first day of college, I actually turned up in the wrong class after reading the rosters, realising it only when both of us raised our hands during roll call. I had to sprint across campus to get to the class I was suppose to be in.
  2. It must be meaningful. It can be the name of someone I admire or it can be a name that holds personal significance to me. It can also have a meaning hidden behind its root language - what that language is is immaterial to me. They are fun conversation trivia, if nothing else. My name means "the outer part (of a city) attains greatness", I think.
  3. It must not have religious connotations or origins. Both my wife and I are atheists so naturally, names that came from a holy book, names of gods and names with religious significance (e.g. Abdullah which means "God's servant" or Immanuel which says "God is with us") are ironic and inappropriate. Besides, the sheer volume of people having names such as Muhammad, Peter, Isaac, Timothy and Paul really makes clichés out of them, violating my first criterion as well.
  4. It must be a real name, not rare, and aren't a real name spelled weirdly. I don't want to make one up from scratch and have my child be the only person ever to have that name (no matter what delusions of uniqueness I may harbour for him), and I don't want it to be too obscure or too flashy either. There are studies which showed that having an uncommon name (the so-called ghetto names like Shaniqua, Laquisha or Beyoncé) are correlated with juvenile delinquency but that could simply be because of poor socioeconomic status being predictive for both ghetto names and bad behaviour. Other studies found that having unusual or "black" names is correlated with poor grades in school while siblings of said unfortunately named children that have more conventional names did better, suggesting that the names themselves have predictive power aside from their association with socioeconomic factors. Common names with a "clever" deviant spelling (like Peter being spelled Petyr) is correlated with slowed spelling and reading capabilities. Boys given traditionally girly names like Alexis, Courtney and Kelly are found to display disruptive behaviour and have serious disciplinary issues. While I don't want dirt common names as per criterion one, I am certainly looking for a name that is instantly recognisable.
  5. It must roll off the tongue easily. Because if it's hard to call a person by it, then it is not doing a good job as a name. So names like Siobhan, Saoirse and Niamh won't make my list. I don't want names with too many syllables (more than three) like Nathaniel, Elizabeth, Horatio or Alexander either, even if they have simple diminutives.

An unspoken 6th criterion is that I must like it (though that goes without saying). After testing out hundreds of names against my criteria, I finally settled on one that fulfills everything I want in a name for my son. I initially meant to keep it provisionally, thinking that I'll think of a better one over time but I never did. In the meantime, Cheryl and I started addressing her belly using that name. Now, we can't imagine our kid having any other.

In the meantime, you can try to guess what it is. Just for fun, what names do you know that would pass my 5-point baby name screening checklist? How many names do you know that are meaningful, have no association with religion, is uncommon yet not too common, instantly recognisable, easily pronounceable and spelled conventionally?

P.S. Having worked almost two years here in Sarawak, I noticed that Iban and Bidayuh parents have a tendency to give very unusual names to their progenies. I know a nurse called Javelin and another called Sway
ze Patrick (her dad was a fan of Dirty Dancing). I'd name some of my patients but I don't think I'm allowed to make fun of them like that. They certainly paid heed to criterion one while gleefully violating criteria two to five in every orifice imaginable.

A proper noun,
k0k s3n w4i


Jen said...

Oooo this sounds like a fun game. I'll come back later to this.

On the subject of interesting names, have someone in my office from East Malaysia named Yvonne Lady Diana (no lie) and Siegtraund.

Rewarp said...


nicoletta said...


k0k s3n w4i said...

Jen: A colleague of mine just told me that he met a waitress here with the name Maternity. Guess where the dad got the inspiration from when he went to register his kid's birth?

Rewarp: Violates the 4th criterion, I think. Rare.

nicoletta: Violates the 1st and does not really fulfill the 2nd one for me. It is really common (and you don't know this but I know two Adrians back in high school). Also while it does mean something, I am looking for something a little more than "from Hadria".

Liz said...

Ahaha, I'm not gonna try to guess. But I can feel the pressure of choosing a name that is JUST RIGHT! :)

Just tell us! :p

nicoletta said...

uh, Robert? Theodore? Victor?
Ronald? Stanley? Hugo? Barney?
Am I getting closer?

k0k s3n w4i said...

Liz: It will remain under wraps till the stork comes. But if anyone guesses it, I'll confirm it privately :P

nicoletta: James was a name given to me by my old Catholic English tuition teacher, and Robert is a nickname that my med school buddies gave me for a laugh - after Robert Koch, the founder of modern bacteriology. You are getting warmer in the sense that some of the names you threw out was in my list till I crossed them out. I really liked Theodore and its diminutive, Teddy, but it means "God's gift", so that disqualified it. Hugo is a candidate that fits the bill, but I didn't like the sound of it.

Jen said...

Philip (you could call him Pip!)

Anonymous said...


darshan said...


nicoletta said...

Trying again ☺

Arnold? Lucas?
Roland? Ryland? Declan?
Shane? Mitchell?
Dylan? Edwin? Jude?
Terrence? Raphael?
Warren? Kenneth? Fabian? Eugene?
Myron? Scott? Jayden? Hayden? Kayden? Braeden? Casey? Cillian?

k0k s3n w4i said...

Jen: Harold actually made my list but I didn't like the sound of it and while it has a meaning, it is not meaningful. I mean, can you imagine a baby with a name that means "army ruler"?

darshan: Conan and Horatio were both on my list, but they got eliminated due to their crappy meaning.

nicoletta: You are getting colder. Not a single hit :P

Anonymous said...

Gatsby? Holden?

darshan said...

Since you are a fan of fantasy novels, what about
MS1K as in TH1134.
Ok give us a few clues. Like the first letter and number of syllables.

Terri said...

i totally agree about the religious names, no way any son of mine is going to be called anything like Christopher. i quite like the angel names though, Gabriel and Ariel and whatnot. hey, what about Angelo? Angeli? D'Angelis? xD

k0k s3n w4i said...

darshan: Read my criteria again. And no clues.

Terri: Lots of names have hidden religious connotations - something I realise when I was researching baby names. And nope, there's nothing angelic about my kid's name.

darshan said...

Ok ok you win. I shall wait till you announce the name. There must be something staring at me in the face but I too slow to catch the cue. Ok back to my psp game.

Rewarp said...

Gale. Presuming you aren't overlaying his Chinese name with a Japanese pronunciation and going with Arashi.

k0k s3n w4i said...

darshan: Nah, I have not offered any clue at all. I don't intend for anyone to find out till I reveal it anyway :)

Rewarp: Nope, and nope. I think Gale is sort of being identified more and more as a girl's name these days. And I guess Arashi can be considered a ghetto name for a Chinese person.

c3rs3i said...

Benjamin (son of my right hand) would be hilarious, please consider!

There's no way for me to know if you already know someone with the following names or how common you'll find them but they're socially acceptable, meaningful and religion free at a 51% confidence level -
Henry (ruler of the home)
Liam (strong willed warrior)
Ethan (firm, strong)
Kokson/Cherylson (son of Kok/Cheryl ala Jackson)
Brian (noble strong virtuous)
Derick (ruler of people)
Gareth (gentle, knight of round table)
Arthur (bear hero)
Fred (elf/magical counsel/peaceful ruler)
Dustin (brave warrior)
Eric (ever kingly)

k0k s3n w4i said...

c3rs3i: Henry was considered but disqualified because I know someone by that name. I don't know anyone by the names of Liam, Ethan, Gareth, Arthur or Dustin... but they never made my list for some reason or other. Probably because their meanings are not at all meaningful to me.