21st century baby names i18n, g10n, google unique...?

I've often complained about Sun's confusing and Silicon-Valley centric product marketing names. Most other tech companies aren't any better. But naming a technical product is much easier than naming a child. After all, if you name your GNOME-based open source desktop "Java Desktop System", it isn't going to be beat up on the playground... at least not too often.

A friend recently wrote about a coworker who named her baby Messiah. This is actually fairly tame when you consider some of the odd names coming out of the U.S. where apparently anything goes (e.g. Moon Unit, Dweezel, Moxie Crimefighter, Pilot Inspekter, Mustang Sally?... ;-) Contrast this with Germany where all baby names must clearly identify gender and be approved by the Standesamt which carefully considers whether the name is weird or confusing. My great-great Grandmother from Pollnow, Pomerania was named August, which doesn't sound obviously female to me. Many names from American literature would probably fail the Standesamt standard; (Scout, Atticus, Harper, Huckleberry, Langhorne...) Based on popular media coverage, I wonder how many of our children's generation will remember that Paris is also the name of a Greek man and a French city?

Unusual names aren't just a recent fad. For example, in the 1600s an English baby boy was named If-Jesus-Had-Not-Died-For-Thee-Thou-Hadst-Been-Damned which is probably just weird enough to zap this blog from "naughty bit" filters of most public library web kiosks in Utah. It would be inconvenient to have a name that is a profanity in another language or one that triggers SPAM filters because it is used in popular email fraud schemes.

Then there is the issue of names which don't translate well in this increasingly globalized world. Some names are unfortunate homonyms in other languages, others can't be pronounced or spelled at all outside of the home country. A few years ago, the citizens of my home town thought they had a wonderful Indian name for the zoo's new tiger. The translation dictionary they used said the word meant love, but it actually meant something closer to prostitute love or lust. A fairly common Irish-American name, Colleen, is almost never used in Ireland because in Irish it simply means girl, which sounds like the kind of name Tarzan would come up with for his baby.

When a resume or CV comes across a corporate office desk, the name is usually prominently displayed in bold-faced type at the very top. A person's name often reveals or suggests their gender, race, ethnicity and religion (e.g. Mohammad, Elijah, Messiah...) This obviously should have no bearing on the person's qualifications for the position, but the opportunity for name-based prejudice certainly exists. A friend told me that Chinese employees were required to take alternate western names in order to make it easier for their U.S. based coworkers to address them. I believe this requirement is too narrowly focused on western needs. It would be much better if westerners in a globalized company became more familiar with non-western names and possibly adopt alternate non-western names if their own name is difficult to pronounce elsewhere. Many non-Western names and meanings are beautiful.

Most parents hope to give their child a name that is unique enough to avoid confusion with every other Jack and Mohammad1 in the class, and yet not so weird that it causes the child to be beat up on the playground. Until the world standardizes on a fool-proof method for verifying identity, its also wise to choose a name that isn't too common in order to minimize the chance that someone out there will destroy their credit rating or other aspects of their personal reputation. It's regrettable when a rare name is polluted by a famous or infamous celebrity. Part of a recent episode of This American Life told the story of a boy named Shalom a seemingly benign Hebrew word meaning "peace." Unfortunately it was also one of the 72 names of God in Jewish tradition. In the eyes of his rabbi, this caused Shalom to break one of the 10 commandments every time his name appeared on a school paper, lunch sack or his underwear.

We were lucky with our daughter's name. It's ordinary, possibly even slightly too common here in Ireland. It can be pronounced and spelled in Japanese, it sounds similar to a Hindi name meaning sunbeam and could probably be written in hieroglyphics, but it's almost certain to be mispronounced in the U.S. because the spelling is similar to a branded product which is pronounced differently there.

21st century parents have a real challenge on their hands. I don't have a survey tool available, but I'd be interested in hearing favorite boy and girl names from various parts of the world.

1Mohammad is now the 2nd most popular name in the U.K. Jack is still #1.


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