Baby Naming Issue: What if the Name You Chose Acquired a Terrible Association? (Example: Isis)

Hi Swistle,

This is all purely hypothetical, but I have a question that I thought might be interesting to discuss.

Your post about whether the name Dash is too similar to DAESH has me thinking about a little girl in my son’s class named Isis. They are 9/10 year olds, in 4th grade, and surely 10 years ago ISIS wasn’t on our national radar.

Do you think that the name Isis is enough of a burden that it would be worth changing a child’s name? Obviously not without their buy in, but what do you think? I might make a serious lobby with my kid to start calling them by their middle, or to legally rearrange the name order so that Isis was the middle name/nickname that they could easily drop. And if my child was young enough, heck, maybe her name is Iris now, no buy in required.

But then, it’s your baby’s name, and you were probably thinking about the Egyptian goddess of the sky when you named her. I dunno. It’s the sort of thing that would distress me TREMENDOUSLY, so I’ve been puzzling over it. What would you do if your child’s name became very, very negatively associated with something, after you had already named them?

Miss Grace


I am very interested in this, too. My feelings and thoughts on the whole thing are so similar to yours, I’m finding it hard to write anything that isn’t a complete duplicate of what you just said. If my 10-year-old daughter were named Isis, I believe by now we would have taken some sort of action: I like the Iris idea, I like the middle name idea, etc. It would comfort me to know that people would KNOW we hadn’t named her after ISIS, but I think I would still want to do something about it.

Also, I am at least in theory okay with changing names. When William was in preschool with two other Williams, we talked with him about whether he’d like to instead go by a variant of his name, or by a nickname, or by his middle name. And when people grow up with a name they don’t feel comfortable with and they want to change it, I think that’s a fine idea. I don’t have a “NEVERRRRRRRR!!” feeling about it.

I think this is a great place for a poll. Everyone keep in mind that we are not talking only about the name Isis, but about any name that acquires a terrible and specific association after it has already been given to the child. Maybe you’re not really hearing anything about ISIS and so it’s hard to see what the problem is; in that case, think of a situation where the association WOULD be a huge problem—an association that would cause tremendous distress.

Let’s see if we can simplify things by NOT considering names in heavy usage, such as Charles or David or Matthew: perhaps someone with that name is in the news for doing something terrible, but the name is so diluted, it’s hard for the new association to stick. The comments section is going to dissolve into zero helpfulness/interest if we introduce “Well, ANY name can be association with SOMETHING bad.” No, let’s stick to cases such as Isis, where the name is unusual enough for the association to be strong and distressing, and something that is likely to endure beyond two weeks in the news. Adolf would be another good example of the sort of thing we are thinking of here.

Now let’s discuss the poll options. We’re talking about something that could happen when the child was an infant (in which case you would probably feel free to make name choices without consulting them) OR when the child was an older child (in which case you would need to include them in the decision), so the poll choices will ASSUME that range of consulting or not consulting, depending on circumstances. That is, the poll option “Oh, I’d change that sucker” includes the idea that you might be working with an older child who did NOT want to change; we’re only talking about what YOU would WANT to do. The child might not want to, and you’d do your thing about that, but your DESIRE would be to change it.

So! Are we all clear? This is about a name that would cause you to feel tremendous distress. And then it’s about what YOU would want to do about it. (If it’s easier, you can think of it as asking about whether you’d change your own name.) The poll options attempt to achieve a matter of degree of feeling: some people feel names can be changed, and others feel more as if once a name is given It Is GIVEN, no matter what.

As always with polls, there is no way to have an answer that matches exactly what each voter would choose: we are only trying to sort answers into broad categories, so that we don’t have a 1000-option poll with one vote for each option. More detail can be given in the comments section.

[When I voted it asked me if I wanted to vote as a WordPress user or an Anonymous user. I have no idea what that is about. I tried to change it so it wouldn’t ask that anymore (it shouldn’t be asking voters for ANY info except vote)—but if I was not successful, just choose “Anonymous.”]

Would you change it?

Baby Naming Issue: Choosing a Name for a Baby Who Has Died

Hello, dear Swistle.

I’ve written to you previously—you posted my a question about my daughter’s name on your blog (Baby Naming Issue: How Will the Royal Engagement Affect the Name Kate?) and you helped with my son’s name back when you were doing private name consultations.

I’ve been eagerly anticipating writing to you again, since my husband and I were joyfully expecting baby #3 in September. I planned to write to you last week after we found out the baby’s sex, but when we went in for our anatomy scan the baby didn’t have a heartbeat. We are devastated, and it’s very important to us to still name this baby. In the shock and chaos of finding out that the baby had died and then being rushed into having a D&E that night, I never asked if the baby was a boy or a girl. We sent chromosome testing, though, so I anticipate knowing the baby’s sex in a couple of weeks.

I’m finding that I have a very different set of criteria for naming this baby now that he or she is no longer living, since, much as it pains me to admit this to myself, the name will not be used often outside of our family. For example, I’m not very concerned about coordinating the name with siblings (who are Emeline Anne and Samuel Albert) or the flow of the name with our last name.

We are set if the baby is a boy. We will name him Theodore James, and refer to him as Teddy. Theodore was on our list before the baby died, but my husband and I didn’t agree on using Theo vs. Teddy as a nickname. We both really love Teddy for a little baby, though. We also love that Theodore means “gift from God”, since we still feel this baby is a gift to our family, short though his or her life may have been.

We are stuck on a girl’s name. Before the baby died, the only girl names we actually agreed upon were Kate (in my mind short for Katherine, although that was a point of disagreement) and Grace. (I’d been lobbying for Margaret or Amelia, but hadn’t gotten very far.) The middle name was to be Eleanor to honor my grandmother. I find myself feeling very, very torn about using these names—especially Eleanor. I think it’s likely we’ll try to have another baby, and part of me wants to save the names. But then that thought always makes me cry, because it’s a very real acknowledgement that, in time, this baby will not be a part of our every day lives. Plus, even if we have another baby, it could easily be a boy. (I’m not worried about “saving” boy names since my husband and I have a long list of boy names that we both love, whereas we always struggle to agree on girl names.)

My husband and I both adore the name Violet, but I’ve always hesitated to use it because to my ear it sounds a lot like “violent”. I’ve been in considerable distress over consenting to a D&E instead of waiting to have a natural miscarriage, so I don’t want to use a name that makes me free associate to the word violent.

The only new name that we’ve seriously considered this week is Lucy. We both love the name, but my husband doesn’t like any of the longer forms, like Lucia or Lucille. I’d rejected the name before the baby died because I didn’t like that Emeline (whom we often call Emmy) would have a longer, more formal name while her sister did not, plus Lucy is a little singsongy with our last name. (Which, Emmy is too, but I’m okay with that since it’s a nickname.) Since the baby was miscarried, those concerns are gone, and the name is back on the list.

I’ve also thought about using Eleanor as a first name. We ruled it out when the baby was living since Ellie is my favorite nickname for Eleanor, but some people call me that. I don’t feel like we necessarily need a nickname for this baby’s name, though. The plus side of using Eleanor is that my grandmother is in her mid-90’s and mentally sharp, so this gives us the chance to use the honor name while she is still alive and aware of it. I *think* she would find it special and meaningful to have the baby named after her even though the baby died, but I suppose it gets into a little bit of a dicey situation. I also don’t love repeating Emmy’s initial, although I could get over that.

If you have any suggestions about girl names with special meanings, like how Theodore means “gift from God”, we are very open to ideas. Or, if you have any other thoughts about the special considerations of naming a miscarried baby, I would be interested to know that, too.

Love, Ellen


I am so sorry. This is a sad and important task.

I wonder if you would like to use Theodora/Theadora, Dorothea, or Dorothy for a girl. They have the same meaning as Theodore. As a child, I had Theodora/Theadora on my list of Most Awesome Names Ever, because that was the era of “short boyish nicknames for long feminine names” (Samantha/Sam, Francesca/Frank, Winifred/Fred, etc.). I like the idea of calling the baby Teddy either way (which would also let you start referring to the baby by name immediately), or I like the idea of using Teddy for a boy or Dolly/Dottie/Thea/Dorrie for a girl.

I am not sure about using your grandmother’s name Eleanor. I’m going back and forth on it a little. I feel the urge to save it, and I feel the sadness of that; I like the idea of your grandmother having the chance to hear of a namesake while she is alive, and I feel the sadness of that, too. And I see the diceyness of the whole thing. I think if it were me, I would end up saving the name Eleanor, but I would be very uncertain.

I like the idea of using Katherine and calling her Kate/Katie; it feels pleasingly similar to Theodore/Teddy. I have the urge to save names (as I do with the name Eleanor), but I wonder if some names will feel too much as if they belonged to this pregnancy/child, and might not feel usable later on. This would vary from person to person; I’m not sure how I would feel. In general, I think I am favor of “Use the name that feels right NOW, and let the future worry about itself.” But this is from the person who just said she’d probably save Eleanor.

I think Lucy is another excellent choice.

For boys, more names that mean “gift from God”/”God has given”:



That meaning is less common for girl names; some names that mean “adored”/”beloved”/”dear one”:




Name update:

Dear Swistle,

Thank you for posting my question about naming my miscarried baby. Sending the question was important to me since I had written to you for my other two babies; it felt like a tangible way of saying this baby was just as loved and wanted as those babies. So, your kind and thoughtful response meant a lot to me on more than one level. I really loved all of your ideas. And your commenters are just lovely, aren’t they? I read each one and cried over the kindness and support they offered. I also so appreciated their suggestions for the baby’s name.

We got chromosome results today and our baby was a girl. Her name is Lucy Eleanor.

I called my grandma yesterday and talked to her about using Eleanor. She said she would be deeply honored to have this baby named after her, and I decided that I wanted to make sure I got to use her name. If I don’t use it now, who knows if I’ll ever get to use it? But it was a tough, tough call.

My almost 5 year old daughter is furious that we’re not naming her sister Starflower, but my husband and I feel happy with the name we chose. (I did offer Emmy the option of using Starflower as a second middle name for Lucy, but anything less than first name placement is unacceptable, apparently.) Thank you again.

Love, Ellen

Baby Naming Issue: Names to Honor an Adolf

Hi Swistle,

I am a long-term reader, and love thinking about names. Now I am not pregnant, and we are not trying either, but I do love thinking about names and playing with possible combinations. And lately I have been thinking about possible honor names.

Luckily, there are a ton of great names in both of our families to choose from. However, the one person I would really really like to honor is my grandfather, who passed away last year. We were very close, and he was a great man throughout his life. If there was anyone in my family I would really like to honor it would be him. But, unfortunately, he was born in Germany in the 1920s and was named Adolf.

I don’t think the name Adolf is still usable, not even as a middle name. It conveys a certain message, and certainly not one a child of German heritage should have, even though I objectively like the sound of it. Sadly my grandfather didn’t have a middle name, and his last name is a very long German word that is very much unpronounceable and can in no way be used as a first name. He did have a nickname – Adel (pronounced like Uh-dl). Do you think this nickname might potentially be usable, or would this defeat the purpose of an honor name? Other versions would be using something that sounds similar, like Adam (starts with Ad) or Adelia or Delphi for a girl, but these all just seem to be a little far fetched.

Let me know what you think? I would love to honor him, but I do not want to burden any future children.



Generally you will find me on the conservative end of the spectrum for honor names: really I like the name to be the same as the honoree’s name, and I find all other options significantly less honory, sometimes to the point of not feeling honory at all. However, in the case of the name Adolf, I am absolutely on board with not using the name.

The question now is: How far can we go from the honor name and still feel as if it’s an honor? People are all over the spectrum on this one. At my end of the spectrum, I have a hard time seeing the honor of a shared first initial or shared meaning; but at the other end of the spectrum are parents who use the name Sophia Rose and because they love how it successfully honors all four grandparents at once: Ronald, Ruth, Phil, and Sandra.

I think I would shoot for two goals: first and foremost, for the name to make you think affectionately of your grandfather; second, for the naming story to make sense. Naming stories don’t HAVE to make sense, of course: there’s no review board, and you don’t have to share the naming story with anyone. But I find it useful for testing if, in our efforts to make something work, we have strayed outside the bounds of reason. It’s very easy to make a first jump, and then take a second jump from that landing place, and end up with something that can be connected only with a trail of breadcrumbs.

My favorite in this case would be to use the name Alfred. I think the name is adorable and ready for a serious comeback, and to me it feels similar enough to Adolf that I looked it up in The Oxford Dictionary of First Names to see if they might have come from similar sources. (No.)

For a girl, I think of names such as Agatha, Delphine, Daphne, Adelaide; nothing clicks quite well enough, but there’s a slight tie.

I do think “We wanted to honor my grandfather, but his name is Adolf, so…we just had to do the best we could!” works very well, explanation-wise.

I am not seeing much potential in the nickname pronounced Uhdl. The name Abel LOOKS like Adel, which seemed like a promising path at first, but now I am starting to feel as if the naming story is slipping: a name that looks like (leap #2) a nickname (leap #1). But does the sight of the name Abel make you immediately think of your grandfather? Then I think this option has potential.

Another possible path: according to The Oxford Dictionary of First Names, Adolf means “noble wolf.” Wolf would make a fairly rad middle name, and has the additional advantage of sharing the -olf of Adolf.

We could continue with this idea by looking for more names that mean “noble” and/or “wolf.” Baby Names Made Easy: The Complete Reverse-Dictionary of Baby Names has these possibilities:

Ada: “noble”—from the same Germanic Ad- of Adolf
Adelaide: “noble and kind”—shares the same Germanic Ad- of Adolf, and adds kindness
Adele: “noble”—but the singer Adele is a strong association
Adeline: “noble”
Adler: “noble eagle”—excellent symbolism reboot, plus shares the Germanic Ad-
Albert: “noble, bright”
Alice: “noble, kind”
Alphonse: “noble, battle-ready”
Arwen: “noble maiden”
Audrey: “noble strength”
Cannon: “wolf cub”—awww, baby wolf
Conan: “wolf”
Della: “noble”
Ethel: “noble”
Gandolf: “wolf’s progress”—good symbolism reboot, shares -dolf, but strong Gandalf assoc.
Grady: “noble”
Heidi: “noble, kind”
Lowell: “wolf cub”—but sounds like when my kids say “LOL” as a word
Noble: the word itself is a possibility
Oberon: “noble bear”
Owen: “highborn, noble”—the “highborn” puts the wrong spin on “noble,” it seems to me
Phelan: “wolf”
Rafe: “wolf counsel”
Ralph: “wolf counsel”
Randall: “wolf’s shield”
Randolph/Randolf: “wolf’s shield”—and shares -dolf
Rudolph: “famous wolf”—famous reindeer, too
Shaw: “wolf”
Tala: “wolf”
Whelan: “wolf”
Zeva: “wolf”

Because one person’s huge reach is another person’s intuitive leap, I’ve included even the options where my own feeling is that the connection is getting pretty slim. For one thing, you might have information that gives the name an additional connection, such as if Rafe were the name of your grandfather’s dad, or if Whelan were the name of the town where he grew up, or if Randall were your maiden name.

And this brings me to another source of honor names I do not generally reach for, but many people do: names of things connected to your grandfather, such as the names of towns he lived in, schools he attended, professions, hobbies, siblings, favorite flowers/colors/foods, other names in his family tree, whatever. Or you could look for German names in general.

Or there’s the idea of sharing multiple initials. If your grandfather’s surname started with K., for example, you could make it your goal to find first/middle names with the initials A.K.

And finally, there is the idea of abandoning the whole thing. It is fairly common for parents to really want to honor a beloved person, and yet be unable to make it work. I always feel sad when that happens, because I love honor names—but sometimes it turns out to be an unsolvable equation.

Baby Boy J______, Brother to Jameson: Jules?

Dear Swistle,

I am due in October with my second son. Everyone in my immediate family and my husband’s immediate family’s names start with “J” and there are many, many “J” names in our extended families as well. We therefore decided to continue the tradition and name all our children “J” names, our first son being named Jameson. Although we weren’t pregnant yet, we started discussing potential boys names for the future. We were having a very difficult time coming up with another boy’s name that started with “J” that fit our three criteria: 1) not a given name already used in the family, 2) not overly popular, 3) we love it. We finally came up with a name that we love: Jules.

The problem is that my sister has four daughters, one of whose name starts with “J”, Julia. One of Julia’s many nicknames is Jules, although she goes by Julia on a regular basis. There will also be eight years and many states between Julia and her cousin-to-be. Everyone in my family, sister included, really likes the name and doesn’t think there should be an issue…except for my brother-in-law. He has told my sister that Jules is his special nickname for his daughter and if we name our baby that name he won’t call the baby by his given name. He even went so far as to “jokingly” state that if we name our child Jules he will buy a dog and name it my given name. Ironically, our second favorite name is Julian, which would inevitably end up being shortened to the nickname Jules, and he doesn’t seem to have a problem with, yet.

I don’t think my niece Julia will be upset by her new cousin having her nickname since she suggested Julian for my first son’s name, but don’t want to hurt her feelings in any way. I also don’t want to acquiesce to my brother-in-law over his emotional attachment to a nickname that we all use on occasion for his daughter. Lastly, when there are so few names, i.e. one, that fit our criteria, I do not want to settle for a name that I will be second guessing for the rest of my son’s life.

Please help! I know that I have some time still, but this has been weighing on my mind.

-Jenée Morgan


Your brother-in-law is being an ass, I think we can agree on that. The question is, what effect if any should this have on your baby-naming decisions?

What I WISH we could do is just make him see that he’s being an ass, and have him say “Sorry for being such an ass,” and then you go ahead and name your own baby just as he got to name his own baby. He did not name his baby Jules; even if he HAD named his baby Jules, you would still be able to name your baby Jules, because names are not one-time-use items. Presumably Julia Roberts’s parents are not buying a dog to name after your brother-in-law just because he used their daughter’s name.

Is there any hope of your sister handling the task of making him see that he’s being an ass? Or I wonder if she DOES have a problem with you using Jules, but doesn’t want to say so. It seems a little suspicious that she’s passing along to you what her husband said, apparently without kicking his legs out from under him first.

Well, let’s assume your brother-in-law does not change his tune. I hate the idea of giving in to his jerky behavior, but there are some things that are not worth the family drama. My vote, then, is for using the name Julian. I like the way it totally gives you the Jules nickname AND is actually CLOSER to the name Julia, but in a way that is evidently flying under your brother-in-law’s radar.

If that doesn’t work (either you find you are just not happy with the name Julian, or else your brother-in-law suddenly notices it and doesn’t feel at all bashful about preventing you from using another name), I vote for going back to the drawing board. I would go back even as far as “Do we really want to use all J names?” It’s hard to choose names, and it’s even harder when 25 out of 26 initials are eliminated. The new tradition could be “Firstborn child gets a J name,” or “Everyone gets a J somewhere in their name,” or “J-name, then K-name, then L-name…”.

If you decide J names are your most important preference, and it looks as if that IS the decision, then it may be that another preference will have to give way. There may just not BE any more J names you love that are also unused in the family and not popular. If we were chatting right now in my skyscraper baby-naming office, here’s what I’d give you for this week’s homework: rank the other preferences. If J names is first, what’s fourth? If one preference has to go, which one will it be? Picture a balance scale: if “name we love” is on one side and “uncommon name” is on the other, which weighs more? What if it’s “not already used in the family” and “name we love”? And so on.

If this is too hard to do (you might think, as I would, that it really depends on the particular name), then I’d suggest eliminating one preference at a time, experimentally, and seeing what kind of lists you get. For example, try kicking popularity out of the running: pretend that all J names are equally uncommon, and see which ones you like best. Next, reinstate the popularity preference, but knock out the requirement that it be a unique name in the extended family. Then, go back to the no-repeats rule, but consider names you don’t love: it can feel a little weird to do, but it happens all the time that someone uses a name they don’t love (because it’s a family tradition or an honor name, because they couldn’t agree with the other parent, etc.) and then they grow to love the name once it belongs to the child. Even with names I loved, it’s funny to think back and remember all the doubts I had about the names before using them.