Unless you are in show business or politics, or have a good reason to expect that your child will be, don’t give the kid a bizarre name like Moon Unit, Dweezil, Mattress, 66X or Strawberry.
Lesson: A child’s name can be child abuse, and motivation for matricide and patricide.
When I was younger, I’d never admit the following: my middle name is NEUMAN.
For the first quarter century of my life, I hated and hid my unconventional and un-American middle name. I was so detached from the name that I misspelled it as “Numan” on a school registration form in second grade.
Any kid who discovered my secret name compared me to Alfred E. Neuman from MAD magazine. (Time magazine once misspelled his name as “Newman”—like Paul Newman.)
For a while, when people asked what my middle initial “N” stood for, I’d say that it stood for “None of your fucking business.”
Neuman has been a major burden for me. It’s only a teeny bit less alien than its source, Neumann—the first name of my great grandfather Neumann Jacobs.
I often wished my parents spelled “Neuman” as “Newman,” or had given me a good American middle name like Paul. My sister Meryl’s middle name sounds normal but it’s spelled weird: Carin. Youngest sibling Marshall escaped the curse. His middle name is David.
All of our first names begin with “M” and end with “L.” Allegedly Meryl and I were a coincidence, Marshall made it a tradition. My parents didn’t like Mitchell, Mendel, Muriel or Muttel so they stopped at three.
As a little kid, I was often affectionately called “Noony” by my maternal grandmother. I loved her but hated the nickname.
In fifth grade, an obnoxious girl who lived near me heard about the nickname and used to follow me to school chanting, “Michael Noony Marcus.” In college, I lived with Indian students who told me that "noony" is the Hindi word for “penis,” which made me feel a bit better. I recently read that "noony" is slang for “vagina.” Now I’m completely confused and may have to consult a guru.
Lesson: Don’t torture your child with a weird name. If the kid wants to have a weird name, she or he can get one later.
When most people see “Deborah,” they’ll assume that the accent is on the first syllable, not the second. And just because you want Sandra to be pronounced “Sondra” or “Andrea” to be pronounced “On-DRAY-uh,” don’t assume that strangers will pronounce the names that way.
Lesson: Just because you want a name pronounced in a specific way, you can’t command the rest of the world to comply.
My mother’s sister is Fanchon. That’s a fancy French name but to the family she has always been “Fan.” In a first meeting, people often assume she is “Fran” and for a long time she corrected them. In her 50s she decided it was easier to introduce herself as “Fran” and later reveal her real name if the relationship continued. It would have been simpler if she was Sally.
Lesson: Names that require explanations are a pain in the ass.
If you are a fundamentalist Christian it’s fine to name your kids Mary and Joseph Murphy—not Ihatesatan Murphy and Praisethelordeveryday Murphy.
Don’t give the kid a name with ambiguous gender like Dana, Terry, Randy, Pat, Tracy or Skyler. It’s tough enough being a kid without having extra burdens.
Maybe you shouldn’t choose a name that can have its gender altered by accidentally changing one letter. Mario could become Maria.
Maybe you shouldn’t pick a name that can be spelled in several ways like Sean and Shawn.
Some nicknames cross the gender barrier. Patsy Cline is a famous female country singer, but Patsy is also the nickname for Pasquale.
Avoid overly sweet name like Honey and Baby.
Consider how a name will age. Lots of baby girls were named after Farrah Fawcett-Majors in the late 1970s. What will it be like to be Grandma Farrah—or Grandma Baby?
Don’t try to be cute with names like Franklin Delano Resnick, Genghis Cohen or Gina Lola Berkowitz.
Siblings may not want to be linked as Candy Mintz and Pepper Mintz or Shadrack, Meshach and Abednego Jones.
If you must be creative, devise a short name with simple spelling and unambiguous pronunciation. I have a great niece named Jacy. The name seemed weird for the first six months but now it’s just fine—and much better than that Kharrington-McKynleigh Khaybryn Sparks.
Unless you live in the southern United States or come from a long line of patricians, forget about first names like Saxby and Burgess.
If you are in the south and you think that there is even a slight chance of your offspring migrating north, forsake names like Octoboona, Jim Bob and JW.
While lots of dogs are now given human names, don’t give a human kid a name associated with animals, like Rover, Trigger or Brandy.
Beware of initials that cause snickering like BM (my father), TS and FU.
Names from history and literature can be OK, but don’t call your kid Adolph or Huckleberry.
Fidel means faithful. That’s nice, but it will long be associated with Fidel Castro. Dennis will long be associated with Dennis the Menace.
Unless you are considering a common name where the pronunciation is not what the letters imply—like Michael—pick an unambiguous name.
If your parents stuck you with a first name you hate, end the tradition without infecting another generation.
Unless you are an egomaniac, your kid should not be a second or junior.
I know a family where mommy is called “Big Sylvia” and a daughter is “Little Sylvia.” That may have made sense at one time, but now “Little Sylvia” outweighs mom by at least 100 pounds.
If your family name is Swett, Schmuck, Bushyhead or Flake, change it!
Avoid pretentious names that may be difficult for any kid to live up to like Moses, Messiah, Queen, Goddess or Saint.
If you’re not Hispanic, you son should not be Jesus.
Don’t assume that your offspring will share your political views in five or fifty years. I know a man who tells people his name is “Ray”—but he’s really Raoul. His left-leaning parents named him after Raoul Castro in the 1950s.
Patrice Lumumba was the first democratically elected prime minister of the Republic of the Congo. He was executed in 1961 and new parents in New York City named their daughter “Lumumba” to honor and remember him. The newborn girl, of course, was not asked about the name. Her life might have been easier if she was named Patrice, or even Patricia or Patty.
Think about annoying nicknames. If you name your son Marcus, like my last name, he may be called “carcass” or “mucus.” I survived it, but it wasn’t pleasant.
Of course, as Johnny Cash sang, if you name your boy Sue, he may turn out tough enough to defend himself.
Ethnic pride is wonderful, but don’t cripple your kids with names from the old country that no one in the new country can pronounce. Apoloniusz and Rozyczka are fine in Warsaw, Poland—but maybe not in Warsaw, Indiana.
Beware of first names that seem like last names and vice versa. I went to high school with Romana Gina. One of our teachers thought she was Gina Romana. In college a housemate always referred to me as “Marcus” in conversations with his girlfriend. When we first met I found out that she thought Marcus was my first name.
I was taught that there is no improper way to spell a proper name, but many parent do misspell their kids’ names. My own Michael should not be “Micheal” like Micheal Williams and Isaiah should not be “Isiah” like Isiah Thomas.
Performers, politicians authors and others who want to be recognized and remembered by the public will benefit from distinctive names—just like Apple and Snapple.
Jor-El, the name of Superman’s Kryptonian father, is both distinctive and unique. So is the name of Marlon Brando, who played the part. Marlon Brando was Marlon Brando’s birth name. Marion Morrison was less fortunate. He had to change his name to become John “Duke” Wayne. Tracy Lauren Marrow apparently felt he’d be a more successful rapper and actor as Ice-T. Caryn Johnson is now known as Whoopi Goldberg.
Stephen King’s name is not unique or distinctive. But, after selling perhaps 300 million books, he probably doesn’t suffer from the existence of others with the same name.
English punk rocker Declan MacManus morphed into a more-memorable Elvis Costello. On the other hand, film critic Elvis Mitchell was apparently born an Elvis.
Don Novello wrote books as Lazlo Toth, and appeared on TV as Father Guido Sarducci. Punk-rock bass player Sid Vicious was born John Ritchie. Cher was Cherilyn Sarkisian.
Sometimes just a slight change can do the job. F. Scott Fitzgerald is probably a better choice than Francis or Frankie Fitzgerald. Bill Smith might be better remembered as Billy D. Smith or William Harrington Smith. Arthur Williams might be more easily found and better remembered as Hamburger Williams or Xavier Nguyen Bacciagalupe III.
For my own brand, I’ve chosen to include my middle initial, “N.” A Google search for Michael N. Marcus showed over 100,000 links—and most are mine. Apparently there are just two of us. I’m the writer. He’s a shrink.