American in Spain

Baby Name Shortlist – How To Decide

December 17, 2008

For a long time, since long before procreation was discussed seriously, Marga and I have been in agreement about one thing: our child will have a name that is easily legible and pronounceable in both English and Spanish. Rather unexpectedly, since the pregnancy, family members from both countries have expressed concern about this, "Just don't give her one of those weird foreign names that's hard to pronounce, please!" It was reassuring to see how wise our initial instincts were.

You might be surprised by how many names fail this simple test. I was. Almost every name suggested was discarded for this reason. In a way, it was nice to have a simple objective criterion in coming up with a shortlist of candidates.

Strict Pronunciation Unambiguity

There's an even stricter form of the rule that I've personally been applying as well. Ideally the name we choose would be pronounced exactly the same in both languages. There are many fewer vowel sounds in Spanish than English. The latter syllable in my name, for instance, isn't pronounced the same in English and Spanish. One of the hardest parts of good English pronunciation for Spaniards is the short 'i' sound. This fact was humorously first brought to my attention while sitting on the beach with a Brazilian girl when she asked, "Wait a minute! What's the difference between 'beach' like where we are and 'bitch' like a woman?" She pronounced both words identically, as most Spanish or Portuguese speakers do. It would be nice if these sounds could be avoided.

As we went though name trials (explained below), I realized that this strict unambiguity rule might be more important for me than for Marga or our daughter because I'm going to be speaking to her primarily in English, so the English pronunciation of her name is going to be how my brain thinks of her, but then for talking about her in the third person to Spaniards, I'd have to change my pronunciation. Probably doable, but might get confusing if I'm talking about her to a Spaniard and then talking to her directly (e.g. "[Name] is very well behaved. [Name], stop doing that!"). This doesn't happen so much with my own name, because Erik rarely refers to himself in the third person in conversation, and I know to respond to, and give when inquired, the Spanish pronunciation of my name.

I could accept a name that doesn't meet my strict pronunciation rule exactly, but I count failure to do so as a con. One thing we've learned in this process is that every name has pros and cons.

Name Trials

Once we had a shortlist of contenders, we decided to test each one. We assigned each name to a day in a week and she had a different name every day. It took effort to use the name and stop referring to her as la niña. This procedure turned out to be absolutely invaluable in deciding on a name. Aspects and subjective reactions that were previously unnoticed became clear. I highly recommend test driving names before deciding to buy.

The Shortlist

Here is our list of possible names, with some of the pros and cons. We would value any feedback my esteemed readers could provide. The truth is that we've more or less decided, but before we carve it in stone, we'd like your reactions. You could list them in order of preference, suggest a pro or con that I haven't provided, recommend giving more or less weight to a pro or con I've listed, or even suggest a new name. Here we go, in alphabetical order:

Elisa – Marga has always liked this name for some reason she can't put her finger on. My initial reaction was one of ambivalence. My mother's full name is Elizabeth, so naming her granddaughter Elisa would probably please her. It does suffer from pronunciation ambiguity in English. How do you say the 'i'? Does it rhyme with "Melissa" or "Lisa"? Or is it pronounced like Eliza (Doolittle)? On the plus side, Beethoven has already written the ringtone for when she calls. is available.

Fiona – I have loved this name ever since my first trip abroad, to Scotland, as a teenager. According to Wikipedia, it is of Celtic origin and means pale, white, or fair. It was first used in an eighteenth century poem and gained popularity from there. It's unclear to me how a made-up name from a poem could have meaning like names derived from words, but whatever. Chances are my daughter will probably actually be pale, white, and fair as baby, but, if she's lucky, she'll get her mother's darker skin as she grows up. Word association exercises quickly conjure up words like "feisty" and "fiery" and "fierce" that imply a strong personality. Phi is one of the coolest numbers in mathematics. The name is a little rare exotic in both the US and Spain. The pronunciation is exactly the same in English and Spanish. When we mention Fiona as a possible name to a Spaniard, their first reaction is, "You mean like Shrek's girlfriend?" Damn you, Dreamworks Animation! Another negative that only came out during name trials was the existence of the Spanish words meona, cagona, and llorona, which are the feminine noun equivalents of pisser, pooper, and crier, respectively. There's absolutely no way these words will go unused on the playground. is available.

Lydia – The name of an Iron Age kingdom in Asia Minor. It's unclear how it became a feminine personal name. It fails the strict unambiguous pronunciation test for having a short 'i' sound in English. It also fails the unambiguous spelling test because the typical Spanish spelling is "Lidia" (also the way they spell the Iron Age kingdom). Take it from someone named "Erik, with a K" that ambiguous spelling sucks. is available.

Nora – Simple. Identical pronunciation in English and Spanish (and probably most other languages). There are two meanings: Nora has an Arabic origin meaning "light", and Norah has Latin origin meaning "honor". No doubt anyone named Sara or Hannah can attest to how annoying having a silent optional 'h' on the end of your name is. "Nora Rasmussen" has a doubled up "ra" sound. It sounds a little like the negation of a deity. It's very close to the name of the title character in the Dora the Explorer children's television show. is available.