Baby Name Shortlist – How To Decide

December 17, 2008 By: erik Category: Family, Offspring 883 views

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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.

  • The naming thing is so fraught isn’t it? All of these names are lovely and the .com availability cracks me up completely. Nerd.

  • Heather

    I like Elisa, or Lydia. Is there one particular reason why Isabella or Gabriella aren’t mentioned though? Both are done here and there……

  • Sure, Heather, there are some names that fit the pronunciation pattern but that we just aren’t that fond of. Those are good suggestions.

  • I wish I had some clear criteria to use for picking a baby name. We’re getting so close to our due date and still have no real clue what the baby will be called.

    I all of your choices are good, though.

    What I want to know is, if (babyname) wasn’t available, would it disqualify the name?

  • Andrea, the domain name thing was kind of a joke, but I will definitely end up buying the domain for the eventual name. If the domain name was unavailable, it would not disqualify, it would just be an item in the “con” column for that name.

    It annoys me to no end that some jerk named Rick (not even Erik!) owns and keeps renewing it even though he doesn’t use it.

  • Names are hugely important (no pressure bro).

    I like all of the names you have chosen except possibly Nora. There was a famous sitcom from England called Last of the Summer Wine with a battleaxe called Nora Batty. The actress who played her did just die so this association should decline over time. Also this is just my personal bias from growing up in a commonwealth country watching shitty English sitcoms.

    I guess it is true that all names have life cycles and they rise and fall in popularity and change meaning over time. The trick is to pick a name with a positive vibe in 20 years time.

    I also think that names should be rare but not unique. I don’t think you should ever call a child Apple but I also feel that overly common names like John have little value in distinguishing the child/person as an individual.

    Freakonomics by D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner does an excellent analysis of names and socio-economic status that is well worth reading. The book is based on research in the USA but is will make you think about whether you are giving your daughter a ‘rich’ name or a ‘poor’ name.

  • I definitely like Elisa. As far as pronounciation goes, according to your observation about Erik being Ereek, I supect that English speakers will rhyme it with Melissa and Spaniards will rhyme it with Lisa. Either is pretty. As Hubbers points out, some names have associational problems. Although I think Lydia is nice, it will take me a while to get over thinking of the “hood” girl in my 7th grade class with dyed jet black teased hair and super dark eye makeup. 1960s goth, I suppose. As it turns out, a name quickly reassociates with its new owner, so that shouldn’t be a problem for long. Keep us posted.

  • Liz

    Actually, that’s kind of funny Betsy had a goth Lydia she related… slightly similar to the Lydia from Beetlejuice.

    I think all names are gorgeous. Our friends Rob and Janice decided their first daughter’s name by pretending to yell at her for coming home late. They ended up deciding yelling “Haley!” just felt more natural than their other contending name.

  • Paul

    Elisa, Fiona, Lydia, Nora – all beautiful.

  • I should have known you would all be too polite to show preference. Useless bunch of Switzerlands, you lot.

    Liz, we had honestly not considered the “What sounds good to scream in anger?” angle. Fiona is a good yelled name, what with the lip-biting necessary for the F sound. And Nora’s two-syllable simplicity is good for that, too.

  • As linguistics people with two boys whose names work well in Polish, English, Slovene, and Bulgarian, Magda and I had an interesting and fun discussion about your post as she read it over my shoulder. As rusty phoneticians there was some debate about some of the terminology that could be involved. My most general take is that you’re talking about ‘phonetic inventory’, or the sounds that commonly occur in a given language. Vowels are a common problem, as you illustrate in the ‘beach’/’bitch’ anecdote. Adam has what would appear to be as straightforward a name as one could imagine. It turns out, though, that as a European kid both A’s in his name come out broader than an American would pronounce them, so his paternal grandmother/aunties etc. end up mashing his name a bit — which they also do with ‘Maygduh’ for the same reason, and even Aleksander — whose name avoids that weird ‘x’ thing — suffers from it. They’ve all got potential schwas, a sound that, like the short ‘i’ in your name, is common in English but less so in many other languages (though it’s hot in Bulgarian).

    This is all my way of saying that while your goal is noble (and also better thought out than ours was), don’t be surprised if you don’t achieve 100% of it. We’ll all love her no matter how we say it.

    If you were asking for votes I would vote for Fiona. And as a dull John I resent Hubbers’s comment. Can’t wait for the hour-of-birth pool.

  • Woooo! I forgot about the hour-of-birth pool.

    I am also mildly resentful as a plain Jane but I think that has more to do with the phrase “plain Jane” than any idea that the relative dullness of my name says anything about me as a person. For better or worse, I have distinguished myself. In which way depends on who you ask.

    Whatever name you pick will be wonderful.

  • Amy

    I just found your blog today and love it already! I am not facing motherhood just yet, but my Spanish husband and I have had this same conversation. And we’ve already decided on the same limiting guideline about the names working equally well in Spanish and in English. I hadn’t actually gone on to think about the day-to-day difficulties of changing the pronunciation depending on the audience. Something to keep in mind… If anything I think we’d lean more towards a name that works well in Spanish considering that, in general, Americans are more used to “strange” names… I look forward to seeing what you choose.

  • Amy

    Oh, yeah, and what about Sofia? I love that name.

  • Thanks, Amy. I like Sofia, too, and it does perfectly meet the pronunciation criteria. Of the people on my blogroll, one has named his daughter Sofia, and another lives in Sofia, Bulgaria. Plus, I dig that it means “wisdom”.

    During the discussions, both Marga and I had, and exercised, no-explanation veto power to cross off suggested names. Marga vetoed Sofia. I vetoed some names she liked, too.

    I agree that Americans would probably do better with strange names. Look who they elected president!

  • I vote for Lydia.
    More suggestions here:

  • Yeah, the veto thing worked well for us as well.

    We did almost what you are doing, but didn’t limit it to a day of calling the unamed baby one of our ideas. We would come up with a name we both liked it and called the baby that until we either a) decided it just wasn’t right b) decided we wouldn’t try any more because we liked the one we had chosen.

    We had fun messing with the grandparents by calling it the most outlandishly obsurd names we could come up with.

    My vote: Fiona (I like Fiona Apple 🙂

  • Godfather Tom

    You’ve undoubtedly given this a lot of thought. I dare say, more than most. All good choices. My order would be Elisa, Lydia, Fiona and Nora. Alternative suggestion – Alyssa. Later.

  • Have you considered Elise? That would be pronounced the same in both languages Eleeese.

  • I vote for Fiona. (Just don\’t use Lucia, my wife says.)

    I wonder if you\’ve already vetoed: Nikita, Paloma, Ramona, Bianca, Eva?



  • Forgot to mention…

    Please for the love of all that’s worth loving;

    Stop naming your kids Yésica. (Yonatan, Yenifer, etc.)

  • I’m with you on the Y names, Ray. Nokia? Now that you mention it, “iPhone Rasmussen” has a nice ring to it.

    Of the others you listed, Eva was pretty high on our lists but dropped in the quarter finals. And there’s no way I’m giving my kid a name that means “pigeon”.

    Hey, Ray, how do the Spaniards do with pronouncing your name? Does it sound like “rye” or have you trained them to call you “king”? Or do you just go by Ramón in some places?

  • Due to my not caring what people call me has led to a virtual “potaje”
    Some people call me “Rye”, some “Rey”, some “Tomás” (my first, legal name; Raymond is my middle name.) Very few call me Ramón, and even fewer call me “Junior” (Yíºñor)

    My wife calls me “Ray” (English pronunciation, & soft “R”)

    Sometimes it helps me to know where someone is coming from, based on what version they use. i.e. Telemarketer vs. cow-orker.

  • erik

    Ha! I just discovered this, more than two years later.

  • bawa

    Reminds me of out name choosing days and how they worked out. Same rules as you to choose one but had to work in Spanish, Basque, English, Punjabi & Hindi, at least…you can picture the nightmare. I literally “invented” one for my daughter, then found out when my husband went to register it that a version with a different spelling was registered in the Canary Islands; he battled hard for it to be spelt the way we wanted, with an “i” instead of a “y”.
    For my son we gave him a simple name, with easily recognisable version in western countries, i.e. Mikel and my Dad’s name as a testimonial, purely decorative, horrible to pronounce by anyone who is not a Punjabi. Come teen years, guess what he is known by? A shortened, hip version of my Dad’s name, as his friends say Mikel is too common and there are too many of them!!!
    On top of that we have our daughter complaining why she wasn’t given an exotic second name, discrimination, etc. etc.
    So much for all our efforts…