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Toeing the Line Between a Creative and Crackpot Baby Name

Gwyneth has Apple. Frank Zappa has Moon Unit and Dweezil. And a New Zealand family has Talula Does the Hula from Hawaii.

At least they did.

Nine-year-old Talula Does the Hula convinced a judge to put an end to her parents’ attempt at whimsy last month with a name change that made international news. Her creative parents got a tongue-lashing from Judge Rob Murfitt for “[making] a fool of the child and [setting] her up with a social disability and handicap unnecessarily.”

Murfitt’s become a folk hero to wackily named children the world over. But a legion of creative namers are outraged.

“Normal names like John or David have always seemed very unimaginative and even stifling to me,” says Lynette Bondarchuk. When she gave birth to a boy in 2005, the Edmonton, Alberta, mom graced him with the name of a character from a ’70s made-for-TV movie. The brainchild of musician Henry Nilsson (supposedly while tripping out on acid), the film followed Oblio, the only round-headed creature in an animated land where everything is pointy.

“I saw the film in 1978 – when I was nine – and never forgot the story,” Bondarchuk says.

She tacked on Justice as a middle name – to represent her own social activism – and opted out on a traditional last name. The result? Her little boy is Oblio Justice X. That’s right – X, as in Malcolm, who dropped his given surname, Little, because he considered it a slave name. Bondarchuk now uses “X” professionally as well, and defends her choice vehemently.

“As I said to one friend-of-a-friend – Marie – who repeatedly disparaged his name (within earshot) every time she saw us, ‘What makes Oblio any worse than Marie?’”

Similar logic convinced Portland, Oregon, parents Kurt and Cathy Kemmerer that it wouldn’t be “too bad” to name their son Catcher.

“I had just spent the past week watching the Ken Burns documentary Baseball,” Kurt explains. “This left me with fresh memories of many of the old-time names and nicknames. Dizzy, Babe, Mordechai, Mookie, Boog and Solly are a few that I threw out, thinking I was being funny and lightening up the mood.”

“Fine. If we’re going to go with baseball, why not just Pitcher or Catcher or First Base?” Cathy spit back. It was a joke, but Catcher stuck.

“We did feel slightly embarrassed to tell people his name at ball games, though we have grown used to it now,” Kurt admits.

Catcher is what name researcher Laura Wattenberg calls a “meaning name.” The author of the Baby Name Wizard says thousands of parents are creating names out of common nouns with which they have positive memories or connotations.

“A small percentage of parents are simply captivated by some unusual name idea,” she says. “But more often, parents start off seeking a distinctive name then cast around for inspiration. That often means ending up with a name that has personal meaning, whether it’s your favorite baseball stadium, your great-great-grandmother’s maiden name, or the name of the street where you were born.”

Vivian Hung and Joe Giamarese chose “Alila,” the name of a Balinese hotel where they spent a luxurious few days during Vivian’s pregnancy. “We knew that we wanted to name our daughter after a place that is beautiful, tranquil and exotic,” Hung recalls. “She has been back to the hotel recently and thinks it is hers. If we could be so lucky that she owns hotels around the world when she grows up!”

Hung would call Alila “unusual.” “But it isn’t odd like Pilot or Apple,” she says.

So where’s the line?

In America, there is none. There are laws limiting what can show up on a vanity license plate, but there are none governing a child’s moniker. The lack of legislation has yielded famous cases like the unfortunately named twins “Lemonjello and Orangejello” (although there’s some controversy about whether the ‘jello twins are an urban legend) and the ever popular Shithead (pronounced Shuh-teed).

It’s also given parents leave to play Webster, inventing words and rearranging letters to offer up an alternate spelling or a new pronunciation for the same old name. Danette Mall’s parents split their names in half and crunched them together.

“They created me, so they created a name,” the fifty-seven-year-old Upstate New York office manager says. “It’s really a curse. It’s constantly misspelled, mispronounced, and when I try to leave a message with someone, they are sure I’m saying it wrong. They call me Janet, Jeanette, Danielle, Darlene.”

The daughter of creative-minded Daniel and Antoinette, Danette was determined to be a parent at the polar opposite of the spectrum. Joseph has dropped no lower than thirteenth in the Social Security Administration‘s list of top male baby names over the past eighteen years. His brother Jonathan has enjoyed only slightly more obscurity – it’s gone as high as seventeen and as low as twenty-three on the list in the same time frame.

“I couldn’t go more common!” their mom said with a grin. “I didn’t want them to go through what I do.”

Manhattan child psychologist Dr. Jennifer Hartstein says parents need to be more aware of the ramifications of their choice – even if they decide it’s the best one in the long run.

“Many parents choose names that are in the family, that they like, that sound good to them or are meaningful to them,” she explains. “It’s hard to consider what will happen to their children at different times of their lives. I think most families use names that are somewhat meaningful or that they like and go from there – I don’t think parents connect the fact that bullying could even be a factor.”

A 2002 study by the Families and Work Institute found that sixty percent of kids in grades five through twelve had been teased or gossiped about “in a mean way.”

“It is really a catch-22,” Hartstein says. “Having a unique and different name certainly can make a child feel special – certainly as a ‘Jennifer’ growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, I had to work hard to figure out how to distinguish myself from all the other Jennifers. It can also make them feel different. That difference can sometimes cause feelings of isolation and separateness. This is especially difficult when a child just wants to be like his or her peers.”

Research points to a child’s body size or shape as the prime impetus for schoolyard bullying, but Hartstein said a unique name can certainly provide fodder for a bully. “When bullying does become a factor, I feel as though parents need to treat it as any other bullying issue,” she says. “Of course, kids may say, ‘But why did you have to name me that?’ And I think parents should have a good answer.”

The Root columnist Jimi Izrael wrote about African-American names in a July 2008 column. He took issue with “names like LeQuinta, Lexxus, Maxima or Versachi,” and says he put his foot down when his youngest son’s mother wanted to name their child after the rapper Nas. “We need to give our kids a chance,” Izrael said. “I don’t know how far you can reasonably expect a child named ‘Fuquan’ to get in life.”

What affect a markedly ethnic name – or a bizarre name of any source – can do to a child earned a whole chapter in the popular 2005 book Freakonomics. Authors Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner debated whether the kids can ever attain success, but fell short of proving the names had any real affect. A boy named “Loser,” for example, went on to become a sergeant in the New York Police Department. His brother, Winner, has a rap sheet a mile long. Whether their names played a role in their fates, Levitt and Dubner had no answer. The same goes for kids with what they call “black” names and those with “white” names. “The data show that, on average, a person with a distinctively black name . . . does have a worse life outcome than a woman named Molly or a man named Jake,” they said. “But it isn’t the fault of their names.”

So is the to-do over Talula overblown?

“I’m all for creativity and special naming – family names mean the world to me,” says Austin, Texas, mom Laura Beck. “But I do think parents today are putting a selfish burden on their children going with a name that seems cool and funky to them at the time, but that an individual has to carry through with them for eighty-some-odd years.”

So she’d be a “normal” namer, right? If you consider Thea Fenway Cahoon normal, then, yeah.

Beck and husband Brendon celebrated their beloved Boston Red Sox first World Series win in eighty-six years with a deal – no matter the gender of the baby, its middle name would be after the Beantown stadium. When their little girl arrived, she was named for her great-grandmother, Elthea, and the home of the Green Monster.

“Fenway was something I was comfortable with as a middle name only,” Beck admits. “We’re okay with being a little different and having people kind of double take. But I could not and would not make it her first name. That was too much.”

The “too much” category appears to be getting smaller every year. The “hottest naming trend of the twenty-first century,” according to researcher Wattenberg, is to create a truly unique name, in part because such names are easier to Google. But we better watch out that crazy names don’t become the new John and Emily. One sign that this may be in the works: “Each year,” Wattenberg says, “hundreds of American babies are named ‘Unique.’”

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