What Should You Name Your Child? Ask Sir Tasty…

May 24, 2016

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“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” could have been a plea that Adrian Williams would make to both his mother and the Wisconsin State Appeals Court when he petitioned to change his name to Romanceo Sir Tasty Maxibillion back in 1995. The State of Wisconsin didn’t buy it; though it actually could have made him easier to find as a parolee (did I mention he was incarcerated at the time?). His mother’s response? Maternal intuition leads me to think that she would also take umbrage at the choice. “Sir Tasty,” as I like to call him, asked the court to allow him a name that is unique, creative, and the embodiment of his aspirations. In this respect, the criminal’s mind was working with thought processes not unlike many soon-to-be parents preparing for a new arrival.

Talk of the trend of modern creative naming has come into prominence once more. A judge in Tennessee recently disallowed the name Messiah for a young child. What received a lot of attention was judicial over-involvement and the judge’s decision to order that Messiah not be the child’s legal name. Judge Lu Ann Ballew became involved because this was a case of parental indecision on what should be the baby’s surname.  I saw little outrage over the tragedy of the child’s unmarried parents haggling over choice of surname — a sorry intimation of discord to come in his young life. In the course of this decision the judge decided that Messiah was not an appropriate first name. Many people have been shocked and irate with the judge’s pronouncement that Messiah is an offensive name, in that it only belongs to Jesus Christ, thus raising this essentially to another debate about Church/State separation. (To add to the Judge Ballew’s opinion, I would interject that “Messiah” might also be a name that is offensive to Jews who believe the Messiah is still to come.)

I was more shocked to read that “Messiah” is fourth among the fastest trending names in popularity according to the U. S. Social Security Administration. There were close to 800 little Messiahs born in the United States last year. So, while one child has been spared an unusual and inappropriate name, this well-publicized case has made no contribution to pushing back the trend of unfortunate names. American freedom allows parents to pull out all the stops when giving one of their first and most permanent gifts to their children. Many parents feel no constraints when deciding baby names. Even our constitution’s “Title of Nobility clause” has not interfered with the Princes, Barons, and Queenies that have populated hospital nurseries.

Here I must confess that as a child I was somewhat appalled and confused when I learned that Jesus was used as a man’s name. It was many years before I learned that Jesus is such a popular Hispanic name because it dates back some centuries to a trend of special devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus in Spanish speaking countries. This began most assuredly from a pious movement and not parental ego. 

So what’s a parent to do? Catholic Canon law helps us by giving a definitive directive to parents choosing a name for their child. (Can. 855: Parents, sponsors, and the pastor are to take care that a name foreign to Christian sensibility is not given.) That still allows quite a bit of latitude for parental decision-making. Helping to protect a child from parental idiocy and crass cultural and commercial influence it also guides the new parent toward an opportunity to create for the child a close personal bond with a particular member of the Communion of Saints.

It is traditional in many Catholic countries for children to celebrate their “name day” with the same, and sometimes more, joy-filled gravitas as birthdays. In Italy, for instance, the name day or “onomastico” is given as much importance as a birthday. Before I was familiar with some of these ethnic traditions I also tried in my own way to celebrate the children’s name days. Morning Mass – “Hey, pay attention, the priest will say your name during the prayers!” – followed by breakfast out or a special dessert at dinner. And, naturally, talk of the saint with whom the name is shared.

Of course, some of my children would game the system. Bridget, for instance. Is it Bridget of Ireland or Sweden? How about both? Sure, why not. As the children are now grown I still try to make some sort of recognition of their name day — even if it was only this summer’s last minute posting of a cartoon of St. Martha, with the addition of a plea to the rest of the family, “It’s July 29! Give Martha a break — somebody else do the dishes today!”

Our affinity for traditional names made our transition to Catholic life easy. Each of my children has a saint’s name. Except for our Emily, none of the names has made the Social Security Administration popularity list for about a century. One of my criteria for naming a baby has been the degree of timelessness; that it should look as good on a baby announcement as on a business card and eventually a senior citizen’s discount card.

There is endless room in the Communion of Saints. A day may come when there is a Prince or a Pilot Inspektor canonized. The array of saints whose names we have to draw upon have grown over the years and will continue to grow. For now there is a treasury of holy names to draw from. Though there are so many areas in which sentiment should not become confused or burdensome to our faith, the choosing of a child’s name can be an exception. Just as we hand along family stories along with names — an aunt with the middle name of Frances or Aunt Martha from Chicago — we are privileged to help our family build a similar kinship and affection with the saints in Heaven. 

One of the first gifts a child receives is intangible yet enormously weighty. As Judge Ballew said of the child in the controversial case, “at this point he has had no choice.” This happy yet serious choice should not be undertaken as a chance for the parents to express wit and creativity. Our laws respect the effect of permanent, life altering decisions to the extent that in most states a minor cannot get a tattoo, even with parental permission. A name is another permanent mark, though the only ink work is on official documents. 

Wit and whimsy have traditionally been relegated to nicknames. I joke that if I knew I would have four daughters in a row I would have named them Flora, Fauna, Merryweather, and Briar Rose. But I wouldn’t make a legal, permanent joke of it, no more than I would sign birth certificates naming my sons Chazmataz and Sir Tasty. (My second son, now a young man of normal proportions, managed to quadruple his nine-pound birth weight in six months and Sir Tasty was a good nickname.)

A thoughtful parent of any faith should be able to understand the lifelong influence of a name. The Christian is blessed to have the legacy of the Church for help; being informed by faith and deliberating with reason. Good sense should prevail. My family vetoed my choice to name our husky puppy Romanceo Sir Tasty Maxibillion – or even just Sir Tasty. Don’t the youngest humans deserve as much concern?