I spent a couple days last week inadvertently learning more German children’s songs and farm animal sounds. I tagged along with one of my Berlin contacts, Michaela, and her fifteen month-old, Anna, as they went to two different parent/child groups. In between songs and time on the jungle gym, I talked to some parents about their children’s names and the stories behind them. Despite the strange looks I usually get for being a childless young person in a room of these parent/child duos (looks that don’t usually stop when I explain that I’m studying something as seemingly random as names), I really enjoy these interviews with parents. I’ve found that, in general, parents are the people who are just as engrossed in the name world as I am, and because most often they’ve spent nine months (or longer) thinking about these things, I learn a lot from conversations with them.
My notes are a little scattered. I got more information from some parents than others (this was largely dependent on language barriers as well as the mood of their child at the time they were talking to me!), but here are some of the names of these Berlin babies and their parents' motivations in choosing them:
Josephine Annie Alice, sister to Lillamore
Josephine’s mother explained that these names were chosen for her daughters because she and her husband wanted names that worked in three places: she’s British, her husband’s French, and they’re all living in Germany. She told me Lillamore is typically a Scandinavian name and they tried to give their daughters middle names that reflected their family background on both sides (for example, Josephine’s second name, Annie, she thought of as an English name, and her third name, Alice, is pronounced the French way).
Philemon Ruben Gabriel, brother to Seraphina Maria Antonia and Cherubin Francis Raphael
These names are quite uncommon for Germany and Philemon’s mother explained that she chose them because they’re all names of angels in the Bible. She told me (perhaps because of the commonality of the middle names they chose), she didn’t have trouble getting them approved at the standesamt. She deliberately gave the kids more common middle names in case they didn’t like their (more unusual) first names.
Tara Maya, sister to Leyla Mara and Dilara Zahra
Tara’s mother explained that because her husband is originally from Turkey, it was a priority for them to choose names that would work there or in Germany. She told me that every time she was pregnant she would watch movies and read through all the screen credits for name suggestions.
Charlotta’s parents decided on the Italian version of Charlotte to make it a little more unusual in Germany. “Alexia” is taken from her mother’s late sister’s name, Alexa, in remembrance of her.
Elisabeth Charlotta, called, Lilo
Lilo’s mother explained that the Charlotta part of her daughter’s name was chosen because she was born in the neighborhood of Charlottenburg in Berlin. Elisabeth is the name of her grandmother and sister, and she liked that in putting the names together, she could form the unusual nickname, Lilo, which also works on its own.
This mother explained that “Lennart” is a Scandinavian version of Leonard that she chose partially because she loved the nickname “Leni.”
Timon’s mother explained that Timon is a Greek name that’s also pretty common in Germany. She liked that it means “honorable” and that it’s a name her relatives in Poland can pronounce. She’s currently pregnant and she and her husband are having a really hard time deciding on a name; she says it’s hard to find one that goes with “Timon.”
Anna was chosen because her parents liked that it was classic name but not too popular. They liked the soft sounds that Anna Sophie has together, and that they felt the name “Anna” would work on her at any age.
Giorgius was named after his grandfather, according to Greek tradition. His mother explained to me that in Greece, typically first borns are all named after the grandfather or grandmother (she told me this is why the scene in My Big Fat Greek Wedding where all of the cousins are introduced as “Nick” or “Nicolette” is scarily accurate). We also talked about how in Greece, names change whether you’re talking to the person, or about the person. “Giorgius” is actually “Giorgu” when he’s being spoken to.
Nollaig Gustav, brother to Ava Sinead and Jack Joseph
Nollaig’s mother explained that her husband is Irish and they wanted to continue the Irish tradition of naming your children after a family member. Her husband’s uncle and brother are both named “Noll" and “Nollaig” is from that. She liked old fashioned names and wanted names for all three kids that would work in Ireland and in Germany. We talked a lot about when names cross cultures in these places, and she told the group about how her husband liked the name Kevin because he saw it as a not too popular, classic Irish boys’ name. She told “absolutely not” and had to explain what “Kevin” has come to be associated with in Germany.
Luc’s mom explained that she saw this name in the Bible and loved how it sounded.
Alexander, brother to Anegrit
Anegrit is an old fashioned name that was big in Germany in the 1950s and 60s. Annagritte’s mother wanted the name “Anna” but her husband wanted the name “Gritte” and she said this was a compromise. She said the decision was harder when it came time to name Alexander, because, as she joked, with boys you can’t use the names of ex-boyfriends. They eventually decided on Alexander because they wanted a name they felt wasn’t too popular, but was a classic.
After talking to these groups of parents, what was amazing to me was just how much they were on the same page. As you can see from above, almost every parent wanted their child to have a name that wasn’t too popular, but a name that could also be considered “a classic”. In many families there was also the question of representing both sides of the family in terms of cultural heritage.
What was also interesting to me, however, was how every single parent (actually, they all were mothers), was in support of the German naming law. As one mother put it, “I like to think I’m open minded, but then I hear some of the names that are chosen and I think, they were allowed to do that? The poor kid.”
I completely understand where they’re coming from, but I also think it is somewhat ironic that (almost) all of these parents wanted unusual names, but all of them were also simultaneously in support of there being a restriction on the names that can be chosen.
I find the part of the German naming law about the welfare of the child to be the most interesting. Six weeks later, I'm still really torn about where I stand on this. Yes, I think it’s absolutely horrible that a couple in the U.S. would choose to name their child Adolf Hitler, for example, but I’m also not sure where I stand when it comes to the question of if I would take away their right to. And, to be honest, I kind of feel like if a child has parents who deliberately choose to name him Adolf Hitler, that kid is going to have a lot bigger problems than what his name is. I also think it is kind of impossible to create a law that restricts names without it leading so some kind of ethnic and cultural biases (I would argue this is what has happened in Morocco, for example).
But when you look around a room of children, like I did last week, and parents calling them by their names, it’s a reminder that these names are people. And while my American liberal biases tend to show through in my belief that people should indeed have the right to name their kid whatever they want, when you’re in a room full of babies, it’s a reminder that names are representing something much bigger than linguistic origins, cultural heritage or popularity trends. Sometimes, I think in all this research, that part is easy to forget.
I was talking to Nollaig’s mother about my travels and when I mentioned that I left last July, she told me that July was the month that Nollaig was born. I looked down at him, in her arms, and I was a little speechless. It was kind of amazing to see this journey that I’ve been on reflected in this little person. While I was in Indonesia and India and Morocco and Germany and Denmark, he came into the world. He cried and learned to roll over and sit up and had an equally busy last six and a half months. It is amazing to me how much can happen in that time. It's a reminder that as I study names, and talk to professors and institutes, parents and children, these names (and the people who carry them), keep coming into the world, living and breathing their own definitions.