The Quest for the Perfect Bilingual Baby Name

11 Jan

It’s hard to agree on baby names, period. But when the name has to work in 2 different languages, plus be okay with all the cultural connotations that go with it in 2 different cultures, naming your kid starts to feel like an impossible task. It’s added (self-imposed) difficulty, too, because we stubbornly refuse, again, to find out the baby’s sex. Thus we’re looking for not one but two perfectly apt and bilingual names (I repeat: this is due to not knowing the sex. I am not having twins, thank you very much.)

A close-up of my giant belly. Nope, really not twins. Don't even ask.

A close-up of my giant belly. Nope, really not twins. Don’t even ask.

Part of me wonders if I shouldn’t just give up on my attempt at making it work in both places. I mean, when we named our daughter, we were sure that Lucia was utterly perfect, spelled and pronounced the same in both languages. I must have gotten that impression from my Italian roots or something (although it’s pronounced Lu-chia in Italian), because we discovered at her first doctor’s appointment in the U.S. that other people from the U.S. believe this name to be pronounced Lu-sha. Seriously. I was shocked. Lu-see-uh isn’t the English pronunciation of Lucia??? How could this be? I consoled myself with the fact that we’d be living in another country, a country where they’d pronounce her name the way we’d intended, at least long enough for her to be old enough to correct people.

For baby number two, we’re looking for basically the same things as before. Criteria number one is a name that’s not so common that there’ll be 3 just the same in his or her classroom, but that’s not so outlandishly original that nobody knows what to make of it. We’ve ruled out Jasmine/Jasmin/Jazmin/Yasmin based on this; it’s way too common down here, and getting more common up there, too.

We are also not sadists enough to give our child a name that they are likely to be ruthlessly teased for forever. For example, I love the name Penelope, and it’s similar and pretty in both languages. But Conan keeps nixing it because the first four letters spell penis in Spanish, and he says we’re bound to be giving her a difficult childhood if we name her that. I questioned one of my students, who happens to be named Penelope, about it the other day, though, and she says that as long as you don’t let people give you a nickname, it’s fine. She says she really likes her name and has no malice towards her parents about it, so I refuse to cross it off of my list, although I do see Conan’s point.

Then we have a “no Brian” rule. Brian has become a popular name down here (bless globalization), but spelled like that, people would pronounce it “Bree-an.” So instead people spell it “Brayan” or some such variation that, in Spanish pronunciation, makes it sound like the English Brian. But of course, in the U.S., Brayan would definitely not be assumed to be Brian when our kid goes to the U.S. Thus, any name where the pronunciation and spelling can’t more or less work together in both languages and countries is out of the question; I don’t want people in one country or the other to never get it.

Granted, the pronunciation doesn’t have to be exactly the same. Conan, for instance, was really intended to be Conán, stress on the an (sorry, Conan, I think I’ve just outed you to the world that you’re not really Irish). But Conan’s not bothered by either pronunciation. The pronunciation of my name is considerably different between the two languages, thanks to the lovely letter J, but it’s recognizable in both, and more importantly, I like it either way.

Liking it in both pronunciations is another must, and thus I ruled out some of my favorites due to a dislike of one sound. Like Leo, which I adore the sound of in English (Lee-oh), but which sounds much duller in Spanish (Lay-oh). I could change the name Leo to Lio, so that people here pronounce it the way I like better (I have already seen this with the name Leah turning into Lia), but then people in the U.S. will be trying to call him lie-oh or something like that (I’d be violating the “no Brian” rule). Plus a lio means a big mess in Spanish- probably not a nice thing to throw on my kid.

We could, of course, just go with a distinctly Spanish or English name and make people deal with it. Brian is not the only popular U.S.-style name around, by any stretch. I was laughing with my friend’s sister here the other day, whose six month old is named Margaret. We were joking about how we both did things backwards because I named my kid a nice Spanish name and she named her kid a nice English name, instead of the other way around. She named her kid after her grandmother, who was named Margarita, but they wanted to change it slightly, hence the Margaret (although people call her Maggie anyway, which I’m sure is spelled Magi or Magy, for the record). So people here would surely adapt nicely to many English-sounding names, as long as the spelling can work with the pronunciation. That leaves us a decent amount of options.

Likewise, people in the U.S. can deal pretty well with some Spanish/Italian/Latin-based names these days. Maybe they can’t yet say Horacio (pronounced Or-ass-ee-oh) instead of Horatio, but I wasn’t going to go with Horacio anyway. Most people can even handle “difficult” Italian names, like, say, Guido or something (also not on my list, however). At least I have the impression that this is true. Part of me wonders if perhaps I think that’s true just because my family can pronounce it, so I’m not ready to totally blow off my thoughtful consideration on this part (which, as we saw with the whole Lucia/Lusha thing, is not an unfounded concern).  But I was running with this borrowing-from-Italian thing, and I got an idea from one of my students the other day- for the name Lorenzo. To me it sounds like an Italian name, which (like my idea of Lucia) qualifies it as “American”ish enough in my universe. It’s pronounced and spelled the same in both Spanish and English, plus I think it’s really pretty and strong. But just when you I was sure I found the perfect name, Conan announced that he hates it, and refuses to be convinced. Just my luck.

Another exciting possibility full of potential are Arabic-based names. They’re a good pick because they mostly work with Spanish spelling and pronunciation (and did you know that Arabic had a giant influence on the Spanish language anyway? Fascinating history there). Common names down here, like Miriam and Fatima, are good examples of the Arab influence. And their pronunciation is the same in English. Plus they’re often really pretty names, especially for boys. But Conan also ruled out my #1 boy name, Khalil. He said Ali was okay if we’re going to pick an Arabic-based name. It would be fun because we could also reference Mohammed Ali the boxer from my city (whose birth name was Cassius Clay, not a name we’re enthralled with, unfortunately).  But I’m not in love with Ali as my kid’s name. It’s a great name, but you can’t really substitute it for Khalil. I mean, Ali the boxer is awesome, but Khalil Gibran the writer is way cooler in my book. So we can’t agree on that one, either.

I’ve run out of ideas, especially if we end up having a boy. I’ve got my favorite girl name picked out, which I think I can talk Conan into (at least he hasn’t said no to it). But we’ve got zilch that we agree on for a boy. I’m getting nervous about having this baby and not being able to name him (if it’s a boy). Luckily, here in Mexico you don’t have to name your kid right away just to take him or her home, so I’m the only one pressuring myself on the name thing. But I’ve seen the nicknames that kids end up with when their parents don’t name them for weeks or months (Caramelo, Panfilo, for example), and I don’t want to go there. Plus I feel like babies already look enough like strange alien creatures when they first come out, and somehow naming them ASAP makes them much more human and real. So please help! We are taking suggestions on this second mission impossible!

This face is a plea for help! We need baby boy name ideas! Or convince Conan to let me use Lorenzo! Or cross your fingers that we have a girl!

This face is a plea for help! We need baby boy name ideas! Or convince Conan to let me use Lorenzo! Or cross your fingers that we have a girl!

8 Responses to “The Quest for the Perfect Bilingual Baby Name”

  1. Donna Fisk January 11, 2015 at 2:54 pm #

    Have you considered using a name that might be considered a last name in either culture, so that you could state unequivocally the correct pronunciation, and also because last names are usually less likely to be shortened to nicknames?
    Since Conan sounds a bit Irish, what about Donovan? Or maybe use Gibran rather than Khalil? The other advantage is that last names are unisex, and in the world as it is right now, a non-gender specific name could be helpful to a female.


    • exiletomexico January 12, 2015 at 10:04 am #

      Good thinking! Conan actually has a cousin with a little boy named Gibran, named after the author as well. But it doesn’t have the same appeal for me. I like the idea, though! Thanks!

  2. Louisville Game Shop (@LouisvilleLGS) January 11, 2015 at 3:03 pm #

    Selena, Martina, Clara, Marisa, Monica, Victoria, Sofia, Olivia para una hija.
    Gabriel, Ignacio, Emilio, Javier, Antonio, Mateo o Matias, Hector, Victor para un hijo. Creo que “Victor” es el mejor.

    • exiletomexico January 12, 2015 at 10:05 am #

      Yes, I especially like Mateo- pero es demasiado popular! #2 on baby names in Mexico for 2013… Alas…

  3. lee1978 January 11, 2015 at 3:34 pm #

    I am particularly fond of Alexi, Mateo,Simon, and Ivan which sound pretty great in both languages. Good luck!

  4. Sheila Blue Hair January 17, 2015 at 4:49 pm #

    of no help what so ever, i am personally fond of sebastion

    • exiletomexico January 19, 2015 at 4:53 pm #

      I’m a fan as well. I don’t think Conan is, though. Damn partnership / coparenting thing! Miss you, lovely Sheila! Hugs!

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