Kinder namesBy Michael L. Tan
Philippine Daily Inquirer
Talk about life in surreal Philippines. The other week there was a news article about a man who had committed suicide after his girlfriend broke up with him. Her name was Hopeless.
As a university administrator I have to sign countless documents with all kinds of names. Reading about Hopeless reminded me of a student whose name was Ruthless.
We seem to have extremes in the naming process in the Philippines. On one hand, there are parents who look at the naming process almost as a chance to pull a practical joke, as it seems with these “less” names. Another similar case from many years back was a Filipino who made the news because he was denied entry into the United States. The news article noted the irony in that his name was Wel Come. I am sure whoever named him was consciously playing with the surname.
On the other extreme, there are parents who take the naming too seriously, in the sense that they want the child to be a way of declaring their love for each other to the world. I’m referring to the many children whose names are derived from their parents. Was it possible, I wondered, if Hopeless was the child of Hope and Lester, and Ruthless, of Ruth and Lester? Probably not, since there is an extra “s.”
I have strong reservations about combining syllables from parents’ names, especially if the parents are not aware of what the hybrid word might mean in English or some other language. One of my students, a Catholic priest, jokes that it would be horrible if a Concepcion and a Domingo decide to use this method of naming—a way of declaring that the child was conceived not just out of their love but because of the failure of a particular family planning method.
These hybridized names are a bit like those tattoos of a boyfriend or girlfriend’s name, who you think you will love forever. Alas, love may not be forever, but the tattoo will. When it comes to a child carrying the hybrid name, the child and the child’s name will be a constant reminder, to the parent who gains custody, of bitter memories from past love.
The tattoo parallel applies as well to the child carrying a strange name since he or she will have to live with it for a lifetime, sometimes together with cruel taunting. The law does allow people to change their names if they can prove it is a source of ridicule but like all legal procedures, a petition for a change of name will entail time and money.
I’ve mentioned that sometimes Filipino parents take the naming process rather lightly. On two occasions I’ve been asked to suggest names for a child already born, with the parents in panic because the hospital was asking for a name to put on the birth certificate. On both occasions, the parents said they were just overwhelmed by the many possible names, including a possible combination of their names.
Saints and Jesus
Life was easier with the old system of naming a child after the liturgical calendar, way back during the Spanish colonial period. The child would be named after the saint whose feast day or after some other religious observance on which his or her birthday fell. It did result in getting all kinds of names, including some obscure ones. It also became awkward when it came to feast days not involving a particular saint. It was easy enough with someone born on the feast of the Immaculate Conception; the name of the child would then be, oops, the name Concepcion returns. It got trickier if you were born on the feast of the Lord’s Circumcision, which is Jan. 1. That feast day is no longer observed by the Roman Catholic Church, which now designates the day as the Solemnity of Mary.
Today you don’t need to use a Catholic religious calendar, although you might still want to check with your parish priest. I am told that the Catholic Church now discourages the use of the name Jesus, out of concern that the child might end up not very nice and bring disgrace to that revered name.
Some countries, like Germany and Sweden, have laws specifying that names should not cause offense or, in the case of Sweden, “cause discomfort” or they would not be accepted for registration. Denmark and Iceland go a step further with lists of pre-approved names, from which parents have to choose. Both countries, together with Germany, are strict about gender-specific names and recently a case in Iceland made international news: A 15-year-old girl sued the government for the right to use the name “Blaer.” Her mother had given her that name but because it was reserved for males, the government did not allow the registration, and all these years the girl’s name in official documents has been “Stulka,” which means, well, girl.
Hunky Mike Tan
National name registries aside, the Internet has many sites with suggestions for baby names. Most of the sites even give the meaning of the suggested names and some statistics on how often each name has been used. There are also specific sites for Muslim names, Hindu names, Chinese names.
I always tell my friends to give their children at least two first names, to avoid the problem I have. Google “Michael Tan” and you’ll find hundreds of them living all over the world. I’ve even met some of these doppelgänger Michael Tans, including one who has gone through the same hassles whenever he travels overseas. Both of us—and I presume other Filipino Michael Tans—have to carry a certification from the government that we are not the three Michael Tans wanted for various criminal offenses and who have travel hold orders.
It’s also tough if you share names with celebrities, in my case, a certain actor. Last month I sent my driver to pick up some books I had just bought and he came back laughing, telling me that the bookshop owner had asked him if I was the actor. That would have been a nice story except that the owner’s assistant just had to remark, “Naman, ang tanda tanda na ’yung customer mo, paano ’yan maging Mike Tan.” (Goodness, your customer’s so old, he can’t be Mike Tan.)
For readers not familiar with celebrities, there is a young hunk of an actor named Mike Tan (formal name Jan Michael Tan). I told my driver next time he’s asked, he should do what I do: Without batting an eyelash, I say, “Anak ko.” (He’s my son.) Check my photograph, s-t-r-e-t-c-h your imagination and you’ll see the resemblance.
Names can be fun, but let’s be serious and kinder, when it comes to naming our kids.
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