April 28, 2016
The Name Therapist, by Duana Taha
Often the most remarkable story about names is the fact that sometimes there isn’t a story at all. For example: I somehow managed to be named after two Irish counties entirely by accident. “What where your parents thinking?” people have asked me, imagining me as the offspring of two Munster enthusiasts, but I don’t think they were thinking of much beyond euphony. Although my maternal grandmother had a difference of opinion about that, and suggested “Lea” as a middle name to soften the sound, which was how I came to be called Kerry Lea by everybody on my mother’s side of the family. But I think my father’s family found the double names a bit pretentious (and really, their tendency was to truncate single names to a syllable, so that’s not shocking), so they called me Kerry, and in my mind it was a bit like having two selves, Kerry and Kerry Lea being people entire distinct from each other. (Further: carrying around an extra name is very cumbersome, and I ditched the “Lea” altogether at the beginning of grade one at a very singular moment in which my teacher asked me what I wished to be called, and I proclaimed myself a Kerry and so have been ever since.)
So what I mean about names, and what Duana Taha means too in her wonderful new book, The Name Therapist, is that even the names without a story turn out to be stories, and for some of us, those stories are inherently interesting. Name nerds, she calls us. In high school, I owned an A-Z of baby names, just because it made for good reading. I used to collect weird and wonderful names I encountered in books—Beezie from A Swiftly Tilting Planet and Zeeney from Louise Fitzhugh’s The Long Secret were two very bizarre ones I fancied once (and while I didn’t end up naming anybody Zeeney, I named my firstborn after another character in the same book). More often than I ever wrote actual stories as a child, I invented fictional class lists, the names telling me everything about the plots inherent, multiple Melissas, and everything. I made up families too, ones with kids a bit older than me, sisters called Robin, Tracey and Karen—don’t you know exactly who these people are? There was a time in which I wanted to a name my child Ariadne, and about a decade ago, my husband and I had a fictional daughter called Sadie Rose who was very well behaved, and then when I gave birth to actual children, I called them Harriet Joy and Iris Malala, who were not named accidentally at all.
And so for me, reading The Name Therapist was a bit like going to church. Over the years, Duana Taha has established some serious name cred through her column on the blog Lainey Gossip, writing about names, helping expectant parents sort through Ellas and Bellas, and marvelling at phenomena like Jayden, Cayden and Brayden. She continues to explore these ideas in her book, as well as sharing her own experiences growing up with an unusual name, and how her Irish and Egyptian parents’ experiences with their names informed the selection of her name. (Her mother, Mary Veronica, who was only ever, inexplicably, called Maureen.)
The book is a delicious mix of memoir and social science, even better reading than the Baby Name A-Z (which was very good, actually, because it was from there that I first discovered that Zoe meant life, and that Elaine was a variant of Helen). Taha writes about naming trends, sibling matches, “Utah names,” Starbucks names, same-sex couples with the same name, and just what it feels like to be a Jennifer. Taha’s thesis is that a difficult name builds great character, and that learning to be a Myfanwy will make Myfanwy an awesome girl. She’s got a thing against Gords, but don’t take it personally if you are one. She delves into stripper names, African-American names, and why the Baby Name A-Z’s are so ridiculously Anglo-centric. Names and class. Also, what it felt like to be the parent of a child called Atticus during the summer of 2015.
Name therapy is not an exact science, and Taha’s thesis (name as character builder) was disproved more than once throughout her research, but I think that this was never meant to be a controlled experiment. Instead, it’s a book that will be delighted in by most people who’ve ever thought hard about how they were named and why, and what it means to name somebody else. It’s rich with stories, connections, and fascinations. And that I couldn’t write about it without sharing name stories of my own proves Taha’s overarching premise: that names are something it’s hard to shut up about.