Why A Name's Official Meaning Isn't That Important

by Rita Templeton
Originally Published: 
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When we choose a baby name, the first thing we’re often drawn to is its sound. But in second place, holding almost as much weight, is the name’s meaning.

We want to call our children something meaningful. If a name means “strength,” we hope that it somehow bestows that quality upon our little babies, like a good-luck charm. It’s why we peruse databases and books, looking to get a deeper understanding. The sound is the first test, and the meaning is the next hurdle a name must clear. And we might toss out a dozen names, like some kind of baby name KonMari, just because what’s written beside them in those databases doesn’t “spark joy.”

But even if a name’s official meaning is boring, uninspiring, or downright unlucky-sounding, we shouldn’t be so quick to disqualify it. Meaning has unique layers, and they go far beyond the definitions we find in a database.

I can use my own middle name as a perfect example. It’s Jane, which – like a ton of other names that stem from the name John – means “God is gracious.” That’s nice and everything, but … yawn.

It’s special, though, because my mom didn’t name me Jane because it means “God is gracious.” She named me Jane because she had three wonderful Janes in her life: a cousin and two of her best friends. They all embodied not only good memories for her, but qualities she hoped I would someday possess.

Last summer, “Orange is the New Black” actress Yael Stone gave birth to a daughter, christening her Pemau Stone Bancroft. If you look for the name Pemau, there’s barely any information available about its origin or meaning. But Stone and her husband, Jack Manning Bancroft, didn’t choose the name because it meant “beautiful” or “gift” or any of the other standard meanings. They chose it to honor little Pemau’s great-great-great grandmother of the same name, who was an Aboriginal Australian of the Bundjalung clan. According to the stories passed down through generations of their family, the elder Pemau was the survivor of a massacre by settlers trying to claim Aboriginal land. So while there may be no clear definition of the name Pemau, to this family, it means strength and tenacity and courage.

The point is, a name’s true meaning lies in so much more than its origin and “official” significance – which may hold zero actual significance at all. If our names are like garments we wear our entire lives, the textbook meaning is one single thread. The entire fabric is made up of so much more: the perceptions, the feelings, and the circumstances of the people who named us … and the people we’re named after.

If you want to name your daughter Rue, so what if it means “regret?” Maybe it goes perfectly with your last name, or you’re a huge “Golden Girls” fan and admire the huge talent of actress Rue McClanahan (a.k.a. Blanche Devereaux), or your father’s name was Rudy and he was the greatest man you ever knew.

If you love the name Byron, who cares if it originally referred to cattle barns? Maybe your grandparents fell in love in Byron, Georgia or Byron, Illinois or Byron, Minnesota or Byron, New York. Or maybe the poem read at your wedding was “She Walks in Beauty” by Lord Byron. For whatever reason you choose it, your Byron’s name will no longer mean “cow barn.” It will mean love, and happiness, and new beginnings.

Chances are, years down the road, you’ll forget the meaning in the baby name books entirely. But you’ll never forget the story behind how you chose the name, the significance it held in your life, and the hopes and emotions you attached to it when you gave it to your child.

Isn’t that the most important meaning of all?

Find your own baby name inspiration with the Scary Mommy Baby Name Database!

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