What’s in a Name?

This is the second letter to my cousin while she is pregnant. You can read the first one here. This one came after a brief exchange celebrating the end of her first trimester and a short list of names that her and her partner had come to. With very different backgrounds and cultural traditions around naming, their process has been involved from the beginning. Their little one is still nearly half a year from being world ready, but the question of what to call them is one that can start early.

Naming a human can feel like a big responsibility. I have put a fair amount of thought into this whole naming thing, especially since renaming myself in my early twenties.

When I first started going by Kori, it was almost like a drag persona. It was a name picked out with the help of a partner and her brother. We were spending Christmas at their parents condo while the rest of the extended family feasted. We were not with the rest because there was offense taken to our queerness. We instead got drunk, gave each other bad haircuts and played the “if you were to have a name of the *opposite* gender what would it be” game. I tried on the name Kori and people started remembering my name. People told me that they had previously had a hard time remembering my name, but this new option fit in a way that made it easier to remember. It fit. So it stuck.

The name my mom gave me when I was born, not so much. I was told that the name came from a bar of Heather scented soap given to her in the hospital. Of course being a “Heather” in public school in the 90s had it’s own impacts. I was one of at least 3 with the same name in almost every grade. We all became first name, last initial kids. Some people refer to the name a trans person had pre-transition as a “dead-name”, Heather is not a “dead-name” to me; it’s a name I survived and learned resilience from. It is an important piece in how I learned who I was. I found a nickname pretty early on. Which of course for me was derived from my last name. I found that when I was Dot, at guides or with other out-of-school friends, my personality had room to blossom. I was more confident and outgoing. The victim experiences associated I had with being a Heather were set aside. I discovered the power of a name, and the power of naming myself by the time I was twelve.

But naming a brand new human, especially one that hasn’t even been born yet, comes with all the weight of choosing right and all the mystery of who they may become. I don’t necessarily expect my kids to keep the names I give them forever, but they might, and so I did want to try and find something that would work. For me, a pretty big requirement was a name that didn’t fall squarely into a binary gender assignment. With the intent of parenting with room for gender self determination, assigning a binary name felt contrary to my approach. Of course the majority of names do come with gendered associations, so I found myself picking from a small pool or knowing that I’d have to find something from off the map altogether.

When I was pregnant I went to the ocean. I felt something, some sort of connection between the kid growing inside me and the waves lapping at my feet. I collected shells and driftwood for this child who would inevitably grow up far away from the current coastline, knowing that there was some sort of important connection there. I knew that this child was of the sea.

There had been a working title, a name picked and used for them before they were born. The name was Artemis, and it came through my ex partner when I fell out of a tree I was pruning at the beginning of my pregnancy. I pondered the possibility of keeping this name for the kid once they were born, but it didn’t feel quite right. I think parenting, and the responsibilities and rights that come along with it are earned and require a commitment and presence that I was now the sole holder of. It was on me to pick a name.

Since I wasn’t answering the “Is it a boy or a girl?” questions, people started lightly applying pressure. “You gotta give us something… what do we call this kid?” From the depths of childbirth recovery pain and brand new nocturnal infant sleep deprivation I pondered and puzzled. I knew that it had something to do with the Sea. I was tossing around names like Merrick and Meryl, Saebjorn and Sigrid. I was weighing out the impacts of having a name like Merrick and being born right after Donald Trump was elected to Make Mericka Great Again or having a name like Sigrid (which I prefered pronounced in the Nordic style and would be utterly unpronounceable to most English speakers) that would end up being Anglicized to a sound I liked far less.

I knew I needed to sleep when the baby slept, but instead I was sitting up, watching them and scrolling through name meaning websites into the wee hours. I tried to look through their generic baby features to see if I could see the person they would grow up to be. I said names out loud and would hear names in my dreams. The websites that have baby name stuff on them know that the people who are browsing them are heavily out of sorts. They are filled with exploitative ads and tricks to pull you deeper into internet worm holes than you already are. The sidebars are filled with things you MUST buy to be a good parent and fake news stories about parents fucking it up.

Eventually I made a list of suffixes I would consider as an ending to Sea. I ran them through my closest friends and birth keepers. I searched the names I was considering until I found this:


As Ryl you have a great love of nature and the out-of-doors, and could have a desire to be in an occupation which takes you outdoors and involves you with the products of the earth.

All the finer things of life and beauties of nature are an inspiration to you and you are attracted to the mysteries of nature.

That all sounded about right, but by the time I got to the bottom of the page and read this:

This name would cause tension affecting the eyes, teeth, sinuses, ears or throat troubles; there could also be sensitivity in the heart, lungs, and respiratory organs, and frequent headaches.

Obviously I didn’t want to curse my child with such inflictions, but they were born with a clogged tear duct that made them have a goopy eye and their sinuses were very snarfly from coming fast into the world in a rush of their fluids. That was it. SeaRyl. Searyl. Baby Sea.

When I started introducing them people would miss hear through my mumbling and think I said Zero or Cereal. The exact pronunciation refined the more I said it. How well it fit them continued to show itself the more I got to know them. Some people would respond that their grandfathers’ name had been Cyril, a similar sounding name that meant Lord or Masterful, that was mostly given to men more than sixty years ago. Similar, but different I would tell them, and spell out the letters. Spelling Searyl would roll off my tongue with increasing ease as my phones’ autocorrect learned to stop turning it into Seattle. I noticed as the kid started to learn to recognize their name. I look forward to the meanings they ascribe to it as they grow into it. I look forward to helping them pick a different name if a time comes that Sea doesn’t feel like a good fit anymore.

So as you sit with your short list, say those names out loud, listen in the ways that aren’t really a hearing sense but about an alignment with the little one growing inside you. Talk with them about who they are and what they might be called. Listen in your dreams. And be prepared to possibly change the plan, whether it be when they are born or days or weeks or years later. I know that this new family member will show us things about the world we could’ve never predicted. I look forward to meeting them and being introduced to the name your family chooses for them. And don’t be too hard on yourself, if they grow into it, great; if they grow out of it, you’ll be there to support them finding what comes next.

  1 comment for “What’s in a Name?

  1. Divona Hedley
    March 15, 2017 at 1:18 am

    What a wonderful article Kori.

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