How to Navigate “Difficult” Baby Names


Pop quiz:

A pregnant friend of yours has just told you her planned baby name, which happens to honor the baby’s cultural heritage. There is only one problem. You’ve never heard of it before, and you have no idea how you’re going to pronounce it. Do you: a) ask her what she could possibly be thinking by giving her baby such a difficult name; b) advise her to come up with a nickname to make it “easier” on everyone; c) remind her that kids can be cruel and that the baby may have to find a job someday; or d) tell her it’s beautiful and make sure you learn how to pronounce it correctly.


The following tips should help you to answer this question easily. (Spoiler alert: the answer you’re looking for is “d.”)

1. Examine your motives.

If you have the urge to tell your friend to “simplify” her child’s name, think about why you want to do that. Is it because you recognize that almost every culture and ethnicity, upon landing on America’s shores, changed names in some way in order to make the transition easier? Do you feel like that is still a good practice today? Since every culture represented in America has its own history and names with significant meanings, why is it assumed that only certain names are more acceptable?

2. Consider what the name means to them.

Perhaps they come from a country that was colonized, like my husband’s country of birth. My in-laws were born in Nigeria while it was still a British colony and were given Catholic names. They gave my husband a name that was unmistakably Efik (the language of his tribe). We, in turn, gave our children Efik names. Although they are pronounced phonetically, they don’t look like “traditional American” names, so people tend to stumble at first. I’m sure when an acquaintance asked me why I would “do that to my kids,” she had no idea of the history and culture behind the names. Then again, it wasn’t my responsibility to prevent her from sticking her foot in her mouth by shaming me for it.

3. Consider what they mean to you.

You will learn all manners of difficult things when you care about something or someone. How to operate apps on your phone, conduct complicated processes at your job, and even pronounce words you’re not used to. If you can pronounce Saarsgard, Schwarzenegger, Tchaikovsky, and Gyllenhaal, your lips and tongue can make just about any name work. Because your friend, and her baby, matter to you.

We all know parenting is hard. One of the first important decisions we make for our children is the names we give them. It is time we stop expecting that decision to conform to outdated societal standards, just as we have with other important parenting decisions.



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