Nomen-culture

The challenges of cross-cultural baby naming

Michelle Tarnopolsky
June 6, 2013

Choosing a name for your baby can be one of the most fraught decisions in the run-up to parenthood. Not only do you have to come to an agreement with someone who may be bringing very different preferences, biases and perceptions to the table, but whatever you choose will be central to your child’s identity for a lifetime. What a responsibility! Now add another culture into the mix. Oh, and, here in Italy, maybe the staff at the comune, too. Michelle Tarnopolsky asked local expats about their naming experiences.

 

For expats having a baby in Italy, the first question is undoubtedly whether the name should be Italian or international. ‘I gave my son an Italian name thinking it is cool to have a foreign name in the United States but not so cool here in Italy,’ says Jill Romanelli. Indeed, Italians can be less than subtle about letting you know what they think of your child’s name. As U.K.-born Jacqueline Owen says, ‘When we registered in the hospital at Ponte a Niccheri, the guy in the anagrafe office asked us, “Ma siete sicuri?” He thought I was quite mad giving my newborn daughter such an “odd” name, and kept muttering about hormones under his breath.’

 

‘I've noticed that older people seem to balk more, while younger people seem to like them,’ says American Lindsey Stowers, in reference to her boys’ names, Colton and Weston. ‘Children, especially, seem to pronounce them without a problem.’ Ireland-born Carly Kelly agrees: ‘Older generations of Italians never call by their actual names, probably because they can never remember them.’ Non-Italian names sometimes just don’t compute with vecchietti, who solve this problem by using the Italian equivalent: ‘My oldest son is called Manuel Federico and it’s frustrating that Italians often pronounce it as “Emanuele,”’ says Daisy Diaz Gandolfi Vannini.

 

But Italians aren’t the only ones who have trouble with ‘foreign’ names. Romanelli didn’t expect her son’s name to be hard for her U.S. family, but, she says ‘they call him “Tater,” as my cousins thought “Matteo” sounded like “potato.”’ Many non-Italian parents resolve this by suggesting nicknames for their families to use, such as ‘Nicco’ for ‘Niccolò’ or ‘Ele’ for ‘Eleonora.’

 

Such obstacles are precisely what make pronunciation the number one consideration in cross-cultural baby naming. ‘We were definitely trying to figure out something that wouldn’t be butchered in one language or the other,’ says U.S.-born Jonnel Licari. Fellow American Devorah Block felt the same way: ‘Our “rule” in considering names was that they had to be pronounced the same in various English accents plus Italian plus Hebrew (or as close as possible), as we both have names that are constantly being “translated” into the other language.’ Many expat parents discover there are far more female options that fit this bill than male ones. ‘Sofia’ and ‘Isabella’ are especially popular. Canadian Gabriella Bondi is glad she gave her daughters these names: ‘Even my grandma who was 100 years old was able to pronounce them!’

 

Also important to consider when naming a child of mixed nationalities are the cultural ramifications. ‘My husband nixed “Gabriel” because of the Batistuta connection,’ says Licari, even though she won out in the end. ‘He didn’t want people thinking we had named our son after a soccer player. And I totally underestimated how much of a connection people would make to that.’ Similarly, ‘“Portia” was totally rejected by my husband because of the easy porca in Italian!’ says Australian Freya Middleton. Also commonly blacklisted are ‘Luca,’ because of the way Tuscans pronounce it (‘Luha’); ‘Maia’ and ‘Rocco’ for the X-rated connotations; and ‘Fabio’ and ‘Lorenzo’ for the regrettable Italian caricatures they summon to the minds of Americans and Scots, respectively.

 

Adding middle names is a popular way to honor multiple cultures, especially when there are more than two. French-Swedish Elsa Gaffié-Rich, who gave her daughter a French first name, says ‘We gave her an Italian middle name and a Swedish third one so everybody was happy in the end!’ In Italy, however, middle names can be a burden. ‘I really like that has an English middle name,’ says U.S.-born Kate Siebke Vigoriti, ‘although they did give us problems with that at the hospital (“Are you sure you want two names? She’ll have to sign with both her entire life!”).’

 

If giving a child a middle name is tricky in Italy, it’s even more complicated if it’s a surname. ‘We gave both our daughters my maiden name as their middle names,’ says American Jessica Russo Scherr. ‘The comune was confused but eventually let us name her. We were shocked they could even suggest that we could not name our daughter what we wanted.’ Canadian Sarah Mclean had a similar experience. ‘It is possible to give a last name as a middle name here but only with a big fight,’ she says. ‘We did burden the kids with long legal names because it was important to me that their names reflected their heritage.’

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