What’s in a name?

In the almost year that we have lived here in Lebanon, we have learned a lot about Lebanese culture (though there is still tons to learn! :)).  Usually when we encounter a new cultural situation, not only do we learn something new about Lebanon or Middle Eastern way of thinking and living, we also gain interesting insight into our own American worldview and values.

I recently had one of those “aha” moments.  Ever since we found out we were having a girl, people have been asking what we were going to name her.  Apparently, people decide on a name pretty soon after finding out the gender of the baby.  As we were putting together our list of options, we were looking for names that would work both in English and Arabic… not too strange in either culture.  So, any name that we sort of liked, we would try out on our friends, just to get a Lebanese perspective on the name…. we wouldn’t want to choose a name and then find out it’s a bad word or something in Arabic, haha!

I noticed a really interesting phenomenon.  We mention a name we are thinking of, and the first reaction is to find the closest familiar name… basically the name is Arabic-ized.  Caleb runs into this all the time with his name.  Even though it is a name in the Bible, most Arabic speakers are very unfamiliar with the name Caleb and many have told him that really he should go by Khalid, because that is the closest Arabic name they can come up with.  It would be like any boy in the States named Juan being called John, because that is the English version of his name.  As Americans, we just don’t think like this.  We value individuality way too much to do this.  That’s why we have four million ways of spelling Katelyn, Kaitlyn, Caitlin, Catelyn, Katelynne…. and why “making up a new name” for a baby is so popular.  Here the individualistic aspect is definitely not as high of a value.  The month our baby is due happens to be the same month that three of the Monas in our church have birthdays, so the joke is, of course she should be named Mona!  My first thought is, but there are lots of Monas in our community, I want something different… but I’m realizing that being different is a cultural value that I have that isn’t exactly shared with most of the people in our community!  :)

If the name can’t be Arabized, then the next question is “what does it mean?”  Once more, trying to put it into a category that is familiar, not strange, not different.  A fine question if the name actually has a nice meaning… a little awkward when the meaning is blech or when I don’t even know what it is! :)

It’s been an interesting process, especially because the desire to choose a name that is different (but not too strange :)) is such a deep seated value that I have, whereas Caleb is much more flexible… much more Lebanese, if you will, in that regard.

So, we still don’t have a name picked out… though the list is getting shorter.  :)  But I for sure have new insight into the way I think about things, the reasons I make decisions the way I do sometimes, as well as new insight into the culture that we are trying so much to become a part of! :)

posted by: nicolette


4 thoughts on “What’s in a name?

  1. Khalid is one of my favorite kids in West Dallas…I’m going to have to tell him about his name being closely linked to Caleb in Arabic.

  2. If Caleb’s really not into individuality, you can name your girl Li Mohammed. Li is the most common Chinese name in the world. Which probably means it is the most common last name ever.

    • oohh… nice thought. although since you came up with it, i won’t use it so you can have it for your firstborn! :)

  3. good luck! i have similar feelings. my maiden name was so unique that when i turned into a ‘johnson’ i struggled with being like everyone else, especially since there are countless aimee jonson’s and even even countless couples named ryan & aimee johnson. we named our son lucky to try to set him apart a little, but i guess it was probably easier here even though our parents hated it.

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