Thursday, March 18, 2010

What's in a Name?

The other day we were in a fancy toy store on 7th Ave in Park Slope looking for more of those little black and white contrasty things that babies can see. Thora is now able to focus on them and it's so much fun to watch her now that her eyes don't just glaze over things I put in front of her. She has a wonderful black and white mobile over her co-sleeper that one of my best friends gave her and in her stroller she has a little mobile that the same friend's daughter has, with cute little contrasty bugs that she can follow as they move in a circle until she gets either sleepy or dizzy (I can't tell the difference) and passes out. Thora also has a Jacques the Peacock - one of those colorful on one side, contrasty on the other, crinkly touch toys - that she loves to look at and touch. That day in that store, we found a little set of black and white crinkly bugs on velcro strips that go on the baby's wrist and on black and white socks. At home, I put the bugs all over her and let her sort it out, all confused that she could suddenly see her hands and feet in this way. In the store, people were very helpful and friendly, giving the new parents unsolicited but welcome advice about what toys little babies love and what toys will be unavoidable as a little girl gets older whether the parents like it or not. And of course they all cooed over her. "What's her name?" one woman asked. I told her. "Laura! What a beautiful name! Hi Laura!" "Oh," I said, somewhat sheepishly, "it's actually Thora." I waited a beat for the inevitable and sure enough it came. "Thora? Oh, how interesting! Can you spell that?"

When she was born and we announced her name, so many people complimented us on it. I love that so many people love it. It's not hard to spell and neither the name itself nor her initials can elicit name-calling, at least not as far as I can tell. That was important to me, given the fact that I was mercilessly tortured for my last name when I was growing up (trust me, it was a doozy) and I could not wait to change it. Plus, I went to summer camp for ten years. I know how mean kids can be. So while I don't think Thora will be the subject of malicious teasing (at least I certainly hope not), I know we have a lifetime of "Laura!" or "Dora!" or even "Flora!" (which is what our attorney said, and Johnny and I tried so hard not to snicker). And then "Oh, Thora. How interesting! How did you come up with a name like that? How is it spelled? What kind of a name is that?" ahead of us, even though I really didn't think Thora was that weird of a name. Unusual maybe, but there are a lot weirder names out there. I'd like to get the explanation of her name written down now since I have the feeling I will need to memorize and shorten the story to make it tellable to strangers in toy stores all over in thirty seconds or less.

My husband has his biological father's and grandfather's name. His brother has his father's name. There are a lot of juniors and thirds in his family. We both agreed that if we had a boy it would not be a fourth. In my Jewish family, babies are named for deceased relatives. At least, their names start with the same initial. For example, I am A for Abraham, my father's father, and N for my mother's father. Johnny and I agreed, however, that we would be selfish with our baby's name and not stick to family names. But choosing a name seemed so stressful! It's hard enough sharing a name that you like with your spouse. Or at least, it was for me. When I wanted to try a name out on Johnny, I got shy and defensive because time after time I'd say a name I liked and he'd go "Ew, no!" or "That reminds me of my ninety-five year old aunt" or whatever. I'm a sensitive girl and after a whole series of "Ew, no!"s, I was afraid when the right name came along I really wouldn't have the nerve to even mention it. So, how to choose?

Here's how it happened: When I got pregnant, I was reading The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. One of the main characters in the story is named Eleanor, which was my grandmother's name, and that started the wheels turning in my mind. The other female character's name is Theodora. I liked Theodora but it was very long. Johnny liked it too but we could not agree on a nickname. Theo? Thea? Dora? We couldn't agree, so we shelved it.

Once we found out that the baby was a girl, I took the naming game very seriously. I scoured websites - and were favorites - and I got a book with ten thousand names. I thought about songs and singers, writers and characters in books, artists, actors. I gave up on Theodora because over time I liked it less and less, and eventually we agreed that we wanted a name that couldn't be shortened so that we didn't have to worry about nicknames. I liked a lot of Icelandic names and Japanese names. I liked Kolbrún but Johnny could barely say it or spell it. I liked Mariko but Johnny said it reminded him of Mario, like Super Mario Brothers. I had a list of about ten names and I tried to encourage Johnny to make a list too. He liked Domino, which earned an "Ew, no!" from me. I was convinced we'd never find a name we agreed on. He was less concerned. He really felt it would come in time. We had friends also expecting and they were already working on names, so I felt horribly behind.

Then one day I was going through a list of Icelandic names. I love a lot of Icelandic names, although I have to admit there are a lot of wacky sounding (in English anyway) Icelandic names as well. I lived in Iceland for over a year and have been there many, many times since. Johnny visited with me for the first time literally days after Thora was conceived and I bought her her first toy there on that trip. Giving her an Icelandic name seemed to make sense. Living there, I often thought about names I might choose if I stayed there and had a family, since when you have an Icelandic baby you have to choose from an established list of Icelandic names. That is why today in 2010 there are babies with names that Vikings had. There's no sense of a name sounding like an old lady name like Mabel or Ethel. They are all timeless. Even babies born to foreigners have to have at least an Icelandic middle name (if I recall correctly), and people from other countries who get Icelandic citizenship have to take an Icelandic name officially as well, even if they don't go by it. Anyway, I came across the name Þóra that day and something clicked in my head. For so many reasons, that was a good name. The letter Þ in Icelandic is a "th" sound, so in English it would be Thora. Short and cute and could be a baby's name, a professional woman's name, an old lady's name. I thought of Þór, the god of thunder and how much I love Scandinavian mythology. I thought of Jon Þór Birgisson, aka Jonsi, singer of Sigur Rós, a band Johnny and I both love. I could only think of one celebrity with the name Thora, and that was Thora Birch and apart from seeing her in Ghost World and having my friend Lauren tell me that she reminded her of me (not a bad thing), I didn't have any positive or negative associations with her or the name. I thought crazily, this could be the perfect nickname for Theodora!

When Johnny came home, I worked up my nerve and told him my idea. "No, it's not a good nickname for Theodora," he said, and I was devastated. "It's a great name all by itself. Forget Theodora. Let's just name her Thora." My smart husband. Then we had a short list of one-syllable possibilities for a middle name, and Bea was at the top. Even though we'd said no family names, my great-grandmother Beatrice was my Nana Bea, so when Johnny liked it, I was so happy because I loved my Nana Bea and I hoped it would make my mother happy too.

Lots of people encouraged us not to tell anyone the baby's name until she was born because of superstition, tradition, and the fact that the name might not fit the baby once she was here. We agreed, and we had a backup in case (which I won't write here in case we want to use it on a future child). But as the pregnancy went on and we got used to calling her Thora, we knew it was her name. I told a few friends that her name started with T, promising that if they could figure it out I would tell them what it was. I knew the "th" would throw them off, and it did, but I got a lot of hilarious texts and emails with outlandish guesses. Tecumseh? Tallulah? Trebuchet? And as time went on, we (and by "we" I mean Johnny) slipped a few times in front of our friends. Oh well. It was her name.


  1. What a beautiful story.
    When you told me her name was Icelandic I was somehow proud, because, well, I know how you much love Iceland, and that you told me on that trip of yours and Johnny's that you were trying to have a baby (and I was so HAPPY!), and then the toy, the comments from Starri etc.

    Anyway, Þóra has always been one of my favorite names and I even considered it for Karítas.

    Love you guys!

  2. Can we please make our kids have an arranged marriage?

    Theo and Thora. Lovely ring to it--like a celebrity couple.

    Theo and Thora will name their children Thad and Thea.

  3. My freshman-year RA at college was named Thora. She was a hippie but I liked her just the same. Steve and I had the same struggles finding a name. He was "meh" on Anna until out she popped on his grandma Anna's 100th birthday.

    Theo and Thora is cute, it could be a children's book!


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