by Bruce Lansky
Place names usually fit into three categories. The first category covers most place names: They probably wouldn’t work well for people. For example, Monongahela (the river in Pennsylvania), Sheboygan (the town in Wisconsin) and Georgetown (the neighborhood in Washington, D.C.) aren’t names you’re likely to hear in a kindergarten classroom. The first two names lack the romantic appeal of Paris, the charm of Siena, or the “trendy” image of Brooklyn. They’re also rather long and hard to spell. Georgetown is easy to spell and has appeal—it’s a cool, upscale neighborhood (and outstanding university)—but the suffix (-town) makes it less appropriate as a name for people.
The second category contains place names that are often used for people—even though they still sound more like names for places. Brooklyn is one example and London is another. Both are gaining in popularity as baby names, though they may not seem as appropriate as, say, India or Georgia. Of course, perceptions can change over time. “Indiana Jones” is probably the reason Indiana is considered an acceptable name for people. Before the movie, few people thought of Indiana as a person’s name. For that reason, I think it’s in that mezzo-mezzo (or comme ci, comme ca) category—it might sound cool to some people, but not to others. Ditto for Boston and Denver.
That brings us to the third category, place names that seem to work easily and well for people. By that I mean, they’re quickly recognized as baby names and don’t cause most people to think, Are you talking about a city or a girl? They’re usually short and sweet and many of them (like Charlotte and Virginia) were names for people before they were place names. Here are some examples:
Names of Countries:
For Girls: India, China, Kenya
For Boys: Cuba, Chad
Names of States and Provinces:
For Girls: Alberta (Canada), Dakota (U.S.), Georgia (U.S.)
Names of Cities and Towns:
For Girls: Charlotte (North Carolina), Florence (Italy), Madison (Wisconsin), Savannah (Georgia), Siena (Italy), Sydney (Australia)
For Boys: (San) Diego (California), Frisco (Colorado), Reno (Nevada), Rio (Brazil)
Names of Bodies of Water:
For Girls: Bristol (Bay), (Lake) Louise
For Boys: Hudson (River and Bay), Nile (River), Rocky (Mountains)
1. I think you can easily see the difference between the names in the third category (place names that work well for people) and the names in the first category (place names that don’t).
2. I hope you can see that the names in the second category (place names commonly used for people that are kind of, sort of, pretty good for people) don’t work quite as well as the names in the third category.
I want to encourage you to think about the difference in suitability of place names for people—and what factors make them work (or not work). Does the place sound like a name for a child? Does it make a positive impression? Will it lead to teasing? Is it easy to spell and pronounce?
My son, a travel writer, was born in the U.S. and now lives in Sweden. When thinking of names that would make a positive impression in both countries for his three daughters, he selected place names that were easy to spell and pronounce, and familiar to people in both countries, and they’ve worked very well.
So if you’re thinking of picking up a globe, spinning it, and finding a city, state, country, body of water or group of mountains for your child’s name, keep in mind that most place names don’t make comfortable, charming, cool names for people. And clunky place names, like Turkey or Greece (even though you may love visiting those places) could turn out to be a bad trip for your baby.
For Bruce's latest musings on names and naming check out his blog, Baby Names in the News.
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