What's in a Name?


When my wife Elisabeth and I learned that we were going to have our first child, choosing the right name became a frequent topic of conversation, not only between us, but with all of the friends and relatives. As a former academic I thought of this question in terms of first principles, what makes one name better than another, or why do people like certain names? Because of my engineering training, I also thought in terms of the design criteria and constraints regarding this question.

It seems the primary reason people pick names for their children these days is because it "sounds" good or it is popular. I think there is something to this idea of sounding good, but it is something very subjective. This is a problem because Elisabeth and I often do not agree on questions of taste. Or rather, she normally does not like what I think is perfectly fine (e.g., my clothes). As for popularity, I am against it. Most of the things I think are important and good are not popular (e.g., Austrian economics before Ron Paul).

In this age of decadence I believe maintaining discipline with children is especially important. For this reason I "insisted" (though this does not mean much in our family) a criterion be that the name be no more than two syllables. Therefore, one can yell the name of the child with sufficient volume and rhythm to make an impression without being trained as an opera singer.

My wife is French so the baby will have dual nationality. In France there is a long history of names coming and then going out of fashion that has much to do with the social class of the individual. Read this interesting article on French names. For example, "A Marcel came to mean the sleeveless under-shirt worn by truck-drivers and poor holiday-makers in the 1950s. René and Renée are also likely to return to grace after decades in oblivion. I have a friend — a lawyer in his 50s — who a few years ago changed his name from René to François because René gave the wrong signals to clients." Elisabeth had a notion about the name Simone. The response from all of her family and friends was unanimously negative, only a grandmother or and old, alcoholic, hooker could have the name Simone.

Thus a name that would not be out of place in either country or culture was necessary. To illustrate this problem, when I suggested Ernie, based on one of my boyhood idols Ernie Banks of the Chicago Cubs, Elisabeth could not control her laughter. I did not comprehend what was so funny about Ernie; however, I understood her point after she explained that the French word for a hernia is hernie, pronounced with a silent h. OK, so with Ernie being inappropriate I suggested Gale from Gale Sayers, another great athlete and gentleman. Can you believe it that a gale is the French word for a scab, especially like you might get from the plague. Who would have thought that the names of Chicago sports stars of the 60s were also embarrassing health problems in French?

Traditionally, and still used somewhat these days, is to name a child after someone in the family. This is a good idea when the family member lived an honorable life, not a pretense to attract inheritance money. A problem with this approach is to give offense to one set of relatives by honoring another.

For me the most important factor is to name the child after someone who would serve as a special example, illustrating the characteristics of a great individual. The name of someone for whom I can tell stories that will provide the inspiration for the noble and heroic life of my child. This approach to names is certainly in the tradition of naming in honor of the saints.

My first choice was Ludwig, for Ludwig von Mises. Of course this proposal again brought forth laughter and disbelief from Elisabeth. Obviously the name is neither French nor American. I countered with Louis, and proceeded to describe the life of the greatest economist that the readers of LRC know well. His scholarship, moral courage, and commitment to truth with personal generosity and kindness are ideals that I hope for my child more than any others. The lifetime motto of Mises, as taken from Virgil, “Tu ne cede malis,” or do not give in to evil (Virgil continues: “but proceed ever more boldly against it!”) is something I want my child to follow (buy the T-shirt).

For a girl I suggested Edith, for Edith Stein. Less well known to LRC readers, however, she had a similar background to Mises. She was born in 1891 (Mises1881) into a Jewish family in Breslau, a part of the German Empire that is now Poland (Mises into a Jewish family in Lemberg, part of the Austrian Empire that is now Ukraine). She was a brilliant philosopher who studied phenomenology under Edmund Husserl at the University of Göttingen, and later at the University of Freiburg, where she had followed him. Her searches for truth eventually lead her to the Catholic Church. In 1934 she entered the Discalced Carmelite convent at Cologne and took the name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. But even there she was not safe in Hitler’s Germany so her order transferred her to Echt in the Netherlands in 1938. By July, 1942 the Germans were in control of that country. A public statement was read in all the Catholic (and some other denominations) churches of the country on July 20th, condemning Nazi anti-Semitic policies. In a retaliatory response on July 26th all Jewish converts, who had previously been spared, were ordered to be arrested. Stein and her sister Rosa, also a convert, were taken from the sanctuary of the convent and shipped to Auschwitz, where they died in the gas chambers on August 9th. She is now a Doctor of the Church, beatified, and canonized as Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross by Pope John Paul II in 1998. For me Edith Stein represents the epitome of faith, reason, scholarship, and courage.

On January 10th, 2008 Anna Louise Edith Katz was born healthy and happy in Paris. Her mother, also the picture of health and happiness, and the rest of the world calls the baby Anna; but her father secretly calls her Lulu.