Signs of the Apocalypse: Special Family Value Pack

Two items from the Wall Street Journal made me think about how bizarrely commodified our intimate lives have become. Alexandra Alter reports (“The Baby-Name Business“, June 22) on the latest service providers to capitalize on parental anxiety: consultants who, for a fee, will help you name your baby:

Sociologists and name researchers say they are seeing unprecedented levels of angst among parents trying to choose names for their children. As family names and old religious standbys continue to lose favor, parents are spending more time and money on the issue and are increasingly turning to strangers for help.

Some parents are checking Social Security data to make sure their choices aren’t too trendy, while others are fussing over every consonant like corporate branding experts. They’re also pulling ideas from books, Web sites and software programs, and in some cases, hiring professional baby-name consultants who use mathematical formulas….

The chief reason for the paralysis is too much information. About 80 baby-name books have been published in the last three years, according to Bowker, a publishing database — compared with just 50 such titles between 1990 and 1996. More than 100 specialty Web sites have popped up offering everything from searchable databases and online snap polls to private consultations.

One site,, says it draws about 1.2 million unique visitors a month, a 50% increase in five years — and 3,000 people have used its customized naming service, which provides 12 names for $35. Just this month, the site began offering half-hour phone consulting sessions for $95. “It’s so overwhelming, it’s hard to know where to start,” says Patricia Martin of Williston, Vt., who is expecting a baby in September….

[T]he growing brand consciousness among consumers has made parents more aware of how names can shape perceptions. The result: a child’s name has become an emblem of individual taste more than a reflection of family traditions or cultural values. “We live in a marketing-oriented society,” says Bruce Lansky, a former advertising executive and author of eight books on baby names, including “100,000 + Baby Names.” “People who understand branding know that when you pick the right name, you’re giving your child a head start.”

…Even parents who are professional name consultants say the decision can be wrenching. As one of the founders of Catchword, a corporate naming firm with offices in New York and Oakland, Calif., Burt Alper says he and his wife, Jennifer, who also works in marketing, felt “tons of pressure” to come up with something grabby.

Although Mr. Alper typically gives clients a list of 2,000 names to mull over, he says he kept the list of baby names to 500, for simplicity. In the end, they named their daughter Sheridan, a family name Mr. Alper liked because of its “nice crisp syllables.” They chose Beckett for their six-month-old son, a name the Alpers thought sounded reliable and stable.

“That C-K sound is very well regarded in corporate circles,” Mr. Alper says, giving Kodak and Coca-Cola as examples. “The hard stop forces you to accentuate the syllable in a way that draws attention to it.”

Name choices have long been agonizing for some parents. In Colonial times, it was not uncommon for parents to open the Bible and select a word at random — a practice that created such gems as Notwithstanding Griswold and Maybe Barnes. In some countries, name choices are regulated by the government. France passed a law in the early 1800s that prohibited all names except those on a preapproved list; the last of these laws was repealed in 1993. In Germany, the government still bans invented names and names that don’t clearly designate a child’s sex. Sweden and Denmark forbid names that officials think might subject a child to ridicule. Swedish authorities have rejected such names as Veranda, Ikea and Metallica.
Had I been born in Germany, I suppose I’d be stuck with my birth name, Jennifer, which always felt too 1970s for a neo-Victorian girl like myself. I wasn’t very impressed by the decade I grew up in. “Jendi” is my mother’s invention. It’s also apparently an Australian brand of raincoat, after which this cute little pooch was named. Imagine my surprise when I Googled myself one day and discovered my doggy alter ego: “Jendi, the Bionic Bitch from Down Under”. Yup, sounds like me.

Our other herald of the end times this evening is a billboard ad that Fetman, Garland & Associates, a Chicago matrimonial-law firm, posted in May (since taken down). The slogan “Life’s short. Get a divorce” is flanked by photos of a buffed male nude torso and a similarly cropped buxom woman in skimpy underwear. In defense of the ad, partner and divorcee Corri Fetman said, “Lawyers don’t cause divorces, people cause divorces.” Just as we always suspected: lawyers aren’t people.

11 comments on “Signs of the Apocalypse: Special Family Value Pack

  1. Alegria Imperial says:

    This entry is fun though indeed, not quite apocalyptic. I know of some of the silliest names parents have come up with–nicknames though these are have stuck with the owners nonetheless. One of them is Scrabble, cut to Abble pronounced ‘Uh-ball’. It belongs to my nepehew, son of my cousin, who got such meaningless name because those who waited for his birth were playing the board game. I feel quite lucky that my parents seem to have chosen a name suited to my personality (on face value), or so people who meet me say so. But it’s not officially mine until ten years ago: whoever dashed to the official registry to report my birth wrote the wrong name or the registrar exchanged it with another child. I found this fact to my horror when I first applied for a passport. The error took me to court for rectification though the court order didn’t erase the strange name on my birth certificate; it only allowed a note typewritten on the right margin that it has been changed. I lived by an alias then for half of my life. Also, I had always thought, I carried one of the Virgin Mary’s appelations, ‘Cause of our Joy’. On her deathbed, my mother revealed she named me after ‘the laughing Allegra’, one of the children in Longfellow’s ‘The Children’s Hour,'(which my father hispanized). Only then did I realize who I am.

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