“Back in the day,” I used to do 100 to 200 radio interviews a year on the subject of baby names. Our publicity department would sent out letters to radio talent coordinators informing them that listeners would “light up their switchboards” with calls to chat with me about their names. And that’s exactly what happened.
Now I’ve got a blog called BabyNamesInTheNews.com. When a talk-radio station wants some excitement, they call or email to set up an interview and then we have some fun.
Today I talked to Phonse Jessum of “Maritime Noon” on CBC. The show covers three eastern provinces: New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. After listening to the local Maritime news, it was time for CBC listeners to pepper me with questions either by Twitter or call-in.
The Tweeters and callers weren’t trying to stump me; they were mainly wondering how they wound up with the names they did. And, in return, I was interested in what they could tell me about the experience of living with their names, including any problems the name might have caused.
When I told Phonse Jessum his name was a nickname for Alphonse (a German name that means “noble and eager”) he told me his grandfather had been named Alphonse and that his name was very often misspelled, because of the popularity of Fonzie (played by Henry Winkler) on “Happy Days.”
A caller named Jerry asked about the female name Shallen. I couldn’t find that name and mentioned it was similar to “Made in America” names like Shalena (the prefix “sha” + “lena”) used by African-Americans. I asked him where he found the name. He said he’d found it while watching a sci-fi TV show; apparently Shallen was the name of an alien. He said it has worked well for his daughter. We briefly discussed the risk of making up names (because it’s hard to predict whether they will make a favorable or unfavorable impression). But the reward is: when your child has a unique name that works well for him or her, it’s nice “plus” for the child and for the parents who found the unique and charming name.
A caller mentioned a child named Sabette. I looked it up and couldn’t find anything like it—except for Sabra (a Hebrew name that means “thorny cactus fruit” and refers to a woman born in Israel who is reputed to be tough on the outside and soft on the inside) and Sabrina (a Latin name that means ‘boundary line” and an English name that means “princess.” That triggered a recollection about “Sabrina,” a classic, black and white movie featuring Audrey Hepburn as the daughter of a chauffeur living on the estate of two wealthy brothers played by Humphrey Bogart (the tycoon) and William Holden (the playboy). Both brothers fell in love with Sabrina and Bogart ended up with Sabrina, having beaten his brother to the prize.
Phonse Jessum then passed on a comment that Sabette might be a native Canadian name–or a variation of Elizabeth. As I think about it, either of those speculations might make sense. I’m sure you know that Bette and Betty are common variations of Elizabeth. Adding a prefix of “Sa” would make the name more unique but still give the child Bette or Betty as a nickname to fall back on, if Sabette didn’t work well for the purpose intended.
Another name we discussed was Alea. It’s listed as an Arab name meaning “high or exalted” in my book or as a Persian name meaning “God’s being.” But it sounds exactly like the Hebrew name Aliya which means “ascender” and refers to being given the honor of reading from the bible in a religious observance.
This is how the conversation went—back and forth, eliciting humorous or (in the case of Shallen) heartwarming stories about how callers got their names or how well people liked their names and what kind of problems those names might have caused.
Picking a name for a child is an important responsibility. The more you get into names, the more there is to talk about. Origin and meaning for sure. But what about the impression the name makes, the versatility of the name and what kind of problems the name could cause. If you’re going to be naming a baby anytime soon, you might find it worth your time to listen to a podcast of the interview, which you can find on BabyNamesInTheNews.com. And if you’re a talk-radio talent coordinator, write firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to set up a telephone interview which will “light up (or tie up) your switchboard.”