Name Dropping

When you work for a newspaper, one thing you get used to is odd baby names.

Sometimes it’s a twist in spelling, like the Sheila named “Shelia.” Or a rising trend, like those angels in a mirror named “Nevaeh.” At one point, place names like Madison or Montana began to take off; a co-worker teased that if kids were going to be labeled with their place of origin, we might see “Chevrolet” before too long.

You smile. Sometimes you laugh. Once in a great while, you wonder what the parents were thinking. (“Marion Butts? Really?”)

But the honorable Lu Ann Ballew didn’t stop at wondering. The Tennessee judge acted, saying a family had no right to name its child “Messiah.”

“The word Messiah is a title and it’s a title that has been earned by only one person,” Bellew declared in resetting the baby’s name to “Martin.”

Psst. No one tell her about all the Latino families who have named their children “Jesus,” OK?

The thing is, we’ve been here before. Usually with a foreign court. The one that sticks in my mind is the New Zealand judge who barred a family from naming their child “4real Wheaton.” This act of humanity clearly saved a young boy from years of humiliation and ridicule … or at least, it might have, if Mom and Dad’s backup choice hadn’t been “Superman.”

Phone booth not included.

What can I say? Names are powerful, even the ones that don’t happen to come from Krypton. They reflect who we are. Sometimes they even shape it. They show our hopes and dreams, our values and fancies, maybe even our incipient insanity.

And trust me. Trying to block that force is an exercise in futility.

Don’t like titles as a name? Watch out for Fletcher (maker of arrows), Chandler (candle maker) or Tanner.

No religious exclamations? Then thou shalt not touch Elizabeth (“Oath of God”), Michael (“Who is Like God?”) or Joshua (“God is Salvation”).  Never mind the bus driver a few years ago who legally changed his name to In God We Trust.

We’ve used virtues from Chastity to Justice. We’ve used place names, plant names, colors, promises of royalty. We’ve even hit the produce aisle at the supermarket, not just with the infamous “Apple,” but with more time-tested monikers like Cherry.

Come to think of it, I’m not sure that any name out there can really qualify as unusual anymore. Though I’m still grateful to my parents for not naming me “Walter.” (Sorry, Mr. Disney.)

I’m not saying that naming a child should be a frivolous exercise. Quite the opposite. With great power comes great responsibility as Peter Parker (“Rock Forest Ranger”) once declared. And probably a great number of arguments as well, as Mom and Dad swerve between trying to be unique and trying to avoid getting a child beaten on the playground.

But such a powerful choice must be a personal one. It’s really not a place for a judge, except by invitation.

So thank you, your honor. Thanks for recognizing how important a name is. But I think the rest of us can take it from here.

And if we wind up with the occasional Picabo Street, or Moon Unit Zapppa, or even Messiah (762 boys last year, according to the New York Times), well, so be it.

After all, that’s the name of the game.