What’s in a name?

I had never heard of "name-stealing" until recently; and now I wish I hadn't.

Have you ever encountered the phenomenon whereby you read or hear about something that you’ve never encountered before, and then suddenly it’s everywhere, to the point where you can’t read a newspaper or magazine, or turn on the television, without coming across it? Something like quinoa, which went from obscure South American grain to darling of the North American food world faster than you can say “hot new superfood”. One day I’d never heard of quinoa; the next day I couldn’t move without stumbling across articles about it and recipes for it.

So it is with “name-stealing”, a phenomenon which is apparently plaguing our neighbours to the south. It has nothing to do with identity theft, which is a very real and serious problem; instead, it refers to a situation wherein one expectant mother settles on a name for her child, only to find that a friend or relation who is also expecting settles on that same name for her offspring. A variant is where one person already has a child with a certain name, and a friend or relative chooses it for her own child.

Now, this seems the very definition of a “First World problem” (and one would think Americans would have rather more serious things to worry about these days). It also seems rather frivolous, something to be laughed off with a shrug. I had never heard of name-stealing until a few days ago, and now it seems to be everywhere; and to those involved, it is anything but frivolous.

A well-documented case concerns women I’ll call Mary and Anna, partly because I really enjoyed Downton Abbey and partly because I suspect the women involved are more than embarrassed enough at this stage. Mary and Anna, in Mary’s account, had been firm friends for 30 years, each an integral part of the other’s life. Mary had a daughter, whom she named Elsie; and was appalled when Anna gave birth to a daughter some time later, and named her Elsie as well.

Mary details her reaction: “My daughter’s name was very special to me. . . . Why would [Anna] do this? There are so many names to choose from, so why would she choose my special name? And if she wanted my name, why wouldn’t she at least ask me if it was okay—out of respect?”

One senses that the feeling of entitlement is strong with Mary, who seems to labour under the misapprehension that names can be copyrighted. She waited a month, then wrote to Anna and told her of her disappointment. Anna responded “hatefully”, in Mary’s words. That was three years ago, and the two have not spoken since.

If you think this is an isolated incident, think again. The Today show recently ran a poll about baby-naming, and more than half of the 12,000 respondents said that “baby-name stealing is a real phenomenon, and that if parents-to-be know another couple has plans for a name, they shouldn’t use it.”

I do hope that the “name-stealing” non-story flames out quickly, so I don’t have to keep seeing articles about it. And I’m extremely glad that my baby-naming days are behind me.