The naming of things

As I write this, I’m puzzling over what to do about Laurel’s very first fear. For a long time I’ve wondered what it would be, and now I know: the garage. What I don’t know is: what about the garage scares her? She won’t walk around in it anymore, like she used to. When one of us takes her down there, she clings and whimpers and refuses to be set down. If we do set her down, she screams. Today I tried asking: “Are you scared because it’s dark?” “Is it the car?” “Is it the neighbors’ dog?” (who once barked at her in there and startled her.) I got no conclusive responses. Nevertheless, I want us to learn how to alleviate her fear, to help her overcome it. Right now I’m stumped, but I’m working on it.

Fortunately, there’s plenty of good stuff going on. Laurel’s range of expression has really snowballed. She’s using many more two-word phrases and some three-word phrases, which makes communicating with her much easier. Of course, one of her favorite phrases right now is “have it?” As in, “can I have it?” (whatever object she’s just pointed out.) She also uses the word “help” a lot to request help doing something — we’re not quite to the point where she insists on doing everything herself and her own way, although I thought for sure I heard her say “[I] do it” today. She has caught on to my limiting certain objects — such as tissues or food items, so often she will hold up her index finger and ask for “one tissue,” “one wipe,” “one fig,” etc. It’s cute, until you realize she doesn’t understand the concept of “one” yet and will ask for one again — once she’s already gotten her hands on one. We’re working on counting, too. :)

Laurel went through a recent spate of learning all the names of everyone in her life. She can say mine and Devin’s names, though when she does it, she usually calls us “Papa Devin” and “Mommy Beth.” She also likes to talk about Grandma, Poppi, Grandpa, Gram, Nana, and so on. She recognizes all of her friends and knows their names, and many of their moms’ names as well. It started with Arlo and Kate and blossomed from there. She also learned her babysitter’s name early on. I think she’s happy and relieved to know the names of the folks she sees all the time, and she loves reciting them. She also names all the local shops as we walk from our house to the train station and back — our neighbors’ house, the grocery store, the library, the frozen-yogurt shop, the taqueria, the coffee shop, etc.

We had our second Halloween. Laurel wore a skunk costume and I dressed as an animal-control officer. On the day of Halloween we took Laurel trick-or-treating with a couple of other friends in a nearby neighborhood. At each house, she would get a piece of candy in her basket. Then she’d squish it in her hands until it was unrecognizable. Devin would take it and we’d give her a single M&M for the “treat.” She was very sad when we stopped after about 10 houses, and requested “walk treat” several times in the weeks after Halloween.

She seems to be a natural climber. At the playground, she loves any climbing structure — yesterday, she really mastered a ladder made out of chains that leads up to a small slide at the park. Then she would hoist her leg over the side and slide down. (She surprised me in another way: when another girl was climbing up, Laurel pointed to her and said “turn.” I said, “Yep, it’s her turn, but she’ll be done in a moment and then it can be your turn.” Laurel waited, then when the girl had gone down the slide, started climbing up.) In the kitchen, she loves pushing chairs around and then climbing up into them to get at things on the counters, or attached to the refrigerator. This has made the kitchen almost unbabyproofable, but it’s amazing to watch.

Laurel is very into giving hugs and kisses lately — to us, to her friends, to random toys. It’s cute and sweet, and I’m trying to enjoy it because I know it won’t last forever. She’s also somehow gotten into the idea of having her feet rubbed while she nurses. She will press her foot into my hand and, if I use my fingers, will correct me and ask me to use my thumb. Occasionally she will pause and say, “tickle,” asking me to tickle the bottom of her foot. She giggles, squirms away, then presses her foot into my hand again and resumes nursing. She’s not spoiled, right?

Devin and I have started the task of learning about preschools in San Francisco, as well as when and how to apply. Laurel isn’t eligible until the fall of 2012, but given that there are 150 preschools in the city and we need to apply a year ahead of time, there’s some work ahead of us. We recently took a class on the topic, which ostensibly helps us sort out the Montessoris and the Waldorfs and the play-based and the child-centered and so on and so forth. It’s overwhelming and intimidating — and one of those topics that drives everyone’s blood pressure up. It’s tough to predict what kind of school will be right for your child one or two years up the road, when toddlers change so much in the span of a few months. But we’ll do the best we can.

— Beth

The spreadsheet

We told some people we’d share this after we’d picked a name. So here’s the spreadsheet. I’ve scrubbed out a few especially colorful comments, but most of it is intact.

– Devin

Why “Laurel”

When I was a hippie teenager growing up in Sonoma County, I was reading lots of Starhawk books and exploring my spirituality. One of the things that happens in Wicca/paganism is that folks often choose a “magical name,” something that tells the rational brain to step aside so this magic-working personality can step in. That’s how you wind up with folks named Silver Ravenwolf and Bunny Fluffernutter and what have you. Those kinds of names never appealed to me. I wanted something simple — magical, separate from my day-to-day name and identity, but something that could pass for a real name. I chose Laurel, in part from the California Bay Laurels that are common in the North Bay.

Except, I never went anywhere with those explorations and hence never used the name.

When I was 19 I convinced my dad to buy a modem for our computer and I began exploring the world of BBSes. The first time I logged into one, I realized I was going to have to pick a “handle,” an identity I’d use online. Hey, I’d already picked a name before, and never got to use it. Laurel it was.

My insertion into the Sonoma County BBS scene happened really rapidly. Within three weeks I was a Co-SysOp on the Clam Chowder Hut, a board run by a 13-year-old Santa Rosa kid who went by Derf (Fred backwards) and soon had my own advice board, called “Ask Laurel” (which was a counterpart to the much more crass and comedic Ask Homey Da Clown). I loved the freedom I had online to communicate with people — at that age I was still so painfully shy that I didn’t talk much except with close friends, but online I found that I felt free to write out my thoughts in detail, and that people were interested in hearing them. BBSes were a place where many of us learned to be less socially awkward, at least among folks who were as socially awkward as we were. This path of self-discovery allowed me to shift into a place of relative social self-confidence, an aspect of myself I still rely upon daily.

Many people thought “Laurel” was my real name, because it is a name that sounds like it could be on someone’s birth certificate (unlike, say, Flourescent Floral Flouride or Tristessa or Thunderbolt or Swamp Gas). In some ways, “Laurel” was a new identity for me, a name for the self that was emerging.

Devin was also running a BBS at that time — Atlantica, named after a tropical-fish store where he’d worked. I remember meeting him at a MORE (Modemers of the Redwood Empire) meeting when he was 15 and still very small physically — made all the more dramatic by his close friendship with Chris Church, who was more than 6 feet tall and quite heavy then.

Devin and I were friendly acquaintances for a long time, but when I closed down my BBS and moved away to Berkeley to go to Cal, we struck up an email correspondence. He came to visit me often, looked after me during some rough patches, and in June of 1995, when he was just about to turn 18 and I was 22, our friendship turned romantic — and has remained so since. What started as an intimacy between good friends has turned into what we hope will be a life-long romance and commitment to each other. I’ve always felt that I chose well when I fell in love with him, and the experiences of our attempts to get pregnant and the experiences of our pregnancy and first week of parenting have only proven that more.

I wouldn’t have found him without the modem, and my being “Laurel” feels like a huge part of it, too.

When we were making our baby-names list, he had suggested Laura and I had suggested Lorelei, the name for a woman who became a siren, one of those water-nymphs who lure sailors to their deaths. (What can I say? I’m a sucker for sea mythology, especially when we’re talking about a Piscean baby.) Somewhere in there one of us suggested Laurel, and when we did the scoring, it rose to the top of the list.

But what cemented it was the day I spent at UCSF while Devin hung out with our new baby girl at home. He says he noticed that she would make little movements that reminded him of me. Since then, we’ve noticed that she and I like to sleep in the exact same pose. So it made sense to name our daughter for an aspect of myself, one that had been deeply involved in us coming together to produce her in the first place.

That said, if we ever have a second child and it turns out to be a boy, I don’t think we’ll be naming him after Devin’s BBS handle. It was Aquamaestro.

— Beth

Trend Avoidance

The US Social Security Administration has one. Since I don’t have a baby taking up all my time quite yet, I sucked down their data and made a better one.

What we find:

Data is fun.

– Devin


We have some names picked out, that after a few weeks of saying them to ourselves now and then we haven’t come to hate the utterance of. I suppose that’s a good sign.

For some reason we decided we wanted to keep our name selection to ourselves until the actual day, though as you’ve seen we’ve shared some of the rejects. Hopefully you won’t mind the suspense. We’ve had a spreadsheet going for this process since around week 12, to which we’ve made occasional trips; lots early on, then long lapses interspersed with anxiety-besotted review, then more lapses. We checked some baby name books out from the library, read through them with the surprising speed possible when you’re rejecting almost everything you see and not trying to memorize. The spreadsheet acquired more columns for commentary, and then for preference scoring, and so forth.

Beth and I have fairly divergent aesthetic tastes, so it’s been a surprise how noncontentious this process has turned out to be. In a state of faint disbelief that we’d gotten through so much of it so readily, I eventually added a couple of scatter plots depicting our affinity distributions:

Essentially, what you see there is the distribution of our individual preferences and a representation of how much or how little we agree on names. A plot whose points fell along an f(x)=x line (that is, diagonally up and to the right) would signify total agreement. What we in fact see is that we agree, in a very general sort of way, on girls’ names. On boys’ names, we’re closer to a f(x)=-x orientation, a perfect version of which would signal perfect disagreement. Fortunately, there are some outliers in the upper right corners of both plots, and there’s a decent chance we’ll end up using one of them.

Subjectively, we found that on the arbitrary scoring range we used, I had a higher liking for girls’ names, and Beth rated boys’ names higher on the average. I suppose that speaks to our gender psychology a bit. That offset isn’t really visible in the plots because they’re normalized for the upper end of the range.

We might be a bit less rigorous about middle names, though.

– Devin

Speaking of Names

Devin and I have been talking about potential baby names for years, in that hypothetical way that many couples do. We never really liked each other’s choices. I tended to go for names with “oh-ee” sounds on the end, or names that look like they would: Zoe, Chloe, Phoebe, Calliope, et cetera. Devin hates most of those. Actually, we did agree we both liked “Zoe,” but as there’s at least one in our immediate family and two in our nearby lives, we kind of got beaten to the punch with that one.

Anyhow, early in pregnancy I put together a spreadsheet on Google documents where each of us could add names and the other could comment, hoping that somewhere along the line this would result in some kind of nexus of agreement. (Perhaps a Venn diagram would have been better). As it happens, we have a few names for both boys and girls that we both either like or could live with if we had to.

Yesterday I got to leave work a little early and Devin txted me to say he was at the Main Library. I found him at a desk poring over a tall stack of baby-name books, which we then checked out, took home and proceeded to plow through on New Year’s Eve.

Among other things, it reminded me that one of the experiments I’d been meaning to try was to look up the word “Seed” in as many languages as possible to see if any of THEM turned out to be words that could work as names. My results were somewhat limited by the fact that I don’t read the Greek, Cyrillic, or any of the Asian alphabets, so we may never know what the word for “Seed” is in Ukranian, Thai or Arabic.

Some of the rest of the results reminded me of the keen but also unfortunate etymological relationship between the word “Seed” and the word “semen,” which wouldn’t go over well once our child encounters his or her first middle-school health class. For example:


There’s also “Graine,” and while I’m fond of both words and names with e on the end, this just seems unfair.

Then there’s another bunch that just don’t work as names for a variety of reasons; either they’re too long, too hard to spell, or just seem silly:

Magbigay ng binhi
Sjem Enarstvo
Karna ur

There’s a handful that might work as names — if our child was really exotic or some kind of crime-fighting superhero:


Oddly, one of the books we picked up at the library, “The New Age Baby Name Book” by Sue Browder, has more than one sidebar devoted to Miwok Indian names related to seeds. This would be appropriate, since the Miwoks inhabited the San Francisco area, but … well, check out some of these winners and their meanings:

Helkimu: “Hitting bushes with seed beater.”
Howotmila: “Running hand down the brach of a shrub to find seeds for beads.”
Huatama: “Mashing seeds in a mortar.”
Kanatu: “Making mashed seeds into a hard lump.”
Memtha: “Tasting farewell-to-spring seed after it has been mashed with the pestle but while still in the mortar.”
Muliya: “Hitting farewell-to-spring seed with a stick as the seed hangs from the bush.”

No. Just no.

So, it looks like “Seed” will only wind up being its moniker until the baby’s born, and then after that we’re going to have to pick something we like — and agree on.

— Beth

The Names of Stuff

We’ve recently started noticing the horrifying sorts of brand and product names involved in the baby products market.

Let’s set products aimed at older children aside for a bit; Destructo-Megalon Pencil Holders and Magical Pony Wonder Companion Backpacks can wait for another post. I’m just thinking here of the products marketed for use with really young kids, where it’s the parents doing the shopping.

If you’ve had kids, just think back across the brand names that’ve sublimated into your subconscious, and scan your mental images of your shelves. The bathroom shelves are an especially good place to check.

If you haven’t had kids, and haven’t paid much attention to what baby products tend to be called, here’s a quick way to work it out: hold your teeth a centimeter apart, and see how many sounds you can make without moving your jaw or opening your lips more than an inch vertically or horizontally at any given time. Do that for ten seconds and you’ve probably generated several new brand names and violated the trademarks of a couple old ones.

Basically, there seems to be some unwritten rule in baby product marketing that they need to be composed mainly of “oo,” “ee” and “shh” sounds and their kindred, with precious few harder consonants rattling around towards the beginning of the words safely removed from the stream of gentle exhalation that follows. They’re the soft sounds we’ve come to associate, at least in consumer terms, with maternal comfort and shelter. The sort of sounds you can make without exposing too many scary teeth.

The thing is, I don’t think these product names are aimed at kids, because kids this young aren’t yet reliable targets for marketing and don’t yet participate in purchasing decisions. They can recognize and start preferring brands pretty early (around 8 months, I’ve read), but it takes a bit longer to play a meaningful role in spending money, and they’re hard to reach via media and advertising that early. Which means that however fiercely the brands will be competing with you for your child’s love later on, at the beginning they seem to be aimed at adults. Adults who, at least prior to having kids, responded primarily to brands with a respectable number of consonants, an interplay in phonemes across words in a phrase, or clever puns.

This came to mind because we were shopping for diapering products today, and looking down the lists of product names was basically like sliding around between a pair of infinitely large breasts while being serenaded by a cavalcade of cherubs whose repertoire consistent entirely of cooing. “Bumkins.” “Bummis.” “Tushies.” “Fuzzies.” “Noodle and Boo.” And so forth. I’m not making any of those names up, BTW. Sometimes the word is followed by a slightly more ordinary word like “wipe” or “wrap” or “liner,” but that doesn’t really change anything. If humans were born sexually mature, parents would be standing at the store shelf trying to decide between “Booshy Fuckables” and “Spumkin’s Extra Sensation.”

Either the marketing industry is under a colossal misconception that parents of preverbal children regress into some sort of preverbal state themselves and need to be cooed at from store shelves and catalogs, or there’s some sort of horrible moment coming where due to hormones or whatever else I’m supposed to be attracted to such sounds — or face ostracism by all the parents when I don’t. Unfortunately, the marketers have both the psychologists and the statisticians working for them and billions of dollars on the line, which suggests they’re probably right.

I heard somewhere that babies genuinely do respond somewhat more strongly to baby talk from their parents than to ordinary adult speech patterns. On the other hand, I’m having trouble imagining how you’d effectively get a control group on that study.

The diaper products are especially bad, I suppose because the parental consumers of these products are simultaneously swerving around in some sort of hormonally-induced subverbal fugue and at an only marginally more rational level dealing with the sort of fear brought on by the prospect of a two year-long geyser of unguided feces with your adorable bundle of love at the tip of it. So we’re well primed to swerve for the rounded letters and pursed-lip brand names on the shelves. Further, there aren’t really any alternatives — most of the time, there is no rational, mature-sounding brand option. And when there is, I’ll probably ignore it like all the other parents, because first priority is more likely to be my fuzzy notion of what will ensure my child’s contentment, closely followed by the desire to not have excrement leaking out all over everything. Penalizing the makers of dumb-sounding brands is, unfortunately, going to wind up further down the list, somewhere after washability, hypoallergenicity and non-toxicity.

Oh well. Maybe the pencil holders and backpacks phase will be easier.

– Devin