–Stuck in the Middle
You ask how to handle your mother's disapproval of your wife's preferred name. I can reassure you that your mother is far from the only grandparent I've encountered in this column to complain about the name of her grandchild. The vast majority of them (eventually) learn to keep their complaints to themselves.
I'm afraid you are an outlier on this. The majority doesn't share your instinct: The spelling Harlee is overwhelmingly female. There were 300 baby girl Harlees in 2014, for example, and just 10 boys. In the same year, 407 boys were called Harley (along with 940 girls).
Loving the sound of a name, but not its meaning, is a tough spot to be in. After all, name meanings are tricky to pin down and can be misunderstood. And the sound is what you hear every day when you speak your child's name. Thousands of parents every year choose names based on sound, without giving meaning much thought—otherwise, would anyone choose a name that's said to mean "crippled" (Claudia) or "unlucky" (Mallory)?
–Friend in Need
Not really—for starters, Maggie is already a nickname—but the good news is that you're well positioned to give your friend a nickname yourself. This is just what friends are for! Does she need a nickname because she doesn’t care for Maggie? Or just for fun, as a symbol of your close relationship? Let's look at each possibility in turn.
–I’ve Lost That Loving Feeling
As I've noted before, Parental Name Regret is a phenomenon on the rise in America. In a culture in which the old traditions for naming have waned in importance—with fewer namesakes, less religious observance in naming, and a sense that anything goes—parents feel pressure to pick the "perfect" name all on their own. Anything less than complete and total satisfaction can seem like a failure and cause for a do-over. Many parents seek just that—a legal name change for their child.
You had it in two: Ask for permission. If you do it carefully, it won't be awkward. Most people appreciate being asked and are happy to give their blessing. And it's certainly worth trying before you skip right to finding a new name.
Here's a little sampling of some names given to at least 5 (and sometimes over 100) female babies in the U.S. in 1905: Ocie, Velva, Jettie, Emmer, Grayce, Wava, Malissia, Lempi, and Macel. Oh, and Aili.
Yes, it's kind of a stretch. Philomena and Pippa have little to do with each other. But that doesn't much matter. There are plenty of nicknames out there that have taken a long journey from the original given name (like Polly for Mary or Peggy for Margaret). And regardless of tradition, you can use whatever nickname you like.
–Call Me Kaarle, Maybe?
Kaarle is the Finnish form of the familiar boys' name Charles, and it's pronounced as two syllables: Karl with a slight "uh" at the end. So my guess is it would be taken for Carla, rather than Carly. But that doesn't resolve any "Is he a she" doubts. Seeing it in writing might help—but then again, the girl's name Carly can be spelled in dozens of ways, so why not "Kaarle"?
Every girl’s name? Wow, that must have been a very unpleasant (or illuminating?) conversation! I'm sorry that Grandpa's checkered history seems to have tanked some of your favorite names. That has to hurt, and you're right that your baby has nothing to do with these past scandals.