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When Is a Baby Name Out of Bounds?

I have one son named Felix, and a million girl names that I like. I have such a difficult time with boy names. I like Reuben, Sawyer, Isaac, and Spencer—but I knew someone named Spencer in high school, so I can't use this one. What is the thinking on giving your child the name of someone you knew but weren't really friends with?

–Felix's Mommy

We should distinguish here between honor names and name associations. An honor name, of course, is one you give to your child as a way to show admiration, respect, and love for the honoree. It's a deliberate choice to have your child share his name with someone who is important to you.

Whether you bestow the name exactly as the honoree used it, tuck it in the middle-name slot, or give it a twist to make it distinctive, you are using the name because of the person who bore it—not necessarily because of the name itself. (It's a nice perk if you like the name and the person!)

An association is different. It can be positive or negative: You like the name, but you might not like someone that name is associated with. And very often, we are too quick to rule out names for this reason. If the person in question is no longer part of your life (say, it's a kid from middle school who had a bad haircut), then we should try to let it go.

It would be a shame to rule out a name that you otherwise love because of its (coincidental!) link with someone who isn't important to you. If you give it to your child, he'll quickly erase that link to your old classmate. Spencer will be your son's name, just like Felix is.


Please do not add links to your comments. Thank you.

April 3, 2017 8:33 AM
By Anonymous (not verified)

I can't help but think that the poster must be more recently out of high school. This is based in part on Spencer's history of use and her concern about the association with someone she barely knew. I have a hard time seeing this as an issue for someone who has been out of high school (and not seen Spencer) for say, 10 years or something.

I think this type of name association is likely to fade over time. The association will fade even more quickly once the name has another, more recent and/or important association.I say use Spencer & dont let some random guy from high school prevent you from it.

April 3, 2017 11:24 AM
By Anonymous (not verified)

Factor in how much "Spencer" is apt to be in this kid's life going forward.

When we picked "John" as a name for our son, we were in a awkward dilemma. My husband's boss was named "John", but it was the right name for us. My husband pulled aside he boss and told him, and fast forward 5 years, they don't even work together anymore. And "John" is still the right name for us.

April 3, 2017 2:15 PM
By Juli (not verified)

Name associations can even be ignored within family, never mind old classmates who probably wouldn't even recognize you on the street any more.

Our daughter's middle name is after her late paternal grandmother. Her maternal grandmother's sister happens to have the same name. There was no intention of honoring this great-aunt with the name -- which everyone, including the great-aunt, was perfectly OK with, once they were reminded of the deceased grandmother's name. (Great-aunt is on record saying that it would've felt bizarre to have a grand-niece as a namesake, when none of her kids or grandkids have honor names.)

You can't rule out every name you've ever encountered on another person. It's OK for more than one person in your life (let alone your past) to have the same name. Really.

April 5, 2017 8:46 PM
By Sabby (not verified)

I wouldn't worry about this at all. Unless Spencer from high school was the first boy you kissed or something along those lines it's not an honor name. If people ask why you chose it you can say it reminded you of Spencer Tracey. Or that you liked it.

April 8, 2017 10:50 AM
By Anonymous (not verified)

I actually disagree with you a bit here. Partially because I myself am 10 years out of high school, and I can still identify with this problem.

For me, I think it has something to do with the "singularity" of the name. By that I mean, how often it's used in your immediate, day-to-day life. If you have only ever known one person named Spencer, that name feels more like it "belongs" to just that person than if you've known a whole bunch of them. When you have a single association to something it can be that much harder to break that association.

An example, using some of my own classmates names:

I went to high school with a girl named Linnea and have only recently come across that name in a different context. Even not having seen or spoken to her in many, many years, my classmate will always be my immediate association, because she was the only one for so long. On the other hand, I also went to school with a kid named Arthur. He was the only Arthur I had ever met, but because I have other points of reference for the name (King Arthur, Arthur the children's show, etc.) the association isn't as strong and the name feels that much more usable.

April 25, 2017 3:21 PM
By WithAnE (not verified)

Ha. My brother was named John, after our dad. Somehow, my great-uncle John came to believe my brother was named after him as well. Nope. The uncle was an annoying blowhard, and my brother was NOT named after him. Never an issue. Even though it was THE SAME NAME.

May 6, 2017 10:51 PM
By Anonymous (not verified)

I told my family I wanted to name my boy Orion and they cringed and refused to respect the name on its own merits. THAT WAS a boy in church, why am I choosing that, blah blah blah. They warned me they'd forever expect my child to be him (nothing wrong with the Orion I knew by the way). I learned that others may be stuck on the name association too. But if no family members or peers knew Spencer then it shouldn't be an issue. I for one would cringe with Spencer because I knew one and he was weird--that and Abby, but for others they wouldn't have the same association.

June 21, 2017 11:42 AM
By Martin (not verified)

My girlfriend and I are expecting a baby in December and we don't have a clue with names. Feels like we are going around in circles.

I seem to have thought about it and there are a set of unwritten rules I am abiding to.

Any feedback or thoughts would be much appreciated.

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