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When Your Favorite Name is "Taken"

I love my grandmother's middle name, but it is my cousin's first name (we are not very close). Dare I use it for my own daughter? If I were to use it, would my family think I was stealing the name from my cousin, or would they assume it was in her honor?

- E.

Sometimes choosing a baby name can seem like choosing an email user name. You start out thinking about the best choice, but pretty soon you're just hunting for something reasonable that hasn't been claimed yet. Isabella? Sister-in-law took it. Gabriella? Neighbor owns it. Aarghh!

Many parents, therefore, ask me about the boundaries of name theft. Does it count as stealing if it's your second cousin's kid's name? What about your husband's college roommate whom he only sees once a year? Your next-door neighbor, if there's a really big fence between your yards?

In most cases, I think the whole idea of name theft is overblown. If your child's name is fashionable, she's likely to share it with classmates and coworkers throughout her life. There's nothing wrong with that, it just means that the name is well-liked. One more Isabella, even in your own social circle, shouldn't hurt anybody.

If you choose a genuinely unusual name, though, the duplication can stand out like a sore thumb. If your cousin is named Zephyr or Mehitabel, it's a fair bet that the name will be taken as an homage...and cousin Zephyr may well be taken aback.

May I propose a radical solution? Ask her. It always surprises me how few people take this direct approach to determining another person's feelings. If you're genuinely concerned about how she feels, you'll find out. And if you really just want permission to do what you want...don't say I told you this, but if you ask the question right, you can usually get the answer you're looking for.

Start off by saying how much you've always loved the name, how much you envy her for bearing it (or admire her for choosing it for her child), and how you really hope she won't mind if you give this beloved name to your own child. Not many people will have the gall to come between an expectant mom and the name of her dreams. Now you have your OK, and can explain to anyone who cares that you asked permission first.


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