What’s in a name?

Muž and I are expecting our first baby in June.  Preparing for baby has been an exhausting process. With nausea, fatigue, and emotional ups and downs permeating many of my days, keeping my cool in an incredibly challenging and stressful work environment while continuing to move forward in my training as an air traffic controller at a fast pace has been a struggle. One of the more joyful parts of the process of turning two into three has been choosing a name.

I’ve always held the belief that names are very important. Names are the first part of your identity that many people see or hear, and they are full of cultural nuance that I believe can help or hinder the named. I absolutely love my name and wouldn’t ever want anything different, it’s exactly me. My muž on the other hand, being born in Belgrade with a very Serbian name chose an American one for himself to help acclimate to society after immigrating to California. He chose a classic American name and it suits him perfectly. So now he has a handful of names and nicknames that he can choose at will; selecting to wear the one that best suits the current social climate.  To me, he’s just my “Voli Thing”. But most people do not get to name themselves, most people are stuck with the name their parents gave them without any say in the process.  I’m know I’m not just naming a baby boy; I’m naming a child, a teenager, a man who will one day work and love and eventually grow old. This name must carry him through life.

Being an international couple, we want an international name.  We want a name that he can use while traveling and living abroad if he chooses and in circles of global friendships that he surely will develop. We want a name that doesn’t sound too foreign to the average American, but one that his grandparents in Belgrade won’t stumble over. We want one that is unique, but not so unique that he will have to spell it out every time he introduces himself.  We want a name that is actually a name, not just a made up word, but nothing in the top 100 list. It must have the right balance of strength and likeability. It must be a trustworthy name, one that looks good on a resume, but also sounds good to a date.

We went through thousands of names; most of the obviously international favorites were just too popular for our taste – Dominic, Luka, Aleksandar, Stefan, etc. The Serbian ones were just too foreign sounding to the American ear – Lazar, Stanislav, Jovan, and somehow many of my suggestions curiously ended in “o” – Carlo, Corrado, Otto and Leo.   Then of course, we had our aviation names – Glenn, Neil, and Skyler. For a while we were fixated on Felix, inspired by Felix Baumgartner, the man who famously held the world’s attention in 2012 when he broke records by being the first man to skydive from outer space and break the speed of sound with his body in free fall. Conversations at our dinner table would sound something like this. “Is Felix the guy who brings coffee to the boss, or is Felix the boss himself?  Is Felix just the hot guy who is always off hang gliding or surfing, or is Felix the guy who puts a ring on it?” One by one, our long list of boy names dwindled as we vetoed them for some reason or another. We decided Felix had Peter Pan syndrome, and so he was off the list. Salvador was a tortured soul, and Nolan, well Nolan just didn’t stand up for himself enough, especially in relationships, and no guy named Trevor would ever cure cancer.

For a while we were at a stalemate, each vetoing the others name suggestions as soon as they were spoken.  For some time, Muž wanted to get a book of Slavic names, and he would google “Orthodox Calendar” and other things, looking for the most Serbian of all Serbian names. More than once, frustrated with the process, I pointed out to muž, not so lovingly, that our sons name would already include a Serbian last name, and that a Serbian first and last name made no sense, since after all, he is born to a Midwestern American mom living California. Our son would be American. Born in America, educated in America, and probably spend his lifetime in America.  Any time I mentioned this, an unspoken hesitation would flutter across muž’s face, as if he wasn’t really sure what to make of the idea of having an American son. Perhaps this very thought is why he launched into the search for a really Serbian name. If his son would be American, at least his name would be a reminder of his roots. I wonder if muž had ever considered that possibility growing up. I certainly never really considered the possibility that a child of mine would technically be a first generation American on one side.  I wonder how our son will think of his ancestry one day. His dad immigrating to the states in his mid-20s, with a rich and often misunderstood cultural past, and his moms family having come over to the New World with the pilgrims, as American as apple pie.

Pondering the cultural identity of my son brings up many questions. I wonder what his first word will be, and will his native language be Serblish, the hybrid Serbian-English that we speak only to each other at home?  Will Muž be Tata or Daddy? Will our son feel American or half Serbian? Will his grandparents in Belgrade be around long enough to tell him stories about the old country? Will he correct my Serbian grammar by age 3? Probably. Will he be a rock star, a neurosurgeon, or just a pilot like mom and dad? Will we be able to finally choose a name that honors both his father’s and mother’s heritage while still maintaining a timeless sense of style and allowing him to be accepted in both obscure villages and cosmopolitan circles?  The clock is ticking, but we are up for the challenge, the name game is on and we will play until the time is up.

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”- William Shakespeare


17 thoughts on “What’s in a name?

  1. My Serbian’s name is Filip which is very English yet spelled foreign. Keep your child as close to his roots as possible. American’s culture comes from all the different countries we’re from. For instance, although my family has been here for about 300 hundred years, my roots come from France, Germany, England and Ireland. Your child is unique to his roots and should be raised to be proud of his heritage which is as American as anyone can get.

    • Thank you for this reminder. I sometimes think that we are trying so hard to preserve my husbands Serbian identity that we forget to give importance to my own unique heritage, which is Scandinavian. I have suggested a few Scandinavian names but always am told they sound too “Anglo”. Fortunately we have decided to use “Armstrong” as a middle name which is my mothers maiden name and a nice nod to my side of the family. Thanks for reading!

  2. I am Serbian and my muz is Turkish… and we named our son Seth 😀 It wasn;t really a choice, ofcourse, we thought about it, deciding much like you described in your post. He did not want a turkish name, because it would sound so distinguishable whenever we are abroad, people misspronouncing it. I on the other hand, am not fond of many male Serbian names, except Srdjan and Nemanja, which ofcourse, the muz can’t pronounce properly 🙂
    Seth just came. We were sleeping one night and my husband woke calling for it. I asked him, him still hazy and sleeping, who is he talking to, to which he responded like “doh, our son ofcourse!”. And it just sounded perfect, like some celestial force was assembling a puzzle and finaly put the last piece in and smiled happily.
    I say, relax, and the right name will come to you and your husband 🙂

  3. I am due in May with my first son (I already have a daughter) and my serbian muž and I spent way too much time mulling over names. We went through the Serbian name list in the back of my baptism book (I got baptized Serbian orthodox about 13 years ago). I tried like hell to find something that would work for both languages. The fact is, ANY serbian name with a “lj”, š. ć or č in it is out of the question. My very WASP american family looks at Serbian names with confusion. So we named my daughter Katarina, but call her Kaya for short. Can you believe it, they actually butchered Kaya at first. It was difficult! I never saw that coming.

    For the second one, I’m having a boy and I pretty much was limited to names like Luka, Gavrilo and I forget already the other ones I picked. These didn’t suit my mood for my son’s name, so we chose something totally not american or serbian. 🙂 It’s still a secret but I can assure you it’s pronunciation works in both languages!

    I feel your pain. Naming to suit multiple cultures is torture. I didn’t even consider whether the names worked in Thai (my mom is Thai) because it was just way too much.

  4. May I suggest the name “Darko”?
    It comes from a Serbian word “dar” which means ‘gift’, but in English it sounds even cooler, like it comes from a word ‘dark’ (“mračan” in Serbian). Also, there is that popular (American) movie “Donnie Darko”, so probably the whole world is familiar with that name, consciously or subconsciously.

  5. My wife and I had our first son on March 2 of this year and I have to say it is one of the greatest moments of my life! And we both talked about the names and making them more american just because we live in Kentucky so you can only imagine the butchering of the English language here! 🙂 Of course me being a serb she really had no choice of choosing an american name haha I am joking 🙂 I myself have literately spent half of my life in the states so I consider my self more American then anything but when it comes down to it my blood and my genes are not american and nor are his so he will be raised here and create his life but as much as he wants to be american he can not, because even his mothers roots are not from this land. And there is great pride in loving and embracing your roots because at some point in time your son will want to know where he came from and what he is, that is just human nature. My wife and I have chosen to go with Nikola (spelled the right way) because that is a very universal name out side of the states mainly but still works in English and if one of the greatest Serbians had the privilege of having that name then my son is worthy of it also 🙂 I am talking about Nikola Tesla the man who created the 21st century and who was a orthodox serb.

    • Congrats on the birth of your son! It is such a special time, and I am so glad to hear you are enjoying fatherhood. I jokingly suggested naming our son “tesla” since my muž, like most I suppose, is obsessed with the man. As for your son not being American, I have to respectfully disagree. Though he may have Serbian ancestry, being American is not in your genetics, otherwise no one would be American except indigenous “Native American Indians”. Cultural identity is so complex, and I do admire that you chose a name that would keep him connected to his family’s past. Best of luck and thanks for reading!

    • Tesla was not an Orthodox Christian. He was only raised by an Orthodox family, but later in life he developed his own unique perspective regarding religion which is not easy to categorize. I would argue that he was more panentheistic than (Orthodox) Christian. In one interview, he even stated that “soul” or “spirit” is just the functionings of the body, and when body dies – “soul” disappears. Anyway, he claimed that he had great respect for Christianity and Buddhism, but he opposed any kind of religious fanaticism.

  6. My father is Slovene but I grew up and still live in Australia.

    I have always felt half-Slovene, Australian-Slovene is what I’ve always said when asked where I’m from. Because we “Australianised” our surname (took off the accents, completely changing the pronunciation) and my parents gave me an Irish name (don’t ask), I always felt that I had to justify my European routes and culture because my name doesn’t scream YUGOSLAV when you see it!

    Perhaps a Serb middle name? But I agree that having an -ic surname will always have him identify as a Serb! Good luck and I love your blog!

    • Thanks so much for reading! Yes he will have his dad’s last name, which originally ended in “ic” but we have Americanized it to end in “ich”. Still Slavic sounding, but less formidable without the accent. For a middle name we are going with my mothers maiden name, as a nod to my side of the family. I suppose he will feel mostly American no matter what name we give him, so a name that works in both cultures is probably the safest bet, now if we could only agree on one… 🙂

  7. Hi !
    I`m from Belgrade and live in US for 14 years…and absolutely understand what are you going through…My name is Sanja and it gets mispronounced here 99%… Therefore when I was about to have a child, I wanted to find a name that will fit both continents, since all my family is still there…And named him Viktor…I kept “k” in the name instead of “c” as a small sign of autencity but none has any problems… Stefan was surely candidate next to it…
    Regarding languages – kids are absolutely amazing ! And you should have no worries at all… I have friends with 3 languages in the house and kids manage in all 3 with no problems.. When my son started daycare, I was concerned that he wont feel comfortable if he doesnt understand something (although he was 9months old) so spoke to him in english…But soon as he started to come back home with only english words, I switch to only serbian and he is completely fluent in both.. Starting to write now in both and actually is picking up the logic for both languages…
    And yes, he is teaching me new english words… And it`s all lovely.
    They are proud as kids and even much more as adults when they are “unique” by their heritage…and combining 2 cultures in their lives just makes their personalities and their lives more rich… So just throw both worlds at him 🙂
    And all other questions are parents` universal regardless of the residence on the planet :)) We all worry and wonder about so much since they are the most speciall little creaters for us…
    Good luck and enjoy your little serbo-english baby 🙂


  8. Hi,
    An interesting blog, very nicely written, very “my Serbian big fat wedding” or Serbian “Mango season”. It seems to me that you have been surrounded with somewhat traditional, narrow minded crowd ( I am mostly referring to your earlier posts, e.g people who would not speak English around you in the middle of California ) , and that, as a result, your experiences are somewhat skewed. I am of course being just a tad defensive, since I am born and bread Belgradian, But the experience, at the end does largely depend on the individual people one meets on a journey. Just as an example, the vast majority of my friend’ parents and grandparents speak fluent English, so you were in somewhat unique set up there from the beginning. Furthermore, ignoring and ostracizing someone is horribly rude in any culture and in any country, so what you have experienced among ” serbian diaspora” in California is an exception. Not that dissimilar to bulling in US high schools
    Serbian food is known to be meaty and heavy and not to everyone taste. I personally do not like sarmas or cevapcici, However, Belgrade does have good ( and definitively superbly clean ) restaurants and one can find very decent sushi , or any type of salads , or seafood … or anything really.
    It was once truly cosmopolitan city, very open minded , very progressive for that part of the world. It does have its’ scars and it can be grey and dirty, but it is still charming.
    I digress , I did enjoy you blog. It is a definitively a different angle.
    In regards to the baby name does it really matter where it is from, as long as it is meaningful and pretty ?

    • Thanks Anamaria. I agree with what you are saying – the reaction I get from the group really depends on the crowd, the type of people. It also depends on their perception of me, which has definitely changed from my first post until now as I have become not just a random face at a party, but a fixed presence amongst our circle. You respect someone more if you know they are there to stay.

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