30 Apr 2011

Kid's Names: Harder than Rocket Science

By Jacob Berkowitz

Recently, my daughter said she’d like to have twins and name one of them Jadelyn. Jadelyn? I asked. How do you spell that?

As a children’s author, this is a question I often ask these days. It’s the reason that book signings have become an emotional peril, replete with the possibility of embarrassment, tears and smudged and crossed-out signings. Yes, I write about things scientific. But as every scientist and writer knows, it’s the human part of the equation that’s often the biggest challenge.

Here’s the problem: Kid's names are the frontier of neologism. The age of reproductive freedom and the rise of spiritual diversity, coupled with the creative frontier of e-mail and text-messaging, has created a Frankenstein's monster of kid's names.

As an author, it’s fair that parents and kids have the expectation that I have a better than average facility with spelling. But correctly penning today’s freeform first names isn’t about spelling, it’s akin to mind reading.

Imagine this: you’re seated at a table in a library activity room, and in front of you are a dozen or so kids and their parents lined-up all eager to have you sign their books. It’s an author’s dream moment! You smile at the first kids and ask, What’s your name?

Before you hear the answer a baby begins to cry and two other kids in line burst into laughter because one farted, so truth be told all you hear of the name is: Mwabben. Fine, you’ve been here before. Lean forward and ask again.

Ok, now we have contact and you think the name sounds like “Robin”. This is the moment of danger. You’ve got a dozen kids waiting in line, you’d like a drink (of water). But don’t think for a moment you know how to spell “Robin”.

The days of respect for, let alone adherence to standardized, name spellings are long gone. It’s a spelling free for all out there, one that makes the challenge of spelling given names on par with the final round of the Scripps Spelling Bee.

So, ask “Robin” to spell his name. He looks at you sincerely and begins “R-o-b-y-n”.

Whew, no problem, you think and start writing, just the substitution of “y” for “i”. Then Robyn’s mom leans forward and with a tight smile adds “With an n-e at the end”. Oh, of course, it’s “R-o-b-y-n-n-e”.

In my experience, at times even the kid thinks the additional “n-e” is overkill, but I gladly scribe the seven-letter riff on “Robin” and enthusiastically talk fossils for a moment before I’m on to the next round of the spelling bee.

(Jacob Berkowitz is most recently the author of Out of This World: The Amazing Search for an Alien Earth, Kids Can Press www.jacobberkowitz.com)

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