When baby names go bad

If you read the news and even vaguely remember middle school, you’ve probably been following the uproar about Harper Lee’s sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. In the book, Atticus Finch, beloved supporter of progress and justice, is depicted as an old-school racist.

While it’s unsettling to see this hero in a monstrous light, as a namer I’m much more interested in an unexpected consequence. Over the years, fans of To Kill a Mockbird have named their children Atticus. Now the meaning of that name has changed in ways they never could have anticipated.

Names morph, picking up connotations over time. Usually, that’s not a bug; it’s a feature: mutability is a power. It’s what allows brands to build meaning into new names, what turned the iPad from the butt of many jokes into a must-have status symbol. However,  a name can pick up negative connotations—not just from horrifying associations like Isis, but from lesser, benignly irritating associations. All Hermiones are now associated with Harry Potter, and Roxannes have to listen to strangers singing “put on the red light.”

The simple truth is that while some parents strive to name their kids something “different,” you can’t future-proof a rare or unusual baby name. As names accrue meaning over time, it’s impossible to predict what will become problematic. There is safety in numbers. Little boys named Josef aren’t linked with Josef Stalin, but name your child Adolf and the associations are unmistakable. In branding, the same forces apply: a distinctive name helps you stand out; familiar, safe names help you blend in. Union Bank is the financial services equivalent of naming your child Jennifer. Perhaps the strategies of corporate naming can also be applied to all the Atticuses out there.

So. Your parents picked a name that’s turned bad. What should you do?

Own your story

“I didn’t put a lot of thought into her name,” said no parent ever. The best names are ones that have a true purpose at their core. The antidote to scorn is knowing your reasons and doubling down on them. Instead of shying away from your name, talk about what it means to you.

Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird IS fair, just and compassionate. How he appears in Go Set a Watchman doesn’t change that. You could say that you were named for the first Atticus, not the second, and that you will honor the original. Or you could say that you were named for a correspondent of Cicero’s.

Evolve

Another option is to tweak your story. Think of the transition from Kentucky Fried Chicken to KFC. Might have seemed strange at first, but it’s now accepted by all. Similarly, as BP developed a new vision, it evolved the meaning of its acronym from British Petroleum to Beyond petroleum.

In the case of Atticus, you could just go by your middle name or initials. This strategy has its risks, though: it can seem insincere and defensive. Someone is bound to ask what the A. stands for. But over time the new name will start to seem normal to everyone around you.

Stay different

Names are powerful, but we underestimate our own ability to compartmentalize. Many brands exist with identical or similar names in related spaces—but no one ever bit into a bar of Dove soap thinking it was chocolate. We can build different meaning into similar names.

Every Atticus is an individual. Friends, family and colleagues will see you, Atticus, as a specific person, not an incarnation of the character. You’ll determine your own identity, which will be more powerful than anything on the page.

Remember that haters are gonna hate (and then forget)

No name will ever be immune from threat. Tomorrow, someone could write a popular song, book, or script with your name in it; a criminal with your name could be in the news. Then the hubbub dies down and we’re onto the next story. Longevity is a powerful force and pretty soon you’ll be back to being Atticus on your own terms again.

Note that I haven’t included changing your name as an option. While technically possible, I wouldn’t recommend it. We tell our clients to change a name only when the benefits outweigh the loss of equity in the old name. In this case, people know you as Atticus, it’s bound up with your identity, and the confusion caused by a name change wouldnt be worth the trouble.

My name is Margherita Wisdom Devine. I’ve heard it all. So take it from someone who says “Like the pizza, not the drink” every time I spell my name—you can ride out this storm.