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October 11, 2003

You name it
Guest Author: Ali Shahidzadeh

seahorse_w.jpg My wife and I are having a bit of a dispute at the moment over what name to give to our first child, to be born next March. We don't know its gender yet, so I'd go for something like Farzad or Homayoon for a boy and Farzaneh or Azadeh in case of a girl. But, alas, she won't hear of it because in her words these names "sound awkward"-;now, Jesus!-;and we've got to choose more "melodious and pretty" ones like Parvaneh, Sahel, Mehrdad, ...

No accounting for tastes, of course, but let's see then: what principles should be applied in choosing names?

In my ever so humble opinion, the most important aspect of a name is its meaning, and that's why names used for designating animals, plants and objects (however cute or beautiful they may be) are not among my favourites. I am glad my simple-natured parents named me Ali (lofty, noble). Not out of any abstract love for the Shiite saint, though—I'm anything but religious—but just because it's a splendid name with a lovely meaning that has always given me pride and self-confidence.

Many people in countries like Iran name their children on a purely religious basis and without giving a moment's thought to its meaning or historical implications. A very common example is Fatemeh (Muhammad's daughter): Take a trip to any Shiite town in this country and you'll see that nearly half the female population is called that name. Now what does Fatemeh mean exactly? In case you didn't know, it's something like ‘weaned before time’. Hardly a feather in anyone's cap, especially at a time when everyone—form doctors at the UNICEF and the World Health Organization down to presenters of TV family programmes and talk shows—is going on and on about the virtues of breast feeding. Well I suppose the bearded, pious father of a Fatemeh will argue that the name actually means ‘weaned (or separated) from all evil’—and there have even been attempts at modernisation (Fatima is becoming popular)—but obviously straws are being clutched in both cases.

A few years ago, a major newspaper in Tehran published a letter from a man who had filed numerous requests with the registry office to have his daughter's name changed and had been rejected on every occasion. He had tried all administrative and legal mechanisms, every conceivable loophole in the law, but to no avail whatsoever. The letter said:

Coming from a religious background, we chose the name Omm-ol-Banin (mother of Abbas, a Karbala war hero) for our only daughter and we were very proud of that. But now I am ready to give my life to have that name changed because classmates and kids in the neighbourhood are calling the girl “Ommol” (fuddy-duddy): Come here, Ommol! Where are you going, Ommol? ...

Amused? Naturally. But the horror of it is that the hapless child was so devastated by these taunts that she was not going to school anymore.

Indeed, it takes some ill-advised, excessive religious fervour plus a good deal of ignorance to put that sort of name on a child:

For one thing, Omm-ol-Banin means ‘mother of boys’; it's not a name, rather it is the nickname given to one of Ali's wives whose children were all boys. It makes absolutely no sense to call a child Omm-ol-Banin, not least because she isn't a mother yet, and even when she becomes one, her offspring may not be an exclusively male lot.

And within the same logic of fanaticism, the government is now refusing to register names like Kourosh (Cyrus), Daryoush (Darius), etc on the grounds that they are too un-Islamic!!

It's no secret that the people running this country simply can't resist poking their noses into every corner of our lives—we've got used to it. But that a nation should be forced to reject its own history and culture—and in such a petty, ridiculous fashion—defies both belief and common sense.

Historical and cultural matters are also important. Just as Fatemeh is a popular choice among Shiites, names like Ayesha, Khadija and Hafsa are very common in Sunni (mostly Arab) countries, where people have got this age-old tradition of naming girls after the wives of prophet Muhammad. Moreover, things like Zayed and Yazid (ie, one who brings abundance and prosperity) are perfectly decent names per se—Zayed is the name of the president of the UAE and there is a popular TV presenter on the MBC network called Yazid. Now who would even think of naming a boy Zayed or Yazid in a place like Iran? The first one will draw a good laugh as it means ‘useless’ or ‘superfluous’ in modern Persian. As for the second, I think you agree that calling anyone Yazid would be nothing short of sacrilege in these parts.

Ideally a person's name ought to fit their social status, appearance and even physical characteristics. ‘Shahpour’, ‘Khosrow’, ‘Dara’ and the like are most appropriate for kings, princes and rich kids. For a very ugly person, names such as Ziba, Parichehr, and Golrokh are best avoided. Recently a friend of mine chose the name Rostam (the mythical hero in Shah Nameh) for his baby son, but later changed his mind. But why? I wondered. “Well, just in case the child turns out to be a frail, diminutive one, with a name like that he may end up becoming the laughing stock of the entire school or district!” said the far-sighted new daddy.

While it's only too natural for a brutal, sadistic dictator to be called Saddam (harmful, destructive), I wonder what to say about the British commander of the UN peacekeeping force in Bosnia in the early 1990's, General Michael Coward. If names are supposed to bring pride and confidence, then Coward isn't the most glorious appellation for a person in the noble military calling. Without wishing to be unkind to the worthy general, just think what he wouldn't give to have his name changed?!

So, a penny for your thoughts here: what criteria, if any, should be applied in selecting names? How much should we allow our choices to be influenced by cultural, historical and religious considerations? Is the meaning issue all that important?

Ali Shahidzadeh was born in Tehran in November 1969. He graduated from Tehran Medical University first as a general practitioner and later as a specialist in preventive medicine and public health. He currently teaches public health and research methodology plus English and French languages to students of medicine. His personal interests include books, languages and the Internet.
Amir at October 11, 2003 10:06 PM [permalink]:

A couple of non-Iranian friends of mine were going to have their first baby recently, and it was a boy. Having been fascinated with the naming thing, I was consulted for choosing a first and a middle name! It was only then that I realized how limited in number the Western male names are! A quick look at the end of the Oxford Advanced Learners' Dictionary reveals that most common English names come from the bible. Persian names, on the other hand, fall into three (overlapping) categories: religious, historic-mythical, and the ones that have meaning. You have mentioned names from the first category: Ali, Fatima, Mohammad, Abbas, Jafar, etc. From the second category, I would like to add Babak and Roodabeh to what you have already cited. From the last category, I would like to mention Omid (hope), Arezou, Ro'ya (dream), Shirin (sweet), etc. I personally favor names with a meaning. (There are some such names in English, mostly for girls: Summer, Happy, ...) But one criteria you should consider is how the name sounds to you (and others). Also, if you think your child may ever choose to live in an English speaking land, stay away from names that are hard to pronounce (Shaghayegh, for example), as well. As a rule of thumb, they shouldn't have more than two syllables, or they will be mutated beyond recognition. One other thing you should consider -and this is more subtle- is your chosen name should not resemble any improper words in English. For example, Fatima becomes Fatty and Asal can become A**hole and therefore subject to elementary school children's ridicule. One last thing. Some people prefer popular names (such as Ali and Reza and their combinations: Ali-Reza, Mohammad-Ali, Ali-Mohammad, Ali-Naghi, Amir-Ali, Mazdak-Ali (!), Hossein-Ali, Mohammad-Reza, etc. and some search old books and find rather obscure names for their children, partly to stress the uniqueness of their offspring and partly to show off their deep historical/literary knowledge!

mehdi at October 11, 2003 10:07 PM [permalink]:

A person's name can be really important in formation of his or her personnality . At the moments that I get very discouraged of something or feel defeated, I remind myself that how can someone named MEHDI be defeated (Mehdi is the Islamic Messiah). It really energizes me and gets me out of that defeated state of mind!

I think parents who choose names of the great people or unique strong names for their children are ambitious parents and in many cases those children can fulfil some part of those ambitious.

The example that comes to my mind is Ayatollah Khomeini's name: Ruh-Allah(means "the soul of allah"). Who could have thought of naming their son "The soul of Allah" except a very ambitious parents? who could really compete with "The Soul of Allah" ??!

Ali Mahani at October 12, 2003 04:22 AM [permalink]:

Well just a bit of explanation: when I sent in this article I signed it Ali Mahani, which is the name I usually use when writing into weblogs. My complete name is Ali Shahidzadeh Mahani, your humble servant.

Ali (Shahidzadeh) Mahani at October 12, 2003 06:41 AM [permalink]:


Lovely, thoughtful article. Some of the points you raised were actually treated in my original article, but I had to cut them out for the sake of brevity; now thank you for completeing the picture!

By the way, don’t you think it’s exactly those “unique” names that most often lead to ridicule and embarrassment?

And I loved that one about Assal and Fatty, ha ha ha…. Great, pal!

Arash Jalali at October 12, 2003 09:10 AM [permalink]:

First, I agree that meaning is important when choosing a name for a child, but by that I do not mean the name should necessarily have any meaning. As long as the name does not have a bad meaning or connotation, and is not reminiscent of anything bad, questionable, odd or rediculous, which could lead to the child being ridiculed by his/her peers, it really doesn't matter what it means and what logic or belief is behind it. Sheer beauty of melody is as good a reason to pick a name as it is for association with holey figures or depth of meaning.

Second, I think Amir's criteria that the name "should not resemble any improper words in English", though a very subtle precaution it might be, goes in my view a bit far. I agree with it as far as it is limited to foreign words that are commonly known by the people in the community but I don't think an Iranian, especially one living in Iran, should worry himself/herself with how it would sound in English, French, German, Italian, etc. I don't think Her/Frau Kühn of Germany, Ms.Anne of England and Mr.Kirowsky of Russia would care how their name sounds in Persian any more than Hojjat-al-Islam Faaker does (or according to Amir, should) worry about his name's English connotation.

And third, I just wonder if to a native British or American, surnames like Woodcock sound as bad as they sound to an Iranian like me. My personal feeling is that names in English are in most cases treated as such, i.e. as names and nothing more, and therefore people don't react to them as much as we in Iran would probably do. I guess those of you who have been in North America or the UK for sometime can shed a light on this matter. But again, I just remembered this piece from The Simpsons, in which the bartender, on whom Burt is playing a joke through the phone, shouts to the crowd: "Seymore Butt! Seymore Butt!" :-)

Shiraz at October 12, 2003 11:06 AM [permalink]:

Ali Shahidzadeh Mahani! Congratulations on becoming a daddy!

In my opinion, a name has to be short (two syllables at most), easy to pronounce and with an interesting meaning.

Frankly I don’t see that much of a difference in your chosen names and the ones that your wife likes “Azadeh” is as melodious as "Parvaneh”! It’s just that “Azadeh” has deeper meaning. But is it really necessary to have a deep meaning? I guess you never know until your child grows up and reacts to your choice of name! But then, having a pretty name with a meaning is safer than one without a meaning. At least if it will be important for the kid to ‘explain’ what his/her name means, then he/she will have an explanation.

I strongly suggest that the name has an Iranian root though. This way, wherever the kid goes, whichever country, it will be a signature of where he/she is coming from (of course if that will be important for the kid, which we don’t know yet).

In response to Arash, I agree that we should not base our choice of name on how it sounds in different languages but what are the chances that the son/daughter of a doctor in Iran comes to study abroad? There is a big chance, so I guess you should consider how his/her name would be pronounced at least in English.

Ali Shahidzadeh Mahani at October 12, 2003 12:02 PM [permalink]:

Arash Jalali

Yes you have a point there. In most countries names are often regarded as names and nothing more, but nonetheless they can cause problems in extreme cases. I remember a major textbook in otolaryngology (diseases of ear and throat) whose author was a Dr. Stool. Now anyone who has studied medicine will know that “stool” is the term used for designating human excrement in medical textbooks. It’s hard to imagine Dr. Stool’s colleagues and students hearing his name paged over the hospital PA system and not laughing up their sleeves.

As to how names can find awkward connotations in another language, you yourself have provided some clever examples. Now I’d like to add the Cameroonian footballer in the 1990 World Cup, Emannuel Kundé: do you remember how commentators in this country struggled to get their tongue round that name without causing shock and embarrassment? Another case in point is AC Milan’s international defender Alessandro Costacurta. Indeed it’s almost impossible be sure that a particular name is not gonna have a bad meaning in any of the languages currently spoken in this world. So we had better not be too fussy about that anyway.

To Shiraz—

Hey thanks a lot mate. Of course Azadeh and Parvaneh sound very much alike, but you know how it is: there’s just no arguing with women!!

Amir at October 12, 2003 09:03 PM [permalink]:
I would like to take a break and add some things to my own comment as well as others' regarding the naming issue. I will not care too much about my comment being overly organized, as it will be only a comment, not an article on naming your children. 1. Some time ago my brother forwarded me a link of names that were announced as forbidden by some Iranian embassy in some country whose name I do not care to remember! I noticed that link later in but can't find it now. (If my brother happens to read this weblog, I hereby ask him to enlightne us all!) It was quite amusing to see what names are possible as well what names are deemed "improper". 2. In America, where I live, African-Americans (the politically correct appelation for blacks) sometimes name their children by strange totally made-up words. I suspect that is simply in order to distinguish themselves from the non-black community. By bringing this up, I just want to suggest that I don't think there is anything like a "blacklist" of names that are deemed improper, or if there is it is probably limited to obvious aberrations and in any case not as long as IRI's lists. 3. In response to Arash Jalali's query regarding how Awericans themselves feel about names such as "Coward", "Wolf", "Brown", etc, I have been living in America for some years and it seems to me that what is not important to them in a name is its meaning! No wonder most of their first names are either without any meaning or their meaning in the original Hebrew (or Aramaic or Greek) is forgotten. I think we should not get too deep and concerned about the meaning of names of our saints either. The original meaning of these names (even a name like Ali, with a lofty meaning) are now overshadowed by the characters of the persons they symbolize. I presume the late leader of the revolution was named Ruhollah not because his father was thinking about the meaning of the name, but because it is an appelation of the prophet Jesus. The case of Mahdi is proof to my claim above. It literally means "someone who is guided", but Iranians name their children Mahdi because it's the name of the Shi'ite's hidden Messiah, not because of what it means. So whatever the word Fatemeh has meant before the Prophet chose it for her daughter is no longer important really. It is a good name, because it is the Prophet's choice! 4. I have to admit that Fatty and Asshole were not my discoveries. I had read about them in an article by a fellow Iranian a long time ago. I vividly remember that the respected author of the article had written in the footnote an anecdote about an Iranian man marrying an American named Ann and they go to Iran together. When his mom asks him about her new daughter-in-law's name and he answers her, she grumbles: I should've known that you wouldn't bring me anything better from America. 5. I noticed that we have many beautiful names in Persian with meanings. Some of them are actually, as you have said in your writing, names of flora, fauna, or celestial objects. From the latter subcategory, I would like to cite these (both pure Persian and originally Arabic): Akhtar, Setareh, Najmeh, Parvin, Keyvan, Zohreh, Bahram, Khorshid, Shams (a very beatiful name, in my opinion), Ghamar (not that popular these days). But there are names which are not strictly names of objects: Sahar, Pegah, Sepideh, for example, that were very interestingly used in a recent movie by Manizheh Hekmat (Women's Prison) for three characters al ["Toooo long!" editors say, "Here: click to read the whole thing!"]
Ali Shahidzadeh Mahani at October 13, 2003 01:51 AM [permalink]:

Again kudos to Amir for a thorough, well-organised discussion of the subject. Paragraphs 7 through 10 are especially worth reading.
Well done.

AIS at October 13, 2003 03:19 AM [permalink]:

Your remark about the name Kuhn reminds me of a question I've had for some time. How do English speakers feel about the name Kant?
(Maybe you could help me, having lived for some time now in the US)

Somayeh at October 13, 2003 10:04 AM [permalink]:

I just want to say that when parents choose a name like Fatima, they are not concerned with the meaning, rather they are concerned with the historial character, which they hope their daughter will look at as a role model. So, it makes sense to them, just as it makes sense to a nationalist to call his or her son Daryoosh or Koorosh, not for the meanings, but for the historical character. I guess almost every parent likes to choose the best name for his or her child,so let's not criticize anyone for the names they chose, because they, at least at the time their baby was born, thought that was a proper name.

Amir at October 13, 2003 01:36 PM [permalink]:

The question about Kant came up some time ago when we were sitting in the dark, bored to death, thanks to the hurricane Isabel. These words (Kant and the word you have in mind) are pronounded very differently indeed. We Iranians may not hear the difference, but these people do! (Look up the phonetics in a Webester dictionary, or I had a class today and I had to pronounce the name Doug, but since I feared pronouncing it like Dog and causing laughter I changed the name to Dave!

I was searching for the missing link (see my second comment above), but to no avail. However, I found this one which is not unrelated:

Ali Shahidzadeh Mahani at October 14, 2003 01:43 AM [permalink]:


Of course every parent (including the fellow who wrote to that newspaper) wants to choose the best name for his/her child. But choices can be wise or unwise, as indicated by the story of that kid Omm-ol-Banin. Why oh why should a child's life be wrecked just because an idiotic, holier-than-thou parent has taken it upon himself to make a "role model" out of her? As it turns out, names like that are more likely to make you the butt of cheap jokes from all and sundry, never mind the role model...

As for Fatemeh and other great Islamic figures, well, there are just so many Fatemeh's, Ali's, Muhammad's.... around -many of them hardly worth the bread they eat: Khamenei, Khatami - that it would be unrealistic to expect any of these names to make you anything like a role model, and a Fatemeh may well end up being called Fatty or Fatoo (in Southern Iran) by her chuckling, malicious peers.
(I recommend reading Amir’s posts for further clarification).

PS - Thankfully my name, Ali, is one of the few which cannot be distorted or shortened, and then I am so proud of its MEANING!

Ordak D. Coward at October 14, 2003 02:48 AM [permalink]:

Having been ridiculed during my teen years -- not because of my name, but using my name to highlight a funny character of mine -- I should say that parents do not need to worry too much about what name carries along laughter of their offispring's peers years later. Just stick to the common ones that are in fashion, and you and your wife find it OK.

Without trying to disclose my real name, up to the age of 10, I really felt bad about my name. A name unique amongst my relatives and playmates, and very different than the names I used to hear around, with possible early memories of noticing surprise of people hearing my name. When I started first grade, there was only another person with my name, and he already had a nickname, suggesting to me that there is something wrong with the name that he goes by another one. This name-deficiency continued until fourth grade where there were three pupils with my name. I really hated my name those years. But, later I learned to be proud of it, especially when I get to find possible suggestions for its meaning.

What I am trying to say, any name could make the bearer proud or humble, more important is for the parents to engage with their children and make them proud of who they are. Of course certain names, make this easier, Ali and Mohammad, are never to cause any problem in Iran any time soon; neglecting the possiblity that the child may not like not being the only Ali around, and ends up being known by his last name, with feelings of mediocrity.

P.S. Well, Alil, one does not need to shorten your name to have a little fun! ;)

Der Keiser at October 14, 2003 04:22 AM [permalink]:

I agree with Ordak on the point about the parents' role in making the child feel proud of her/his name.

By the way, if you are the "Ordak" that I happen to know very well then I should say I don't remember you being ridiculed for your character or name back in highschool. You were always regarded by almost everyone with reverence for the depth of your character and of course your very noticeable intelligence, although I admit we all somehow childishly assumed that you are a communist and sometimes, only sometimes augmented your name with the adjective "communist"! What should I say? I'm not very proud of it, although it brings back a lot of good memories.

By the way, I used my nickname "Der Keiser" so that only the Ordak that I know would recognize me, just in case you are some other Ordak !!

Ordak II at October 14, 2003 05:11 AM [permalink]:

Der liebe Keiser,

Ordak D. Coward seems to be just another Ordak around! As a matter of fact, I was always happy with my name, as Ordak-ish though it might sound :) And I am quite flattered by your comment. Thanks!

Ali Shahidzadeh Mahani at October 14, 2003 06:47 AM [permalink]:


Very clever indeed! Alil... Thanks mate; how come I never thought of that!

You see you can always rely on an Iranian to come up with some brilliant idea. There is just no limit to his creativity!

your admiring, able-bodied chum,

AIS at October 14, 2003 07:59 AM [permalink]:

may I ask what meaning Ordak has, besides the usual one. Thanks in advance.

Shiraz at October 14, 2003 10:16 AM [permalink]:

Well, I remember a joke in which "Ordak", as it is written in persian (alef-re-dal-kaf), was an acronym for "emam ra doa konid"!

A Reader at October 14, 2003 04:07 PM [permalink]:

[Editors: comment removed for violating rule 2 of comment policy.]

Ali Shahidzadeh Mahani at October 15, 2003 10:35 AM [permalink]:

Now please Ordak, be a devil and tell us your real name. There's a good boy.

Senior Grad at October 15, 2003 04:57 PM [permalink]:

Ali Sh. Mahani, ;-)

I do believe you now that you are 33 years of age (your birthday is coming up, dude!) and reside in Iran. (I'm very suspicious of people, you know!) Now, you have to prove that you only have never set foot outside MAMAALEK-E MAHROOSE-YE IRAN. ;-)

I'm just pulling your leg, mate. You should write a book about how to teach/learn English though. I don't deny that you're a genius ;-) (have to see you speak, though!) but your methods of learning English have worked just fine!

Naming your kid? Hmmm. J-names are abundant here: Jennifer (my favorite, shortened to Jen), Jamie, Janeane, Julie, Jane (Mr. Tarzan's companion), and for guys: Jon, John, James (Jim), and Jaasem. ;-)

Ali Sh. Mahani at October 16, 2003 04:13 AM [permalink]:

Oh Senir Grad, where art thou? another long vacation from the forum, eh?

Well come on, mate. Have mercy! How on earth can I prove that one?! For one thing I can't afford overseas trips. Too bad.

Senior Grad at October 17, 2003 03:58 PM [permalink]:

Don't worry, bro. I shall come to Iran one day and will ask around about you. "Does anybody know a doctor who loves Hedayat and is fluent in English?" I'm sure there are not many of you out there. :-)

American Bullshit at January 2, 2004 07:14 PM [permalink]:

Turn on your speakers and click, for example, on 'Click here' of item 3.