Nickname issues, and name discernment/being “at odds with the Holy Spirit”

I had a really interesting email from a reader, and she’s eager to hear what you all think! She writes,

I’ve read your post on name regret, and I was wondering if you had ever considered doing a post on name discernment. My husband and I have a name we both like for our first child (due in 10 weeks!), except I cannot stand the nickname variant! Bad associations I guess. There are many great reasons to use this name, and it feels right in so many ways with all the connections we have with it, particularly when compared to our other frontrunners (which we both like quite a bit, but don’t feel as right). However, we cannot get over the nickname impasse with this original name — he doesn’t like the idea of using the full name or alternate nicknames on a regular basis, and I don’t think I could see using the traditional nickname. Have people ever run into this type of situation? Did they go with the name that felt most right, even if they didn’t like it, per se? Trust in the Holy Spirit and hope you grow to like it? With this being our first, I’m just not sure what to think.”

Interesting questions, right? I really see it breaking down into two questions: (1) How do we handle using a formal name that we both love that has seemingly inevitable nickname issues that we can’t agree on? And, as this mama put it later in her email, (2) What did you do if you ever had a time when your “preferences were perhaps at odds with the Holy Spirit”?

I gave this mama my own thoughts to No. 1, which were basically along the lines of “if you go with the name they both like — which seems to be, from her email, just what they’re feeling called to — the rest of it will shake out.” Do you agree? Do you have experiences of your own like this?

As for No. 2, I’m interested to see what you all will say! I’ve had experiences myself where things happened that seemed to make obvious what the baby’s name was *supposed* to be, things just fell in place in a really providential way, and it was kind of thrilling to really feel like we’d done it — we’d found the name that was meant just for him! And we know there are times when God actually does say, “This is what the baby’s name will be.” (Jesus.) But at the same time, I also think that God uses our preferences and tastes and styles for His purposes, so that second question gets kind of tricky, and I can totally see it setting up a situation where name regret might occur. And it’s all based so much on feelings — which name feels right and which doesn’t — and feelings can definitely be helpful, but they can also be wrong and/or misleading. Also, being “at odds with the Holy Spirit” sounds very grave, but in regards to naming one’s baby, I don’t think it’s quite as heavy or binding. After all, as Pope Francis said in Amoris Laetitia, “For God allows parents to choose the name by which he himself will call their child for all eternity.” (166)

So lots to think about here, and we’d love to hear your thoughts! I’ve done a few other posts that kind of swirl around this topic as well and which might be helpful — they’re listed in this post.

Updated to add: How timely! I was just catching up on email, and one of you wonderful readers sent me the link to this article: One in five mothers say they chose wrong name for their child, poll finds. It was definitely an interesting read, and my biggest takeaway was that sometimes name regret happens and there’s not much that can be done about it (e.g., little girls named Isis and Elsa just before those names took on huge obvious associations, or kids that grew up to dislike their names), which I feel like might help reduce the stress associated with picking the *right* name, since sometimes it’s taken right out of your hands, no matter what precautions you take. Rather than being a terrifying thought, it’s kind of a soothing one to me! So just pray and do the best you can.

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50 thoughts on “Nickname issues, and name discernment/being “at odds with the Holy Spirit”

  1. When I was pregnant with my fifth (third daughter) we had a complicated and hard pregnancy. Her due date was on St. Faith’s feast day. With all those things in mind we knew her name was “supposed” to be Faith. But my other girls have long names with nicknames and something in me just wasn’t satisfied with Faith when her sisters were having longer names. At delivery and for hours after we didn’t know what to name her but eventually picked a long name we both loved and put Faith in the middle. She fits her name so well so I’m happy we did change our minds.

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  2. I totally relate to the “we agree on a name but can’t stand the nickname variant”…Hubby and I aren’t too big into nicknames in general. (The exception for me is I love Benny for Benedict…but I doubt I’ll ever get hubs on board.) We both like the name Maximilian because we love the Saint (Kolbe) but I could not have a son called Max. It’s a short and sweet name for other little boys but to me it is such a sad compromise if the full name is given, and the nickname seems too inevitable, so we’ve crossed Maximilian off the [first names] list entirely. We don’t have any boys yet, though, so I can’t say we necessarily “discerned” it off the list.

    I love that Pope Francis quotation you included!!

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  3. I went through this exact situation. When I was 9 months pregnant with my first, I had a dream that I was actually carrying twin boys but that one would be born first and the other would come shortly after. In the dream, the first baby was the name that I already knew at that point that I would name my first son. The other twin had a very specific name that was not one I had ever considered before. It felt like the dream was inspired by the Holy Spirit when I found out that I was pregnant with my second son really close after my first was born. I seriously thought about the name from the dream. In some ways, it felt like this baby was already named. However, while I liked the name in full, I wasn’t that keen on the most obvious nickname. I was concerned that other people would call him by the obvious nickname even if we didn’t. After a lot of prayer and thought, we put the name to the side. Once we did that, we felt much more free to find his true name. I still have mixed feelings truthfully but in the end, it just wasn’t the right name.

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  4. I just want to comment on the nicknames and provide some reassurance for parents who like full names but hate the nicknames. My son is Daniel and only Daniel. My husband hates Danny so we only call him Daniel. As he grows, I know he will correct people to only call him Daniel. My parents named my brother Matthew and he’s always been Matthew, even now at 19 in college. And I knew a Nathan who is an adult now and he never went by Nate, only Nathan. So I think the nickname issue can be squashed if you are really consistent about what’s tolerated.

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    • Yes, I think this is so true! My oldest is similar — we intended to only call him by his full first name and other than some relatives and brothers calling him nicknames, he’s basically 100% his full name, and that’s how he introduces himself, and he corrects people (outside the family) who try to nickname him.

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    • I would have to counter, as an Elizabeth, it can be really hard to ‘enforce’ the no nickname ‘rule’ as children get older and enter school or social situations on their own. My mom disliked any nicknames so much so that she wrote on my school folders up to 5th grade “Elizabeth (Not Liz)”. However, I personally did not feel strongly against nicknames. In school and social circles, there was a natural inclination toward nicknames. When Beth and Lizzy were “taken”, Liz was sort of a natural fit (that I never personally selected) and I never cared to object. I don’t dislike Liz, but it is/was easier to remember/say and it’s just my name now. And I will say that people typically assume a nickname more than they typically would call me my full name. I would also share this happened to more than a few friends in school and home school situations alike. At a certain point, a child will choose which name they introduce. May be something to keep in mind.

      Oddly enough, my mom quickly gave in when she realized I would respond more quickly in public to “Liz”. She doesn’t dislike it as strongly as she did before. Of my 5 siblings, my mom disliked nicknames with all but one (she thought any nickname would sound silly as an adult), but now 3/5 of us go by nicknames.

      I would suggest making peace with the possibility nicknames may occur or create/start using one you prefer occasionally to see if it sticks. I.e. if you absolutely hate Joe, Joseph may not be right for you.

      Just a ‘nicknamed’ perspective from my own experience.

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      • My sister is an Elizabeth who wasn’t supposed to be nicknamed who ended up going by Liz. She has a son who has a longer name with a possible nickname they couldn’t stand.. He went by the full name until 4th-5th grade and now his classmates call him the very nickname my sister and her dh couldn’t stand. And he is fine with it and old enough to be fine with it. I agree that you need to weigh carefully if a name has a really obvious default nickname if you don’t like it. We call our son by his full name but also know he could shorten it, and we chose the full name knowing we were okay with the nickname that tends to go with it.

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    • I strongly dislike most nicknames. I’m not against the concept of them, I don’t think, but I have always hated when people nicknamed me and when we named our children, I very strongly wanted them to go by their actual given names and not nicknames. So far, so good. My children are 14, 10, 7, and 3, and none of them go by nicknames at all, to this day!

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  5. This post was so timely. It made me giggle. I am the mama from the post about Robert Edward or Benedict Joseph. I felt so strongly about Benedict but in the end my husband and I really couldn’t get over the negative connotations with the name. Now we are on our sixth possible name and the baby is due in two weeks!
    It is so different from the naming process we had with our first. We knew his name before we knew he was a he and truly felt the Holy Spirit’s guidance.
    As to the nickname issue, our oldest’s name has a nickname I do not like. While my sister calls him that no one else has or likely will. The nickname just doesn’t suit him.

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  6. I agree that nicknames only take if you use or encourage them. My family are all ‘full namers’. My brother is Daniel in the family, introduces himself as Daniel etc., though he does have some friends from school who he lets call him Danny. My maternal grandmother is a Catherine who’s always been Catherine, anybody who calls her Cathy is strongly corrected, Kate or Katie doesn’t seem to have been the go to Catherine nickname in her generation. I doubt she’d respond to that either though, lol.

    Maybe because of that history of strong family reactions, I don’t understand why some people seem to automatically give people nicknames even if they’re introduced by full name, it’s just not natural for me. I don’t think the letter writer should worry, consistency sticks in general.

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    • I agree 100%. My daughter is Elisabeth and only goes by her full naans. She is in 9th grade and nothing on that has changed. There is one person who has asked her a couple of times why she doesn’t go by Liz, and she always just shuts that down. We know other teens who go by full names such as Catherine, Patrick, Joseph, James, Vincent, Andrew, Daniel, Thomas, Matthew, Nathan, Robert, etc. I guess they’re mostly boys and young men, because a lot of the teen and young adult girls/women we know have names that are less-commonly nicknamed, like Sarah, Emma, Caitlin, Emily, Hannah, and Megan. (For some reason, the nickname Meg seems more common with Margarets than with Megans in my experience). That’s not to say we don’t know some Addies and Maddies, and we know an Anastasia who was named that specifically to get to the nickname Ana. But really, not very many of my daughter’s friends go by nicknames. Hardly any of the boys she knows do! And because the names listed all belong to 14-20 year olds, I’m guessing it may stay that way.

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      • How did autocorrect get “naans” out of “name”? WordPress and my iPhone don’t get along. I get more autocorrect errors on WordPress blogs than anywhere else! Gah!

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      • So fascinating! I’m musing especially about Elisabeth/Elizabeth and all the stories about shortening it to Liz … I know so many Elizabeths who go by nicknames, and so few of them are Liz — it surprises me that people would default to that!

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      • That’s really surprising! I’ve known a few Beths in my lifetime, and one or two Betsys, and my great aunt was a Betty. But by far the most common has been Liz! I must have known, between my peers, my mom’s, and now my daughter’s, like two dozen Lizes!!!

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      • Wow! I can think of … four. One about fifteen years older than me, two my age, and one who’s three. Otherwise I know a bunch of Elizabeths who go by non-Liz nicknames like Ellie, Betsey, Lily, Beth, Betty, and one Libbett.

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      • Oh, yeah, I forgot, we do know two Ellies, and my daughter met a Bitzy at camp this summer. My grandmother’s aunt was a Lily (for Elizabeth), and my MIL has always called our Elisabeth “Libbett”, too, although I’ve always thought it was a baby talk way of saying Elisabeth (she hates that we call E by the full name, so I thought baby talking it was her way of “shortening” it without actually inventing a specific nickname). I’ve also heard of one Bizzy. But still, Liz definitely takes the cake among the Elizabeths I’ve known! (And making this list made me realize that I’ve known a lot more than I thought!)

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  7. My husband was named Nicholas, and his dad wanted to use the full name because he didn’t really like “Nick”. But my hubs came home in first grade and said he wanted to change his name — to “Nick”. Ha! So you can’t guarantee there won’t be a nickname. That said, his dad still uses his full name (as do I, sometimes) so dad’s preference is still somewhat in effect 🙂

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    • I had a classmate whose mother insisted on calling him only Matthew and corrected anyone who called him Matt. He was called Matt by everyone but his mother by the time we were out of elementary school. On the other hand, I never acquired a nickname that stuck.

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      • This reminds me of an opposite case we know. The fastest boy on my daughter’s swim team (until this summer, he graduated and moved on to college) was a boy named Matthew. I once asked my daughter if anyone ever called him Matt or Matty (he seemed like he could’ve been a Matty), and her response was something like, “No! No one would ever do that!” I’m assuming his parents chose to just call him the full Matthew and it became his definite preference as well.

        Speaking of swimmers, Michael Phelps is definitely Michael and not Mike. I’m not sure that nicknames are as inevitable as one first assumes.

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  8. Regarding name regret…. I find a lot of peace in reading Pope Francis’s words. We are charged with this decision as the parents. It is rarely something dictated to us. It is our choice and that is part of how God designed parenthood. While that might be a lot of pressure, it also gives me peace that there are options.. that most names aren’t “wrong.” As a name lover, it is hard to settle on one name FOREVER :). But that is our task. I love my kids’ names but sure, I think back on our other options and possibilities and wonder a little. But I like that idea that God uses our choices for His Good… their names, especially if chosen with care and thought (not Bus Stop 57), can and will be used for good.There is little reason to regret.

    I sometimes think our culture puts too much pressure on details like this (and also we focus so much on being original, but a name that is used in daily life will inevitably feel less fresh over time, and I wonder if that contributes to modern name regret). Letting go of some of these smaller concerns can be a good spiritual exercise in humility and trust, as well as perspective (It’s a name, which is profound and important but… it’s also one detail among many in their lives :)).

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    • I agree with most of your point here, but not the last part. I have heard it said many times that our names become our vocations, even in surprising ways. So a name isn’t just a small thing about who we are, it really serves to define us, for better or worse, in some way. It really is important! That’s not to say that parents should belabor it until they go crazy, but it is serious business!

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      • Yes, I purposefully didn’t say it was a “small” part, but one of many details in our lives. I don’t think it’s small! But there are many other aspects to our lives and vocations too!

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      • This is a good point too, and I think that Sarah’s more on your page than not. (Have you read Duana’s book yet? Her whole premise is that she is the person she is because of the name she was given.)

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  9. Another thing about nicknames after reading some of the comments, I think it’s important to remember our kid’s names are theirs. We give them their name but eventually they take control of it. In some ways, that can be frustrating but hopefully it can be a reminder for us that the child is God’s not ours.
    In jr. high I met my dear friend at the time, Joseph. In high school, he decided to be Joe. To this day, he is apparently Joe. I remember one day someone apparently asked his mom if he would answer to either version of his name, just as I rounded the corner shouting “Joseph!!!!!” and Joseph/Joe ran in my direction. 🙂

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    • This is so true! I also have a friend from high school who we always knew as one name — similar to Carlos — and during high school he decided to push for a more anglicized truncation of it — Carl — but it didn’t really catch on … years later when we connected on Facebook I found that he’s now known as Carl by all his post-high school friends … Ooh I have such a hard time with that! It doesn’t feel like the same person to me if I call him Carl! I’m constantly reminding myself that he gets to decide what he goes by!

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  10. Another thing I just thought of, regarding nicknames, is that both parents have to be on the same page or the decision will never stick. Like if one parent likes the full name but the other parent tries out various nicknames, it’s not likely that the child will stick with the full name (in my observation). Even what we go by as parents (I go by Mama) requires total but in from our spouse. My mom said she always wanted to go by Mama, but my dad just couldn’t shake the habit of calling her mommy (and later mom) when referring to her in front of us kids, so we called her mommy/mom. For me, I was adamant from the beginning that I’d be called Mama, and got my husband on board from the beginning. Our children never, ever call me anything other than Mama, because it’s been so consistently modeled in our home. (My husband goes exclusively by Daddy, even with our teenager.) My sister, by contrast, also wanted to go by Mama, but her husband wasn’t able to be consistent with it. Their oldest is not quite 7, and already all of their large brood of littles calls her Mom.

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  11. Regarding names that are “given” by the Holy Spirit, that was definitely the case with my baby John. It was never a name I’d considered, it was never on any top, well, any number, list. I still wouldn’t even characterize this as a name I “like”. I wanted him to be named Peter, and my heart was really set on Peter, even though my husband doesn’t care for Peter AT ALL. However, my fertility is pretty so-so, and by the time our third child was turning three, I wasn’t really sure we’d be able to have any more babies. So when I received some consolation from God about this during adoration, and when it was made clear to me then that “his name will be John” (after St. John the Baptist), it seemed very set. Also, it’s fitting that my two THUNDEROUS boys are named James and John. 😂😂😂

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