Name thieves

Reader Anna posted a story to my Facebook wall today — one of Abby’s Name Sage posts on Nameberry that had gotten quite a bit of feedback: Baby Name Theft? Sibling rivalry over a name.

This is the issue:

I have always loved the name Josephine, called Josie or Jo. My sister likes it, too. She doesn’t have kids yet, but really wants them. To be considerate, I asked if she was okay with us using Josephine for this baby. She said it was fine.

My husband and I decided to use the name. [Their older daughter] calls her sister Josephine, and we’ve been referring to the baby by name, though we haven’t officially announced it.

Just recently, my sister told me that she’d changed her mind, and she wants to keep Josephine for herself. Now she’s not speaking to me.

We don’t want to change the name. It fits for many personal reasons, and it’s the name we both love. Yet now when I hear it, I feel frustrated and sad.”

Oof! So maddening! So unfair! So ridiculous! I’m certain all of us can understand the mama’s perspective (who’s actually pregnant, actually expecting an actual baby who actually needs an actual name in the actual near future), but I’m sure even the most laid-back among us can imagine the sister’s perspective as well. What a dilemma!

I love that the expecting parents showed consideration and asked the sister for her permission (for lack of a better word) — we did this also with one of our boys. I hate that the sister said okay, and then changed her mind after the decision was already made. I hate that the sister isn’t speaking to the mom. I hate that the once-beloved, perfect name now evokes anger, frustration, and sadness.

I posted once about naming “dibs” and included a bunch of links that I thought were useful. Given that we add the element of faith to our name discussions, I think we might all agree that relationships are, objectively, more important than names? This is something I try to keep in mind myself, though I know I’m more laid back about this particular issue than a lot of other namiacs. I also feel like we can all intellectually agree that no one owns a particular name, so the idea of “name theft” is somewhat misleading. There are also a zillion other names (and Abby had some awesome suggestions for this couple). I also don’t at all mind the idea of first cousins having the same name, and I think I would love the challenge of coming up with different nicknames.

But. I also know that this can be a hugely emotional topic (especially for emotional pregnant ladies! I’m sacrificing my body, my hormones, my sleep, and my comfort for this baby, let me have my name!), which can override any objective understandings of anything. And relationships are more important than names, but it doesn’t sound like the sister in this situation agrees, and it’s hard to have a good relationship with someone who refuses to play by loving-relationship rules, and who insists on behaving in a way that feels traitorous, petty, and selfish (and I can see how both the sister and the mama could feel this way about the other). But then we’re supposed to rise above and do the right thing regardless. Gah! What a mess.

My dibs post is almost two years old, so let’s revisit it — what are your thoughts/reactions to the Nameberry post? Any personal stories you’d like to share?


60 thoughts on “Name thieves

  1. I remember that my two aunts were pregnant and due at the same time, both with boys. They both planned to name their babies Tyler. I have no idea if either of them knew that the other wanted to use that name, and I have no idea if either of them were able to find out the baby’s gender beforehand. (This was maybe 20 years ago?) Anyway, my aunt B had her baby first, and named him Tyler. When my Aunt M had her baby two days later, she decided to name him Tyrel since it was an anagram of Tyler. Interesting solution, I thought!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. My sisters and I are all pretty big name nerds, so we’ve always talked about names and shared name lists back and forth. For the most part, our tastes are different enough that there hasn’t been anything really traumatic so far. Though, my grandfather’s name was Kenneth and we all loved him, so one sister has claimed Kenneth and the other Kent…and I was left his middle name, Leonard. But it was ok, because I love it and will be happy if I have a little Baby Leo one day.

    That being said, one day my sister noted a girl name on my list and said it would go nicely on her list. So, I “Gave” it to her. I’ve often had flashes of regretting that decision, but as my family has grown, I’ve realized it really does fit her style better than mine. So, even though I’m the only one having babies right now, I don’t even mention that name as a possibility…it’s “hers,” now.

    I guess my stance is that family is always more important. Names are important and emotional and can feel overwhelming, but there are always other names…but you only have one family. My tactic would be to step back and try to remove the emotions for a second, try to remove the feeling that it’s this name or nothing, and see if there’s another name that could work. Because, really, a kid could be named (almost) anything and it will probably be fine. Maybe my thoughts are more that we build these things up so much that we lose proper perspective. As immature as not speaking to your sister because of perceived name theft is, a person and a relationship may be irreparably damaged just because someone couldn’t let themselves conceive of another possible name. The best thing, of course, would be to just talk to the sister and see if things can be worked out–see why the name is so important to her, what other frustrations is she bringing to the situation, is there a compromise that can be reached. But if the sister won’t budge, as hard as it would be, I would choose the sister over the name and try to let it go.

    It just occurred to me that my judgment may be biased, because I have a long list of possible names…many more names than I could ever use. If one of my names became unusable for whatever reason, I could just move down the list for something equally pleasing. Maybe for some people who struggle to come up with one name my relaxed approach seems impossible. I *think* my advice would still be the same, but I do understand that it could be hard, perhaps even agonizing to come up with another name when one name was hard enough.

    Sorry for rambling 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  3. My husband has two brothers who both have sons with the same first names. It’s never been a problem and we’re all used to it. A friend of mine has an extended family that has four members with the same first names. They just tack on the middle name when needed.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I agree – it “shouldn’t” be an issue. I am from a big family of cousins and many of us had the same names.

      In my own family I really liked the name Dominic and my sister also wanted to use it. She didn’t care if we both used it, but I wasn’t sure so we went with it for a middle name instead. She never ended up using it. She has mostly girls and I have mostly boys…lol. But then we do have duplicate cousin names. My oldest son is named David after my dad. He was the first grandchild. Years later my dad died shortly after my youngest brother got married. So when they had their first son he wanted to name him David also – because he would really have the full name with our family last name. So we have two Davids who are cousins – but they are 23 years apart in age. If we need to distinguish we say Little David and Big David. Eventually that won’t be meaningful but we will still know who we are talking about. : )

      But there are so many dynamics to this in human relationships. I am sad that the sister turned it negative. She did say it was okay and had she changed her mind before they actually started calling this baby by name maybe it would be different. I feel like everything Anna did was right and considerate of her sister from the beginning, and she is not getting the same treatment in return. : (

      Liked by 3 people

  4. I may have shared this here before, but in case I haven’t: my brother and his wife actually ended up using my favorite girl name for their daughter. I loved the name since I was thirteen and always planned to give that name to my first daughter. When my husband and I were visiting them, we were all discussing baby names in general (or so I thought) and I mentioned that I had loved this particular name since I was young. Unbeknownst to me, they were pregnant with their second daughter after losing their first daughter at birth the year before. They called me a few weeks later to officially announce their pregnancy and they explained that they had actually been planning to use my favorite name until I mentioned my love of it, and they were going to try to think of an alternate name, but they weren’t having much luck since it was the only name they could agree on. I told them that I appreciated their consideration but I wasn’t pregnant, I had no idea when my husband and I would have children, and we could have all boys for all we knew, so it seemed silly to “save” the name for us. Plus the meaning of this name was particularly special to them and it fit with their son and their daughter in heaven so well, it was clearly meant to be her name. My brother accepted that and was thankful, but it took some convincing for my SIL to get back onboard with using the name. It felt a little weird at first to realize that it wouldn’t be my baby’s name, but I just couldn’t call “dibs” on it, it seemed wrong. They used it, it is absolutely perfect for this little nugget, and I’m her godmother!

    After reading the letter to Abby you linked to above, I think the letter-writer is within her right to use the name as planned. I think it’d be nice if she sat down with her sister to try to understand her side of things better (although if the sister is giving the silent treatment, that could be difficult!) but I really think she should stick to her guns.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I knew a set of first cousins, both named Christopher. One was nicknamed Chris and the other was called Kit.

    Personally, i don’t think anyone has a right to call dibs on a name. The woman should call her daughter Josephine. If the sister does end up having a daughter at some point, she also has a right to call her Josephine. They’d have different last names and there are a ton of different possible nicknames.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, it is such a good point that just because one sister uses the name doesn’t mean it’s off the table for the other! I mean, they can make that decision for their own children if they want — not wanting their kids to have the same first names as their cousins — but it’s not a rule of any kind.


  6. I’d had a middle name picked for a daughter for years — Rose, for my amazing great-grandma — and when my sister and I were both pregnant with daughters (she was due six months before me, and it was her second daughter), she did ask if I would mind if she also used that middle, for same reasons. I think it’s awesome, especially when one of our cousins had a girl two years later and gave her that middle, AND one of our other cousins ended up legally changing her middle name to Rose, which means that all three branches of Grandma Rose’s descent now have at least one great- or great-great-grandchild with a middle name Rose.

    But middle names are very different from first names.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I love that story! We have a similar situation in our family — my paternal grandfather’s first name was his mom’s maiden name, so therefore really rare as a first name — it’s very very associated with him among our family and those who know our family. As of now, he has a son with it as a middle name, a grandson with it as a first name, two grandsons with it as a middle name, and a great-grandson with it as a middle name. I love how so many parts of the family are so obviously tied to one another, and call to mind my grandfather!

      Your last sentence is so perfect — “But middle names are very different from first names.” That’s the whole issue right there!


  7. In my big Irish family, name repetition just isn’t a big deal. We have Big Pat, Little Pat and Paddy. Multiple Angelas, Michaels, Brians, Seans, Liams, Marys and Teresas abound. If we have a girl, we’ll probably use Rose or a Rose name because it’s a family name on hubby’s side. I have a first cousin with a Rose double name but I know it won’t be an issue because it’s hardly the first instance of a repetition. If my sister wanted to use a name on my list, especially if it’s a nickname rich as Josephine, we would both just use it. It’s just not that big of a deal to us.

    I love your phrase – “I’m sacrificing my body, my hormones, my sleep and my comfort for this baby, let me have my name!” Can I use it in negotiations with my hubby? Just kidding of course. We just found out we’re expecting our third a few weeks ago and I’ve found that the hubby has been very gracious about going along with my name choices this time while I’m deep in the trenches of morning sickness.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Congratulations on your no. 3!!!!! So nice of your hubby to be accommodating with name conversations!! (That’s how I got my middle name! My mom wanted Katherine Morna and Dad wanted Katherine Marie, and it was only after seeing Mom go through labor that Dad decided to go with her idea!)


  8. My sisters and I (there are five of us) used to all like the name Jackson (which was the name my parents had picked out if sis #3 had been a boy) and we would joke that whoever had the first boy would get it, as there would really be nothing any non-pregnant sister could do about a birth certificate. I doubt any of us will actually use it now…the first boy of the family was born a few weeks ago and named Woodrow. Funny enough, though, little W’s middle name is a different “-son” last name.

    Also, I suggested Violet to my hubs but he didn’t like either that it was a flower or a color, I don’t remember which, and I mentioned it to one of my sisters. She is still in high school and not close to having babies, but she informed me that she intends to name her first daughter Violette (pronounced with emphasis on the ette). So although I really like the variants Viola (VAY-o-la, not vee-O-la like the instrument) and Violetta, I probably will not try to further discuss this name family with my hubs. Especially because, like someone said above, I have more names on my “love” list than how many children I plan to have anyway! And this particular sister’s temperament is one that gets very attached to things–I think she Would feel somewhat betrayed if I used a Violet name now; but I also think if she was still far from having babies, she would acknowledge how silly it seems to “save” names for hypothetical future babies…..and also if there were a Viola and a Violette running around at family gatherings it might be a funny little pocket but not even a real problem.

    In the end, I agree with many that the actually-pregnant lady should “get” the name regardless (or get it first, anyway), especially after receiving permission! But I don’t know these sisters’ personalities. I don’t know! What a crazy dilemma.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I love hearing your perspective! I also talk about names with my younger sisters all the time (neither one is married), and one of them sounds like yours — I think she would be hurt if we used any of the names on her boy list. On the other hand my brother and SIL were very gracious and agreeable when we asked if they would mind if we used a name we thought they might want to use — so funny how different personalities are! I too like that it’s easier to be generous when you have a lot of beloved names on your list, that’s probably why I’m more laid back about it all.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Up until maybe 30-40 years ago, people were, by and large, not very adventurous namers. While there have always been outliers, the names I’ve tended to see on old family trees, old books, historical documents, etc., are very common and conservative, with frequent overlap. Many cousins within the same family might have multiple bearers with names like James, Mary, William, John, Robert, Anne, Elizabeth, and Helen.

    Being in the religious Jewish community, I know a lot of families even today who use the same names over and over again. The very traditional people in this community tend to only name their kids after deceased relatives instead of choosing original names they love, so there are many cousins in the same family with names like Moshe, Rivka, Chana, Esther, Sara, Miriam, and Yosef. (For some reason, there are far more girls than boys among the younger generation here!) Among Chabad Chasidim in particular, the names Menachem Mendel (always called Mendel) and Chaya Mushka (usually called Chaya, Mushkie, or Muki) are in every single family, either for one or both of the parents, or for one son and one daughter. The only family I don’t know with a Mendel has a surname that rhymes with Mendel, which would make it seem like kind of a joke name. With those names being used in every single family, it’d be pointless to complain about name-stealing!

    My little brother (who’s now 30 years old) has said he doesn’t want kids, my few first-cousins haven’t had any kids yet or even married, and only a few of my second-cousins have had kids. It’s hardly a secret that I’ve wanted to name my future firstborn son Samuel since I was twelve years old, and even if one of my cousins uses that name before I get a chance, I’d still name my future son Samuel. I’ve loved that name too long, and feel such a powerful connection to the stories about the Prophet Samuel, to just abandon it all of a sudden. There’s never been any doubt in my mind what I’m going to name my future son.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Wow Carrie-Anne, I loved reading all this! Thank you for sharing your experience! Yes, I can definitely see that a tradition like yours would make the idea of “name thieves” ridiculous! You make such a good point too about adventurousness in naming being much more prevalent today … it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot since I posted it — why such a big deal about people sharing names — and I think it just comes down to a desire for uniqueness/individuality and to be seen as clever (at least, I admit, I tend to have those motivations). Which strikes me as coming from a very American perspective, where individuality in naming is prized, rather than a religious-tradition perspective, where considerations like naming after deceased relatives or saints are more important? I’m not sure I’m articulating that well, I’m still thinking about it all …

      Liked by 1 person

  10. We had a name dibs situation too- a family member made it known to the family that a certain name was “theirs”(one we really liked), even though they had no children and weren’t supposed to get pregnant for a certain amount of time d/t medical reasons. We ended up going ahead and using it as a middle name (and they used it as a first name later on), and to my knowledge there was no negativity over it; I just kinda wish that stance hadn’t been taken in the first place. (AND not long ago I heard of another situation over this same name!)

    I find the name-claiming thing frustrating especially since no one knows *if* they’ll be given kids or even a child of that gender! And it’s sad how it breeds division (as dramatic as that sounds). I totally get sharing your love or preference for a certain name with others, esp. a family one, and opening up discussion about the use of it but am not on board with firmly letting people know a name is “yours”.

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  11. I’m SO glad you posted about this because I’ve been itching to know your thoughts. I have strong, complicated feelings about this haha.

    I think people should just name their children what they want to name them. I think, and this is purely conjecture, that this sort of possessiveness over names (which can get nasty as the story you shared illustrated) is symptomatic of the sort of individualism that America glorifies (not to mention the mentality that children are rights and possessions rather than gifts). We believe our children’s names are perceived as a reflection of us: our taste, values, and individuality, and that we’ll be judged by them. But children are their own people. (Well God’s…) And names are good in and of themselves and to ban someone from giving a good and honorable name that they like seems selfish. In my opinion, more than one Josephine just means more honor paid to St. Joseph.

    I love hearing stories of historical little villages where boys and girls were all given the first names Joseph and Mary, because I think it eliminates that egotism that can arise from baby-naming. In fact, it’s funny but I don’t looooove my son’s first name (Dario). But I’m kind of glad I relinquished my possessiveness because it’s a good name and he was named in honor of his paternal grandfather. (We call him Leo, a nickname for his middle name, Léon–after Léon Bloy and St. Leo the Great.)

    Now on the other hand, when I think of a name that I like but that someone I know has, I immediately feel like it’s off-limits (but I’m also a non-confrontational phlegmatic so my usual reaction is to back off haha). And when I think of my absolute favorite names and the idea of someone “taking” them, my knee-jerk reaction is one of possessiveness. But that’s just my own weakness.

    I have two sisters and we’re all at the time in our lives when we’re all having babies and when this naming tension comes up, it makes me so annoyed for all the reasons outlined above. But of course, I’ll probably just swallow my pride and go with another name if the occasion ever arises.

    I remember reading and cringing at this article a while ago (

    “Another friend, who works on Wall Street, is so conscious of overlap with other parents that he has broken down the list of possible names for his forthcoming baby into trader-speak categories like “momentum stock,” “oversold” or a “value play.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • YES! You said it so much better than I tried to in my comment above! That article was also amazing — he exactly sums up the way I view the American namescape, brilliant! And cringey, like you said. One of things I always wanted to convey through this blog was that all those Catholics who have sensibilities like those in the article (myself included to a good degree) can find lots of ways to satisfy their tastes within the realm of the faith — yet another way faith and culture can intersect in a fun and good manner.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Very true! And like some other commenters have said, a baby could be named just about anything and it would fine and also that our tastes and name preferences generally change over time anyway. It’s funny how baby naming is both incredibly significant and at the same can be blown way out of proportion.

        Liked by 2 people

  12. I think it’s also good to *try* to remember that tastes so often change over the years! I know there *are* those out there who fall in love with one name as a kid and love it forever…but for me, the names I loved before marriage changed by the time I was having babies. PLUS my list of favorite names is still changing. I know the girl name I had chosen for my first two pregnancies (which turned out to be boys) is not what I ended up using when I had my girl just a year later. So add to this the probability of IF you have another baby, and IF it’s a certain gender… calling name dibbs doesn’t make much sense!

    Though as you said logic sometimes goes out the window with tense emotions!! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  13. This makes me think of one particular Swistle post where three sisters who were all pregnant, all wanted to use the name Sylvie, with the ensuing family drama. It was such an extreme example that many commentators thought it was a hoax but it wasn’t! Each sister sent name updates!

    Liked by 2 people

  14. I just read this scenario to my daughters and begged them not to behave like this as adults. So sad to see the sibling rivalry continue through adulthood. My girls laughingly agreed to name all their daughters after each other using all the many spellings of Clare and Katharine.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. This story kind of drives me up a wall. I could see MAYBE the sister who revoked Josephine being okay with doing that if she all of a sudden found out she was pregnant AND expecting a girl.

    Only the Lord knows if the sister will be blessed with a child and on top of that a daughter. While the sister who right now wants to use Josephine already has both of those. The other sister might not ever get have a daughter and then nobody uses the beautiful Josephine and then everyone loses.

    I don’t think you can call name dibs unless you are actually pregnant right then. And then maybe only if you know the gender of the baby. It just seems a little arbitrary to call dibs in situations other than that. There are so many names out there (which I guess could be an argument for the pregnant sister giving up Josephine) but nobody owns names.

    These seems a little petty to get so worked up over. My favorite names are William and Caroline. I recognize that my sisters could easily “steal” those names if they have children before me. Why? A) Because they’re great names. B) Because they’re pretty common (like Josephine). It’s not like their arguing over a super unique name that the pregnant sister first heard from the other sister.

    Clearly this type of stuff bugs me,lol. But like, your sister is more important than a name. Again, maybe that’s an argument for the pregnant sister giving up Josephine, but I think giving into the other sister would have bad consequences too.

    Liked by 3 people

  16. I guess I basically called dibs with the name Mark. I picked it out in 2002 after my first son was born. In late 2003 I had a girl so obviously wasn’t able to use Mark. In 2004 my SIL has a short list of 2 boys names her whole pregnancy – Mark and Eric. I was terrified they’d use Mark. I didn’t talk to her directly about it but my husband did let his brother know that we would possibly still use Mark even if they used it. I share my first name with a first cousin so I at least had an argument supporting repeating names. They ended up going with Eric and in 2005 we had our Mark.

    We obviously share similar taste in names because our girl name for Mark was Grace and in 2010 it was on their list. Perhaps because I felt a bit awkward about not being more gracious with the name Mark this time I went out of my way to encouraged her to use it.

    Liked by 3 people

  17. I just remember that my dad wanted to name me Olivia while my mom hated the name. Then my dad’s older brother named his last child Olivia and my parents were all, “Welp, can’t have paternal first cousins share the same first and last name.”

    Liked by 1 person

  18. I called dibs on a name once years ago. My cousin was actually pregnant, I was not, and I was upset when she mentioned her name choice and I asked her not to use it! I feel incredibly stupid about it now, especially since I didn’t use it for any my four, and she used a different but similar name and so will never use that name either.

    Liked by 2 people

  19. […] Alrighty, so I’ll address Genie’s question about etiquette first. She asked, “What is the etiquette on repeat names in this situation and when they would only be together at holidays?” It’s important to note that there isn’t any official etiquette — each person and family is so unique in regards to the way they think about things, that Genie and her hubs really be more the experts here. Given what they know of them, how would the family, including Genie’s sister-in-law, respond to Genie’s son being given the same first name and a very similar middle as his 6-weeks-older cousin? If it’s something that’s likely to cause a family rift, I’d say that’s a good reason for them to come up with another name. If the family won’t mind too much, then they can do what they’d like. I think the fact that the children will only see each other at holidays is a good thing to remember. (I’ve posted a bit about this topic, which might be helpful both to Genie and to any of you dealing with a similar dilemma: Dibs on names? Sharing ok?, Miscarried baby’s name stolen?, and Name thieves.) […]


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