now clogging the internet elsewhere

03 August 2006

What's in a name?

One of the most interesting projects I’ve been involved in at my new job (and by “involved in” I mean “did that thing where I foisted myself upon the lawyers doing the actual work because if I had to spend one more minute staring at Westlaw on my computer screen I was going to lose my shit,”) has been choosing pseudonyms for child plaintiffs. When a child is a named plaintiff in a lawsuit, someone has to choose a pseudonym for them to protect their anonymity. In many cases, lawyers end up using a kid’s initials, or “Baby Jane Doe,” or something similarly generic. Here, though, a significant part of our legal strategy to shine a bright light on state foster care systems, and one of the ways we do that is by giving the kids real names to make their stories as sympathetic and accessible as possible. A newspaper story about "Cecelia" can be a lot more heart-wrenching than one about "Little Girl Doe," right? So we choose names for them, usually something that starts with the same first letter as their actual first name. So, for example, if we were choosing a name for me (pseudostoops) we might pick something like “Penelope.” Except we could not choose Penelope. Why not, you ask? Because another part of the legal strategy is to choose common well-known names that are not racially identifiable, and Penelope is obviously a name that implies gorgeous busty latin movie starlets. This is where it starts to get interesting. Foster care advocates understandably don’t want foster care dysfunction to be seen as a “black” problem (so LaShawn is out) or a “rural” problem (so Kaytlynne is out) or a “preppy” problem (sorry, Glynnis!), so every effort is made to find nice neutral names for our named plaintiffs. Except it is really freaking hard in some cases to find a name that is racially neutral. Also, having fifteen people in on the discussion doesn’t help- its like choosing baby names by committee. In fact, the conversations we’ve had about this have convinced me that if and when John and I ever have kids, we will not tell one single person we are planning to use as a name because input from any more than two people causes the process of picking a name to go entirely off the rails. As an example, this is how the conversation went when we were trying to pick an “L” name for a little girl who is a plaintiff in a case:

Lawyer 1: I know! Leyla! Lawyer 2: What, is she cheating on George Harrison now? Lawyer 3: Liza? L1: Ugh. I knew a total upper west side princess named Liza. Too white. L2: Plus, the judge would always be picturing her with dark eyeliner circles and a weird pixie haircut, which is kind of gross since she’s only five years old. L1: Lily? L2: Is she wearing a ribbon belt and carrying a boat tote? L3: Laurie? L1: My arch nemesis from college is named Laurie. L2: Lana? L3: Too Russian L1: Leela? L3: Too Indian L1: Lorena? L3: Too criminal L1: Leah? L2: Hm. That’s not bad. L3: Yeah, but the choice of spelling would be a dead giveaway. L-E-A-H is really different from L-I-A. L1: This is going to take forever. I’m going to order in some dinner.
This conversation went on, I kid you not, for two hours. Two! With three lawyers! Plus interns! I’m pretty sure that when we put in our petition for fees we are not going to be able to bill six lawyer work hours for “plaintiff name choice meeting.” I kind of understand the impulse to resist explicitly ethnic names, but should it matter? There are usually between 5 and 10 kids named in each of these cases- rather than 5 or 10 bland, neutral names, would we be better off picking a sort of vaguely multi-ethnic menagerie? Instead of Laura, Peter, Christina, Mary, and James should we be choosing Laura, Prakthan, Chante, Maria and Jaewon? To me, the latter group seems a lot more reflective of the diversity of low-income communities- though you may have some Lauras, Peters, Christinas, Marys, or Jameses in black, latino, asian, and other non-white communities, put them all together and to me it sounds like a WASP playgroup. The risk, I suppose, is that when you have a group of mostly white lawyers in an office in New York choosing “ethnic” names, you risk having “diversity” in that sort of nauseating self-consciously p.c. “crayola crayons now come in many skin tones!” kind of way. So I guess there are pitfalls either way. Anyway, clearly the legal research I’m doing isn’t quite catching my fancy yet, because I’ve been mulling over this name thing for like four days now. Anyone have any thoughts? Or, more importantly, any neutral L names to suggest? Because if the lawyers have their way, we’re going with Liza, which, for obvious reasons, I think is a very bad choice.


At 8/03/2006 10:00:00 AM, Blogger Lily Graypure said...

Just plain Laura instead of Laurie. Also Lisa instead of Liza. In my name-obsessed opinion, This is the best internet naming tool:,20172,,00.html

Also, Lucy, Lacy, Lauren, Lois, Leslie, Libby, Lindsey, and Lynne.

At 8/03/2006 01:22:00 PM, Anonymous samantha Jo Campen said...

Lily took all my suggestions.

So, whatever she said.

At 8/04/2006 08:16:00 AM, Blogger pseudostoops said...

We ended up going with Lisa, which is *so* much better than Liza. Lily Graypure, you're hired!

At 8/05/2006 10:56:00 AM, Blogger TMAO said...


Did you have her in your class? Cuz I couldn't cut through the fog of that girl's LD to save my freakin life.

At 8/05/2006 04:36:00 PM, Blogger pseudostoops said...

Yeah, she was in my class. I couldn't do anything for her either. Broke my heart, because she was so enthusiastic about writing and what came out on the page was so disconnected from any kind of recognizable structure.


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