Voters had the opportunity to choose from five names: Bao Bao (meaning “precious” or “treasure”), Ling Hua (meaning “darling” or “delicate flower”), Long Yun (translates to “charming dragon” and represents luck for panda cooperation between China and the United States,) Mulan (a legendary 5th-century Chinese warrior and the title character in a popular animated Disney film) and Zhen Bao (meaning “treasure” or “valuable”).
The Washington Post had a chance to talk with Pamela Redmond Satran, co-founder of the baby-name Web site Nameberry and author of 10 best-selling baby books, about the art and science of baby naming — for humans and for pandas.
Can you explain what goes into selecting a name? What factors do most people consider?
I think it’s changed a lot over the years. Historically, people’s choice of names was often dictated by fairly strict sets of rules that may have been religious or may have been cultural. For instance, Italian families would name the first son after the father’s father and the second son after the mother’s father. There was a whole protocol.
These days, a lot of those old rules for choosing names have fallen away. There’s a new kind of brand awareness and a new awareness of the power of a name to define a person or to telegraph a lot of information about who you are — at least who your parents are or who your parents want you to be. People, for instance, are looking for names that carry a lot of personal meaning, which might be ethnic meaning or family meaning or something about their values, taste or style.
How does selecting a name for an animal differ from choosing a name for a human?
It doesn’t differ as much as you might think, because most animals these days actually get human names. It’s much more likely that you’ll meet a dog named Max or Bella than you’ll meet a dog named Spot.
It seems like choosing a name for the latest animal has become one of the biggest promotional events that zoos all over the country hold. I have a Google alert set for baby names . . . and am surprised at how many of the alerts that I get are about yet another contest to name another animal.
I think one reason that it is so compelling is because the name is one of the few things people get to control, and people really like the idea that they are helping to define that animal’s image.
Do you think there are ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ that should be considered when naming a panda?
I was interested that in the list of names for the Washington zoo panda, all of the names were Chinese. I think that most of the pandas that have been named do receive Chinese names, but I was thinking, why does that have to be? I think it’s not really a Chinese panda, but a Chinese American panda, so I think their cultural considerations might have been a little too narrow.
Is selecting a name more science-based, looks-based or intuitive?
To me, pandas all look alike. It’s not like I would see one panda and say, “That one is definitely a Bao Bao!”
Are you surprised by the National Zoo’s selection of names?
I wasn’t surprised because they do kind of sound like the names that have been given to other pandas. There are only a handful of pandas born, of course. Maybe someone needs to write a book, “How to Name Your Panda,” because it does seem like a lot of people put a lot of thought into this.
A lot of [non-Chinese] American parents are actually interested in Chinese names and Chinese naming traditions with the history in the U.S. of adopting children born in China. The rules are so complex. I wanted to write about it at one point, and I just decided that you can kind of Americanize it and make them more simplistic, but actually there are a lot of considerations — like how the characters look, sound, relate to these elements like wood, wind and water. . . . To actually choose a name that’s meaningful in Chinese culture in terms of what’s important in a name, I think, can be sort of beyond American sensibility.
Do you have a prediction on which name will be the most popular?
I guess I would predict Mulan would be the most popular, but I have the feeling they probably won’t name the baby Mulan because it’s a little bit embarrassing. I’m not sure. But I do think Bao Bao is pretty cute.
Whose needs should the name serve? ?The zoo’s visitors or the panda?
Certainly not the creature. Well, I think it benefits the creature in that it helps the zoo draw attention to their exhibits, increases visits to the zoo, maybe donations and emotional involvement. . . . One would hope that what’s positive for the zoo would be positive for the animals.
What trends might the baby panda’s name set off?
I guess it could set off trends of names for other panda babies. Because they are Chinese names, they are not quite in the American baby-naming mainstream, so I don’t really see them being adopted for dogs or cats or actual children.
What impact might it have in selling the zoo’s merchandise and encouraging zoo visitors?
The point is not so much what name they end up with as giving people a chance to participate in choosing the name. Choosing the name increases emotional attachment and a feeling of ownership.
Do you believe there will be a negative response if people don’t like the selected name?
Rioting in the streets! No, I don’t think so. You know it’s voting, right?
I think it’s a smart idea and a smart publicity move, because even if they don’t end up with the name that was their favorite, you kind of feel like you know who that panda is. It’s not just another black-and-white furball; that’s Bao Bao, and we got to go see Bao Bao!