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The game of the name

Announce that you're going to become a parent and one of the first questions you're likely to get is: ''Don't you just love the name...?''

From that moment on, you're trapped. If you do happen to love Jonathan or Sarah or Herman, your enthusiastic response often is met with a suspicious raising of eyebrows, suggesting that your reply was too hasty and probably insincere. On the other hand, if you take a moment too long to consider how Jonathan or Sarah or Herman might sound with your surname, the inquirer's eyebrows may begin to quiver, a sure sign that you've insulted the memory of some dearly loved relative.

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Allow the question to develop into a full-scale conversation and you're in for a long evening. New acquaintances will pump your hand and slap your back and never skip a beat as they introduce each leaf on their family trees. Old friends will quietly take you aside to confide their lists of favorites.

The challenge, according to these well meaning partisans, is to come up with a name that's a little bit different and slightly exotic and somewhat musical and not heard too often on the nightly newscast. It must be all of these without being too far out. Karim, for example, is tasteful. Ishkabibble is not.

Karim has something else going for it, of course. In the post-ERA world of corporate intrigue, where job interviews often are granted on the basis of the first name that appears at the top of the letterhead, Karim is non-sexist.

As the quest for the perfect name gathers momentum, parents and in-laws become the most persevering and committed of crusaders. To have a parent living under the same roof makes it an especially precarious nine months since you never know what offhand remark is liable to touch off another discourse on the merits of Katherine vs. Kate. (Me to mother at Sunday dinner: ''Wasn't that Fran Wilder's daughter in church this morning?'' Mother to me: ''Why, yes. And, you know, she has a lovely name we haven't considered yet...'')

These same parents who've always struck you as reasonable role models casually begin leaving baby books on top of the TV Guidem , with pages dog-eared and favorite names circled in pink or blue. They become fascinated with almost anyone's geneaology and will launch into a breakfast-table discussion of the royal house of Windsor at the drop of an English muffin.

Before you realize what's happening, you, too, are caught up in the frenzy. You can't leave a movie theater until the last credit has rolled across the screen. You stop reading newspaper headlines in favor of bylines. You wait for the town weekly to arrive so you can search the sixth grade honor roll and mentally try each intelligent sounding first name with your rather C+ last name.

The final trap? As time passes, each parent-to-be develops an unconscious preference for one gender. It shifts from month to month, but while you're in a macho phase there's no use listening to Jennifers or Amelias. Only Jake and Rocky have the right ring.

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Fortunately, for every baby-to-be there's usually one unruffled guardian of perspective who helps to keep things whimsical while all around are groans over family traditions of Juniors and III's. Why not Samuel Manuel, he'll suggest with tongue in cheek. Or how about...?

Samuel Manuel. It does have a kind of a peal.

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