Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, June 22, 2007

What's in a name?

The Wall Street Journal has an article today about the baby-name business. Apparently, some couples are so obsessed with giving their child a funky, Google-friendly name that they hire naming consultants to "brand" their babies. Naming, it seems, has become a much more personalized business over the past century. Gone are the days when John and Mary topped the charts for decades. Nowadays there's a much wider range of names across the population:
In 1880, Social Security Administration data show that the 10 most popular baby names were given to 41% of boys and 23% of girls. But in 2006, just 9.5% of boys and roughly 8% of girls were given one of the year's 10 most popular names -- a combined decline of about 33% from the averages in the 1990s, says Cleveland Kent Evans, an associate psychology professor at Bellevue University in Bellevue, Neb. and a past president of the American Name Society. So while a once-ubiquitous name like Mary has fallen from No. 1 during most of the 1950s to No. 84 last year, many new names are taking off.
Uber-original parents, however, do their children no favors by choosing recent creations such as Jolt or Zayden (playground taunt: "Zayden! Zayden! His parents must hate 'im!").

This naming fervor puts me in mind of the Biblical account of Zechariah and Elizabeth naming their son. Mom had the task of selecting the name, Dad being mute at the time, and she bucked tradition by refusing to name the lad after his father. Someone handed Dad a tablet and demanded his opinion, and he amazed the crowd by inscribing, "His name is John" -- doubtless the last time anyone was surprised by a baby being named John.

Although hiring a consultant would seem to indicate a weak aesthetic sense and a rather unhealthy preoccupation with image on the part of the parents, I don't have a problem with carefully considering the sound and style of a baby's name. We have a stodgy English last name and for our daughters we selected old-fashioned, multi-syllabic names to soften and compliment our blunt patronymic: Eleanor, Julia, Isabel. For middle names, we chose saints' names that had some significance for us, and that blended nicely with the first name. We've tried to steer clear of names that have become too popular (such as Olivia or Sophie, both of which I like) or names that sound well but are just too much (Georgiana sounds lovely with our last name).

For naming fun and games check out the NameVoyager or Nymbler (h/t Opinionated Homeschooler, who's been busy playing the name game herself).


Terry said...


I admit we were going to go trendy, but settled on Elizabeth. The nurse at the hospital was startled.

bearing said...

We have a not-very-common, somewhat unwieldy German last name (as in, everybody in this country who shares it can be traced to three brothers who emigrated in the mid-1800s.)

We went with so-old-fashioned-they're-rarely-seen-anymore names. Which is kind of funny, because in the case of my daughter, the reaction is always - wow, we're surprised you went with something so ordinary. But it's apparently so ordinary that nobody uses it anymore.

Anonymous said...

We went with those good old names and I had to be careful to pick ones that sounded well with our last name too.
It's good to see you post again, Mrs Darwin...I was starting to wonder about you....hope all is well...God bless!!

Pro Ecclesia said...

We've been catching hell from family members (all non-Catholics) for making Grace's middle name "Assumpta".

Anonymous said...

Like in Terry's case, when my son was born, the nurse and midwife were surprised that we chose Thomas. They said that you don't hear that name anymore. When my dad found out that we wanted our daughter to have the middle name of Immaculata he told us not to let anybody else know her middle name. I don't know why people, Catholic or not, have problems with names like Immaculata or Assumpta when so many people are giving their children weird names like Rock or Ashea.

The Opinionated Homeschooler said...

People go nuts about names like Assumpta and Immaculata because you're supposed to choose a name that's cre8ive (i.e. made-up name or made-up spelling) and so reflects *you*. Parents go on about wanting a unique, individual name for their child, but what they seem to mean is they want a name that demonstrates the parents' own uniqueness and individuality.

The flip side to this is that a name, traditional or unusual (Thomas or Mary, Assumpta or Immaculata), it's seen as somehow showing you don't sufficiently respect your child's unique individuality (I keep repeating these words bec. they keep being repeated on the baby name site message boards). Instead you are enthralled to the past or to a tradition and letting it dictate your child's identity. To demonstrate, go on a baby name board and suggest you're going to give your child it's parent's name (e.g. John Smith Jr.), and see what kind of blood in the water *that* is; you'll be accused of rank egotism and near child abuse. Like it's not egotism to give a child a ridiculous name like Madycynne.

Jen Ambrose said...

You know, traditionally in Korea, the parents don't name the child and they pay a professional namer to name their children. I knew an engineer named Bum Suk that got a lot of ribbing for his name in the US. He enjoyed the joking, but told us that his parents paid a lot of money for that name. That and his brother's name Ho Suk. Another Korean coworker of mine explained that brothers and even first cousins would all have the same middle name if the family used the same namer.
So professional namers aren't necessarily new.

The Opinionated Homeschooler said...

A closer reading of the WSJ column leaves me in horror that someone paid big buck$ to have someone recommend "Ava" and "Jackson," both of which are super-trendy right now. Shoot, wish I could get paid for basically copying the top 50 names of the SSA database for 2006 and sending it to obsessed parents-to-be.

I confess to having used "Sophia" for one child, but we came up with it 12 years ago, and it was more unusual then. Offspring #2 got a name so unusual (5 years ago) our priest didn't recognize it, thought it was a boy's name, and referred to the critter as "he" all the way through the baptism. But this year the name appeared in the top 1000 on the SSA database for the first time.

What can say, we just have our fingers on the pulse of the zeitgeist. Bet if we went for "Gottlob Frege Lastname" it would show up in the top 1000 in a few years.

Anonymous said...

We are trendier than trendy. We named our children John Michael and Mary Ruth. They will never have other children in their classrooms with the same name. In retrospect, I'd love the opportunity to name my daughter Immaculata. Uber-trendy. :-)

Anonymous said...

We went with Peter, seemingly to the delight of everybody who met the little guy.

I think the extreme "personalization" of names is a matter of pride. I'd rather pay tribute to a great man or woman of God. I feel like using saintly names helps us to remember that "I must decrease; He must increase."

The Opinionated Homeschooler said...

Pride, absolutely; and also often a weird sense of children as a personal, parent-owned luxury item. On babyname blogs, sometimes someone will mention a really horrible name they're considering (M'Kayyleigh, or Summer Nightshade, or etc.) and someone will point out the name's deficiencies, with the usual response of "It's my child, and I will name him/her whatever I want." There's no sense of obligation to the community of the past, or of one's own family, or of one's religious or ethnic tradition, and to suggest that these communities might create some sort of obligation in choosing a name (much less the obligation not to make a child miserable) is intolerable. When a child is a personal lifestyle choice, nothing need be considered but my own individual community-free preferences.

Pardon the rant(s); I'd never realized until the last few months how much baby-naming illustrates the weaknesses of our society. So good to see John and Mary in use!

The Opinionated Homeschooler said...

"boards" not "blogs"

Ana Braga-Henebry said...

We have a Isabel!

And a Patrick, plus a Thomas, a Michael-Augustine, a Claudia, a Maria and a Theresa Benedicta! But in my blog their are numerals only... Number One, Number Two, and so forth.
Love names!