October 2005

Date stamps

Oct 28th 2005

The 1982 movie Blade Runner featured a dark view of the future, with an urban landscape overwhelmed by advertising. The hallmark of the year 2019 was to be vast, omniprescent plugs for the likes of Pan Am airlines and the Bell telephone system. As it turned out, of course, neither company survived the 20th century.

Of all the cultural attitudes that define an era, one of the quickest to fall out of date is its vision of the future. Commonplace things we take for granted can disappear, while fantastical ideas become commonplace. (Right now I'm sitting in a cafe, typing on the powerful little computer I carry in my shoulder bag, beaming this message through the air so that it can be published instantly to the computers of people around the world as I sip my coffee. Not as cool as replicants, maybe, but pretty close.)

Selecting a new, contemporary-sounding name is stating your vision of the fashion future. It's a risky business, staying ahead of the curve. What sounds most new today can end up sounding most old in a few generations time. Take the young boys named Google and ESPN...will they sound like Pan Am a decade from now?

Rapid obsolesence most often hits names that pop up overnight in response to a cultural moment. Consider Farrah:

Farrah was a pure creation of the 1976-77 television season, when Farrah Fawcett made a splash on "Charlie's Angels." As soon as she left the show, the name plummeted. A modest rebound hit in the late '80s following Fawcett's comeback in more "serious" fare like Extremities...and the coming of age of all the young girls who idolized her a decade before. Yet overall, the impression this name gives is of a date stamp reading "Best if Born Before 1/1/78."

An example from another era, Hoover:

Hoover vacuum cleaners were already a household name when Herbert Hoover ran for president in 1928, but that didn't stop American parents from bestowing the name on their newborn sons. (Herbert had nothing to do with vacuums himself, that company was the work of one W.H. Hoover.)

The cultural associations of names like Hoover and Farrah help freeze them in time. While Farrah is a snapshot image of feathered hair and polyester, Hoover brings up a more poignant picture of the start of the Great Depression. That image is reiforced by another icon of the era, Herbert's namesake Hoover Dam on the Colorado River. The dam was built between 1931 and 1935. By 1933 Roosevelt was in office and tried to erase Hoover's name from the project, just as political change erased the name from America's nurseries.

There's something quite touching about these date-stamped names. They're living memorials to the time when a baby entered the world. In fact, many parents surely intend them as such -- the Neils born after Neil Armstrong's moon walk, the Dougs and McArthurs of the World War II years. So a date stamp isn't necessarily a cause for alarm...just don't expect to be able to lie about your age.

A kid's-eye view

Oct 20th 2005

My four-year-old daughter has decided to dress as Dorothy for Halloween. Does that call a picture to your mind? Perhaps blue gingham, sparkling slippers, and a pup in a basket? Hold on...when she told a preschool classmate about her plan to be Dorothy he said, "Oh, Dorothy from Elmo!" Indeed, Dorothy is the name of Elmo's pet goldfish on "Sesame Street."

In fact, the Oz image happens to be the correct one for my daughter's costume. (The kid is ready to start the preschool chapter of the L. Frank Baum fan club.) But her friend's reaction was a good reminder: when it comes to names, we grownups don't always know as much as we think we do. We're busy avoiding names that remind us of Rocky or "The Flintstones," while our kids' peers are more likely to relate to the "Backyardigans."

For first-time parents especially, the world of kiddie entertainment tends to be the great unknown. Luckily, many of the names are carefully selected to be out of fashion, especially the boys' names--Elmo and Oswald are typical. But below is a starter set of fashionable names that carry strong associations for the 8-and-under crowd. They're not necessarily negative associations, but it never hurts to know what you're getting into.

Angelina: A ballet-dancing mouse in a popular series of books (and now videos).

Ash: Young, world-traveling Pokémon trainer. Along with Ashton Kutcher, he's made the world safe for boys name Ash again.

Aurora: Sleeping Beauty.

Cleo and Theo: The lion librarians who guide their cubs through a world of literature on "Between the Lions."

Dashiell and Violet: Two of the Incredibles kids, Violet being the shrinking type (invisible) and Dash the dash-ing type (fast).

Jasmine: The princess from Disney's Aladdin, enshrined as part of the Disney Princess pantheon.

Kiara: A little lion, daughter of Simba and star of the direct-to-video "Lion King II."

Maisy: A sweet mouse featured in books and a tv series for pre-schoolers. (Not Daisy-Head Mayzie, who scarcely makes a cultural dent.)

Olivia: Ian Falconer's books about a young pig who is creative and appealing, but "very good at wearing people out."

Zoe: A muppet who joined "Sesame Street" in 1993 to help balance out the sex ratio and build on the youth movement of kid-muppets like Elmo.

...and please feel free to add to this roster with comments.

Follow-up: legend come to life

Oct 20th 2005

About nine months ago, I wrote about the hoax of a baby named Yahoo. At the time I suggested that such a name wouldn't remain fiction for long. Sure enough, in case you missed it, meet baby Google (a great name to say while tickling your baby's tummy).

A few more sound ideas

Oct 12th 2005

After I wrote about the decline of consonant clusters in names, a reader noted that certain pairs like TR actually seem to be going up: TRavis, TRistan, TRevor. In fact, about 20% of consonant sound pairs have been significantly more common over the past 30 years vs. the previous 70.

What makes a cluster buck the trends and rise? There seem to be two main factors. First, clusters that stick to the start of names like BR (BRandon, BRooke, BRianna) do better than those that hang around in the middle. In fact, while TR is a trendy starter, it's on the outs as a center sound--think paTRicia and gerTRude. Second, a pair has a better shot if it leads with a strong unvoiced consonant, a sound made just by the passage of air through the mouth without vibrating vocal chords. Top letters include S (SPencer, SKye) and K (KRista, KRistopher).

And some more quick consonant hits...

• The separation of consonants isn't just an American trend. Take a look at the top names in Germany, traditionally the land of Ernst and Wolfgang, Bertha and Helga:

BOYSGIRLSMaximilianMarieAlexanderSophiePaulMariaLeonAnna/AnneLukas/LucasLeonieLucaLea/LeahFelixLauraJonasLenaTimKatharinaDavidJohanna • There is one trendy group of names where voiced consonant pairs are actually hot. It's the girl's names taken from old-fashioned boys names that were themselves adopted from surnames (which were usually borrowed from place names. Namers are good recyclers.) Try Sidney, Shelby, Lindsey, Courtney, Whitney, Aubrey.

It makes sense that those names would have more of the outmoded pairs, since they're selected from a field of outmoded names. And the very fustiness of the choices for men helps sharpen the style for girls--think of singer Avril Livigne tossing on a striped necktie.

A few more consonant-packed candidates that could follow the same path: Clancy, Murphy, Kirby, Arley, Finley and Tierney.

A stranger in fiction

Oct 6th 2005

I often hear from readers about odd names they've come across. But seldom about odd fictional names.

As a rule, the most perfectly named people on Earth are fictional people. They have an unfair advantage, acquiring their names as fully formed adults with complete personalities and life stories. Whether mundane or fantastical, fictional names usually fit their characters so seamlessly you never even pause to consider why they were chosen.

But one current example is anything but seamless, as readers have been telling me. It's "Mackenzie Allen," the female U.S. president played by Geena Davis on the TV series "Commander in Chief." For a young girl, Mackenzie is a perfectly likely and fashionable name. But President Allen, at a fictional 45 years of age, is a good generation older than any real female Mackenzie, save one.

In November 1959, John Phillips named his new daughter Mackenzie after friend and fellow musician Scott McKenzie ("If you're going to San Francisco..."). Phillips later hit the big time with The Mamas and the Papas, but back in '59 he was still a little-known New York folk singer, not a name-fashion maker. The name Mackenzie wasn't launched into public circulation until 1975, when teenaged Mackenzie Phillips starred in the sitcom "One Day at a Time." Her name's popularity climbed slowly but steadily until the 1990s, when it really started to soar.

So the president Mackenzie doesn't ring true, and it makes you stop and ponder what the writers were reaching for with that choice of name. Some commentators have suggested a plot to boost a presidential run by one particular real-life woman. James Dobson, for instance, claimed that Mackenzie Allen "sounds remarkably, poetically like" Hillary Clinton. But that's some sketchy poetry--Mackenzie and Hillary are far apart in sound and style. (Besides, if you wanted to conjure up images of Hillary would you cast Geena Davis?)

The real key, I presume, is androgyny. "Commander in Chief" has roots in creator Rod Lurie's earlier film The Contender, about a female V.P. candidate. Her name was "Laine Hanson," another surname conversion with a masculine edge. Lurie's other female characters have conventially feminine names like Cynthia, Rebecca, and Amy. But it seems that when he wants to conjure up a woman who sounds strong, sounds like a leader, he makes her sound like a guy.

He's hardly alone in this quirk. Consider Alien-fighter Ripley, C.J. Cregg of "The West Wing," Dana Scully of "X Files," Murphy Brown, even "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman," otherwise known as Dr. Mike. When Hollywood wants to signal that a female character is tough and an authority figure, the quick shorthand is to give her an androgynous name. The real world may give us Margaret (Thatcher), Madeleine (Albright) and Condoleezza (Rice), but TV gives us Mackenzie.

The whole point of "Commander in Chief" is that the president is a woman. Mature, responsible, mother of teenagers, ruler of the free world. How curious, then, to give her a name so agressively coltish. Imagine for a moment the same character with a more realistically womanly name -- say Dianne, or Susan, or Elizabeth (all names of current senators). Doesn't the whole scenario suddenly seem more real? But perhaps, in a political fantasy, it doesn't pay to get too close to reality.