Antique or forgery, part 2
Last time I talked about some popular "antique revival" names like Olivia and Ava, and how they're not truly revivals at all. Yet parent after parent, and writer after writer, insists that they are. In fact, an eagle-eyed reader might have spotted those names on the "Antique Charm" list in my very own Baby Name Wizard book. So have we all been duped by a bunch of forgeries? I don't think so. Olivia, Ava and their kin deserve their place on lists of old-fashioned names, and I plan to keep them there--because they feel old fashioned, and sometimes that's enough.
Imagine you walk into a furniture showroom and see a sale on a "colonial diningroom set." Would you feel cheated to learn it had been built after 1776? Of course not. In furniture, colonial properly describes a style as well as a history. In baby names, so does antique.
What are the ingredients of an antique-styled name? First off, it does have to have some genuine tradition behind it. A long history, though, isn't enough to create a feeling of antique charm. Here are just a few of the girls' names that were more popular than Olivia a century ago:
A. Amy, Christine, Carrie
B. Nancy, Bonnie, Sue
C. Kate, Sara, Leah
D. Zelma, Ollie, Elva
Group A sounds like sisters from the 1970s, Group B from the 1940s. Group C is timeless with a contemporary feel, and Group D...well, nevermind.
Olivia and Ava differ from those names--and real great-grandmas like Mildred and Myrtle--in the shape of their sounds and the shape of their histories. In keeping with our contemporary sense of elegance, they're heavy on the vowels with no consecutive consonant sounds. As for history, they remained consistently uncommon for a hundred years. That made them familiar enough to sound traditional, yet didn't stamp them into a generation like Nancy and Sue. And since few people actually knew any Olivias or Avas in person, celebrities were able to help root the names' images.
Take another look at the Olivia and Ava graphs from last week. You'll notice two tiny peaks: Olivia in the '40s, Ava in the '50s. That would be actresses Olivia de Havilland and Ava Gardner, born in 1916 and 1922 respectively. Doesn't each actress perfectly embody the contemporary image of her first name? Ava is the more sultry name, Olivia the more delicate (Olivia Newton John's "Let's Get Physical" notwithstanding.) Many of the antique-styled hits are also shaped by their use in literature--especially British literature, but chroniclers of the American upper classes like Edith Wharton and Henry James count too.
The result is polished antiques that evoke a past divorced from any unpleasant realities. Women are either charmingly sweet (Lily, Chloe) or flowingly romantic (Isabella, Angelina). Men are elegant gentlemen (Julian, Sebastian). Here's a popularity graph of the six antique-styled lovelies in this paragraph:
In the end, the actual history of these names hardly matters. They achieve their goal of conjuring up a classic, old-fashioned elegance. Compare siblings named Isabella and Julian to Devyn and Kyler -- they're a world apart. The "forgeries" may not be authentic great-grandparents, but their cultural meaning is authentically antique.