August 2008

The new social order: A, B, C, D...

Aug 28th 2008

Turn back the clock with me:

You're in third grade.  Your class is lining up to head out to lunch, or to recess, or to the library to pick out a book.  Waiting is excruciating, and places in line are all-important.  Then your teacher tells you all not to shove, that the order will be...alphabetical.

If your name is Aaron, chances are that memory can still bring up a rosy glow of entitlement.  If you're a Zoe, you may still feel a bitter pang of resentment at the injustice of alphabet tyranny.  But it's all just a memory, right?  As the grade school years fade away behind us, we enter a world that's overwhelmingly first-come, first-served.  When was the last time you lined up by name, with perks awarded to the alphabetical elite?

I'll tell you when: the last time somebody called you from a cell phone.

Today, most of us walk around with an alphabetized social register in our pockets.  Depending on your lifestyle, your register may number a dozen names or a thousand.  It may be subdivided into personal and business, or home and school.  It may be grouped by letter, or even by name.  (An executive with a huge contact list recently complained to me about how long it takes to scroll through the "Michael" section of his PDA.)  But whatever the format, you probably find that certain names pass before your eyes again and again out of alphabetical happenstance.

Think about the potential significance of that kind of "personal product placement."  In the social realm, what's the chance you'll forget to call a friend whose name is in front of you several times a day?  If that friend gets similar prime placement on other friends' phones, it could lead to a real bump up in his social life.  When it comes to business contacts, the right name could translate to closer client relationships, more active networking, and fresh opportunities -- the principles of old-fashioned Yellow Pages placement applied to your own first name.

Suddenly, an Aaron Abbott's old lineup advantage looks bigger than ever.  At least until the next communications revolution.

The Call of the Wild A

Aug 22nd 2008

When it comes to baby name fashion, the last really are first.  Name endings carry a disproportionate power in a name's style and impact.  That's the secret behind Angelina Jolie's impact on baby names -- discussed here in our X & O roundup.

Today's baby name news tells a similar tale.  Baby name critics are preparing to pounce on the latest "weird" celebrity name: Zuma, born to musicians Gwen Stefani and Gavin Rossdale.  Yes, it's an extremely unusual name.  (Zuma is a famous Malibu beach, which gives the name a unique resonance to SoCal natives like Ms. Stefani.  Think of a surfer named Zuma, and the name might start to make more sense to you.)  But I suspect that the real key to the raised eyebrows isn't that the name is so uncommon; it's that Zuma is a boy.

English doesn't have gendered word endings -- in theory.  In practice, though, we hew to the Romance-language standard that marks -a as feminine and -o as masculine.  You see it in baby names, and even in product names.  We hear the underlying feminine/masculine stereotypes: an -a ending "softens" a name, while an -o makes it "energetic."

That's not to say we never cross the lines.  But usually, when it comes to gender-bending, we're more willing to make our girls boyish than our boys girlish.  Think of the title character of the film Juno.  The feminine -o was used to emphasic her individualistic strength.  The -o of Shiloh, similarly, made that name a celebrity style smash.

In fact, there are signs of life for boys ending in -a, too.  Joshua has become the most popular -a boy in American history, swamping the previous champion Ira.  Luca is another fast rising name (especially among Portuguese speakers -- it's a top-100 name in Rhode Island, with its huge Portuguese and Brazilian population.)  But they're still the exception, which means that -a names can still surprise.  The names that really point the way toward Zuma are two that, like Zuma, found their way to the nursery from non-traditional sources:

Dakota is one of the names for a large Sioux ethnic group from the Northern plains.  It became a popular American boy's name in the 1990s.

Koda is the name of an orphaned Alaskan bear cub in the 2003 animated film Brother Bear, and made a modest splash as a boy's name in 2004.  It was presumably inspired by the Kodiak bears of Alaska.

Names like Dakota, Koda and Zuma are very deliberate steps away from European naming traditions.  Their style depends on an image of rugged, wild freedom.  The easiest way to shed centuries of Western Civilization is to choose the ending that most defies that tradition: the masculine a.

Mine, Yours, First, Last

Aug 19th 2008

What do these men have in common?

Millard Fillmore
Woodrow Wilson
Strom Thurmond

Before you start contemplating political philosophies, I'll throw in a fourth: country singer Dierks Bentley.  Any guesses?  All four men's given names are their mothers' maiden names.  (Some were technically bestowed as middle names, but that's what they're known by.)

Once upon a time, a surname-as-first-name wasn't just a matter of style.  It was a matter of familial connection: honoring forebears, strengthening ties, preserving traditions or advertising notable relationships.  The practice was especially familiar in the South, but you can find maiden-name-names all across American history.

Today, modern naming patterns are bringing a whole new twist to the surname namesake.  Because today, mom's "maiden name" may simply be her name.  Let's say you're Jane Smith, wife of John Jones.  You're expecting your first child and facing down the separate surname dilemma.  Do you just choose one parent's surname?  Hyphenate the two?  Use mom's surname as a middle name?  Give daughters mom's surname, while sons get dad's?  Or even create a new name for your kids...Jonesmith, perhaps?  I have friends who have done each of the above.  But one of the simplest solutions is to use both names together as a full name: Mr. Smith Jones.

It's not for everyone.  First off, some surnames are best left last.  (I don't imagine my daughters will be naming any babies Wattenberg Jones.)  It can also be confusing: I was once introduced to a young "Smith Jones" and, assuming that was hyphenated, thought I had totally missed his first name.  What's more, it can leave you in a bind when it comes to naming subsequent children.

Yet putting the extra surname first also has some real advantages.  It feels "fair."  It makes clear both parents' relationship to the child, and even subtly clarifies the parents' relationship with each other.  And it's a proactive step to merge two family traditions rather than just handing kids a double helping.  With surnames popping up across the baby name landscape, it may be an appealing option to more and more families.

When a name really does your wallet

Aug 13th 2008

Is naming destiny?  Usually, the answer is no.  Sure, a name can nudge your fate in one direction or another -- like boys named Dennis being more likely to become dentists.  But those effects are tiny in the grand scheme of things, and under each individual's control.  Are there any concrete and immutable effects of names?  Will a girl's life experience actually be different if you name her, say, Isabella instead of Olivia?  Maybe...if you come to Boston.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is a one-of-a-kind institution: a "palace" of art, brimming with one woman's extraordinary personal collections and personal vision.  It also has a very personal admission policy.  Anyone named Isabella is admitted free to the museum, forever.  (That might have seemed a small concession in 1903 when the museum first opened to the public; only 96 Isabellas were born in the U.S. that year.  Last year, though, the number was up to 18,874.)  So there's $12 in your pocket for having the right name.  What could be more concrete?

Lots of attractions offer name-based perks as a promotional gimmick.  If your name is George, you can tour George Washington's Mount Vernon estate for free on Washington's birthday.  If baseball is more up your George's alley, head to "Salute to the Babe" night in Fayetteville, North Carolina, where anybody named George (or Herman or Ruth) can cheer on the Fayetteville SwampDogs for free.  Meanwhile over at the Atlanta Motor Speedway's "Joe Momma" night, free admission goes to anyone named Joe who brings his mother.

Those perks, though, are just passing fancies.  The Gardner Museum is legendary for being fixed and unchangeable, and its Isabella offer is no exception.  It's the one and only absolute, reliable name advantage I know of.  Do you know others?  Perhaps a "Thrifty Parent's Guide to Money-Saving Baby Names" is right around the corner!

Instant name: just add N

Aug 7th 2008

Here's a rare name I expect to hear more of in the future: Graden.

Certainly, it has a fashionable sound -- another in the vast rhyming family that includes Aidan, Hayden, Caden and Braeden.  But there's more to it than that.  Graden sounds like a formal version of a popular formal name that sounds like a nickname.  Hmm, was that gibberish?  Let me give it another shot.

Classic multisyllabic men's names -- Thomas, Edward -- generally come with two standard nickname options.  There's a one-syllable basic (Tom, Ed) and a two-syllable diminutive (Tommy, Eddie).  That's sensible enough.  After all, the two main functions of nicknames are to shorten and to soften.

Today, though, the standard nicknames are decidedly out of fashion.  So far out of fashion that some parents are getting skittish about names that even resemble the form of a traditional nickname.  So more and more, you see parents tacking extra endings onto short boys' names, creating a new "formal" version for something that was never a nickname to begin with.

It's not a totally new phenomenon; Rexford is one example from past generations.  But the practice is growing.  And forget old add-ons like -ford, -burn and -wood.  Today there's just one way to extend a name: with the all-powerful letter -n.

For a case study, consider Colton.  Colton is a popular contemporary name, currently ranked #117 among American boys' names.  It was a surname before it became a baby name, but that doesn't tell the real story.  As a surname Colton isn't common at all, ranking behind the likes of Stumpf and Fortenberry in frequency.  Nor are there prominent Coltons to raise the name's profile.  The key to understanding the name Colton is that it made its debut as a popular baby name in 1982.  That's the same debut year as Colt -- which is to say, the first full season of "The Fall Guy," a tv series starring Lee Majors as stuntman/bounty hunter Colt Seavers.  At first, Colton was just a quiet shadow of the hardy young cowboy Colt.  But by the '90s, the more "formal" Colton was the clear leader of the pack.

Some more popular -n extensions:


All of them, notably, also have rhyming names in the top 1000.  Which brings us back to Graden.  So you like Grady, but perhaps find it a little boyish?  A mere flick of the -n gives you Graden.  You can still call him Grady if you like, and the full name blends right in with the current name landscape.  It's a nifty long as "blending in" is what you're after.  If you're customizing the name to make in more distinctive, though, keep in mind that uncommon and distinctive aren't always the same thing.  In an age where a third of all boys born get an -n name, Colt and Grady may end up standing out a lot more than Colton and Graden.