That traditional favorite, Jack
Every January you see a raft of news stories chronicling the year in baby names. This year, the favorite theme is parents "returning to traditional old favorites" like Jack, Ava and Olivia. I've written before about the questionable antique status of Ava and Olivia (part 1, part 2), but it's hard to question Jack. It's an old and storied English name.
But you do realize it's an old and storied nickname, right? Surprisingly, many people today have no idea that Jack was originally a pet form of John. In the lands where Jack now reigns supreme (#1 in England, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, etc.), you'd be hard-pressed to call Jack a traditional given name at all.
The English Census from 150 years ago lists 363 entries under Jack. Chances are that many of those were actually christened John, but let's take the number at face value: 363 solid, traditional Jacks. And the number of Johns in that census? 1,257,079. That's 3,463 given-name Johns per Jack. For perspective, in America today there are only 101 Jacobs born per...Elmer.
Modern British parents flock to given names like Alfie and Tilly, but in generations past the idea of using those names at christening time would have seemed downright inappropriate. You can catch a glimpse of that perspective in a human-interest piece that appeared in the New York Times in 1876. The article, entitled "Curious Christenings," was a collection of bizarre and humorous stories of christenings gone awry. At least, they were bizarre and humorous by 1876 standards. (The tale of the white minister who named the black slave boy "Jane" doesn't exactly tickle us today.) Here's the relevant excerpt:
As an example of the way in which parents will insist on curious names, a gentleman says that he was visiting a clergyman of the Church of England, and one evening as they sat together after dinner a summons came to the rector to go and christen the child of a gypsy couple that were encamped with their tribe in the parish. The gentlemen went with the clergyman to the camp, when, ascending a short flight of steps, they found themselves in the four-wheeled covered wagon that served the gypsies as a house. The babe, four or five days old, was presented, and the mother, already recovered from her confinement, stood up as one of the godparents. The clergyman asked by what name he should call the child and she answered Jacky. "John?" said he, somewhat surprised. "No, Sir, Jacky," she replied. "But you surely don't want him christened Jacky. You mean John, do you not," said he. But the mother insisted on the name she had chosen, and the child was christened Jacky.
Jacky! Oh, those wacky, wacky gypsies.
So "tradition" does't seem to support writing Jack on a birth certificate. Just as with Ava and Olivia, though, we're not wrong to call Jack a traditional, old-fashioned name. It's certainly an old and familiar name, not a newly invented one. More importantly, it's traditional in theme and intent, sounding like a link to generations past. If those generations past would have insisted on a different name at the christening time, well, that's their problem.