Naming an American Girl

Aug 20th 2009

Reader Laura (nice name!) wrote with a question about the names of the American Girl doll & book series. Each character in the series has a specific cultural/historical setting in the American past. Laura's letter says it best:

I was just reading in the New York Times about how they chose the name Rebecca Rubin for their new doll - "a 9-year-old girl living on the Lower East Side in 1914 with her Russian-Jewish immigrant parents, siblings and a grandmother known only as Bubbie."

It seems like for Rebecca they did some research to pick an historically accurate name, and I suppose they did for the other girls as well, but they all sound very "current" to me.  Certainly no Gertrudes in the bunch!

What do you think?

Addy Walker (1864 - Black)
Felicity Merriman and her friend Elizabeth (1774)
Josefina Montoya (1824 - Latina)
Julie Albright and her friend Ivy Ling (1974 - Ivy is Asian)
Kaya (1764 - Native American)
Kirsten Larson (1854 - from Sweden)
Kit Kittredge and her friend Ruthie (1934)
Molly McIntire and her friend Emily (1944 - Emily is from England)

Naming an American Girl is an intriguing challenge. It's a delicate balance of baby naming, character naming and brand naming. The company generally strikes that balance very well, though nobody's perfect.

Let's take Rebecca Rubin as an example. Could a Jewish girl born to an immigrant family in New York circa 1904 have been named Rebecca? Certainly. The 1910 U.S. Census lists 796 girls named Rebecca born 1902-1906 living in New York City. Judging by surname, a majority of them were Jewish...and three of them were named Rebecca Rubin.

QED, Rebecca Rubin is a plausible name for such a girl. That's a big step up from the likes of Disney's Tiana. But is it a typical name that represents its cultural moment? Consider that the same Census sample that gave us three Rebecca Rubins also yields at least that many Rubins with names more typical of the period, such Dorothy, Helen, Mary, Bessie, and Anna...not to mention 11 Idas, 11 Fannies and 17 Roses & Rosies. The trick is that none of those names sounds distinctly Jewish.

As a biblical matriarch, Rebecca is a classic "good Jewish name." It has traditionally sounded Jewish to non-Jews, too -- the "Jewess" Rebecca of Ivanhoe is a glaring example. (It took Shirley Temple as Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm to make the name an interfaith American favorite.) Today, Rebecca sounds timeless with a whiff of the 1970s. Unlike, say, Bessie or Ida, it definitely does not summon up 1914. This suggests that the dollmakers were focusing more on the religious connotations than the time period when they chose the name. That's a perfectly reasonable decision.

It doesn't hurt that Rebecca is still a well-liked name. As reader Laura noted, American Girl has tailored all of the dolls' names to modern tastes. In reality, little Miss Larson from Sweden would have been much more likely to be a Matilda or a Wilhelmina than a Kirsten. But Rebecca seems a bit stiff alongside doll names like Addy, Kit and Molly. One alternative that would have hit the quadruple-bullseye of Jewish heritage, period feel, informal style and modern appeal: Sadie. There were 11 Sadie Rubins in the Census list, and 6 Sarahs besides.

Comments

1
By jennifer h (not verified)
August 20, 2009 10:27 AM

Interesting analysis Laura. I think they should hire you on as a consultant because Sadie does seem to fit much better with the others.

I wish they would have used Wilhelmina though. I love that name but I think it would get funny looks from most.

2
By lunzy (not verified)
August 20, 2009 10:29 AM

I was wondering the same thing about the AG names. I would rather they use more traditional/period names, but I guess that's not "mainstream" enough. Interesting post. They should just hire you for all the naming :)

3
August 20, 2009 10:30 AM

I'm with Jennifer H., I too prefer Sadie to Rebecca, mostly because I grew up with about 4 Rebeccas (mid 1980s children) and it no longer feels fresh to me.

4
August 20, 2009 10:54 AM

I'd prefer non-fresh but accurate names to fresh, but then again, I'm quite far from the target market.

5
By moll (not verified)
August 20, 2009 11:10 AM

a lot of the AG names are possible, but not probable for their era. For example, while Samantha did exist as a name in the early 20th century, many, many more names would have been a better fit.

Kirsten was actually named after a relative of one of my friends - a lady born in probably the 50s or 60s. And, it fits in curiously well with the Kristen/Kristin/Kirsten/Kristines in the 80s when the books were first published.

While I loved having a character share my name when I was little, I'm disappointed that AG used the name Molly when there are so many more spirited, spunky girls names that were much more common for a girl born in 1934.

I'd say Elizabeth, Julie, Kit, and Ruth are probably the best fits, historically (Kit's real name is Margaret Mildred, according to wikipedia).

6
August 20, 2009 12:00 PM

The naming of fictional characters always is of interest, as it intersects present naming conventions, period considerations, and story impact.

I was just thinking about alliteration and assonance in names. Comic books do it all the time, and it's even used as a device to identify the most important characters--Peter Parker, Clark Kent, Lois Lane, J. Jonah Jameson, and so on. The TV show Heroes used this in naming Peter Petrelli and Gabriel Gray, as well.

In addition, alliteration shows up among important people as well. In economics, there has been discussion about the role of the CFTC centered around two main players: Gary Gensler and Brooksley Born. (ETA: Let's not forget Robert Rubin, either.)

Although alliteration is used more in literature (including Kit Kittredge and Molly McIntyre above) is it something we really should avoid in our own names?

7
By Joni
August 20, 2009 12:00 PM

Don't forget Samantha Parkington and her friend Nellie.

I am glad you commented on this Laura, because I have long been fascinated by the names of the AG dolls. For me the most questionable name was Kaya. To me it's SO modern. I couldn't really see how that fit with the doll's era. But the wikipedia article says "Kaya's full name is Kaya'aton'my, or 'she who arranges rocks.'" The full name feels authentic (I am no Nez Perce expert) and clearly Kaya appeals to the modern girl. (I have a secret love affair with the name Kaya - I wanted a girl named that.)

AG also has a line of other 'modern' dolls:
Lindsey
Kailey
Marisol
Jess Akiko
Nicki
Mia
Chrissa

In all, I think that AG names are far and away better than Disney's caving to Tiana.

8
By Anna (not verified)
August 20, 2009 12:50 PM

Interesting! I can add a little about the Swedish Kirsten Larson, namely that a) Kirsten is not very Swedish, and b) Larson is not very Swedish.

Numbers:
% of all women named Kirsten in the Scandinavian countries:
Denmark: ca 2% - *the* most common name for many years
Norway: ca 0.4%
Sweden: ca 0.05%

So, something like Kerstin (ca 2% in Sweden) or Kristin (0.8%) would have been a much more Swedish choice.

Larsson (double-s) is presently the #6 most common surname in Sweden. Larson, however, is completely unknown in Sweden. What's the big deal with the double-s? Well, *all* Swedish surnames of the something-son construction use the double-s spelling. And since Denmark and Norway use -sen instead of -son, that makes Larson practically non-existent. It's a detail, yes, just like with genuine Dolce&Gabana handbags from Asia ;-)

This said, I can totally see why Kirsten Larson looks Swedish to a non-Scandinavian and I also get the point about "sellable" names. Gunilla Bengtsson? Britt Persson? Nah...

9
August 20, 2009 1:18 PM

"*all* Swedish surnames of the something-son construction use the double-s spelling. And since Denmark and Norway use -sen instead of -son, that makes Larson practically non-existent."

Ah, but...remember that the doll/character isn't simply a Swede, she's a Swedish-born American! The immigration process changes things. If you look at American records of the period, you'll find far, far more Swedish immigrants listed as Larson than Larsson. Kirsten, though, was unlikely in any spelling.

10
August 20, 2009 1:41 PM

what about samantha parkington? we can't forget those orphaned victorian children!

11
By Anna (not verified)
August 20, 2009 1:41 PM

@Laura - yes, I did not mean to imply that Larson is a nonsense name, only that the single-s spelling it not Swedish. I could imagine that a lot of Larsens also changed their name to Larson upon arrival?

12
By Tess not signed in (not verified)
August 20, 2009 1:53 PM

Linnaeus-- Intresting point about alliteration and assonance in names from literature,comic books,tv shows and American Girl dolls, as well. I try to avoid it in suggesting names--but I grew up as Tess Thompson --which sounds like a Lois Lane name to me. I would love to have worked at the Dailey Planet!I mentioned Felix Frankfurter in the previous discussion-as I was bemoaning the double F factor in names for my son's baby-to-be.I guess I think my name was fine;)- and crisp, but, I could like Francesca Ferrazola for its ornate beautyas well. I bet people would remember it.

13
By Amy3 (nli) (not verified)
August 20, 2009 1:55 PM

Re: Larson, I'm the great-granddaughter of Swedish immigrants to the US who became Larsons in this country. I can only assume they must have been Larssons in Sweden. So cool to find this out!

14
By jennifer h (not verified)
August 20, 2009 1:56 PM

@Anna - And actually could have even changed their entire name! My great grandfather on my mother's side changed the entire family's name when they immgrated from Sweden...from Johnson (or perhaps Johnsson, I'm not certain) to something unsual they either made up or was an uncommon surname in Sweden and this was evidently a common thing to do. Although I do wonder if we are giving AG too much credit on their thought process to naming the doll perhaps.

15
By Betsy (not verified)
August 20, 2009 2:14 PM

I've always been intrigued by the AG naming also. Growing up everyone I knew wanted or had Samantha. Some had the others, but I think the popularity of the name Samantha compared to Molly and Kirsten, which were the only others available then, had a lot to do with her popularity. Well, she did have nice Victorian clothes, too.

On alliterative names: Does it become less comic book/character-ish if only the sounds are the same but the letter is different for the first and last? As in, Genevieve Jones or Christopher Kent? With the ln like Koons, my husband has fallen in love with Cooper and I with Clara, but we are both resistant due to the alliterative sounds. A worthy worry or no?

16
August 20, 2009 2:21 PM

regarding alliteration in names in real life, i am not opposed to it. for example, i think the name of actress vivian vance sounds just fine (and so does tess thompson), but i'm sure there are exceptions. for example, maybe i wouldn't like trevor tremaine. but then again, maybe i do after all...even increasing the number of letters in common doesn't seem to be fazing me. i certainly wouldn't name ALL my children using alliteration, but there's something about it (evidenced by the characters linnaeus points out) that packs a punch, and not just a name like francesca ferrazola. i think even a somewhat simpler name like tess thompson has it. it's probably not for everyone, but i don't think it is a bad thing, and i think i like it...it makes otherwise average names stand out (clark kent, lois lane, peter parker).

17
By Birgitte (not verified)
August 20, 2009 2:18 PM

I believe Anna Larsson would have been a far more believable name. If I am not mistaken, Kirsten is more Norwegian than Swedish, and more 1910's to 1930's than before that era.

My cousin is Kirsten, by the way.

18
August 20, 2009 2:19 PM

just realized that my sister is named something approximately like "hailey hinkle", which i also think sounds fine.

betsy,
clara koons sounds fine to me. cooper koons raises more concern (since it is the koo sound repeated, not just the /k/), but honestly, even that doesn't particularly bother me...this newfound liking of alliteration is liberating!

19
August 20, 2009 2:25 PM

I've also noticed that lots of actors and actresses and athletes have alliterative names...

Alan Alda
Courtney Cox
David Duchovny
Farrah Fawcett
Greta Garbo
Helen Hunt
Matthew McConnaughey
Nick Nolte
Parker Posey
Rene Russo
Susan Sarandon

etc

I think that alliterative names show up a lot more in Hollywood than in real life...do you think actor types just coincidentally have alliterative names, or that people with alliterative names lean more toward acting? :)

21
By Kim in Philly (not verified)
August 20, 2009 2:29 PM

On the alliterative front, I think it sounds fine if the names have the same beginning letter/sound, but that is where it has to end. For example: Vivian Vance is fine because it is Vi Va. Clark Kent is also okay since it's Cla Ke. However, my friend was naming her baby (Jewish) and had to use a B, well her last name started with Br. So, she couldn't use Brian, but did use Ben.

22
August 20, 2009 2:30 PM

And the reason I know this is because in the car my husband and I play this game where you have to say a first name starting with the same letter as the last name of the person the other person just said, using athletes, actors, and musicians.

For ex: Barry Manilow--Michael Jackson--Jack Nicholson--etc. When you say a double initial though, it goes back to you again, and it's surprisingly difficult to avoid all the double initials sometimes!

23
By jennifer h (not verified)
August 20, 2009 2:36 PM

Its funny because I don't necessarily mind alliteration with all the examples provided. However, the first thing my DH and I did when selecting names was to eliminate any that were alliterative with our last name. So for me, it is okay for others but I would not do it personally.

24
By moll (not verified)
August 20, 2009 2:39 PM

Character name alliteration is a handy device. I think I see it most often in kid lit, and I could see AG using it because it makes their names more memorable.
In real life? I don't think I would specifically avoid it, but I can't say I would ever choose a name just BECAUSE it was alliterative. I think it sounds just find, depending on the first and last names and) how they sound together. I might worry that a child would grow up disliking it, but if I really liked the name, I could see chosing alliteration - but never just for alliteration's sake.

My favorite? And by this, I mean her parents should have been forced to perform light community service for six months? I grew up with a G!g! Ge0rg!. ! = i, 0 = o, google-proofing style. I also grew up with a family of 8 children, all of whose first and last names started with F. Alliteration between first and last name AND alliteration among the siblings - a bit much.

25
August 20, 2009 2:50 PM

HA. wow, moll. g!g! ge0rg! is quite the name!

26
By Kim in Philly (not verified)
August 20, 2009 2:51 PM

Going back to last post about Zion. I personally would never use it. It's NMS and way too on trend with the -on ending. I mentioned it to my husband who is a total Zionist (and proud of it). I said we could never use it due to it's political connotations. He strangely said he didn't think there were any political connotations. What???? So, thank you all for helping me prove I was right and he was wrong.

27
By Anna (not verified)
August 20, 2009 2:55 PM

jennifer h - it could very well have been Johansson, the most common surname in Sweden.

Btw, after my Swedish great-grandfather finished his apprenticeship (1890ish) he also took (added) a new surname. I've been told this was a common thing to do back then.

28
August 20, 2009 3:36 PM

What a fun post! I have to say that Rebecca sounds the right period, obviously could be Jewish, but because it is mainstream now is still desireable. Sadie might be more popular then, but I wouldn't assume it was Jewish and I wouldn't connect it with the period necessarily (I'm failing as an NE!). So I think they're trying to find a name that is accurate enough and just seeems right. Like Samantha just seemed right to me for that girl in that period when I was growing up too (her poor friend Nellie also).

Betsy- I agree with whoever said a first letter alliteration is ok, but not the whole sound. So I think Clara Koons is fine, but Cooper Koons is a little much.

emilyrae- I agree, I'm really enjoying this alliteration and it IS liberating!

Anne with an E- I don't know about any of those people but I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of those are stage names so they or some manager picked them...

29
By Amy3 (nli) (not verified)
August 20, 2009 3:51 PM

Of the alliterative actor/athlete names above, only Alan Alda and Greta Garbo have different birth names that I could find.

Alda was born Alphonso Joseph D'Abruzzo and Garbo was born Greta Lovisa Gustafsson (although that's still alliterative!).

30
August 20, 2009 4:08 PM

I just checked to see if the alliterative trend continues to other public figures.

Out of 100 U.S. Senators, 4 are alliterative:

Barbara Boxer
Mitch McConnell
Mel Martinez
Kent Conrad

Then there's also Robert Bennett, who goes by Bob.

Although 5% isn't high, it's still higher than what I see in my office.

31
By knp (not verified)
August 20, 2009 4:16 PM

I think certain letters lend themselves to alliteration too-- I know a friend Lindsay Let**** which I loved the allit. I also tend to like P, T, H, but not Z for example.

Also, I like alliteration more in female names for some reason.
I totally agree that different sounds help the attractiveness of alliteration.

32
August 20, 2009 4:17 PM

knp,
so no zelda zimmerman for you, huh? :]

(...i think i even like THAT)

33
By KD
August 20, 2009 4:25 PM

Wow, Amy3, that really surprises me. It was my assumption that nearly all alliteration among celebs was contrived - at least altered. Make that nearly all their names, period.

As to authenticity of AG character name - for kid lit it's nice that there's been some effort made for the names to be plausible, I would hope for an even higher standard where adult historical fiction, not requiring merchandising, is concerned.

As for alliteration of my own kids - we've purposefully avoided it. In fact, I don't know if there's a word for this type of matchy-ness, but I'm a bit secretly bugged that my Samuel wants to be "Sam" as our last name is Dam3. Sure it's a short a followed by long, but too... concise for sure, and something else as well.

34
By hyz
August 20, 2009 4:31 PM

I'm loving the alliteration conversation. It makes me feel better about one of my favorite choices if we ever have another girl -- Sylvia/Silvia "Soh" (similar to our LN). I'd still have to get past the hump of having both an Ivy and a Sylvie, though.... I do agree that alliterative names can have a nice bit of flair, and I can't think of a time it sounded silly or obnoxious to me on real people (thanks for the list, Anne with an E--very good illustration).

35
By hyz
August 20, 2009 4:39 PM

Oh, and KD, I believe Sam Dam3 would be called a slant rhyme--same ending consonant, similar vowel.

36
August 20, 2009 4:54 PM

Among U.S. Representatives, it's also about 5% alliterative.

Perhaps we don't need to try for it, but it is nothing to fear.

37
August 20, 2009 5:14 PM

i agree with whoever (moll?) that i would never choose a name simply because it was alliterative (a lot more goes into the process than that!), but it would by no means scare me off.

hyz,
sylvia soh is brilliant!

38
August 20, 2009 5:18 PM

Out of the 46 people I work with, none of us have alliterative names. Now I am really curious about the ratio of alliterativeness (alliterativity?) in real life--too bad there's no database where I can figure it out the way Linnaeus figured out the members of Congress!

39
August 20, 2009 5:29 PM

also,
here's a list of people in the public eye with alliterative names--we forgot a lot of good ones!

http://www.yeahbaby.com/article.php?page=14

also: piper perabo, an american actress (her real name), who hasn't been mentioned and isn't on this website's list either.

also, not sure why they put an asterisk next to danny devito's name, as everything i've read says that his actual name IS daniel devito.

40
By knp (not verified)
August 20, 2009 6:11 PM

emilyrae: and I like how Ozzy Osbourne's isn't starred! fail!

41
By Anna (not verified)
August 20, 2009 6:15 PM

emilyrae - maybe it's because the 'de' part of "de Something" names is (or used to be) not really part of the name? Just a guess.

42
By hyz
August 20, 2009 6:21 PM

emilyrae, thanks! :) It just might happen, you never know. And if we were to have a boy next instead, I'd seriously consider Solomon Soh. The whole name reminds me of Solomon's Seal, which is a good botanical reference for me, and I love the meaning and sound of Solomon--my biggest concern is that it may come off as very religious, while our family is not. Then again, with such strong biblicals as Noah, Isaac, and Isaiah coming back right now even among non-religious sorts, maybe Solomon wouldn't seem too odd for us.

Silvan is also on our list for boys, but I'm not sure I like the 2syl alliterative first names quite as much as the 3syl ones with Soh.

43
By jenjenjen (not verified)
August 20, 2009 8:17 PM

I read through the comments, and it doesn't look like anyone has commented on this. Apologies if I missed someone's post.

Naming an American Girl is indeed a delicate balance, and there have been a few articles this time around arguing that they may have failed on the branding facet. Rebecca Rubin is also the name of a woman wanted by the FBI:

http://abcnews.go.com/Business/story?page=1&id=7728886

Sounds like they did a fair amount of research for the stories, but perhaps they whiffed on the name?

44
By bric (not verified)
August 20, 2009 9:06 PM

surprised that no one mentioned Cassius Clay, aka Muhammad Ali.

45
August 20, 2009 9:08 PM

emilio estevez!

(what a fun game!)

46
August 20, 2009 9:18 PM

knp, yes, ozzy's name is definitely not ozzy. major fail!

anna, hmm, possibly. though, in my mind, it still "counts" as alliterative. i suppose they could have just made a mistake though (as they did with ozzy).

hyz, ah, i see what you are saying with the three syllable solomon and sylvia vs. the two syllable silvan. it flows a bit better, i think, with three syllables. i also think that with so many old testament names gaining favor, solomon would not be out of place in a non-religious family. i certainly wouldn't make any assumptions. if ALL of your children's names were biblical (ruth, solomon, issac, and miriam), then i might assume the names held biblical significance to you. but i wouldn't bat an eye at ivy and solomon. you would follow your current tradition though, i assume? with solomon being the middle name and using a korean first name?

also: a terrorist named rebecca rubin? yikes!

47
By jenjen (not verified)
August 20, 2009 9:49 PM

Really interesting analysis on the AG dolls, Laura - I agree, they should hire you! I've always thought they do a pretty job of finding names that are historically plausible while also hitting the sweet spot of names that sound current and intriguing to the buying public (maybe a Matilda Larson would sell now, but not when the character was first introduced).

I'm always amused by how books, films and tv shows are filled with characters that have historically improbable names. To wit, Gray's Anatomy should be filled with Jennifers, Lisas, Jessicas, and Ashleys given the age of the characters.

More examples with my own time warp name: A favorite book of mine takes place in the twenties, except - oops, the baby is named Jennifer (the book was written in 1977). And didn't Nellie Olson (Olsson? Olssen?) on "Little House on the Prairie" name her girl Jennifer? How ahead of her time.

Have you heard the song "27 Jennifers?" Right on the money! Cracks me up everytime.

48
August 20, 2009 10:37 PM

Love the conversation about alliterative names. I tend to like them, but it does depend on the letter and the flow. I also agree with others that I prefer it when the sounds within the first name and last name aren't repeated. I also prefer when the first and last names have different numbers of syllables.

I really don't like 'W' alliteration and my married name starts with a 'W' so that rules out lots of names I like.

Tess - how is the name drama going today? more thoughts based on your comments, maybe some of these will stick? Antony, Balendin, Garrett, Ambrose, Jonah, Giles, Rupert, Wesley, Lucian

49
August 20, 2009 11:31 PM

Balendin? I have never heard that before, Chimu. Do you know anything about it? I can't decide whether it needs to be pronounced with a French accent!

Oh, just checked it out and apparently it is the Basque variant of Valentine. But I still wouldn't know how to pronounce it!

50
August 20, 2009 11:36 PM

betsy,
i hate to be the lone dissenter, but, like tess, i grew up with an alliterative name, and i vehemently disliked it. even as an adult, an alliterative name makes me cringe a bit as i remember the youthful tears i shed over my name. yep, actually made me cry at times. i wish i had a nickle for every time someone asked me if my parents named me hoping i'd grow up to be a movie star. no one ever just said hello. i vowed to give my own kids names that would never elicit a comment or require an explaination, and looked forward to the day i would marry so i could shed my maiden name...and guess what? i married a wonderful guy whose last name rhymes with my first! you can't win!
in defense of alliteration, the first three letters of both my first and last names were the same and the common nickname for my first name could also be a nickname for my last name. yuck. [my parents, on the other hand r really loved my name.]