Names on the Verge: Beatrice, Tobias, and the World of Divergent

Jan 4th 2013

In the baby naming world, not all literary cultural phenomena are created equal. Not even all cultural phenomena from the Young Adult shelves, featuring love triangles and fights to the death (and beyond). Twilight and The Hunger Games both have huge fanbases, but only Twilight moved the baby name needle.

It all comes down to style. The names Jasper, Emmett and Esme were full of fashion potential. Peeta, Gale and Primrose, not so much.

One of the heirs to the YA throne is Veronica Roth's Divergent trilogy. The final volume of the series is due to be published this year, with a film version of book one expected soon after. At a brief glance, it's easy to take Divergent for a Hunger Games imitator. (The publishers clearly saw it that way, if their shamelessly similar cover theme is any indication.) Both trilogies focus on a strong teenage girl in a future, post-apocalyptic America divided into factions.

To this reader, though, the series feel very different. Where The Hunger Games was fundamentally about violence and dehumanization, Divergent dwells on subtler questions of the nature of people. Think of it as a musing on what society would be like if we were all sorted by Harry Potter's sorting hat. The progression of the plot seems to be leading Divergent even further from the Hunger Games model of increasingly spectacular body counts.

In names, too, Divergent charts a different path. Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins used names as symbols. The residents of her District 1, a relatively prosperous community that produced luxury goods, were given names like Glimmer, Marvel and Gloss. Humble, agricultural District 11 was peopled by the likes of Thresh, Seeder and Chaff. The wealthy, decadent ruling Capitol, meanwhile, was steeped in ancient Rome: Claudius, Seneca, Caeser.

The names of Twilight, in contrast, were all about style. The aforementioned Jasper, Emmett and Esme were all vampires, born in different places and different eras but united in cutting-edge name style. Werewolves mostly had more modest names, often with a biblical spin: Paul, Leah, Seth. And other groups, like rival vampire covens, were distinguished by names with more stylistic than ethnic/historical coherence. (Take the "Romanian coven" of ancient Dacia, represented by Vladimir and Stefan.)

In Divergent, the overall naming approach is...ordinary. Aggressively, even surprisingly ordinary. In a future world divided into sharply delineated factions, with the whole spectrum of science fiction naming available to the author, we find a cast of completely familiar names.

What's more, author Roth largely resisted the temptation to choose names as reflections of character. Contemplate this lineup: Christina, Eric, Will, Jeanine, Marcus, Lynn, Peter, Tori, Caleb, Marlene, Drew. Any guesses who in that list is a hero, and who a villain? Who a thrill-seeking "Dauntless," and who a knowledge-seeking "Erudite"? This refusal to name by type makes it harder to see the individuals themselves as types, planting a hint of doubt about the society's determination to sort them.

The one exception to Roth's neutral naming approach is the selfless "Abnegations," whose names tend toward the old and traditional, often with religious associations. The collection of names like Caleb, Susan, Robert, Beatrice and Tobias has the effect of linking Abnegation to past cultures of simplicity and self-denial, like American Puritanism.

The lead character names, Beatrice and Tobias, appear to be particularly careful and canny choices. Roth managed to find two familiar, old-fashioned names with long vowel sounds that have been largely overlooked in the recent stampede toward such names. (Neither ranks in the current top 500 for boys or girls.) That makes the characters sound individual, even while fitting naturally into the book's name landscape. In the case of Beatrice, Roth goes a step further. The character is known as Tris, a nickname that could have a transformative effect on the real-world name Beatrice.

The extent of Divergent's cultural reach will hinge on a successful film adaptation. That's no sure thing; think of how a limp movie stalled "Percy Jackson and the Olympians." But if the film fulfills the books' promise, expect to see more Beatrices called Tris, and Tobiases not called Toby, by 2014.


January 4, 2013 4:15 PM

I can't see Tobias without thinking of Dr. Funke's 100% all natural good time family band solution. 

January 4, 2013 4:44 PM

I can't see Tris without thinking only of the common lab chemical (it's short for tris-aminomethane and is a buffer).

By almk
January 4, 2013 5:29 PM

Here I am hoping the upcoming movie adaptation of The Giver doesn't make the name Jonas explode, and now Tobias is going to become popular, too?

January 4, 2013 7:16 PM

I'm with you, KO. While I like the name Tobias, I can't separate it from the Arrested Development character. 

January 4, 2013 9:01 PM

Tris is a fresh spin on Beatrice.  Since most of us probably don't work with chemicals on a daily basis (Comment # 2), I can see parents who want something other than Bea or Trixie using this as a first name.

Tris also reminds me of Tess; although as a given name it has become less common, Tessa is gaining in popularity.  Baby forums often raise the question of name vs nickname usage. I can imagine somebody using Beatrice nn Tris to honor Grandma or Great Grandma Trish.


By mk
January 5, 2013 12:37 AM

I've never heard of this series, but I've heard Beatrice mentioned as options among expectant parents recently, and know of one baby Beatrix, so I would not be surprised to see it rise soon.

Tris is also the chemical buffer to me, but I mostly don't like it as a nickname because it makes me think of priss (though the nickname Chris does not).

January 5, 2013 1:57 AM

I enjoyed the Divergent books, so far at least and I agree that the names are in an in-between state from the very on-trend Twilight names and the strange Hunger Game names. Hunger Game names are more like Harry Potter names, in my opinion. They are given more to tell you about the personality and symbolism of the character, and less for style.

I like Beatrice and I think the nickname Tris sounds more contemporary than Bea. Another interesting name-related fact is in the books Tobias is known as Four for almost the entire first book and it's not until the end that we find out his given name. Maybe Roth felt that she couldn't have a pair named Tris and Toby....

January 6, 2013 10:50 AM

I wish the Name Mapper had names beyond the top 100.  I have known several young Beatrices - but all in  Massachusetts.  I wonder if this is a New England name.

January 7, 2013 4:49 AM

What I observe is that is it mostly unpredictable what names from a book or film really make impact. Most often it is not the main protagonist but some other figure; for Hunger games one can already see a comeback of Gale as a male name.

In germany, Harry Potter probably made the names Cedric and Luna more popular than they were before. And Geraldine is an actress in the Harry Potter films, also on the rise. And we see names like Emma Hermine (Hermine is the german translation of Hermione), actress+character combos.

January 9, 2013 2:57 PM

I think Beatrice has been OTV for a few years.

I added it to my list in high school because I adore the character in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing. It fell off my radar until my son Henry was in kindergarten ten years later (2005) and his class read a book called "Beatrice Doesn't Want To," and Beatrice's older brother was called Henry.

When we were expecting our baby girl last year, I lobbied hard for Beatrice but my husband wouldn't agree to it, and we ended up with Agnes.

Oh, I forgot to comment on Tobias! The others are right; there is no separating the name from the AD character... Perhaps in a few more years, the younger crowd will be able to revive it without thinking of the world's first analrapist. 

January 9, 2013 3:51 AM

For me, Tobias is synonymous withthaw human-boy-turned-redtail-hawk from the Animorphs series. It was my favourite male name until I read Redwall and fell in love with a similar name that remains my favourite to this day: Matthias.

January 10, 2013 1:26 PM

I've been absent for a bit, but I needed to omment on this. I'm very familiar with this series, and I think the nature of Beatrice choosing her own nickname, Tris, to separate herself from her old faction is a really interesting aspect. It shows how children can take control of their own identities, creating a name that never existed before: one that her parents didn't anticipate when they named her (also hinting at her status as Divergent, not neatly fitting into a single faction).

Also, I went to an event where Roth spoke, and karma_k2, you are absolutely right about Tobias from Animorphs. Roth is about my age, and that series came out right when our generation was the target audience. I actually burst out laughing when she revealed that she named her male lead after him, saying that Tobias was by far the best character in that series (which is 100% true).

January 20, 2013 12:35 AM

Popular blogger Joanna Goddard (Cup of Jo) has a Tobias-called-Toby. Her readership is extensive, so I could see that nudging the name forward as well. 

January 22, 2013 4:32 PM

My Beatrice just turned 1 last week!  We mostly call her by her full name, with an occasional Bea thrown in.  Not really a fan of Tris, I must say.

January 30, 2013 11:54 PM

I knew a Tobias in college who was quite attractive. He'd be 37 now. Toby reminds me of a lyric from a song on the Juno soundtrack, "I never met a Toby that I didn't like." The only Toby I know now is a 8 year old girl. 

Rue has been on out list since I was pregnant with my first daughter in 1999. The only Rue I've ever heard of is Rue McClanahan from Golden Girls. I am conflcted about using it because of the "Rue the day" expression, but I believe it means herb or maybe weed. So when there was a sweet character in The Hunger Games named Rue, I thought it might take off, but alas it has not, so it remains on the list. Though the list is probably more of a dog name list now that the baby days seem to have passed. 

I know several Beatrice/Beatrix in the SF Bay Area. 1 age 16, 1 age 8 and several under 5. It is a great name, but I am not a fan of Tris when Bea is so sweet. 

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