The 2013 Name of the Year
We close out the naming year by recognizing the 2013 Name of the Year:
As Time Magazine wrote when they declared Pope Francis their Person of the Year: "This papacy begins with a name."
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On the day Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina was elected pope, one observer responded to his choice of name:
"(E)arly reaction is that the new pope has managed to send two very different messages at once. The image of St. Francis of Assisi makes the name Francis a strong symbol of poverty, humility, simplicity, and stewardship of nature. Yet the decision to step outside of the papal lineage and link himself directly to figures like Francis of Assisi and Francis Xavier suggests a leader who isn't afraid to break new ground and shake up 'business as usual.' In other words, the name manages to present the pontiff and his church as both thoroughly modest and thoroughly bold."
That assessment comes from this very Baby Names Blog, on the day of the papal election. A year into Francis's reign, it appears to be a prescient forecast. I say this not to call myself an oracle; other name-based analyses drew very similar conclusions. I point it out, rather, to illustrate the depth of meaning that names carry.
Vatican watchers who tried to forecast the priorities of the new pope based on his lifetime of service to the church found a more complicated picture. Cardinal Bergoglio was the first Jesuit pope, and the first pope from Latin America. He lived a humble life, devoted to the poor and eschewing the trappings of power, but was also a doctrinal conservative and staunch opponent of new social justice-oriented movements in the church. He was faulted by some for not speaking out against the Argentine government during the "dirty war" of the '70s and '80s, yet he earned the ire of the country's president with strong words against a proposal to allow adoption by same-sex couples.
Writers who delved into this history typically described it as "complex," and one profile introduced Francis as "a pope of paradox." But in the words of a BabyNameWizard.com reader who supported the nomination of Francis as Name of the Year:
"In one name, Cardinal Bergoglio told us who he is and what kind of a pope he would be."
According to a a church spokesman, Pope Francis chose his name in honor of St. Francis of Assisi. That Francis began his life as a pleasure-loving, glory-seeking son of privilege. After a deep spiritual conversion, he was called by God to "rebuild my church" in a life of selfless poverty and humility. He has long stood as a symbol of commitment to peace and unity, to spiritual renewal within the church, and above all to selflessness and dedication to the poor and vulnerable.
Despite the name's deep resonance in Catholicism, there had never before been a Pope Francis. One vatican observer called the choice "stunning" and "precedent shattering." The picture it painted, though, was of the gentlest kind of revolution: a movement toward caring, humility and unity.
This ability to signal institutional direction and "brand identity" with a personal name was a major theme of 2013. The choice of of a name for the new heir to the British throne similarly became a "rebranding" opportunity for that monarchy. Choosing George, the quintessentially English name of six kings and of the country's patron saint, was as an act of reclamation of tradition. That simple baby name was as potent a symbol of pride and history as any palace or royal wedding could be.
The symbolic weight of naming a prince and a pope may seem far removed from the typical decision process of expectant parents. Yet the gap between branding and baby naming is shrinking. The "audience" for a baby name is shifting, from the inward-facing target of your own family and community to an outward-facing focus on the way the name will be perceived in life's marketplace. When you ask what name will get your child noticed, or hired, or admired; which name says "smart" or "free-spirited" or "tough," you are thinking very much like a brand namer.
Pope Francis demonstrates that this is far from a trivial decision. Our kids' names may not carry an entire global church on their backs, but they do send rich signals, and those signals are received loud and clear. As I wrote about papal name speculation before the pope was chosen, "It's a stark illustration of the power of names: the ability to express an entire philosophy of faith and leadership in a single word."
With best wishes for the naming year ahead,