The Beatles, Creativity, and Baby Names

Feb 13th 2014

As America marks the 50th anniversary of the Beatles' breakthrough 1964 performance on the Ed Sullivan Show, I'd like to point out a little-noted aspect of Beatlemania:

Two of the most creative, transformative artists of the past half-century were named John and Paul.

Today's baby namers focus on creativity, but it doesn't take a creative name to produce a creative spirit. Pablo Picasso, Steve Jobs, Marie Curie, John Coltrane, Betty Friedan, Jorge Luis Borges, Stanley every field of endeavor, you'll find revolutionary impulses paired with ordinary names. Everybody still talks about the names of Moon Unit and Dweezil Zappa, but those names were products of a creative genius named Frank.

Statistically, it was inevitable that a large number of innovators would come out of the deep conventional end of the name pool. All of the visionary individuals I've mentioned were born in an age when "normal" names really were the norm. It remains to be seen whether today's more creative approach to baby names produces a more creative generation of humans.

Perhaps it would help to focus on a different kind of creativity in naming. Are there names that, rather than reflecting parents' creativity in name selection, reflect the spirit of creativity itself? Could honoring an artist or innovator send an inspiring message to your child, encouraging her to blaze her own trail?

Let's consider the Beatles. It's impossible to measure the number of boys who have been named John, Paul or George in homage to the Fab Four, because those names were already so ingrained in our culture. John, in particular, is the #1 classic boy's name in the history of the English language. Yes, American usage of the name John did spike in 1964, but the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963 was surely the biggest reason. So if you're looking for period Beatlenamia (sorry), you're left with Ringo:

That is one small, small wave. At the 1965 peak, Ringo was tied in popularity with names like Delwyn, Durwood, and Theophilus.

But with all due respect to Mr. Starr, if you're choosing a Beatle name to honor the spirit of artistic innovation, you're not going to go with Ringo, are you? You might turn to a song name, like Lucy or Jude. But most likely, you're going to choose a surname.

More than 2,000 American boys last year were named Harrison, as in Beatle George. Harrison, though, is also a presidential surname and a formal extension of Harry. When you hear the name, it doesn't come across as a Beatles homage. Starr, similarly, comes across as a variant of Star. The core homage names today are Lennon and McCartney, particularly Lennon:

The dominance of the name Lennon over McCartney may owe in part to John Lennon's iconic association with the ideals of peace and love. I suspect, though, that it has more to do with Lennon's smooth, classically namelike sound. In fact, the name was used at low but consistent levels long before the Beatles hit our shores. An American boy was as likely to be named Lennon in 1936 as 1986. (The resemblance to "Lenin" might have kept the name from rising during the Cold War.)

Lennon is a particularly good match for our -n obsessed name age. Similar-sounding names like Brennan and the decidedly non-peaceful Cannon are even more popular.

You see this sensitivity to name trends across the creativity-name spectrum. The artist-inspired name Calder is in play, while Picasso remains a non-starter. A dozen Austens are born for every Bronte; three Edisons for every Tesla. Even as we aim to express individuality and creativity, we can't help wanting to do it just like everybody else.

That's probably for the best. Kids do still want to fit in, at least a little, and there's a fine line between artistic homage and pretentious overkill. Besides, we can still show Picasso paintings, read Bronte novels, and explain alternating current to our kids whether we name them after artists, after their grandparents, or even after the latest reality-tv trainwreck. That's what will give them their best chance to to become innovators, just like those four lads named John, Paul, George, and yes, Ringo.


February 14, 2014 4:52 PM

I can't help but wonder if John's untimely death didn't also contribute to his surname being more popular than Paul's.  Lennon has a lot of trendy qualities to it, but McCartney also shares the Mc/Mac of names like MacKenzie.  And it shortens to a reasonable girl's nickname (Cary or Cara).  


February 14, 2014 7:52 PM

But Ringo was born Richard, after his father Richard and went by Ritchie until he was 19 and adopted the stage name of Ringo.

February 18, 2014 3:53 PM

Ringo was actually born Richard Starkey. sharalyns is correct that he adopted the stage name "Ringo Starr" at 19. Though it would be hard to track babies named Richard (or Ritchie) as they relate to Beatlemania, and Starkey's not exactly a common given name!

February 18, 2014 7:18 PM

We know a lovely little 5 year old boy named Lennon. I never had any doubts about the spelling or the inspiration when I heard the name (his dad's a musician, after all), but both my husband's dad and my mom heard it as "Lenin" and gave weird looks when we talked about him. It's certainly a generational thing, as I never thought of Lenin when I heard his name. My husband's mom heard it as "Linen" which is fairly hilarious. I think it's a great name and hadn't heard it before but it fits well with the likes of Aidan and all the other -n names around.

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