The 2015 Name of the Year
Names are personal, and they are public. No matter why you choose a particular name for your child, the name also belongs to the broader culture. It is past and present, it is alive in the world, and its meaning can change over time in ways that are out of your control. For 2015, a year marked by debate over the meaning of symbols and the relationship between our present and our past, the Name of the Year is:
At the beginning of 2015, the baby name Atticus was clearly defined. By "defined," I don't mean etymology. I'm referring to cultural meaning, our shared understanding of what a name represents. Parents who chose the name Atticus for a son were quietly expressing values of justice, equality, dignity, non-violent strength and a love of literature – and they could feel confident that others would receive the message.
That message came courtesy of Atticus Finch, the father in Harper Lee's beloved novel To Kill a Mockingbird. As the New York Times said in 2012: "There are very few heroes in American literature to rival Atticus Finch — smart, wise, modest, a great shot with a rifle, possessing extraordinary ethical strength, plus, he is the father we all wish we had." He was also blessed with a heck of a name. The name Atticus was striking and (at the time) highly unusual, and it had been associated with learning and wisdom since antiquity. It fit the character so well that it was hard to tell where the name ended and the character began.
Mockingbird itself was a wonder, a highly relatable, easy-to-read work of literary fiction. It won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize, and a film version the next year cemented America's image of Atticus in the impeccable form of actor Gregory Peck. When the year 2015 began, all of that was literary history, seemingly immutable.
Then history changed. In February, Publisher HarperCollins announced the discovery of a long-lost Harper Lee novel, described as a sequel to Mockingbird but written before that book. In this "new" story, titled Go Set a Watchman, an older Atticus Finch has abandoned his earlier principles and devolved into a bitter segregationist.
Parents who had named their babies Atticus took the news as a punch to the gut. Did this new Atticus forever change the hero they'd named after, and the name itself? Could you honor one view of Atticus Finch and not the other?
The Atticus picture was further complicated by the uncertain status of the newly released book. Watchman, it soon became apparent, was less a sequel than a rejected first draft of Mockingbird.
Back in 1957, first-time novelist Harper Lee had sold her Watchman manuscript to J. B. Lippincott publishers. A Lippincott editor saw promise in the book but encouraged Lee to reimagine it, focusing on the compelling flashbacks to the narrator's childhood. Over the course of three years of collaboration a new and vastly improved novel took shape, complete with a more uplifting worldview. It was published as To Kill a Mockingbird.
It's far from clear that the earlier, rejected manuscript was ever meant to see the light of day. Notably, its "discovery" was announced soon after the death of Lee's sister Alice, who had served as a highly protective manager of Lee's affairs. The author herself was in a nursing home, and her competence to approve the publication was unclear.
The circumstances offered an easy excuse for parents to reject the racist figure from Watchman as not being the "real" Atticus Finch. After all, Mockingbird was the finished work, a masterwork which had inspired generations. Surely it would be wrong to allow this early draft to overwrite its place in our culture. On the other hand, the new image was out there, and both versions of Atticus were based on Lee's own real-life father. Could parents legitimately ignore the parts of literature, or history, that they didn't like and hold on to the parts that they did? In the end, would the impression they intended their choice to make still hold, or was its symbolic meaning now indelibly harmed?
If these questions sound familiar, it may be because they've echoed throughout this year in realms far beyond baby names. Consider two examples:
• In June, a man motivated by racial hatred murdered nine people in an African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina. After photos emerged of the murderer posing with Confederate battle flags, major retailers vowed to stop selling Confederate flag merchandise and the state of South Carolina removed the flag from its statehouse. Opponents of these changes continued to defend the flag, insisting it was a cherished symbol of regional pride and heritage rather than a symbol of racism and slavery.
• In November, a group of Princeton University students staged a sit-in at the university president's office to protest the school's racial climate. One of their demands was to rename the university's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. President Woodrow Wilson, a Princeton alum and former president of the school, is remembered for his progressive legislative policies and promotion of global peace and democracy. Yet he also held strong racist views, and his administration segregated the previously integrated federal civil service.
The Woodrow Wilson case lays out the kind of dilemmas that the present day faces in honoring the past. Wilson's attitudes on racial segregation and inequality were undeniably horrible. Yet his contributions to the realm of international affairs, the Wilson School's subject, are equally undeniable. Does honoring one side of a man's accomplishments imply honoring all sides of him? And to what extent should we judge individuals of other time periods by the standards of our own? (Wilson's racial views were, unfortunately, quite typical for a white Virginian born in 1856.)
To put this quandary in baby name terms, should you name a child after a relative whom you loved despite knowing his many flaws? How much should leeway should we give our ancestors on the grounds that they were products of their generations? On a bigger playing field, consider the name Jefferson. If you choose that presidential name for a son, will you be honoring the author of the Declaration of Independence or a slaveholder who fathered children by one of his slaves? Neither aspect of Thomas Jefferson can erase the other. Then there's Confederate President Jefferson Davis to contend with. You may know what the name Jefferson means to you, but guessing what it will mean to others is another matter.
As we saw with Atticus, symbolic messages can change, sometimes quite suddenly. Just the fact of public attention can make the difference. A Harvard Law School official recently acknowledged this in a controversy over the school's seal, which is based on the coat of arms of a brutal slaveholding family:
"Symbols are important," Martha Minow, dean of the law school, said this week. "They become even more important when people care about them and focus on them."
For decades, the sheaves of wheat on the law school seal were simply seen as wheat. Now that their connection to slavery has been highlighted, they have become something very different. The seal's public meaning has changed. Similarly, in the wake of the Charleston massacre it became increasingly impossible to fly the Confederate flag without sending a message of racism, regardless of the flag flyer's intent.
The new message sent by the name Atticus is less clear. Over the years to come, we may well find that the alternate vision of the Finch family fades as a mere curiosity, or that the reservoir of good will that Atticus has built up is formidable enough to withstand it. But for parents considering the name, their decision is now part of the complex societal calculation in which we weigh our flaws, our present and our past.