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 selfnesses 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 sent 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,
The Christmas season is full of joy, giving, and name lists. In the past I've shared my fascination with Santa's list of "good boys and girls" in a Rudolph the Red-Nost Reindeer book. I also torment my family by stopping to ponder store displays like this vintage-style Santa:
And I've wasted more time than I'd like to admit over these lines from the song "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas":
"A pair of Hopalong boots and a pistol that shoots
Is the wish of Barney and Ben;
Dolls that will talk and will go for a walk
Is the hope of Janice and Jen"
I've never found those name choices quite satisfying. You can feel the songwriter working backward from the need for rhyming girls and boys, while the lyric cries out for Mid-Century Normative Child names. It seems to me that it should have been "Bobby and Bill" yearning for the pistol and "Judy and Jill" for the doll (and to heck with "Mom and Dad can hardly wait for school to start again").
Yet even today, when such 1950s vintage Christmas songs count as "classics," the champion of all yuletide name lists remains the one allegedly penned by Clement Clark Moore in 1823:
"Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donder and Blixen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!"
In the seasonal spirit of name lists, I offer a 21st-Century rendition:
Now, Skylar! now, Stryker! now Ryker and Jaxon!
Now, Cabot! now, Copland! now Sawyer and Paxton!
To the top of the charts! be the belles of the ball!
Name stylishly, to the envy of all!
When teenager Ella Yelich-O'Connor set out to become a singer, she adopted a stage name. That should come as no surprise. For generations, young performers have tweaked or completely reinvented their names for marquee appeal. Just ask Judy Garland (Frances Gumm) or Tony Curtis (Bernard Schwartz).
But those performers of the past limited their stage-name search to the world of personal names. They chose a first name and a surname, most often familiar names of the English-speaking world. To a teenager today, that model must seem absurdly constricting. After all, Stefani Germanotta and Jayceon Taylor didn't waste their time fiddling with surnames. They called themselves "Lady Gaga" and "The Game," making their very names memorable statements of artistic identity.
So 21st-century teenager Yelich-O'Connor decided to call herself:
And nobody blinked an eye. How did we get to this point?
It was '80s hiphop artists who first blew the lid off of stage naming conventions. Early performers like Grandmaster Flash followed the self-branding approach of DJs, leading to a generation of artists like Ice Cube and Flavor Flav who blurred the lines between name and act, person and persona.
Around the same time, two wildly influential singers emerged who happened to have grand, meaning-laden given names. Prince and Madonna bridged the name/title gap on top-40 radio. By the time Lorde came along decades later, her chosen name -- a thematic offspring of those two star names -- was a non-story.
For the record, Lorde's stage name was inspired by her fascination with aristocracy, not by the religious meanings of "Lord." Nor is the spelling a tribute to writer Audre Lorde; the singer says she chose the spelling to "feminize" the highly masculine word. The name's stark, enigmatic, vaguely arrogant style is a perfect advertisement for Lorde's music, which is defiantly spare and unclassifiable.
I've talked before about the evolution of stage names into brands, notably with 2010's Name of the Year, "The Situation," which I described as "a stage name without an act." In that discussion, I made the point that this new wave of stage names, despite their un-namelike forms, are indeed names. That is, they fully represent the individual, onstage and off.
That separates them from past adopted personas, like David Bowie's "Thin White Duke." The man who rapped as Ice Cube with N.W.A. in the '80s remains Ice Cube as an actor in 21 Jump Street today. When a self-branded performer feels his brand no longer fits, he can't just change his act. He has to rename himself. Snoop Doggy Dogg now goes by Snoop Lion, and Sean Combs' many incarnations could be the subject of a PhD thesis in marketing.
I was intrigued, then, to hear Lorde establishing some distance between herself and her stage name. In Interview Magazine, she explained:
"My name is Ella, that's who I am at school, hanging out with friends, while I'm doing homework. But when I'm up on stage, Lorde is a character. My friends actually find that really difficult to digest, separating me from the theatrical character they see on stage [laughs]; but they're getting used to it."
That name-based separation between public and private spheres strikes me as a healthy impulse for a young performer. Our names, the true names we call ourselves, ARE our selves. If Ella remains Ella to herself, perhaps she'll be a little better equipped to cope with expectations and criticism leveled at Lorde. Perhaps she'll even choose to put Lorde aside, if she ultimately grows in a different direction. We usually think of stage names as tools or weapons wielded to attract attention, but they can also work as shields.