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 Kubrick....in 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.
Many parents like to customize the spelling of their kids' names. They play with the letters to make the name more individual or attractive or "namelike," or to include a relative's initials as an homage, or to make their preferred pronunciation clear. The motivations and the possible spellings are endless. You can't assume that an unexpected spelling you come across is "wrong," even when the name is traditional or based on a common English word.
But sometimes spellings ARE wrong. If you're looking at a record of a student, patient or client named "Wlliam," isn't it likely to be a typo? And shouldn't you ask the person to make certain, rather than risk their records getting lost in your database?
Plenty of typos make it into official government name data, too. Most parents have the mistakes corrected, but some just roll with it. The harder a name is to spell and/or type, the more erroneous versions will pile up. The trick is, the same names that spawn the most errors tend to spawn the most intentional respellings, too.
Take a look at this list of spellings of Autumn, all of which show up in federal data as being given to five or more girls in a year. Which ones would prompt you to ask about a possible error? Keep in mind that mistakes could take the form of typos, misreadings (human or machine) from a handwritten form, or poor spelling on the part of the typist:
I'd place "Autymn" at the clearly deliberate end of the spectrum, and "Autunm" as the surest typo. But there's plenty of gray area in-between.
If the person is standing in front of you, it's simple enough to ask them to confirm that you have the spelling correct. If they're not, though, checking can take a lot of time and effort -- and sends the message that you think their name is "wrong."
Here are three more official spelling arrays of traditional names. Where would you draw the line? I'll start off gentle:
OK, now brace yourself:
Have you ever wondered about Dagwood Bumstead?
OK, at first glance the husband in the classic comic strip "Blondie" may not seem worth pondering over. Dagwood is a suburban sad sack. His best skills are napping and preparing oversized sandwiches. As for his humbly goofy name, it just underlines his humbly goofy nature.
But back when the strip and the character were created, at the twilight of the Roaring Twenties, Dagwood was a different sort of fellow entirely. He was a wealthy young playboy, a scion of privilege who shocked his genteel parents by bringing home a -- *gasp* -- flapper!
Yes, the name Dagwood was selected to sound upper-crusty, not sad-sacky. And it wouldn't have seemed so very unlikely a name at the time. If the young rake Bumstead were 18 in the comic's first panels, that would mean he was born in 1912, the peak of America's "wood" years. Take a look at the history of names containing that four-letter string:
(Editorial note: it's a bit tricky to write about such an erect graph of "wood." But let's all cling to our better natures and soldier on.)
The king of the wood-en names was Woodrow, which peaked at the time of President Woodrow Wilson's 1912 election and again after the U.S. entered the First World War. (Wilson's full name was Thomas Woodrow Wilson, after his maternal grandfather Thomas Woodrow.) The name style, though, was much bigger than one man.
Woodrow and several other wood names already ranked among America's top thousand for boys before Wilson even ran for his first public office. By the time he hit the White House, nine or ten of the wood names were making the list every year. Elwood was especially popular, alongside kindred spirits like Norwood, Glenwood and Durwood. Beyond the top thousand lurked many more wood names, including dozens of boys named Stanwood, Woodfin, and the immortal Edwood.
Durwood and friends are so far outside the contemporary taste zone that it can be hard to imagine how they sounded to parents a century ago. I think it's a fair guess, though, that they were perceived as fancy and sophisticated back then. Other hefty British-isles surnames like Talmadge and Carlyle certainly were, and the "wood" names follow a similar historical popularity curve.
My guess is that the name Dagwood Bumstead was designed to push the upper-crust surname style to its comical extreme -- just as the "Blondie" was an exaggeration of the wild, capricious and dizzy-headed flapper. But both of those impressions are long gone, along with the age when names were made of "wood."