The D is for...

Jul 12th 2007

Meet young Murphy Gordon Mattingly. He has a traditional, albeit uncommon, first name. His middle name honors a beloved relative. But Murphy also has a secret. He has a second middle name that belies the restraint of Murphy Gordon. It's a name of intrigue and adventure, one that hints at surprises beneath the surface. Yes, Danger is his middle name.

Murphy Gordon Danger Mattingly. Cool? Perplexing? A little outrageous? His parents wrote to me after encountering all of those reactions, even from their own nearest and dearest. They weren't intending to provoke, just to insert a bit of their family's personality in the baby's name. As Murphy's mom explains, "we are the type of people who have a firepole going between floors on our house and are building a secret room behind a bookcase."

Now I myself am not that kind of person. Firepoles make me dizzy and the bookcases in the Wattenberg household are too crammed with books to budge, regardless of what's hidden behind them. (My daughter's school pictures, I suspect.) Yet the charm of Danger-is-my-middle name isn't lost on me.

"It's not as if we've given him the name as his first name," says Murphy's mom. "No one will ever know unless he wants them to." That, to me, is what makes the name work. Unlike most wildly unconventional names, this isn't a bid for attention. It's a personal gift, a hidden message from parents to child. And buried as it is deep within his name, it will keep delivering that unspoken connection. I picture it as a secret identity power-boost, kind of like wearing superhero underwear. As usual with secret identities, the Clark Kent exterior makes it all the more winning.

We're accustomed to using middle names to deliver messages, most often to honor our relatives. The Mattingly family has opened up a whole new realm of message meanings. The particular name Danger might not sit well with you, but perhaps another message would. An abiding interest, a core value, a personal hero? Or for secrets within secrets, an anagram or cipher? Even for a staid old author like myself, it's awfully tempting to imagine such a secret identity. Kind of like wearing Jane Austen underwear.

Of Sams and Leslies

Jul 5th 2007

Born, June 18, 2007, to golfer Tiger Woods and wife Elin Nordegren Woods: a daughter, Sam Alexis.

Nope, that's not short for Samantha. Tiger's late father Earl reportedly used "Sam" as a private nickname for his son, making the baby's name a gentle tribute to grandpa. It's a personal name choice, not a showy one. But Tiger being Tiger, the public naturally took notice. One small segment of the baby-name public in particular.

"Help!" wrote one mother of a young Samuel. "I am particularly peeved at the feminization of the name Sam... I was quite adamant about selecting a masculine name for my dear son."

American parents are notoriously skittish about androgyny for boys. We prepare to jump ship when any name starts to take on a feminine aura. It may not be a noble impulse, but any male Lesie or Courtney can tell you it's reality. Is a high-profile female Sam likely to tip that name to the girls' side too? Baby Samanthas have been running neck-and-neck with Samuels for years, so the name is technically androgynous. Yet a boy named Sam still sounds completely masculine and I don't expect that to change. Sam is not a Leslie or Courtney, because Sam is a nickname.

If we ignore spellings for the moment, many of the popular nicknames of the '60s and '70s were gender benders. If someone mentions a Terry/Terri, Randy/Randi or Chris/Kris, do you have the slightest idea whether it's a man or woman? Go back another generation and the crossover is even stronger. The 1930s were the heyday of the "regular Joe" names -- nicknames like Eddie, Frankie, Billie, Bobbie, Johnnie, Freddie, Tommie, Mickey, Charlie and Bennie -- all used as given names for boys and girls alike. Oh, and did I mention Sammie?

The regular Joe nicknames continued in use for boys and all sound masculine today, if a little outdated. (Billie and Mickey would be Will and Mike in the 21st century.)

Granted, I'm cheating a bit on spelling. A lot more men are named Sammy than Sammie, Billy than Billie. But even when the dominant spellings for boys and girls are identical, as with Charlie and Freddie, the masculinity sticks. I'm betting that names like Sam and Alex follow the same path, regardless of how many Samanthas and Alexandras share the space. When it comes to nicknames, at least, Americans are are willing to share.

An update and a mystery

Jun 28th 2007

Two items for a summer afternoon...

A smarter Nymbler. If you visit the name-finder Nymbler today it will look the same as yesterday. But don't be deceived; there are changes under the hood. We've tweaked the way Nymbler thinks about names, which should make its recommendations smarter and more discerning. Give it a try and let me know how it works for you!

A challenge for all you namerologists. When I find an odd name phenomenon in old baby-name data, it often leads down a trail to a fragment of history or culture. But sometimes it leads to a dead end. Here's one name that has me stumped:

The girl's name Willodean cracked the United States top-1000 name list six times from 1926 to 1932. It was most popular in a vertical strip of the country, focused on Tennessee and extending North to Indiana and South to Mississippi. That's what I do know. What I don't know: where it came from, what sparked its use, and even how it's pronounced.

I'm not inclined to accept the explanation from one web name dictionary: "Its source is an English expression meaning 'A tree with long, drooping branches covered with narrow leaves.'" That would be Willow, no? (Some dictionaries are strangely allergic to the word "word," apparently believing that "expression" sounds more scholarly. So we're treated to derivations like this one for the name Windy: "Its source is an English expression meaning 'Windy.'")

Willodean is decidedly not just Willow, nor does it seem to be a form of Wilhelmina, Wilda, etc. Are there any Willodeans or descendants of Willodeans who can shed some light on this baby-name of mystery?