Our stylish ancestors

Oct 27th 2006

When I was writing about "forged antiques" -- names that sound like ancestral throwbacks when they aren't (part 1, part 2)-- one mystery kept weighing on my mind. If Olivia isn't really a revival from a century ago, why do so many parents of young Olivias tell me that their daughter was named after her great-great grandmother? The numbers don't seem to add up. Last year more than 15,000 Olivias were born in the U.S., or more than 50 for each Olivia born 100 years earlier.

Then I started to think back on my own family-inspired naming ideas. My maternal great-grandmother was named Rose, and I grew up hearing stories of her and her family. So I had a personal, sentimental attachment to the name, and considered using it for my first daughter. I thought it would make a particularly good middle name. But one day it struck me that Rose had a husband, my great-grandpa Herman...yet I had never for a moment considered Herman for a boy. What's more, I discovered that Rose was the single most popular middle name for American girls! My attachment to the name felt purely sentimental, but it was very much about style.

Every child born has 48 great-great and great-great-great grandparents. Add in aunts, uncles and cousins and you have a huge pool of ancestors to pick from. So if you're able to trace your family tree back far enough, chances are you can find an Olivia, or perhaps a Hallie or Lucia or Levi or Sebastian, whatever suits your style. Maybe you'll even find a surname that would sound stylish as a given name today. Hundreds of options, all without leaving the cozy confines of family. It's almost like adding an extra style list to the Baby Name Wizard book. Along with "Antique Charm" and "Brisky and Breezy," you have "Ancestral Elan."

But if scanning our family trees is just another exercise in style, why do we bother? What's the value in naming your baby after someone you never even met? What you get with the family-tree names is a story. You have a terrific answer waiting when your daughter asks why you chose the name Olivia. It's an answer that makes her a part of a tradition, a link between the past and future. Maybe you can even tell her enough about the person she's named after to make her name stand as a living reminder of where her family has come from, or what she might hope to become.

Of course, as you tiptoe out onto the branches of your family tree scanning for stylish ideas, you're stepping over a lot of names. All those overlooked Berthas and Lesters have stories to tell as well, and 100 years ago, Berthas and Lesters outnumbered Olivias and Sebastians 30 to 1. But heck, that's what middle names are for. Unless you happen to have a great-grandma Rose.

Name Madness

Oct 20th 2006

Some decisions are just made to cause conflicts. Around our house, the preferred way to de-fang those beastly choices is with an element of gaming. My husband and I end up flipping a coin a lot. (We used to play "odds or evens" until he realized that I had an unfair advantage because I could read his mind.) Once we even assigned an onerous chore through a silent auction where we bid the number of loads of laundry we'd do to get out of it. No arguments, lots of clean clothes, what's not to like?

So I was immediately drawn to the scheme that readers Natalie Miller-Moore and Dan Moore dreamed up to choose a name for their baby. Think of the name decision this way: you have a group of competitors and want to determine which one is the best. What do you do? Suppose you have 64 competitors...and it's March? Yes, it's bracket time!

The Moores' name playoff system works like the NCAA basketball championship. Choose 64 names, 32 boys and 32 girls, from the Baby Name Wizard book. (Hey, an author's gotta eat, right?) Rank them for "seeding" purposes and enter them on a form much like the office pools that sap our national productivity every Spring. Put the girls on the left, the boys on the right then start pairwise eliminations until you're down to one name for each sex. The ultrasound determines the ultimate champion.

You can do the seeding together or just divvy up the odd and even slots. The Moores passed out brackets to friends and family to get an idea of how their name choices played to the public, but the approach should work just as well to jumpstart a stalled private decision process. A Name Madness tournament might hold especial appeal to the many women who tell me that their male partners just won't talk about names. Because who can resist the competitive allure of a playoff bracket?

At the very least the process should bring a little fun back to your naming discussions. Choosing a baby name really shouldn't be a chore, it should be a delight.

If you're tempted, you can print out a blank name tournament bracket at http://www.babynamewizard.com/namemadness.pdf .

Antique or forgery, part 2

Oct 13th 2006

Last time I talked about some popular "antique revival" names like Olivia and Ava, and how they're not truly revivals at all. Yet parent after parent, and writer after writer, insists that they are. In fact, an eagle-eyed reader might have spotted those names on the "Antique Charm" list in my very own Baby Name Wizard book. So have we all been duped by a bunch of forgeries? I don't think so. Olivia, Ava and their kin deserve their place on lists of old-fashioned names, and I plan to keep them there--because they feel old fashioned, and sometimes that's enough.

Imagine you walk into a furniture showroom and see a sale on a "colonial diningroom set." Would you feel cheated to learn it had been built after 1776? Of course not. In furniture, colonial properly describes a style as well as a history. In baby names, so does antique.

What are the ingredients of an antique-styled name? First off, it does have to have some genuine tradition behind it. A long history, though, isn't enough to create a feeling of antique charm. Here are just a few of the girls' names that were more popular than Olivia a century ago:

A. Amy, Christine, Carrie

B. Nancy, Bonnie, Sue

C. Kate, Sara, Leah

D. Zelma, Ollie, Elva

Group A sounds like sisters from the 1970s, Group B from the 1940s. Group C is timeless with a contemporary feel, and Group D...well, nevermind.

Olivia and Ava differ from those names--and real great-grandmas like Mildred and Myrtle--in the shape of their sounds and the shape of their histories. In keeping with our contemporary sense of elegance, they're heavy on the vowels with no consecutive consonant sounds. As for history, they remained consistently uncommon for a hundred years. That made them familiar enough to sound traditional, yet didn't stamp them into a generation like Nancy and Sue. And since few people actually knew any Olivias or Avas in person, celebrities were able to help root the names' images.

Take another look at the Olivia and Ava graphs from last week. You'll notice two tiny peaks: Olivia in the '40s, Ava in the '50s. That would be actresses Olivia de Havilland and Ava Gardner, born in 1916 and 1922 respectively. Doesn't each actress perfectly embody the contemporary image of her first name? Ava is the more sultry name, Olivia the more delicate (Olivia Newton John's "Let's Get Physical" notwithstanding.) Many of the antique-styled hits are also shaped by their use in literature--especially British literature, but chroniclers of the American upper classes like Edith Wharton and Henry James count too.

The result is polished antiques that evoke a past divorced from any unpleasant realities. Women are either charmingly sweet (Lily, Chloe) or flowingly romantic (Isabella, Angelina). Men are elegant gentlemen (Julian, Sebastian). Here's a popularity graph of the six antique-styled lovelies in this paragraph:

In the end, the actual history of these names hardly matters. They achieve their goal of conjuring up a classic, old-fashioned elegance. Compare siblings named Isabella and Julian to Devyn and Kyler -- they're a world apart. The "forgeries" may not be authentic great-grandparents, but their cultural meaning is authentically antique.