Where all boys end up nowadays

Jul 19th 2007

As I research names I'm constantly poking into dusty corners of data and compiling arcane charts. Most will never see the light of day, but one has grabbed me so hard I just have to share. So strap on your helmets, we're going data mining!

For background, I'm convinced that that the whole baby-naming enterprise has changed dramatically over the past 25 years. Part of what I'm trying to do is to demonstrate that this change is real and get a handle on what it means. One natural place to look is in name endings. As I've discussed in the past, endings do a lot of the work of giving a generation of names its trademark sound. (See the posts called "It's how you finish," parts one and two.)

So here is a graph of boys born by the last letter of their given names, back in 1906:

Only 11 letters were in common end-letter use, led by a clear "Big Four" that memorably spell ENDS (think George, John, Edward, James.) Now let's leap 50 years ahead and chart the same data for boys born in 1956:

It's hard to compare the graphs in this format, but the changes are relatively modest given the 50-year time span. The exact same 11 end letters dominate as in 1906, and the Big Four ENDS all rank among a new Big Five. This is the fundamental conservatism of the English men's naming stock, the immovable core of Johns and Jameses that endures across generations. Or did, at least. 'Cause take a gander at 2006:

Ladies and gentlemen, that is a baby naming revolution.

More on this in the months to come...

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.