The new life of the party

Sep 28th 2006

Reader James recently pointed me to an unconventional name-choosing story. In a New York Metro interview, "Project Runway" contestant Laura Bennett described how she and her husband named one of their five children:

Truman is 7. He was named by a cocktail-party crowd when he was about 3 months old.

He didn't have a name?

My husband could never commit to one. So poor Truman just went for months being called "the baby." His birth certificate said Baby White Male. Finally, we were at this cocktail party with a bunch of my old friends and they voted on Truman.

OK, your quick gut reaction...sound ridiculous? They didn't give their baby a name and finally let a "cocktail-party crowd" do it for them?

Yet the more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that those parents might have been on to something. Their only mistake was waiting so long to take the plunge. Suppose....

The baby's due in a month, and you and your partner are still sweating over names. You've debated every possibility into the ground, nothing sounds right, and you just can't agree. Don't have an argument, have a party! Invite a group of people whose taste you trust, and who understand your own values and style. Provide some good food and drink. (It's a party, after all.) Give the guests an initial list of top name prospects, and open the floor to write-in candidates. Let everyone share their reactions to each name and lobby for their favorites. Then vote.

At this point I'll bet many of you are recoiling in horror. "But it's our choice! And a name is so personal. I'm not going give the decision over to a committee!" Ok...but you're stuck, remember? Besides, it's not like you're just taking a poll of passers-by at the mall. Your son might actually be glad to have a name selected by the loving community around him, pre-screened to be a choice that warms their hearts. Better yet, the process will help all the guests at the party feel an immediate connection to the new baby--a special bond reinforced every time they say his name. Ideally, you could end up elevating your naming problems from personal dilemma to community ritual and celebration.

Or not. It certainly takes a leap of faith, or of desperation, to hand over the baby naming reins.

Has anybody out there thrown a baby-naming party? Anybody tempted? Anybody want to invite me?

Name refinishing

Sep 21st 2006

What do these names have in common?

Ann
Elaine
Jennie
Julie
Marian

To start off, they're all familar American girls' names that ranked among the top 100 in the U.S. for at least two decades during the past century. And they're all currently in a slump. Together, those five names now account for fewer than 500 out of every million babies born:

But change the endings of the names to an -a, and it's a different story. Anna, Elaina, Jenna, Julia and Mariana are a group on the rise -- 12 times as popular as their a-less siblings.

This ending adaptability helps classic name roots like Juli and Mari maintain their appeal through generations of changing styles. Some of you discovered that when you tried your hands at the "name stairs" puzzle, building chains of names letter by letter...

Mari
Maria
Marian
Mariann
Marianna

We freshen the names for each generation by tweaking their endings. Right now, -e endings are down, while -a is hot. Can the a work its magic on any other familiar favorites? Here are some likely candidates for future re-finishing:

Callie --> Calla
Cassie --> Cassia
Stacie --> Stacia (usually pronounced STAY-sha)
Nicole --> Nicola (1st-syllable stress; common in U.K. in the '80s)
Stephanie --> Stephania (2nd-syllable stress; commonly spelled Stefania)
Susanne --> Susanna

Name detective part II: 1890s, 2005

Sep 14th 2006

Last week I showed some graphs of historical baby names of the 1890s. Babies named Dewey honored Admiral George Dewey, a hero of the Spanish-American War. Spurgeon memorialized the 1892 death of Charles Spurgeon, a hugely popular British Baptist preacher who built the first "megachurch." And the baby Columbias reflected the enormous impact of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, or World's Columbian Exposition. (Kudos to reader Alexandra, who pinned all of these down in no time.)

Dewey and Spurgeon in particular are classic homage names. That's a different impulse than a standard celebrity-inspired name. Angelina Jolie's son Maddox has inspired hundreds of baby Maddoxes, but are the children really "named after" him? More likely the name sold itself based on style. A genuine homage hame is all about honoring a public figure you admire, and style is an afterthought.

Homage names are rare birds today. Consider Dewey, which became a top-20 name for boys--and #305 for girls--after the Battle of Manila in 1898. Can you imagine a military leader of the current war inspiring such an outpouring? And then there's the name Hobart, which soared in the mid-1890s thanks to a vice-presidential candidate, Garrett Hobart. Americans of the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate era just don't do that sort of thing. We don't even honor our presidents with names now until they're safely out of office, legacy intact.

Yet 2005 did see the rise of one heartfelt homage name. As with Charles Spurgeon in 1892, last year marked the death of a revered religious leader. Karol Józef Wojtyła of Poland was inaugurated as Pope John Paul II in October, 1978. From that point Johnpaul became a name of religious tribute, as well as of ethnic pride for some families of Polish descent. (In the Massachusetts of my childhood, the pope formed a powerful one-two punch in Polish neighborhoods with Red Sox great Carl Yastrzemski. One bumper sticker read: "World's Greatest Three: Pope, Yaz and Me.") The year 1979, immediately following the inauguration, was a high-water mark for young American Johnpauls. In 1981, the pope was seriously wounded in an assassination attempt. After his recovery he reigned for more than two decades, becoming one of the most influential and beloved popes of modern times. He death on April 2, 2005 was marked by mourning around the world.

Or to put it another way:

A note: the real dropoff after 1988 probably wasn't quite so sudden, but the name did fall solidly below top-1000 levels and stayed that way until the pope's death, when it resurged.

It wasn't just parents of boys who marked John Paul II's passing. After 38 straight years off the charts, Karol reappeared as a top-1000 name for girls in 2005. We may no longer honor soldiers, but faith can still trump style.