To nickname or not to nickname

Oct 26th 2007

"What's up with the nicknames? Why not name your child what you are going to call them?"
- blog comment

I usually try to avoid taking sides in the great name debates. Traditional vs. creative, popular vs. unusual...there are valid arguments and stylish names on all sides. But when it comes to nicknames vs. full names on a birth certificate, I'm getting off the fence.

All else being equal, go with the full formal version.

"Why not name your child what you are going to call them?" For the same reasons that you have more than one kind of outfit in your closet. Different styles suit different occasions.

Many parents put formal names on birth certificates knowing full well that they won't call their child by that name. We all know plenty of them -- the Deborahs called Debbie, the Josephs called JoJo. Picture JoJo's parents way back when, reveling in the fun-loving nickname for their lively little boy. Now, 30 years later, JoJo's family and childhood friends may still call him that. But ask the folks who know him as an adult and they'll tell you they can't even imagine him as a JoJo. By the time he entered the working world he was introducing himself by the name on his resume, Joseph. He's hardly alone in wearing his full name like a suit and tie. Ever see Marty Scorsese or Chuck Heston listed in film credits? Martin and Charlton were deemed more suitable for the occasion.

So what happens to JoJo once Joseph takes over? With any luck the nickname lives on with a special status, as a mark of intimacy or long-standing relationships. When I was little I always loved hearing older relatives call my mother Ruth, "Ruthie." The nickname showed they'd been with her since she was a kid like me; it was a name that was always spoken with love. Some people even go through multiple nicknames at different life stages. Our Joseph may be a JoJo with his family, Joe with the college buddies, and Joseph as an adult professional. None of the names is right or wrong. Each one is a precious part of a life story and identity.

Is there a downside to choosing a formal version? Suppose, say, an Elizabeth wants stay Libby exclusively. That's seldom a problem. People are happy to call you whatever you call yourself. But suppose that Libby doesn't want what her parents want. Aha. This, I think, is the crux of the matter. "I want Libby on the birth certificate, otherwise she might decide she doesn't like it and wants to call herself Elizabeth instead!" May I gently suggest that is an argument in favor of full names, not against them? It's her name, not yours. If she ultimately decides that your preferred nickname doesn't fit -- or simply doesn't fit the occasion -- she'll be glad you left that choice in her hands.

Now, the caveats. Plenty of nicknames have become so well established as given names that they've earned their independence. Molly, Drew, Eliza and Jack are just a few of the many examples. Further, I wouldn't dream of telling parents to choose a name they actively dislike. If you love Libby but loathe Elizabeth, do what you've got to do. But if you're on the fence, I say err on the side of flexibility. An Elizabeth can always be Libby "for short," but a Libby can't be Elizabeth "for long."

The One-Hit Wonder Timeline

Oct 12th 2007

In this final installment of "one-hit wonder names" (see parts, 1, 2 and 3) we take a names-eye-view tour through history.

Baby names act as a cultural mirror, reflecting the mood and obsessions of every age. Sometimes it's a whole style, like the girls given boyish names (Frankie, Tommie) in the 1930s. Sometimes it's personality driven, like the Shirley surge in that same decade. And sometimes a specific historical moment is memorialized in names. The one-hit wonder names are a treasure trove of these cultural moments. Some of the moments were momentous, others pop-culture trifles. A few were completely unknown to me until the names themselves led me to them, and a few frankly shocked me as name inspirations. Check them out yourself in this arbitrary, capricious One-Hit Timeline of History.

1895: Trilby
George du Maurier's novel Trilby, first published serially in 1894, was a popular sensation. Filled with romance, horror, plucky heroes and supernatural villainry, Trilby became one of the most popular books (and later plays) of its time. The novel's longest-lasting contribution to our language comes from its villain, the all-powerful Jewish hypnotist Svengali, but during the book's heyday the beautiful Irish heroine Trilby made her naming mark as well.

1898: Gladstone
William Ewart Gladstone was one of the leading political forces of 19th-century England, serving several terms as Prime Minister between 1868 and 1894. The "gladstone bag" and "gladstone carriage" took their names from him. Gladstone died in 1898.

1898: Schley
The 1898 Battle of Santiago de Cuba was the largest naval engagement of the Spanish-American War. The destruction of the Spanish fleet was a milestone in the decline of Spanish influence in the Americas. The United States squadron was commanded, somewhat controversially, by Rear Admiral Winfield Scott Schley.

1900: Goebel

William J. Goebel was a controversial figure in Kentucky politics. Goebel was a populist, a foe of big business and an advocate of civil rights, and the consummate practitioner of machine politics. In 1895 he killed political adversary John Sanford in a duel, but plead self-defense and was acquitted. In 1899 he won a disputed election to become governor of Kentucky. On January 30, 1900 Goebel was shot in the chest by an assassin; the next day he was sworn in as governor; two days later he was dead. He remains the only U.S. state governor to be assassinated in office.

1918: Foch
Ferdinand Foch was a distinguished general of the French Army and Marshal of France. In the Spring of 1918 he was named Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, leading the international armies which turned back the last major German advance of WWI. Foch accepted Germany's surrender on November 11, 1918.

1954: Rahn
In 1954 the German soccer team was unseeded entering the World Cup tournament in Bern, Switzerland, the first World Cup they were permitted to compete in after World War II. In the finals against heavily favored Hungary, Germany trailed until Helmut Rahn scored both tying and winning goals. Rahn became a national sporting legend and the game came to be known as the "Miracle of Bern," a turning point in post-war German identity.

1964: Destry
The TV Western "Destry" which premiered in 1964 was a spinoff of the classic film Destry Rides Again. It didn't last a full season.

1972: Jabbar
In 1971 basketball great Lew Alcindor, who had led the Milwaukee Bucks and UCLA Bruins to championships, changed his name to the Arabic Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Kareem debuted on the popular name charts in 1972 at #407 and has become an African-American standard. Jabbar was propelled to popularity the same year but quickly faded.

1977: Amin
In 1976 Ugandan president Idi Amin allowed a hijacked airplane originating from Israel to land at the Entebbe airport. The event turned international attention toward his violent regime which was blamed for hundreds of thousands of deaths. By 1977, Amin was a global larger-than-life villain. As other nations broke off diplomatic ties he bestowed extravagant titles on himself and attracted a swirl of rumors of personal atrocities.

1977: Kunta, Kinte
The 1977 miniseries "Roots," based on the novel by Alex Haley, was a cultural phenomen. An overwhelming popular and critical success, "Roots" turned a generation of Americans--especially African-Americans--toward the study of geneology and family history, and helped encourage a trend toward African-styled baby names. The lead character, Kunta Kinte, was a Mandinka boy in Gambia who was kidnapped by slave traders and taken to America. Both Kunta and Kinte made the 1977 name charts.

More one-hit wonders: A world of meanings

Oct 5th 2007

It's time for another dip into the pool of one-hit wonders, names that ranked among the 1000 most popular in the United States for exactly one year, never to appear again.

But first, a quick note. After a recent installment of this one-hit series, a reader pointed me to another set of one-hit names on the website "Nancy's Baby Names." Who'd have guessed anybody else had been obsessive enough to run that data? (A tip of the cap to Nancy, the calculations are a royal pain!) Since different writers bring different angles to any story, I'm going to continue offering my take on this odd and intriguing set of names.

In a previous post I rounded up names based on familiar surnames, and some peaks and valleys of fashion potential. Today's focus is "meaning names" which take their impact from associations in the wide world outside of name dictionaries.

The one-hit wonder list includes dozens of common English words, as well as names of places and cultures. Meaning and place names are hot today, too, so some of the older one-hits seem to foreshadow contemporary trends. Take Indian tribal names, a hot trend of the 1990s when Dakota was a top-100 name for boys and Cheyenne a top-100 girl's name. Flash back 50 years and you discover that Cheyenne hit the boys' charts in 1957, when gunslinger Cheyenne Bodie roamed America's tv sets. ("Navajo" also pops up as a one-hit name from 1891. Judging from census records, that probably reflected actual Navajo Indians recorded with names like "Navajo Pete.")

Other meaning names highlight differences between past and present. For better or worse, we're no longer likely to name our sons Welcome, Jolly or Friend. A selection of one-hit meaning names (sex in parentheses):

The Happy
Bliss (M)
Constant (M)
Friend (M)
Jolly (M)
Lucky (M)
Welcome (M)

The Exalted
Fount (M)
Haven (M)
Omega (F)
Temple (F)
Worthy (M)

The Winners
Fleet (M)
Profit (M)
Speed (M)
Victory (F)
Wealthy (F)

The Ruling Class
Council (M)
Gentry (M)
Governer (M)

The Atlas
Alabama (F)
Ceylon (M)
Maryland (M)
North (M)
Vienna (F)

The Great Outdoors
Grove (M)
Maple (F)
Sable (F)
Swan (M)
Wing (M)

The Spice Rack
Cinnamon (F)
Pepper (F)
Spicy (F)

...and in the spirit of Cheyenne Bodie, some one-hit names of the cowpoke genre: