I often hear from readers about odd names they've come across. But seldom about odd fictional names.
As a rule, the most perfectly named people on Earth are fictional people. They have an unfair advantage, acquiring their names as fully formed adults with complete personalities and life stories. Whether mundane or fantastical, fictional names usually fit their characters so seamlessly you never even pause to consider why they were chosen.
But one current example is anything but seamless, as readers have been telling me. It's "Mackenzie Allen," the female U.S. president played by Geena Davis on the TV series "Commander in Chief." For a young girl, Mackenzie is a perfectly likely and fashionable name. But President Allen, at a fictional 45 years of age, is a good generation older than any real female Mackenzie...save one.
In November 1959, John Phillips named his new daughter Mackenzie after friend and fellow musician Scott McKenzie ("If you're going to San Francisco..."). Phillips later hit the big time with The Mamas and the Papas, but back in '59 he was still a little-known New York folk singer, not a name-fashion maker. The name Mackenzie wasn't launched into public circulation until 1975, when teenaged Mackenzie Phillips starred in the sitcom "One Day at a Time." Her name's popularity climbed slowly but steadily until the 1990s, when it really started to soar.
So the president Mackenzie doesn't ring true, and it makes you stop and ponder what the writers were reaching for with that choice of name. Some commentators have suggested a plot to boost a presidential run by one particular real-life woman. James Dobson, for instance, claimed that Mackenzie Allen "sounds remarkably, poetically like" Hillary Clinton. But that's some sketchy poetry--Mackenzie and Hillary are far apart in sound and style. (Besides, if you wanted to conjure up images of Hillary would you cast Geena Davis?)
The real key, I presume, is androgyny. "Commander in Chief" has roots in creator Rod Lurie's earlier film The Contender, about a female V.P. candidate. Her name was "Laine Hanson," another surname conversion with a masculine edge. Lurie's other female characters have conventially feminine names like Cynthia, Rebecca, and Amy. But it seems that when he wants to conjure up a woman who sounds strong, sounds like a leader...he makes her sound like a guy.
He's hardly alone in this quirk. Consider Alien-fighter Ripley, C.J. Cregg of "The West Wing," Dana Scully of "X Files," Murphy Brown, even "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman," otherwise known as Dr. Mike. When Hollywood wants to signal that a female character is tough and an authority figure, the quick shorthand is to give her an androgynous name. The real world may give us Margaret (Thatcher), Madeleine (Albright) and Condoleezza (Rice), but TV gives us Mackenzie.
The whole point of "Commander in Chief" is that the president is a woman. Mature, responsible, mother of teenagers, ruler of the free world. How curious, then, to give her a name so agressively coltish. Imagine for a moment the same character with a more realistically womanly name...say Dianne, or Susan, or Elizabeth (all names of current senators). Doesn't the whole scenario suddenly seem more real? But perhaps, in a political fantasy, it doesn't pay to get too close to reality.
The most common question about names is "what makes a name become popular"? (Actually that might be the third most common question, after "did you hear about the twins Oranjello and Lemonjello" and "what's up with Apple???," but indulge me anyway.) Today, for a change of pace, let's turn the question on its head. What makes a name unpopular? Why do we hear Myrtle and Gertrude and instantly say "no way"?
If you want a single rule of thumb for designing a 21st-century name, it's to make sure the consonants don't touch. Look at the middle of Myrtle, Mildred and Gertrude and you'll find three consonant sounds clustered together. Those tongue-challenging clusters were perfectly fashionable back in the 1890s, but today they're a rare breed. From Madison to Olivia, Emily to Alexis, we're sending our consonants out solo.
Can a single pair of sounds really be enough to sink a name? Right now yes, especially if the pair is heavy on the soft voiced letters L, M, N, R and W. (For all you linguists, that's the "liquids," "glides" and "nasals.")
Take a look at the usage of L* pairs:
And when you pair two of the demon sounds together, the effect is even stronger. It's fertile ground for the kind of names that are exclusively comic relief today: Merwin, Delmer, Durward.
So what is the single least fashionable sound of the moment? It's not enough for it to be unusual. It must be fallen from a great height, a once-common sound now relegated to the fashion cellar. There are many fine candidates, from FL at the start of names (Floyd) to RV in the center (Orville). But the nod goes to LM in the middle:
The only LM-centered name that stands much of a chance today is Alma, which clears out all other consonants from the vicinity. By the same token, Elden sounds more viable than Eldred, Flora more current than Florence. If you're using a consonant cluster today, you have to give it room to breathe.
After writing about country names and city names last week, I fielded a flood of requests for a "red-blue" analysis. For those of you not immersed in American politics, charting red vs. blue has become something of a national pastime since the 2004 presidential election. Just take a U.S. map, shade the areas favoring the Republican party in red, the Democratic party in blue...and a glance at the map will show you that politics isn't the only thing dividing those regions.
The Red states cut a vast swath through the middle of the country, occupying the majority of the geographic territory. The Blue states tend to be concentrated on the coasts, including major urban centers. Blue-staters are more likely to have college degrees and six-figure incomes, but red-staters have a much lower cost of living. And on it goes.
So naturally, the red and blue regions differ in their naming choices, too. The differences actually represent several underlying name cultures (look for a full U.S. naming map here soon), but some broad patterns emerge. I've tallied up a dozen of the reddest and bluest names in America--names with the biggest popularity gap between the top Republican states and the top Democratic states. First, the girls:BLUE GIRLSRED GIRLSIsabellaHannahKaylaAlexisSophiaHaileyAshleyAbigailSarahAlyssaJuliaLaurenSamanthaTaylorOliviaElizabethJessicaEmilyLilyChloeKatherineAnnaCarolineEmma
Some of the differences reflect the racial diversity of blue states like California and New York. Kayla, for instance, owes its ranking largely to African-American and Latino families. (It's the #1 name for black girls in New York City.) Latino and Asian parents, meanwhile, tend to favor the girls' names that dominated the '80s, like Ashley and Jessica. White blue-state families (or is that blue white-state families?) lean heavily toward gentle antiques like Olivia, Lily and Caroline.
The red girls' list leads with Hannah, an Old Testament/Hebrew Bible name that was seldom heard until the '90s. (It's worth noting here that Hannah, like many of the names on the list, is popular in blue states too--but it averages #13 in blue, #5 in red.) The red list also features several names that started out as male names (Alexis) or surnames (Hailey, Taylor) and have emerged suddenly as girls' hits. Keep those two themes in mind as you look at the boys:BLUE BOYSRED BOYSRyanEthanNicholasLoganAnthonyTylerMatthewSamuelDanielJacobChristopherHunterJohnJamesJosephAustinMichaelJacksonNoahNathanAlexanderIsaacKevinGabriel
The red boys' list is a marvel of consistency. Except for James, every name either is from the Old Testament or is a common surname. It's notable that Republican voters are more likely to strongly identify themselves as Christians, yet the strongly Christian-identified names--John, Christopher, Matthew--are stacked on the Democratic side. (Even the name Christian leans blue.)
Overall, the blue boys are varied in origin but steady and traditional. Unlike the blue girls, the boys' names are used relatively evenly across races. And unlike the red boys, almost all of the blue boys' names were as common 30 years ago as they are today.
The strength of tradition seems to be biggest theme dividing red and blue names. Red staters are more prone to neologize--to create new names from surnames (Tanner), place names (Brooklyn), or simply appealing sounds (Kaden). Blue staters are more likely to stick to traditional naming stock. Even when they seek fresh territory, it's among traditional first names: antiques (Ava) or foreign imports (Gianna). In other words, the political conservatives turn out to be the naming activists, and the political progressives are the naming conservatives.