A name can reflect a year in many ways, from politics, to commerce, to the arts, to the more familiar arena of pure name style. This year's first honoree -- the name most nominated by readers -- is a style phenomenon:
The name Pippa captured the year through the unlikely avenue of a maid of honor.
In April, RAF Lieutenant William Wales wed Catherine Middleton. Perhaps you heard? The royal wedding was viewed by millions around the globe. Wedding gown designers in particular watched raptly, poised to knock out quick replicas of Kate's sure-to-be-influential gown. Before their eyes, their work was doubled. The white, silken maid of honor dress worn by the bride's younger sister turned out to be the talk of the town, with replicas in high demand.
Similarly, that sister's name, Pippa (short for Philippa), sent out bigger style shock waves than Kate or Catherine. You'd be hard pressed to find an English speaker who wasn't already familiar with the name Kate. It's a core English classic, and in the U.K. it's ubiqutious among women Ms. Middleton's age. In the U.S. Kate surged in the mid-'80s and again in the mid-2000s. But Pippa? Pippa was pure freshness, especially outside of England.
An American girl was more likely to be named, say, Cherokee or Zykeria than Pippa or Philippa. Philippa was cherished by name enthusiasts for its pairing of dignified formal name and kicky nickname, but it was totally off the radar of the general American public. If you said your daughter's name was Pippa, you were more likely to hear "Oh, like Pippi Longstocking?" than "Oh, short for Philippa?"
Not anymore. Pippa Middleton has officially introduced the name to the world. (Or at least to its female inhabitants. It's worth noting the male voice or two in the nomination process that responded to the votes for Pippa with a resounding "huh?") This year, Pippa entered into the naming discussion of many parents who had barely heard of the name a year ago. Pippa also took steps toward emancipating itself from dignified Philippa and standing alone, in all its cuteness.
As cute as Pippa is, it's not overly cutesy -- even to cute-averse Americans. That makes it a perfect ambassador for British name style, a point of mutual understanding halfway between the British favorite Poppy and the American smash Piper. We Yanks may never go for Alfie, but Pippa is the kind of Brit-cute we can get on board with.
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With all best wishes of the season,
Quick quiz: which of the eight major Republican presidential candidates go by their full first names on the campaign trail?
There are just three out of those eight, a sign of the times. Politics today is increasingly a land of self-applied names of choice. That choice invariably pushes the name toward the brief and informal, encouraging a friendly, likeable, man-of-the-people image. So even as more and more parents insist that their little James be called James, candidates named James introduce themselves as Jim...or even Rick, in the case of James Richard Perry. (There's a freebie for you.)
Looking back over broadly contested Republican primaries, the decline of the birth certificate name has been swift and certain. In 1968, all of the candidates campaigned under their full first names. In 1980 it was down to 5 out of 7. Since then short nicknames have dominated, with the sole exception of 2000 when the main candidates happened to have one-syllable given names (George Bush and John McCain).
This year's birth-name three are Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain and Jon Huntsman. Why did those three buck the trend? Well, Michele Bachmann can't easily go for the "man of the people" bit, not being a man. Michele makes a pretty good political everywoman name, too. Herman Cain's name just doesn't have a handy, back-slapping nickname, and he has no middle name to turn to. Jon Huntsman was spared the need for a nickname, since he has a nickname for a given name.
Among the others we see three brief, snappy nicknames; one middle name that's a brief, snappy nickname; and one brief, snappy nickname of a middle name. Spot any trend there?
The middle namer is Mitt Romney, born Willard Mitt Romney. The name Mitt was taken from the nickname of Romney's father's cousin, football player Milton Romney. The first name Willard was in honor of his father's friend Willard Marriott, founder of the Marriott hotel chain. (Of course, Willard Marriott himself was actually John Willard Marriott.)
Romney's public name is part of a long naming tradition in American politics. Many prominent candidates have gone by middle names which were not traditional given names, instead of more familiar first names. James Strom Thurmond and Thomas Woodrow Wilson are two examples. And Mitt is clearly more campaign friendly than Willard. If Romney did go by his first name, you can bet it would be in the form Will (just like actor/rapper Willard Smith).
In sum, smart money says the eventual Republican nominee will run under a one-syllable name. The leaders in most polls, Mitt and Newt, are a particularly quirky pair of names. Mitt/Newt vs. Barack would be the least traditional name showdown in American presidential history, easily surpassing Dwight vs. Adlai (1952/56) and Ulysses vs. Horatio (1868).
The splendid flamboyance of that last pair can't help but make the current era -- epitomized by Bill vs. Bob in 1996 -- seem a little drab. But take heart, the electoral generation of Krystopher and Tiffanie is right around the corner.