Authentic Ethnic Names, Baked Fresh Every Day!

Aug 13th 2009

Does your family have Scandinavian roots?  Would you like to honor that tradition with your daughter's name?  Here's a great choice to consider:


Ronja is a literary name, the heroine of a novel by a revered Swedish author.  The book and name are both well-known and well-loved throughout Scandinavia; the name is a current top-100 hit in most of the region.  Ronja is the local spelling, Ronia the standard English equivalent.

That's a rock-solid ethnic name, right?  A name distinctive to Scandinavia, with meaningful cultural/literary origins.  Now: does it matter when that literary origin took place?

The book in question is Ronja Rövardotter (Ronia the Robber's Daughter) by children's writer Astrid Lindgren, author of the Pippi Longstocking books.  (Regular readers may recognize this book as the source of another name I described recently, Birk.) Ronja was published in 1981, and a 1984 film version was a huge regional hit.  So the name is the product of one woman's imagination, less than 30 years ago. Doesn't that make it a modern, invented name instead of an authentically ethnic one?

Perhaps the answer is that it's both, modern and "authentic."  After all, the name Wendy was created by J.M.Barrie in Peter Pan. Vanessa was dreamed up by Jonathan Swift for Cadenus and Vanessa.  Great authors enrich their cultures with names as well as ideas, and that's every bit as authentic a process today as in centuries past.

If you look closely, you can see contemporary, authentic names being created all the time. For example, saoirse is the Gaelic word for freedom.  Patriotic Irish parents started using the word as a name in the 20th Century, and it's today it's the 29th most popular girl's name in Ireland.  It's not a traditional given name, but a truly and purely Irish one.

Does it mean anything, then, to talk about "real" or "authentic" names from a particular culture if new authentic names can be created every day?  I think it does mean something.  It means...that it means something.  That the name has cultural meaning and resonance beyond an individual family's choice.  A beloved book by a local literary icon or a term from a cherished linguistic heritage is an emblem of shared meaning, part of an ethnic identity that binds a people together.

In contrast, a baby name invented by one family is about individual rather than collective meaning.  Even if that name grows into broader popularity, it doesn't have the same hold on a culture's shared sense of self and community...for a while, at least.  Individual inventions have to prove themselves.  If an unrooted name manages to stick around long enough, it can create its own roots in the culture in the form of the generations of people who live their lives with that name.  Eventually, its origins may cease to matter.  After all, how many of us hear Vanessa today and think Jonathan Swift, or hear Cheryl and think "creative made-up name?"

Name analogies

Aug 6th 2009

Want to play a game?

Recently on Twitter, I pointed to a new name that a user added to Namipedia: Narelle. The submitter explained that it's a mainstream Australian women's name that was popular in the 1960s-'70s. A quick web search confirmed this. My description for non-Aussie readers was, "Think Michelle, but only for Australians."

An Australian reader agreed that she thinks of the two names as similar, so the analogy worked. And -- name geek time -- it was fun to think up. What other kinds of name analogies can we make?

How about time? Perhaps Riley = Kelly + 30 years. Or Messiah is to 2009 as General was to 1880? Try nicknames. Bob is to Rob as Bill is to Will. (Now try to work in Liam.) Or stylistic relationships, like Lacey is to Lindsey as Mckenna is to Mckenzie.

Better yet, pose them as puzzles. Mickey is to Brady as Debbie is to...?  That one's tougher than it looks, a little nameteaser to keep you up late on a lazy summer evening. Post some of your own, and I'll play along!

Followup: Weeding the Namipedia garden

Aug 4th 2009

Thank you to everyone who took the time to think about the care and feeding of Namipedia. The top messages I took away were that better searching and browsing tools will help...and that defining worthwhile names is HARD. You all made good arguments for and against invented names, foreign names, fictional names and more. So I'm thinking it's time to simplify. How about this?

Any user-submitted name page can stay in Namipedia if there's a good reason for other users to be interested in it.

If it's likely to appeal to contemporary parents seeking a baby name, that counts. So submissions like Skylie and Reeve stay.

If it has a significant historical or global usage history, that counts. So submissions like Freelove and Veslemøy stay.

If it's linked to a notable historical or cultural figure or newsmaker, that counts. So submissions like Cotton and Karch stay.

If it appears in a popular book or movie so that readers/viewers will want to learn more about it, that counts. So submissions like Samwise and Caillou stay.

If the submitter provides compelling supporting information so that we can come away from the name page feeling enlightened, that counts. So submissions like Corisande and Iorwerth stay.

Other good reasons may come up as well. But if we can't pinpoint any solid reason why a name page should be of interest to other people, then it goes. Most importantly, just knowing -- or even being -- someone with that name is not enough. You'd be surprised how many submissions this rules out. And as always, borderline cases go to the Baby Name Jury!

p.s. those of you who offered to help with the editing, drop me a line!