Vampire Chic: The Names of Twilight

Nov 18th 2009

Nothing has greater potential to move baby name style than a teen/tween craze. Just think, thanks to Harry Potter a whole generation on the cusp of procreation now sees Hermione as brainy and Luna as looney. Yet the Hogwarts crew has been limited in its baby name impact, because author J.K. Rowling wasn't targeting fashion with her names. Like Charles Dickens, Rowling crafted eccentric character names for mood, meaning and laughs.

Rowling's successor atop the children's best seller lists has chosen a more fashion-forward path. That makes Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series a potential earthshaker in the baby name landscape.

If you've somehow managed to miss the Twilight phenomenon, it sets up as your classic girl-meets-vampire moon-crossed romance. Your leading lady is Bella, the most symbolic name in the series. It connects to the Beauty and the Beast tradition (La Belle et la Bête), adjusted for 21st-century teenager style. Bella's undead beau is Edward, lending a new edge to that neglected classic. Other characters come in handy name groups: ordinary teenagers named Mike, Lauren and Jessica; dads named Charlie and Billy. But the real naming clout of the series belongs to the supporting vampires.

Meet Edward Cullen's family: Alice, Carlisle, Esme, Emmett, Jasper, and Rosalie. They're not blood relatives, at least not in the traditional sense. They're a close-knit undead clan, with birth dates ranging from the 1640s (Carlisle) to 1935 (Emmett).

Some of the names are more historically plausible than others. Carlisle is unlikely for a 17th-century Englishman, while an Alice would have sounded natural in Biloxi, Mississippi in 1901. They all do have some striking features in common, though. Note their vowel-heavy sounds, more typical of the 21st Century than the 19th. Note also that none of the names ranked among the 400 most popular for boys or girls in 2005, the year that both Twilight and The Baby Name Wizard were first published.

Here are quotes on some of the Cullen family names from that first edition of BNW: "Name watchers report increased sightings of this rare bird among the literary and artistic elite." "Has the kind of mischievous charm that makes all the girls swoon." "Expect to see the name come back first in the tony urban neighborhoods where Lucy and Henry are hits."

As a group, these vampiric names defined cutting-edge urban/artsy style. They were selected to set the family apart from their supposed high school peers. The names helped make the Cullens both alluring and intimidating, a scary, sophisticated clique impenetrable to kids with names like Mike and Jessica.

Since 2005 the names Alice, Emmett and Jasper have all risen significantly in popularity. Esme and Rosalie are poised to crack the top 1000 for 2009, Rosalie for the first time in decades and Esme for the first time ever. In part, this doubtless reflects the influence of the books themselves. But as always, the name matters more than the fame. Stephenie Meyer chose those names to be so cool that they would sparkle in the sunlight, and live forever.

Nominations, please: The 2009 Name of the Year

Nov 11th 2009

Each year, the Baby Name Wizard community looks back at the names that shaped -- and were shaped by -- the year that was.

A Name of the Year nominee can represent a social shift (Barack in 2007) or a stylistic one (Shiloh '06). It can dominate headlines (Katrina '05) or slip subtly into the cultural jetstream (Chuck '07). From babies (Shiloh) to Vampires (Cullen '08) to presidential politics (Joe '08), the competition is open to names from every corner of our culture. Whatever the Name of the Year's origins it should be a miniature time capsule, capturing some part of the zeitgeist in a single name.

Please post your nominations here in comments, and feel free to second others. Criteria for the final choice will include:

- A dramatic change in the name's usage or social meaning

- A reflection of a broader cultural theme, or influence on broader style trends

- Your votes (frequency of nominations, and compelling arguments)

 Happy nominating! Look for the official Name of the Year announcement in December.

Read about past Names of the Year:

2008 Name of the Year
2007 Name of the Year
2006 Name of the Year


Composing a series of names

Nov 5th 2009

Today's baby naming thought of the day comes courtesy of my eight year old daughter. Hearing me comment that each name you choose affects future sibling names, the name-wizard-in-training chimed in with a provocative literary analogy. She pointed me to this quote about writing a book series, from "Paddington Bear" creator Michael Bond's introduction to his Paddington Treasury:

"In the case of a series, the first book is always the easiest; you go wherever your fancy takes you, the world is your oyster. But, and it is a big but, you also set parameters for all the ones that follow."

Setting parameters for the ones that follow. Doesn't your first name choice do just that? Your first baby -- like a totally new book -- is a whole world unto itself. You choose from a vast, unformed universe of options, then that choice defines a space. The space may be stylistic. The name Margaret, for instance, sets you down in the realm of English classics. In other case the space may be shaped by family ties, or by ethnic or religious connections, or by a name's eye-popping uniqueness. The space each name defines also includes some closed doors. Choosing Iva closes the door to Ivy, and Lewis shuts down the passage to Clark.

But again like a book series, future family additions (editions?) can cast a new light on the names that came before them. Michaela looks different with a sister named Eleanor vs. a Braeleigh. A dramatic shift in style can highlight the individuality of each element, or simply jar people with the curious contrast. (Anybody read The Starlight Barking, the surreal sequel to Dodie Smith's classic 101 Dalmations?) And the series as a whole has a meaning and texture beyond the individual stories it comprises.

The challenge, always, is to make each volume live up to the original. Many parents who fall head over heels for their first baby's name find it hard to duplicate that magic. It's the name version of the classic parental anxiety: "How can I love another child as much?" Let's hear Michael Bond's take:

"It's like making a cake. If all the right ingredients are assembled in the correct proportions, and if they are mixed together in the right order, then baked for just the right amount of time, the result can be rewarding. Repeating the success, recapturing the freshness of the original, is something else again and can often take much, much longer."