Of Names and Politics: The Palin Story

Sep 3rd 2008

It's an unprecedented event in American political history.  Never before has a vice-presidential selection caused such a stir, such a surprise...with her children's names.

In fact, no naming event has ever filled my inbox with as many reader queries as the unveiling of Sarah Palin--mom to Track, Bristol, Willow, Piper and Trig--as John McCain's running mate.  "Any comment?"  "I've never heard Trig as a name for anything but a math class."  "Is this 'an Alaska thing'?'"

In a way, yes, it is "an Alaska thing."  If you had nothing to go on but the baby names and had to guess about who the parents were, you'd guess that that they lived in an idiosyncratic, sparsely populated region of the country...and that they were conservative Republicans.

When I divided the U.S. map into name style regions, Alaska was a mix of two styles: Frontier and Creative Fringe.  Frontier naming regions include the Mountain West and the Appalachians.  The typical Creative Fringe state is a world unto itself in history and culture, like Hawaii or Utah.  Alaska is a natural blend of the two.

Frontier names, especially for girls, lean toward nature names and androgynous surnames/place names.  That would cover Bristol, Willow and Piper.  Creative Fringe names include new word-based names, elaborate, romantic names, and well, the creative fringe.  Neologisms are rampant, from Nevaeh to Track.

But there's more.  One reader noted, "Palin is an evangelical Christian, yet there is not a biblical name in the bunch."  It's a telling observation.

For the past two decades, a core set of "cultural conservative" opinions has served as a theoretical dividing line between "red" (Republican/conservative) and "blue" (Democratic/liberal) America.  These incude attitudes toward sex roles, the centrality of Christianity in culture, and a social traditionalism focused on patriotism and the family.  If you were to translate that divide into baby names it might place a name like Peter—classic, Christian, masculine—on one side, staring down an androgynous pagan newcomer like Dakota on the other.  In fact, that does describe the political baby name divide quite accurately.  But it describes it backwards.

Characteristic blue state names: Angela, Catherine, Henry, Margaret, Mark, Patrick, Peter and Sophie.

Characteristic red state names: Addison, Ashlyn, Dakota, Gage, Peyton, Reagan, Rylee and Tanner.

Even when biblical names are trendy in conservative, Christian-focused communities, they're typically not the classic names of Christian tradition.  They're Old Testament names that summon up a pioneer style with an exotic flair, often with a modern spelling twist.  Names like Malachi, Levi and Kaleb are hot in Alaska, while names like John and Elizabeth rule in liberal Washington D.C.

Why is it the blue parents who name with red values?  Because in baby naming as in so many parts of life, style, not values, is the guiding light.  The most liberal and conservative parts of the country differ on key style-shaping variables, like income, education level, and the age when women marry and have children.  A community where the typical first-time mother is a 22-year-old high-school grad is going to have a very different style climate from the community where the typical new mom is a 28-year-old with a college degree.  When you factor in the creative-naming effect that comes with remote and ideosyncratic regions, you get a neo-naming explosion.

p.s. If you're interested in regional naming differences, look for much more here soon!

The new social order: A, B, C, D...

Aug 28th 2008

Turn back the clock with me:

You're in third grade.  Your class is lining up to head out to lunch, or to recess, or to the library to pick out a book.  Waiting is excruciating, and places in line are all-important.  Then your teacher tells you all not to shove, that the order will be...alphabetical.

If your name is Aaron, chances are that memory can still bring up a rosy glow of entitlement.  If you're a Zoe, you may still feel a bitter pang of resentment at the injustice of alphabet tyranny.  But it's all just a memory, right?  As the grade school years fade away behind us, we enter a world that's overwhelmingly first-come, first-served.  When was the last time you lined up by name, with perks awarded to the alphabetical elite?

I'll tell you when: the last time somebody called you from a cell phone.

Today, most of us walk around with an alphabetized social register in our pockets.  Depending on your lifestyle, your register may number a dozen names or a thousand.  It may be subdivided into personal and business, or home and school.  It may be grouped by letter, or even by name.  (An executive with a huge contact list recently complained to me about how long it takes to scroll through the "Michael" section of his PDA.)  But whatever the format, you probably find that certain names pass before your eyes again and again out of alphabetical happenstance.

Think about the potential significance of that kind of "personal product placement."  In the social realm, what's the chance you'll forget to call a friend whose name is in front of you several times a day?  If that friend gets similar prime placement on other friends' phones, it could lead to a real bump up in his social life.  When it comes to business contacts, the right name could translate to closer client relationships, more active networking, and fresh opportunities -- the principles of old-fashioned Yellow Pages placement applied to your own first name.

Suddenly, an Aaron Abbott's old lineup advantage looks bigger than ever.  At least until the next communications revolution.

The Call of the Wild A

Aug 22nd 2008

When it comes to baby name fashion, the last really are first.  Name endings carry a disproportionate power in a name's style and impact.  That's the secret behind Angelina Jolie's impact on baby names -- discussed here in our X & O roundup.

Today's baby name news tells a similar tale.  Baby name critics are preparing to pounce on the latest "weird" celebrity name: Zuma, born to musicians Gwen Stefani and Gavin Rossdale.  Yes, it's an extremely unusual name.  (Zuma is a famous Malibu beach, which gives the name a unique resonance to SoCal natives like Ms. Stefani.  Think of a surfer named Zuma, and the name might start to make more sense to you.)  But I suspect that the real key to the raised eyebrows isn't that the name is so uncommon; it's that Zuma is a boy.

English doesn't have gendered word endings -- in theory.  In practice, though, we hew to the Romance-language standard that marks -a as feminine and -o as masculine.  You see it in baby names, and even in product names.  We hear the underlying feminine/masculine stereotypes: an -a ending "softens" a name, while an -o makes it "energetic."

That's not to say we never cross the lines.  But usually, when it comes to gender-bending, we're more willing to make our girls boyish than our boys girlish.  Think of the title character of the film Juno.  The feminine -o was used to emphasic her individualistic strength.  The -o of Shiloh, similarly, made that name a celebrity style smash.

In fact, there are signs of life for boys ending in -a, too.  Joshua has become the most popular -a boy in American history, swamping the previous champion Ira.  Luca is another fast rising name (especially among Portuguese speakers -- it's a top-100 name in Rhode Island, with its huge Portuguese and Brazilian population.)  But they're still the exception, which means that -a names can still surprise.  The names that really point the way toward Zuma are two that, like Zuma, found their way to the nursery from non-traditional sources:

Dakota is one of the names for a large Sioux ethnic group from the Northern plains.  It became a popular American boy's name in the 1990s.

Koda is the name of an orphaned Alaskan bear cub in the 2003 animated film Brother Bear, and made a modest splash as a boy's name in 2004.  It was presumably inspired by the Kodiak bears of Alaska.

Names like Dakota, Koda and Zuma are very deliberate steps away from European naming traditions.  Their style depends on an image of rugged, wild freedom.  The easiest way to shed centuries of Western Civilization is to choose the ending that most defies that tradition: the masculine a.