A Future of Disposable Names?

Aug 30th 2010

Way back in 2005, I wrote about the role of names in online privacy. My focus was on how the trend toward unique baby names left children's lives more traceable. Parents want their kids to stand out, I suggested, not considering the downside of being so identifiable: "No new parent ever dreams of the future and thinks, 'I want to make sure my child will be able to hide his tracks!'"

A lot has changed in the past five years. As social networking makes more and more personal aspects of life searchable, parents are starting to think about covering tracks. It's also becoming clear that we all have plenty to hide -- that "even innocuous aspects of your life can be personal, and over the long run you might not want everyone you meet to be able to learn about them with a single click."

But the role of names in privacy hasn't grabbed much attention, until now. The Wall Street Journal recently reported a startling suggestion from Google CEO Eric Schmidt that one long-term response to privacy concerns may lie in names:

"He predicts, apparently seriously, that every young person one day will be entitled automatically to change his or her name on reaching adulthood in order to disown youthful hijinks stored on their friends' social media sites."

Abandoning our names to prevent privacy violations? What's next, abandoning our possessions to prevent theft?

Yes, our legal system does give some "teflon" status to minors, such as allowing them to void contracts and deleting youth offenses from criminal records. But you don't get a total life do-over at 18. Your youthful grades, for instance, still count. You're still you.

Names and selves are inextricably linked in our history, our language, and our psyches. Your name is synonymous with your reputation and your character, as well as your identity. Think of "clearing your name," or the Biblical proverb that "A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches."

Names link us not just to our personal past, but to family and cultural traditions, too. The United Nations even recognizes forced renaming as a human rights abuse. In sum, names aren't throwaways. A name change is a meaningful life event: a shift in our private and public identities, not just a convenient way to avoid ugly prom pictures.

Yet while the suggestion of disposable names may be absurd, at least it shows that people are thinking about the role of names in privacy. Facebook and its kin have turned our real names into user names. That changes the whole landscape of online identity: "defending your good name" is now a very literal objective. Some individuals have taken to obfuscation, trying to disguise their online selves, but that can only go so far. We're all going to need new strategies to protect our good names, not erase them.

The NameMapper Has Been Updated!

Aug 19th 2010

We've updated our U.S. NameMapper with the most current state-by-state name popularity data. Try typing in Miley to see amazing year to year volatility, or Jeffrey to watch a long-time favorite disappear.

If you haven't dug into the NameMapper before, you might be surprised how many tales it has to tell. Beyond the maps (don't forget to try "super multi map"!), click on the Timeline tab at the top for an incredible social portrait of names. That single screen shows you a nationwide 50-year story. The starting view is by name regions -- the powerful social/style regions, rather than pure geography. You can also sort by demographic factors to get different takes on a name's place in society.

(One tip: certain browser versions have an odd bug where you have to hold down the mouse button down and move the mouse a little to click on the buttons in the NameMapper. As bugs go, it's oddly charming -- like a digital-age throwback to jiggling the handle on a toilet.)

Happy mapping!

The Name That Reaches Across Time

Aug 12th 2010

A thriving subgenre of kids' literature brings the supernatural past into the present. Powerful forces from ancient Greek and Egyptian mythology roar into the modern world, with only resourceful tweens to stop them. Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson leads this literary pack, but Percy ( Perseus) has plenty of company. Consider these synposes of two recent young adult novels:

In England, 1906, the daughter of archaelogists discovers that ancient curses still cling to Egyptian artifacts. She finds herself embroiled in a dangerous web of intrigue, fighting German operatives who want to use the ancient Egyptian powers against England.

In England, 1938, an orphaned sister and brother stumble on the 3,000-year-old prophecy of a Greek oracle. The threat it foretells reaches into their world -- via Nazi Germany -- and they find themselves embroiled in a desperate adventure against ancient demons.

The shared DNA of the two books is clear, but one element they share is particularly unlikely. The girls in both stories are named Theodosia.

I can't imagine that either author was pleased to find the quirky, distinctive name she chose popping up so close by. It's like a creative-naming mom learning that her son has to go by "Zephyr W." in his preschool class.

What is it about Theodosia that drew both writers in? The name is a very old one, carried forward in Greek and Slavic traditions by an 8th-century saint. Theodosia has never been a common English name, but like other names with classical origins saw some usage in the 18th and 19th Centuries.

The heroine of the first book described above, Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos, would have been born in the mid 1890s. The name is plausible for that period, but far from common. Birth records from 1890s England show that for every Theodosia born there were 4 Theodoras, 11 Dorotheas and 450 Dorothys. By the late '20s, when the second Theodosia of Oracles of Delphi Keep would have been born, England's Dorothy-to-Theodosia ratio was up to 4,500 to 1. So we can safely rule out period flavor as the explanation for the double-dip naming.

As usual, the real naming story probably comes down to style. For their tales, the authors wanted a name that would come across to modern readers as:

- Old and mysterious;
- Smart and scholarly;
- Vaguely British (both authors are American) and sophisticated.

Theodosia's classical roots, scholarly revival, and simple rarity accomplish a lot of these these tasks. It may help, too, that the best known Theodosia was a genuine intellectual prodigy. Theodosia Burr Alston, the daughter of U.S. Vice President and dueler Aaron Burr, had an extraordinary education for a girl of her time and the talent to take full advantage. (OK, there is actually one better-known Theodosia, but silent film vamp Theodosia Goodman went exclusively by her stage name, Theda Bara.)

What other name could serve all of the authors' purposes? Only 26 girls' names made the "Classical Style" list in the Baby Name Wizard book. Of those, most are too romantic (Liviana), exotic (Xanthe), familiar (Lydia), non-English-sounding (Severina), etc. The best fits for our intrepid young English adventurers are Cornelia, Octavia, and...Theodosia. So perhaps the coincidence isn't so unlikely after all.