One last holiday leftover

Jan 2nd 2009

There was Holly and Ivy and Noëlle and Joy,
Merry and Carol, and Nick for a boy,
But do you recall
The least famous Christmas name of all?

During the holidays, I renewed my annual acquaintance with the name that represents the season best to me.  This name calls to mind generations of families around the world, celebrating with those little family-specific traditions that carry the most cherished memories. The name is Tammis.

The funny thing is, Tammis isn't part of any tradition of mine. In fact, I don't know much about the name, though I quite like it -- it's a female name, simple but chic and very uncommon.  The holiday link comes via a lovely household I visit each December.  One of the family-specific traditions in that home is an old Little Golden Book of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, laid beneath the tree each year.  And therein lies our tale.

This Golden Book was first published in 1958.  It was written by Barbara Shook Hazen, and illustrated by the great Richard Scarry.  I was raised on Scarry's Busytown books, which used cartoonish animal illustrations to present original stories from the practical (What Do People Do All Day) to the bizarre (The Talking Bread, Schtoompah the Funny Austrian.).  But before Busytown, Scarry spent years at Golden Books illustrating other writers' works in a more conventional picture-book style.  His drawings for "Rudolph" took the material totally straight, with one exception: names.

In a key scene, Santa holds a long scroll naming all the "good boys and girls" on his delivery list. Little John and Mary and Peter and, yes, Tammis are destined to be happy on Christmas morning. Here's the full lineup:


(You can see the original image, courtesy of a random flickr user.)

Every year I pore over the names, reading Tammis, Huck and Carlton and wondering about the real meaning of Santa's list.  It's not mentioned in the text of the story so I assume it was Scarry's own contribution, a shout-out to all the "good boys and girls" in his own life.  I like to imagine that Tammis could refer to Tammis Keefe, a great textile designer of the same period whose animal prints could have done a Golden Book proud. (Check out some of Keefe's handkerchiefs with crocodile, circus and exotic animal motifs.)

Whatever the real story behind the names, the list speaks across time.  It's a moment of connection, a glimpse of quirky humanity in an otherwise sanitized setting -- like a family tradition passed down to us from the Scarry household.  And Tammis is a pretty nifty name, too.  Maybe one to add to your own list of "good little girls"?


UPDATE: Since I posted this, readers have joined me hot on the trail of the elusive name Tammis.  Theories abound, but evidence seems to be mounting that its roots are in Celtic variants of Thomas, and that it can be used for boys and girls.  Close relatives are Tam (the Scottish version of Tom) and Tamsin (a Cornish contraction of Thomasina which is now widely used across the U.K.).  Thanks, everybody!

Top Five Biggest Baby Name Stories of 2008

Dec 24th 2008

Names are always the story here at the Baby Name Wizard blog.  If you listen closely enough, names are always whispering to us about what's going on in our culture and our world.  But from time to time, they speak loudly enough that the whole public sits up and listens.  Here's a coutdown of the five biggest name stories of the year, and some thoughts on what they really tell us.

5. Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii

The case of a New Zealand girl named Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii made headlines around the globe because of the sheer bizarreness of the name. Look closer at the details, though, and you see a case study of children's rights and the significance that society attaches to names.  "Talula" wasn't a baby; she was a nine-year-old petitioning the court system for redress of the naming misfortune her parents had subjected her to.  The Family Court Judge took the extraordinary action of placing the child in government custody solely for purposes of changing her first name.  The court determined that a name that sparked bullying or created significant social hurdles constituted child abuse.

4. Track, Bristol, Willow, Piper, Trig
I've said about all I can say about the Palin family names, but there's no question they deserve a spot on this list.  They represent a great national coming-out party for a new naming culture that will be shaping what we call one another for generations to come.

3. Happy Birthday, Adolf Hitler
A white-supremacist family in New Jersey was turned away from a supermarket bakery when they requested a customized birthday cake for their son named Adolf Hitler.  The parents expressed shock and dismay, yet they couldn't have been surprised: the same store had been denying their requests for cakes with similar messages for years.  Public outrage flew in all directions, but gradually settled on the abusive nature of giving an innocent baby a name that will provoke conflict and ostracism (see "Talula Does the Hula").  Another angle to ponder: using a child's name as a billboard to generate publicity for a cause.  How long until a parent successfully generates global media coverage by naming a baby "Vote No on Proposition 12"?

2. Bronx Mowgli, Zuma Nesta Rock
Devotees of "wacky" baby names had a bountiful harvest this year, with top media-feeding-frenzy honors going to young Bronx and Zuma.  I've written before that the supposed wackiness of Hollywood names is actually overblown. (Quick, name Jennifer Lopez's kids! Oops, they're not weird enough to remember.)  But the massive attention paid to these names is starting to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Think of it this way: you're a performer, and have spent your life pursuing the spotlight.  You know that you now have an opportunity to give your child instant global fame simply by giving her an unconventional name -- even if you're a B-lister yourself.  Why not give your kid an advantage you would have killed for at the start of your career?

1. Barack Hussein Obama
In the wake of Obama's landslide victory, reporters clamored to report on the wave of new babies sure to be named in his honor.  It's a risky sort of reportage, assuming a phenomenon exists and then searching for examples to confirm it.  Plenty of reporters called me for comment on the huge surge of little Baracks...then asked me if I could find one for them.  The Rocky Mountain News managed to find a single child given the middle name Barack and ran a full feature, only to discover that the father in question made the whole thing up.  ("I'm so sorry," the mother said. "My husband's an idiot.")

Yet a president-elect named Barack Obama really is a huge naming story, even if he never inspires a single namesake.  A president with a non-European name is as unprecedented as a president with non-white skin.  The name breaks the mold in a way that speaks profoundly to the many Americans with foreign or unusual names.

Happy New Year, Baby Name Nation!

The elusive "bad" name

Dec 18th 2008

Not long ago, an interviewer quizzed me on camera about whether there's such a thing as a "bad" name: one that would mess up a kid's life. He wanted examples.  Staring into the lens, I did my best to evade the topic, as I usually do.  It's serious business, telling some real-life kid that his name is horrific.  And yes, that includes children of celebrities, whose names are routinely put through the wringer of public scorn.  I do my best to keep Baby Name Wizard a scorn-free zone.

But are there limits? Can a name be so terrible that it violates fundamental societal standards and demands condemnation?  That question is raised by the big baby-naming story of the week.  In Southern New Jersey, a supermarket bakery refused to make a personalized birthday cake for a young boy solely because of his name.  To the outrage of the boy's parents, Heath and Deboarah Campbell, ShopRite determined that "Happy Birthday, Adolf Hitler!" was inappropriate to render in icing.  (The Campbells got their cake at Wal-Mart instead.)  The dispute made headlines around the world.

Question: what is remarkable about this story?  Is it that a three-year-old American child is named after Hitler? Frankly, I don't think so. In this nation of 300 million people you can find every point of view, including Nazi sympathizers. (While the parents insisted that "a name's a name" and they chose it just because "wanted their children to have unique names," their lifestyle, including another child named JoyceLynn Aryan Nation, makes the situation pretty clear.)  Then is the remarkable part that a store censored a birthday cake? Again, I think not. In fact, the same supermarket had turned down a previous order from the Campbells for a swastika cake.  To me, the most fascinating part of the story is that the parents seem to expect public sympathy for their birthday cake plight, on the grounds that names should be above censure.

Mrs. Campell complained to a local newspaper reporter that "ShopRite can't even make a cake for a 3-year-old. That's sad."  Mr. Campell said "Other kids get their cake. I get a hard time....It's not fair to my children." Both parents insisted they don't expect the names to cause their children any difficulties in life, saying "How can a name be offensive?"

Despite the Campbells' protestations, the mere fact of "namehood" doesn't magically render words inoffensive. If you named your"%#$@!," you'd have to be prepared to bake your own birthday cakes.  Similarly, the names Adolf Hitler and Aryan Nation aren't just names, they're declarations of contempt for broad swaths of your fellow citizens. So yes, they can be offensive. I'll go a step further and suggest that the names disturb us not merely because of the opinions they represent, but because the parents bestowed those names on children who have no say in the matter. By choosing pariah names, the parents set their kids up for a lifetime of conflicts.  Age three at the neighborhood ShopRite is likely only the beginning.

Thinking back on the filmmaker in search of "bad" names, it seems I could now give an easy answer: Adolf Hitler is a bad name. But that answer isn't just easy, it's facile; it's a cop-out.  If names are "bad" because they're likely to cause children problems, where do you draw the line?

- At Adolf's sister with the innocuous first name and Aryan Nation middle name?

- At their other sister Honszlynn Hinler, apparently a "kreative" fantasia on the name of Nazi Heinrich Himmler?

- At the kind of names that economist David Figlio has found likeliest to get you left back in school?

- At a name that marks you as a foreigner or outsider in your community?

The extreme case everyone agrees on is fine and well. The tough part is inching in from that edge and still knowing where you stand.