My Baby Name Wizard Name of the Year choices are about baby names as cultural tokens. I look for trends, shifts, and reflections of the zeitgeist. But names are a broad topic. Two other "Name of the Year" winners show off very different concepts of what's new and notable in the wide world of names.
The American Name Society is a scholarly group devoted to onomastic research. Their Name of the Year (NOTY), crowned at the annual ANS conference, isn't limited to names of humans. It can be a place name, a name of a product or an event or a movement -- virtually anything that Society members consider interesting as a name-based phenomenon. Their 2006 selection: Pluto. That was the year when the celestial object Pluto was officially demoted from its longstanding position as a planet in our solar system. (It is now considered a mere "dwarf planet," subject to the derision of Uranus and Neptune.) The ANS president explained the NOTY designation: "Our members believe the great emotional reaction of the public to the demotion of Pluto shows the importance of Pluto as a name. We may no longer believe in the Roman god Pluto, but we still have a sense of personal connection with the former planet."
It's a provocative suggestion, that the public reaction to the "loss" of the planet was based on its name. Would a less attractively named planet not be missed? (See ya, Uranus?) Or perhaps it's simply the fact that the planet had a proper name at all. From that perspective, the choice of Pluto as NOTY could be seen as a statement on the fundamental power of naming. If that giant rock had just been "Planet #9," maybe its demotion wouldn't have left us feeling so unsettled by a world in which nothing is certain.
At the other end of the NOTY spectrum lies the Name of the Year Blog, a decidedly non-scholarly group devoted to the sport of name-ogling. Though that's probably not how they'd prefer to put it. In their own words, they aim "to discover, verify, nominate, elect, and disseminate great names." Their definition of great can be seen in past years' winners such as Crescent Dragonwagon, Tokyo Sexwale, and Nimrod Weiselfish. This NOTY competition is a long-running game, opened to the public for the first time this year. If you want to make your voice heard, fill out their ballot by March 31.
This past Sunday's NY Times style section featured a bar's-eye view of changing name trends. Jonathan Miles wrote:
Like baby names, cocktail names are steered by trends: the smuttily named drinks of the '70s and '80s -- "two Buttery Nipples, please" -- led to the "-tini" phase, which spiraled out of control in the late '90s and hit bottom with the Apple Pie-tini.
The hot trend today? Old fashioned. No, not the Old Fashioned cocktail (whiskey, syrup, bitters, ice, twist). Not even old-fashioned standards like a gin fizz, highball or Tom Collins. Nope, the new thing is old-fashioned-sounding names for new-fangled drinks. The example in the article was a "Poona Club cocktail," a supposed fixture on the menu of a long-gone club in British India. It's a total forgery, and it's not alone. A cocktail expert explained that menu-makers "are trying to sneak their drinks into the canon by coming up with names that sound a hundred years old."
Ring any bells? Some months ago I wrote about the "forged antiques" of the baby name world, the names that evoke images of our great-grandparents' day but don't have the history to back it up. (Here's part 1 and part 2 on that topic.) It seems that stylish parents and stylish bartenders are surfing the same zeitgeist.
If your barstool style is traditional, though, why not just order that gin fizz? Why conjure up forgeries? For the same reason that parents look past real great-grandparent names like Floyd and Myrtle. Even the retro-minded among us live in the 21st century, and our tastes follow accordingly. The faux-retro drink profiled in the Times article features lime-ginger-bay-leaf gin and blood-orange juice. No mere fizz will hit that 21st-century mark. So toast the birth of Ava and Olivia with a Poona Club cocktail, and leave the Tom Collins for Floyd and Myrtle.
I usually have a rule of thumb about baby names of the rich and famous. Celebrity names have a big impact on national baby name trends. What celebrities name their own kids matters not a whit. If the likes of, say, Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner name their daughter Violet, that name may indeed become popular. But that doesn't necessarily mean the celebrities are responsible for the trend. Most often, it just means that they're part of a demographic that was already starting to turn to the name. Violet, for instance, hits the sought-after style sweet spot: familiar but uncommon, surprising but widely liked, and just a small step out from current favorites (Lily, Ivy, etc.) It's also the name of the daughter in The Incredibles. In the years to come you'll doubtless hear the Afflecks cited as the reason for the trend, but they're just a blip on the name horizon.
So that's the rule of thumb. And then there's Angelina Jolie.
Ms. Jolie is an unprecedented force in the world of baby names: a genuine style maker. Part of it is the extraordinary fame she and her partner Mr. Pitt share. A bigger part is her genuine style savvy, which I discussed in the 2006 Name of the Year post. But equally important is the speed with which the Jolie-Pitt family has expanded. Three children have joined them in the past two years, allowing Jolie-Pitt namespotting to become a reliable pastime.
This week, the world was introduced to Pax Thien Jolie, age 3, a native of Vietnam. Pax is the Latin word for peace. In the U.S. it may be best known for the Pax TV network (now known as ION) which featured gentle, family-oriented programming. It has been used as a given name only occasionally, with a flurry around the end of WWI. It's also a nickname for the rising name Paxton. Stylistically, Pax fits the rise of subtle meaning-based names (e.g. Nevaeh) as well as the national obsession with the letter X:
Pax's middle name Thien is Vietnamese (though not the boy's birth name). It is a name and word of deep spiritual resonance, with a meaning akin to "heavens." Similarly, Jolie's oldest son Maddox bears a middle name from his country of origin, Cambodia. The middle name Chivan is often translated as "life" and is born by a member of the Cambodian royal family, Prince Sisowath Chivan Monirak. In a few recent news stories Chivan has been described rather unfortunately as a made-up name with no origin...a misreading of both the name and the family. All the Jolie-Pitt clan's names come from somewhere, loudly and proudly.