These times of ours

Jul 20th 2006

I recently read a newspaper article that summarized many of the complaints I hear about contemporary baby names. Too many parents are naming their kids after movie stars, or making up "weird" names without meanings. The new names are unfamiliar and impossible to pronounce. The traditional, beloved names of past generations seem to have disappeared overnight.

One woman quoted in the article, marveling over the names of her own nieces and nephews, said she was glad she didn't become a teacher: "I am struggling to pronounce the mere six 'weird' names, imagine my plight as a teacher calling out at least thirty odd such names everyday." A name expert claimed that parents today are determined to be unique and "believe that a name should have an identity as well as an ability to be exceptional among others."

And the author of the article wistfully concluded that the common, classic names of her youth were long gone. "Kusumas and Chandimas will never stand a chance with the present generation of Shanudhas and Sathsaranjanis."

Oh, did I mention that the article was from Sri Lanka?

This lifestyle piece in the Sri Lankan Sunday Observer was an uncanny mirror of attitudes in the United States. The details may differ -- celebrity names come from Bollywood rather than Hollywood, grandparents despair that names are selected without consulting astrological charts -- but the core concerns are the same. Some of the causes, too, sound the same to me. Globalization comes up again and again, from the cultural clout of the Indian entertainment industry to the possibility of migration to the West. Names, as usual, reflect the changing world around them.

A coda at the end of the article, though, puts the whole thing in perspective. Three terse paragraphs summarize 2000 years of Sri Lankan name history: from the short ethnic names of the early kingdom, to the later blending with Sanskrit, to 450 years of shifting European-based styles as first the Portuguese then the Dutch then the English ruled the country, to the past century's gradual ascension of Sinhalese names in a series of changing styles.

So those old, familiar names that are disappearing were often one-generation wonders themselves. In an ever-changing world, "traditional" is a relative term.

You oughta be in picture books

Jul 13th 2006

Surfing through some lists of recommended picture books for kids, I noticed a theme developing. Here are three unrelated books with one big thing in common:

The Best Present
Camper of the Week
Moonbeam on a Cat's Ear

A hint: they share that common element with books called Rosie's Walk, The Sign on Rosie's Door, Rosie and the Rustlers, and Rosie and the Poor Rabbits. And they're all just a small sampling of the dozens of picture books starring Rosies. On the boy's side, the name Max has proven equally irresistable to authors. But good luck finding a Brandon or Melissa -- those names are far more common in real life, but rare birds in the bookstore.

To take a rough measure of picture-book name popularity, I ran names through Amazon's title search engine restricting the search to books for ages 4-8. (I also eliminated books where the name belonged to the author rather than a character.) Here's a lineup of names that are heard disproportionately in picture-book land compared to the real world:

DISPROPORTIONATELY COMMON
Ben
Charlie
Jack
Katie
Max
Molly
Rosie
Sam
Sophie
Tom

DISPROPORTIONATELY UNCOMMON
Brandon
Courtney
Danielle
Kevin
Kristen
Kyle
Melissa
Nicole
Ryan
Sean

For a sense of scale, Jack, Molly and Sam combine to populate 604 titles. Brandon, Kristen and Sean combine to zero.

The uncommon names are a more contemporary group, but just being old-fashioned won't get you into picture books. (Names like Howard and Pauline were far more common than Max at its peak.) To earn the love of broad swaths of children's authors a name has to be simple, familiar, timeless, and informal -- preferably a nickname.

Any of this ring a bell? If you read the recent blog entries on likeability, you'll recognize this formula as the surest recipe for a friendly, likeable name. So while parents may not focus on friendliness in a name, children's authors clearly do. They're crafting characters to be fun and approachable, to draw young readers into an imaginary world that's suspended in time and space, and typically a shade cuddlier than reality. Extending a metaphor from the likeability discussion, in picture-book land life is an ongoing picnic and the names are chosen to match.

When more contemporary, formal names do pop up in titles, it's often an "issue" book. These are the books designed to help kids understand a practical challenge they or their friends might be facing. Books like Brianna Breathes Easy: A Story About Asthma take place not in picture-book land but firmly in real life, so the warm-and-fuzzy naming rules can give way to realism.

This all feels perfectly natural to me. Teddy bears ought to be named Molly and Ben, not McKenzie and Brayden. But I'm a grownup. I'm curious whether kids really do feel more comfortable with the names authors pick out to be cozy, or whether the adult buyers of the book are the true audience. It's perfectly possible that preschoolers do respond to the coziness of nicknames, which can resemble terms of endearment. At the same time, young kids generally accept all manner of names easily and are likely to have McKenzies and Braydens in their own social circles. So perhaps a title like "Brayden's Breakfast" would go over big.

Besides, my four-year-old just named her imaginary princess Delicatessa. As in Pippilotta Delicatessa Windowshade Mackrelmint Efraim's Daughter Longstocking.

Name stairs: a name puzzle challenge

Jul 7th 2006

A brainteaser for a lazy summer day...how long a "staircase" can you build with names? Start with a name then add one letter at a time to the beginning, with each step being another name that appears in the NameVoyager. For instance:

ESTER
HESTER
CHESTER

ANNA
HANNA
SHANNA

I can make a bunch of three-step staircases, but so far that fourth step has proven elusive. Can you do better?

You can also try the other direction, adding letters to the end:

ISABEL
ISABELL
ISABELLE

That's a trivial example, but looking for ending stairs gives you a great appreciation of how much each generation builds on classic name roots -- some staircases look like steps through time. So far I've hit five steps using endings, and four where each extra letter adds a whole syllable like so:

JOAN
JOANN
JOANNA