Name detective part II: 1890s, 2005

Sep 14th 2006

Last week I showed some graphs of historical baby names of the 1890s. Babies named Dewey honored Admiral George Dewey, a hero of the Spanish-American War. Spurgeon memorialized the 1892 death of Charles Spurgeon, a hugely popular British Baptist preacher who built the first "megachurch." And the baby Columbias reflected the enormous impact of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, or World's Columbian Exposition. (Kudos to reader Alexandra, who pinned all of these down in no time.)

Dewey and Spurgeon in particular are classic homage names. That's a different impulse than a standard celebrity-inspired name. Angelina Jolie's son Maddox has inspired hundreds of baby Maddoxes, but are the children really "named after" him? More likely the name sold itself based on style. A genuine homage hame is all about honoring a public figure you admire, and style is an afterthought.

Homage names are rare birds today. Consider Dewey, which became a top-20 name for boys--and #305 for girls--after the Battle of Manila in 1898. Can you imagine a military leader of the current war inspiring such an outpouring? And then there's the name Hobart, which soared in the mid-1890s thanks to a vice-presidential candidate, Garrett Hobart. Americans of the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate era just don't do that sort of thing. We don't even honor our presidents with names now until they're safely out of office, legacy intact.

Yet 2005 did see the rise of one heartfelt homage name. As with Charles Spurgeon in 1892, last year marked the death of a revered religious leader. Karol Józef Wojtyła of Poland was inaugurated as Pope John Paul II in October, 1978. From that point Johnpaul became a name of religious tribute, as well as of ethnic pride for some families of Polish descent. (In the Massachusetts of my childhood, the pope formed a powerful one-two punch in Polish neighborhoods with Red Sox great Carl Yastrzemski. One bumper sticker read: "World's Greatest Three: Pope, Yaz and Me.") The year 1979, immediately following the inauguration, was a high-water mark for young American Johnpauls. In 1981, the pope was seriously wounded in an assassination attempt. After his recovery he reigned for more than two decades, becoming one of the most influential and beloved popes of modern times. He death on April 2, 2005 was marked by mourning around the world.

Or to put it another way:

A note: the real dropoff after 1988 probably wasn't quite so sudden, but the name did fall solidly below top-1000 levels and stayed that way until the pope's death, when it resurged.

It wasn't just parents of boys who marked John Paul II's passing. After 38 straight years off the charts, Karol reappeared as a top-1000 name for girls in 2005. We may no longer honor soldiers, but faith can still trump style.

Lucky and happy

Sep 11th 2006

I don't usually post on Mondays, but this morning I feel like talking about my daughter's middle name.

Five years ago today I was home in my New York apartment, 8 1/2 months pregnant. I had left my job at the World Trade Center and was planning some time off with the new baby. A friend called, and her first words seemed strange: "Oh, thank God you're home." It turned out that a plane had hit the tower where we had both worked. Soon I came to realize that it had been a very big plane. And not an accident. And that it hit the Northeast corner of the building around the 96th floor, which is to say my old office. And that there was more to come.

My husband stepped out of a downtown subway station that morning to see the towers burning above him. He walked the eight miles home with his laptop slung across his back, hearing the news in snippets of radio and conversation along the streets. When he got home our 18-month-old daughter patted his hair and bits of building scattered to the ground.

Those are the kinds of images I have of that day, because I refused to turn on the television--I didn't want to watch my coworkers dying. I also didn't want to go into labor. Throughout the day I alternated between instant messages with colleagues trying to sort out who was accounted for, and lying flat on my back willing away stress contractions. No dice. By that evening I was dialing and redialing the phone, hoping to get a call through the overloaded circuits to my obstetrician.

The drive to the hospital, more than five miles down and across Manhattan, took only a few minutes. My husband and I were spooked by the dark, empty streets, so unlike New York. We could go blocks at a time without seeing another soul moving; a cluster of Army vehicles was parked along Park Avenue. When we finally got to the hospital it was cordoned off behind a police barrier. We approached a pair of police officers, a man and woman, who were standing guard. I explained that I had come to the hospital to give birth. The man, who was quite young, looked panicky and said that nobody could come through. The woman said, "come on, look at her, let her through!" She smiled, patted my belly and ushered me past the barricades. She looked relieved to be thinking about babies instead of bodies--the city medical examiner's office was next door.

The hospital was in some tumult. Computer systems had been knocked out by the downtown power failure and new shifts of workers couldn't get into the city to come to work. When I managed to get a labor and delivery room, I had to ask the nurses and doctors garthered around a tv screen in the room to please turn off the images of burning buildings. My OB soon showed up, grateful to have something useful to do. He had been down at an emergency medical center set up to help the wounded, but it turned out there were precious few wounded...it was all or nothing.

As the hour inched later we started rooting for the baby to wait until after midnight. Even then, we could tell that September 11 would be a tough day for birthday celebrations. She kindly complied and was born in the wee hours of the 12th. But it was still a week or two earlier than we'd expected, and we hadn't yet settled on a middle name.

Friends and relatives all independently suggested the name Hope. What could be more fitting for a child born into such a time? We declined. Under those circumstances, hope seemed to imply its opposite, despair. We didn't want our daughter to carry the tragedy of the day in her name. So we settled on Felice, meaning lucky and happy. Let her be a symbol of all the good in life.

The name suited. We got the first glimpse of it from the police officer and the obstetrician who were so glad to have a birth to think about. My father-in-law teaches at West Point; when he told his class that morning about his new granddaughter, the cadets stood and cheered. The next day we walked out of the hospital into a scene of wrenching sadness. The sidewalks were packed with people, many wearing particle masks against the still-dusty air. Many also clutched photographs--they had come to the medical examiner's office to see if the body of a loved one had been found. Even these strangers stopped to smile gratefully at our newborn baby. Everybody was glad for a glimpse of happiness.

I've been fortunate enough to be in the baby-naming business ever since. It's a wonderful business to be in: every name is a celebration of life.

Name detective: 1890s

Sep 8th 2006

Baby naming may seem like a narrow topic, but it branches in all directions. You never know where the names will lead you. I might start my morning with a modest bit of name data and before you know it I'm studying the Academy Awards, or German mythology, or the 1896 presidential election. When it comes to names, nothing is irrelevant.

A lot of the information alleys I wander down end up trivial, so I just toss the new facts onto the data pile cluttering the back of my mind. Other alleys open onto whole subject areas and help me understand my world a little better. If you've been reading here a while, you'll probably guess that I like both kinds.

Here are three name patterns that led me deep into the 1890s last night. Try your hand at the name detective biz and see where they lead you....