Call me "Tink": The new adventures of old Tinker Bell

Oct 17th 2009

First things first: it's Tinker Bell, two words, not Tinkerbell. Has any major star of stage and screen been more consistently misspelled? Perhaps that's a sidways tribute to the naming prowess of playwright and author J.M. Barrie. The name flows so naturally, you can scarcely hear the words.

In fact, Barrie introduced a full lineup of iconic character names in his play and stories about Peter Pan.  Captain Hook boiled down pirate tales to their villainous essence. Wendy, a little known nickname, became a girlish standard. And Peter Pan, when you stop to think of it, is just a straightforward linking of everyday boy and untamed, pipe-playing nature spirit...but you don't stop to think of it, because it sounds so natural. Even the Darling family has the timeless feel of fairy tales. Think of Prince Charming before them, and the Dearly family of Dodie Smith's The 101 Dalmations or "Jim Dear and Darling" of Disney's Lady and the Tramp later on.

But it's Tinker Bell who's taking center stage right now. Reader zoerhenne sent me a link about the fairy's upcoming star turn in a new Disney DVD release, Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure.

When you think of Disney's Tinker Bell, you probably think of her like this, from the original hand-animated film of Peter Pan:


She's a dainty little pixie, giving off the all-important pixie dust that lets trusting children fly. Tinker Bell was Barrie's 20th-century invention, yet in name and concept she slips seamlessly into the immortal realm of childhood magic. Her name follows the convention of heroines like Thumbelina and Cinderella, evocative nouns stretched out into feminine name form.

In the case of Tinker Bell, the evocation of tinkling bells is the perfect auditory counterpart to pixie dust. (The name shouldn't be taken too literally; a tinker was an itinerant tinsmith who mended pots and pans.) It's not just a name of magic, but of dreams of magic: spine-tingling and elusive. Even in our age where "bell" names like Annabelle and Isabella are the peak of style for girls, Tinkerbell remains an unlikely choice -- the most prominent namesake to date has been Paris Hilton's pet chihuahua. Such a pixieish name fairly demands a wand and gossamer wings.

But that pixie's been changing. As the centerpiece of the "Disney Fairies" franchise she's taken on more substance. The new movie appears to take it even further. Check out this screenshot from the trailer:


This time around, the intrepid Tinker Bell appears to be setting out on an Indiana Jones-style adventure, dressed a lot like...Peter Pan.

I'm all for strong heroines, but this is a pretty dramatic change for a fairy who used to be delicate enough to perish from a single child's disbelief. It's a big change for the name, too. The name Tinker Bell is all pixie, zero action hero. Is it any surprise that in this new incarnation, Tinker Bell goes more and more by the nickname Tink?

The Global Hit Name You Haven't Noticed

Oct 12th 2009

I've talked before about the international style of names -- the smooth classics that are easy to spell and pronounce in many languages, and that have soared in the age of the European Union. Names like Alexander, Anna and Lucas are popular in dozens of different countries. As an English speaker, you can probably feel their fashion energy. They are names of our moment, timeless yet distinctly youthful. As a group, they're five times more popular in the U.S. today than they were in the 1960s.

Yet there's another name with global momentum to rival those fashionable three. It's a boy's name, a biblical classic. A form of it ranks in the top 10 in 22 different countries, including the United States. In fact, it cracks the top 100 in every single country that reports its top 100 names. Have you thought of Matthew yet?

Matthew strikes me as an unusually quiet world beater. Part of that, doubtless, has to do with my American perspective. The U.S. hit its Matthew stride early. The name first hit the American top 100 in 1956, and it has stayed there ever since. It's hard to see a New Classic like that as trendy.

There are other reasons for its stealth popularity too, though. Unlike the international-styled names, Matthew tends to "go local" around the world with a wealth of international variants. The two spellings Anna and Ana are enough for that name to cover the globe. Even Lucas, which like Matthew splits into local and Latinate versions (Matthew/Matthias, Luke/Lucas), places only five forms on the global charts: Luca, Lucas, Luka, Lukas and Luke. Matthew, in contrast, shows up in 30 different versions from Maciej to Thijs. This can mask the name's true fashion power when you're scanning global rankings -- or even rankings within a single country. Belgium, with its multiple linguistic traditions, counts no fewer than seven versions of Matthew among its top 100 boys' names.

Here's my roundup of top-100 Matthews around the world. The real number is doubtless much higher, as many countries report only their top 10 or 20 names.

Argentina: Matías, #3; Mateo, #13
Australia/New South Wales: Matthew, #21
Australia/Victoria: Matthew, #21
Austria: Matthias, #19
Belgium: Mathis, #9; Matteo, #22; Mathias, #23; Mathéo, #35; Mats, #89; Mathieu, #90; Matthias, #97
Brazil: Matheus, #4
Canada/Alberta: Matthew, #8
Canada/British Columbia: Matthew, #6
Canada/Ontario: Matthew, #2
Canada/Quebec: Mathis, #11; Mathieu, #35; Mathias, #47; Matthew, #76; Mathys, #78; Matis, #84
Canada/Saskatchewan: Matthew, #10
Chile: Matias, #4
Czech Republic: Matej, #7; Matyas, #17; Matous, #25
Denmark: Mathias, #11, Mads, #12
England: Matthew, #24
Finland: Matias, #4
France: Mathis, #3
Georgia: Mate, #8
Germany: Matthis, #87
Hungary: Máté, #2; Matyas, #53
Iceland: Matthias, #32
Ireland: Matthew, #17
Italy: Matteo, #4; Mattia, #7
Lithuania: Matas, #1
Netherlands: Thijs, #13
New Zealand: Matthew, #21
Northern Ireland: Matthew, #2
Norway: Mathias, #1, Mats, #56, Mads, #95
Poland: Mateusz, #3; Maciej, #11
Scotland: Matthew, #9
Slovenia: Matic, #8; Matevž, #28; Matej, #30; Matija, #32
Spain: Mateo, #62
Sweden: Mattias, #82
Switzerland (Italian): Mattia, #4
United States: Matthew, #10


p.s. My timing's off on posts this week...I hope anyone who still wants to discuss urban legend names will continue to comment on the earlier series, parts 1, 2, and 3.

Ledasha, legends and race: part three (of three)

Oct 11th 2009

Reader advisory: sensitive topics/vocabulary

In parts 1 and 2 on Ledasha, I talked about how fake names can convey real social cues. In most of these stories, though, the social cues go far beyond the names.

Consider the language of the Ledasha tale. Google counts 100,000 results for the punchline "dash don't be silent." (For the linguistically inclined, that's the "habitual be," a distinctive syntactic feature of African American Vernacular English.) You'll also find thousands of similar hits for "dash ain't silent." But when you search for the Standard English version "dash isn't silent" you mostly find explanations in the storyteller's voice, not quotes from Ledasha's mother. The mother's vernacular is intrinsic to the story.

For some perspective on this, let's take a trip back in time. Urban legend resource, in their excellent review of name tales, unearthed a relevant item from a 1917 book of humor. Please excuse the period vocabulary:

A young woman in Central Park overheard an old negress call to a pickaninny: "Come heah, Exy, Exy!"

"Excuse me, but that's a queer name for a baby, aunty?"

"Dat ain't her full name," explained the old woman with pride; "dat's jes' de pet name I calls for short. Dat child got a mighty grand name. Her ma picked it out in a medicine book — yessum, de child's full name is Eczema."

The blithe racism makes us cringe today, but every element of this joke is echoed in modern name tales. The proud, earnest ignorance, the desire to aggrandize, and the vernacular speech are all familiar. Even the misreading of medical jargon remains a popular touch; just swap out eczema for an STD to give it a more contemporary punch.

The big difference between the Eczema tale and today's is that the 1917 teller had no qualms about identifying the child's race as the central point. The many widely circulated versions of Ledasha, laden with racial signals as they may be, never come out and say it. Tellers rely on implicit cues so that the story, on the surface, is just about a funny name.

As is so often the case, what we tiptoe around is as revealing as what we say. The minute you inject adjectives like "black" and "poor" into a story, the ground shifts. You've lost your protective coating of mere humor; you're talking about society. That can be dangerous ground. A funny name tale is a safer way to poke fun, with plausible deniability. Indeed, some tellers may pass on the stories without a thought about their cultural underpinnings. Yet the real issues are still there just below the surface. You can tell, because in settings where people are not afraid to talk about race and class, the same stories still flower with full, explicit cultural context.

On many African-American messageboards you'll find people laughing over the familiar name tales, including Ledasha. In those forums, though, the racial and cultural setting isn't just alluded to, it's the whole point -- and the distinctions go far beyond black and white. Names are dissected as "ghetto" or "saditty," likely to get you rejected for a corporate job or likely to get you beaten up in the 'hood. "Ghetto names," including the standard urban legends, are a staple of black dj's and comics, as in this YouTube video. The names are used as explicit, exaggerated symbols of a specific social set, just as a caricatured "valley speak" might be used by whites.

At the extreme opposite end of the spectrum, you'll find the name tales repeated in white-supremacist publications and web forums. There, not only is the racial element of the stories explicit, but the most outrageous examples are presented as typical black names. Moreover, the truth of the stories is never questioned. In fact, the white supremacists often embellish the tales in ways that reinforce their supposed authenticity and typicality. One common approach is to interweave the absurd names with real, unremarkable African-American names. For example, in one article from a "racial realist" magazine an attorney offered "Some Names of Blacks Encountered in My Practice." Names like Lemonjello and Orangejello and even Godzilla Pimp were nestled among the likes of Ajeenah and Tywanna. The effect was to smoothly suggest that all were equally ridiculous.

In another case, a poster in a white supremacist forum acknowledged that some of the names he was talking about were cited as false urban legends on a well-known web site. He quickly found his own unique way to discredit that source, though, noting: "Of course they also say that it is false that Israeli workers stayed home from work at the WTC on 9-11-2001."

As you might imagine, most of the name stories in the white-supremacist forums are laced with filthy racial epithets. Tellingly, though, I found the story of Ledasha cut and pasted directly from widely circluated mainstream versions, without any mention of race. No added commentary was needed when the "mainstream" versions included lines like this:

"SO, if you see something come across your desk like this please remember to pronounce the dash. If they axe you why, tell them the dash don't be silent."

Or, to quote another common version of the tale: "And we let these people vote."

"These people." It's a loaded phrase, eh?  Ostensibly "these people" are just people who choose silly names, so it's safe to make fun of them...right?