High-concept, high-risk names

Jul 10th 2009

The bedtime story in the Wattenberg family this week is Ellen Raskin's 1975 puzzle-mystery The Tattooed Potato and other clues. (More about the book below.) Much as I love the story, I'm having trouble focusing on reading it aloud. It keeps distracting me -- in a good way -- with names.

Some of the character names are jokey, like Mrs. Panzpresser and the corpulent, white-suited Mr. Mallomar. Others are enigmatic, like the artist known only as Garson. But what sets The Tattooed Potato apart to a name enthusiast is the way it engages with the idea of names and their relationship to our places in the world.

In the book, art students experiment with twists on their names to make their signatures seem artist-worthy. A man named George Washington III, descendent of an immigrant who changed his name to sound as American as possible, feels a special link to Washington Square Park. And most of all, the central character grapples with a name that has always felt like a burden to her: Dickory. Ms. Dickory Dock.

Dickory dreads telling anyone her full name, bracing for the nursery rhyme that inevitably follows. One character tries to get her to see the blessing in this, noting, "Not everyone can make people happy just by telling them their name." Indeed, for some real-world people a name like Dickory Dock would be a powerful asset, an instant conversation starter. A Ms. Toker I once knew, who officially changed her name to her longtime nickname of Midnight, comes to mind. The Dickory of the story, though, isn't the jovial, laugh-along sort. She's quiet and serious, and resents being pulled again and again into a joke that was never funny to her to begin with.

This is the dilemma of what I'll call "high-concept names." Like high-concept movies (Snakes on a Plane) or books (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), high-concept names have a hook. They build off of established conventions to make an unmistakable impact, sometimes at the expense of subtely. In the world of entertainment, where public attention means everything, a high concept is a great way to get yourself noticed. In the world of names, though, a high concept carries as much risk as opportunity.

An ordinary name is defined by the person behind it. It may conjure up images or color your impressions, but it doesn't really exist until it's embodied. A high-concept name, in contrast, scarcely needs the person. Dickory Dock and Midnight Toker are self-contained messages, pithy and complete. That's not to say that an individual Midnight or Dickory can't make the name her own. (As The Tattooed Potato puts it, "a name is just a label; it can stand for whatever a person makes of it.") It just takes a certain kind of person to embrace the challenge of a high-concept name and take advantage of the social opportunities that it brings.

If you're considering such a conspicuous name, be sure to leave room for the possibility of a child with a more private personality. One option is to bestow the "hook" as a middle name. That gives you the option to call your daughter by that name in the short term, while in the long term she'll have more control over the kind of attention her name attracts.

And finally, as promised, a few words about The Tattooed Potato and other clues. First, I must apologize for recommending a book which is so hard to get hold of. (Puffin Books, are you listening? Reissue time!) If you recognized the name of author Ellen Raskin, I'm betting you share my love of her 1979 Newbery winner The Westing Game. The golden Newbery seal has kept that book selling briskly, while most of Raskin's other books have fallen out of print. Right now her only other title available new is The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel). Also worth seeking out is Figgs & Phantoms, a one-of-a-kind comic fantasy that's incredibly moving and life-affirming, but appreciated best by adolescents and adults despite its reading level.

Update: new edition of Baby Name Wizard at Amazon now!

Jul 8th 2009

Broadway Books informs me that they've coordinated with Amazon to assure that starting today, Amazon will ship only the revised edition of The Baby Name Wizard. Happy shopping. :-)

Order The Baby Name Wizard (revised) at Amazon




Baby Name Wizard 2, Now with Extra Naming Power!

Jul 2nd 2009

At last! The 2nd edition of The Baby Name Wizard will be on sale Tuesday, July 7. Here's a Q&A on what to expect in the new, expanded book:

Q: I have the first edition. Should I bother to buy BNW2?
A: You betcha! I recommend one copy for yourself, one to give as a gift, and a spare for when somebody "borrows" your copy and it never returns.

Q: Cut that out. How different is it, really?
A: Well, it's different enough that my publisher had to give up on revising the old files and treated it like a whole new manuscript instead. Here's a rundown of what's new:

  • More than 100 added name snapshots
  • 2 1/2 added style categories
  • New (and improved) popularity graphs
  • By request of BabyNameWizard.com readers, a pronunciation guide with every name entry
  • Special "Spotlight" lists on hot topics (X and O names, Old Hollywood names)
  • New discussions on subjects like sibling naming, middle names, and matching with surnames
  • Hundreds and hundreds of updates to existing material

In all, the book has grown from 350 to 400 pages. Even that doesn’t reflect the real scope of the changes, though. I went over every word in the book, updating and upgrading as needed. Most of the name entries have at least been tweaked -- swapping out a couple of sibling suggestions here, updating a trend there -- and quite a few were rewritten from scratch. The upshot is that you'll still recognize The Baby Name Wizard, but I've done my best to make it bigger, better, fresher, and genuinely worth a second look.

Q: Great. So should I pre-order a copy right now?
A: Ah. There’s a wee little catch.

The publisher has issued BNW2 with the same ISBN code as BNW1. What this technicality means is that to a bookseller’s computer, the new edition looks like a mere re-printing of the same book. So you can’t specifically order the new edition. Instead, it will start shipping and appearing on bookstore shelves whenever the distributor runs through its stock and opens a new box of books.

UPDATE: Amazon is now shipping BNW2, as of 07/08/09.

Q: So what should I do??? I need that book!
Online booksellers will start shipping the new edition very soon. In the meantime, it should be easy to recognize BNW2 in real live bookstores. There’s a new red-pink circle on the cover that says “fully revised and updated with new names,” and a tiny picture of the NameVoyager on the back. I really, really hope you like it.

Thanks for all of your support,