The new social order: A, B, C, D...

Aug 28th 2008

Turn back the clock with me:

You're in third grade.  Your class is lining up to head out to lunch, or to recess, or to the library to pick out a book.  Waiting is excruciating, and places in line are all-important.  Then your teacher tells you all not to shove, that the order will be...alphabetical.

If your name is Aaron, chances are that memory can still bring up a rosy glow of entitlement.  If you're a Zoe, you may still feel a bitter pang of resentment at the injustice of alphabet tyranny.  But it's all just a memory, right?  As the grade school years fade away behind us, we enter a world that's overwhelmingly first-come, first-served.  When was the last time you lined up by name, with perks awarded to the alphabetical elite?

I'll tell you when: the last time somebody called you from a cell phone.

Today, most of us walk around with an alphabetized social register in our pockets.  Depending on your lifestyle, your register may number a dozen names or a thousand.  It may be subdivided into personal and business, or home and school.  It may be grouped by letter, or even by name.  (An executive with a huge contact list recently complained to me about how long it takes to scroll through the "Michael" section of his PDA.)  But whatever the format, you probably find that certain names pass before your eyes again and again out of alphabetical happenstance.

Think about the potential significance of that kind of "personal product placement."  In the social realm, what's the chance you'll forget to call a friend whose name is in front of you several times a day?  If that friend gets similar prime placement on other friends' phones, it could lead to a real bump up in his social life.  When it comes to business contacts, the right name could translate to closer client relationships, more active networking, and fresh opportunities -- the principles of old-fashioned Yellow Pages placement applied to your own first name.

Suddenly, an Aaron Abbott's old lineup advantage looks bigger than ever.  At least until the next communications revolution.

The Call of the Wild A

Aug 22nd 2008

When it comes to baby name fashion, the last really are first.  Name endings carry a disproportionate power in a name's style and impact.  That's the secret behind Angelina Jolie's impact on baby names -- discussed here in our X & O roundup.

Today's baby name news tells a similar tale.  Baby name critics are preparing to pounce on the latest "weird" celebrity name: Zuma, born to musicians Gwen Stefani and Gavin Rossdale.  Yes, it's an extremely unusual name.  (Zuma is a famous Malibu beach, which gives the name a unique resonance to SoCal natives like Ms. Stefani.  Think of a surfer named Zuma, and the name might start to make more sense to you.)  But I suspect that the real key to the raised eyebrows isn't that the name is so uncommon; it's that Zuma is a boy.

English doesn't have gendered word endings -- in theory.  In practice, though, we hew to the Romance-language standard that marks -a as feminine and -o as masculine.  You see it in baby names, and even in product names.  We hear the underlying feminine/masculine stereotypes: an -a ending "softens" a name, while an -o makes it "energetic."

That's not to say we never cross the lines.  But usually, when it comes to gender-bending, we're more willing to make our girls boyish than our boys girlish.  Think of the title character of the film Juno.  The feminine -o was used to emphasic her individualistic strength.  The -o of Shiloh, similarly, made that name a celebrity style smash.

In fact, there are signs of life for boys ending in -a, too.  Joshua has become the most popular -a boy in American history, swamping the previous champion Ira.  Luca is another fast rising name (especially among Portuguese speakers -- it's a top-100 name in Rhode Island, with its huge Portuguese and Brazilian population.)  But they're still the exception, which means that -a names can still surprise.  The names that really point the way toward Zuma are two that, like Zuma, found their way to the nursery from non-traditional sources:

Dakota is one of the names for a large Sioux ethnic group from the Northern plains.  It became a popular American boy's name in the 1990s.

Koda is the name of an orphaned Alaskan bear cub in the 2003 animated film Brother Bear, and made a modest splash as a boy's name in 2004.  It was presumably inspired by the Kodiak bears of Alaska.

Names like Dakota, Koda and Zuma are very deliberate steps away from European naming traditions.  Their style depends on an image of rugged, wild freedom.  The easiest way to shed centuries of Western Civilization is to choose the ending that most defies that tradition: the masculine a.

Mine, Yours, First, Last

Aug 19th 2008

What do these men have in common?

Millard Fillmore
Woodrow Wilson
Strom Thurmond

Before you start contemplating political philosophies, I'll throw in a fourth: country singer Dierks Bentley.  Any guesses?  All four men's given names are their mothers' maiden names.  (Some were technically bestowed as middle names, but that's what they're known by.)

Once upon a time, a surname-as-first-name wasn't just a matter of style.  It was a matter of familial connection: honoring forebears, strengthening ties, preserving traditions or advertising notable relationships.  The practice was especially familiar in the South, but you can find maiden-name-names all across American history.

Today, modern naming patterns are bringing a whole new twist to the surname namesake.  Because today, mom's "maiden name" may simply be her name.  Let's say you're Jane Smith, wife of John Jones.  You're expecting your first child and facing down the separate surname dilemma.  Do you just choose one parent's surname?  Hyphenate the two?  Use mom's surname as a middle name?  Give daughters mom's surname, while sons get dad's?  Or even create a new name for your kids...Jonesmith, perhaps?  I have friends who have done each of the above.  But one of the simplest solutions is to use both names together as a full name: Mr. Smith Jones.

It's not for everyone.  First off, some surnames are best left last.  (I don't imagine my daughters will be naming any babies Wattenberg Jones.)  It can also be confusing: I was once introduced to a young "Smith Jones" and, assuming that was hyphenated, thought I had totally missed his first name.  What's more, it can leave you in a bind when it comes to naming subsequent children.

Yet putting the extra surname first also has some real advantages.  It feels "fair."  It makes clear both parents' relationship to the child, and even subtly clarifies the parents' relationship with each other.  And it's a proactive step to merge two family traditions rather than just handing kids a double helping.  With surnames popping up across the baby name landscape, it may be an appealing option to more and more families.