Name Spotlight: Election Edition

Oct 29th 2008

I know, I know.  It's all election news, all the time these days.  You might think baby name land would be a respite.  But names are inextricably entwined with the changing world around them, and the political world is part of that.  I've talked in the past about the shifting patterns of honoring new presidents with namesakes, and about various names involved with this year's contest.  The most obvious name story remains Barack, the name I tabbed as the 2007 Name of the Year.  (By the way, a few reporters have come calling looking for babies named after the Democratic nominee.  If you're the parent of a bouncing little Barack and would be willing to talk to the press, let me know.)

But I don't expect a huge flood of Baracks, or Johns, or Tracks & Trigs.  The name I'm tracking most closely in this election season isn't a name that's born by any of the political players.  It's a name--or rather a title--they've attempted to bestow upon themselves.  That name is Maverick.

The original Maverick, one Samuel Augustus Maverick (1803-1870), was in fact a political player himself.  Maverick was a Texan legislator and a signer of the 1836 Texas Declaration of Independence.  The use of his name to mean a self-guided, independent thinker doesn't reflect his political career, though.  It refers to his unorthodox ranching habits.  As a rancher Maverick never branded his cattle, so any lone, unbranded stray calf was identified as a Maverick.

The name gradually gathered a more romantic image of adventurous daring, with help from Hollywood.  The '50s-'60s tv Western "Maverick" presented brothers Bret and Bart Maverick as a pair of bold, brash itinerant gamblers getting into all sorts of exciting scrapes.  The 1986 film Top Gun gave us Tom Cruise as "Maverick," the cocky, risk-taking Navy pilot.  Is it any surprise that baby names followed suit?

A first handful of young Mavericks was born in the late 1950s, during the heyday of the tv series.  A great many more have been born since the mid-1990s, as a wide-open, creative naming culture has made the name a realistic possibility for more parents.  Last year Maverick ranked #559 among all U.S. boys' names, representing 453 daring, independent-minded new infants.

But that was last year.  When you hear the word Maverick in 2008, you probably hear it in the voice of John McCain or Sarah Palin -- or perhaps in the voice of comedian Tina Fey as Sarah Palin, gettin' "mavericky."  Ironically, this word for an independent thinker unbound by ideology is now one of the most partisan terms in politics.  Used either in admiration or in satire, it is clearly identified with the Republican ticket.

So what effect will this have on Maverick, the baby name?  It's a tough call.  The constant media exposure should bring it to more parents' minds.  As we've seen with hurricane names, any publicity is usually good publicity if the name is catchy to begin with.  The specific political association will probably net out as a wash: some parents will like the connection with McCain-Palin while others will be turned off by it.  But a final factor lies with the nature of the name itself, and of the parents who have flocked to it in recent years.  Some, I suspect, will simply conclude that the name's unique cachet has been spoiled.  What fun is an edgy, creative, adventurous culture statement once it's been adopted by the establishment?

A respectful request: in comments, please try resist the impulse to campaign.  Around here, it's all about the names.

Meet The New Bouncing Baby (beta) Tools!

Oct 22nd 2008 is thrilled to announce the birth of two new major baby naming resources.

  Names: NameMapper and Namipedia
  Date: October 22, 2008
  Weight: Tons of Fabulous Names

NameMapper and Namipedia join big siblings NameVoyager, Wizard Blog, and The Baby Name Wizard book to form a heck of a baby naming family, if we do say so ourselves.

The new arrivals are still infants -- which is to say, in beta release -- and they'll be growing fast over the coming weeks.  (Please bear with me if there are some bumps in the road along the way!)  But I'm excited about them, and I hope you will be too.

The NameMapper is an interactive playground for exploring the varying popularity of names across the United States over the past 50 years.  Try typing in Charlotte, and watch the name transform from Southern belle to "Sex and the City" chic.  Or type Duane and Dwayne for an illustration of why a different spelling can really be a different name.

Click MultiMap to see the full expanse of time at once, or click on the Timeline tab to explore new dimensions of the data.  The Timeline view is a colorful grid of mini-graphs representing the name's usage in 50 different states and 48 different years, grouped by naming-style regions  You can customize the view to show popularity in different ways, or to order the states by population variables.

(Note: The NameMapper is a Java applet.  If you can't view it, you should download the standard Java plugin from Sun.)

Namipedia is a multifaceted baby name encyclopedia that gives each name its own "home page."  Each Namipedia name page combines reliable expert information with reader-contributed content and opinions.  Look up a name in Namipedia and you can...

  • Learn about a name's origins, check it's popularity in the U.S. and abroad, and find out how it's pronounced.
  • See what others think of the name -- does it sound strong? friendly? sophisticated? -- and what real-world parents have chosen for sibling names.
  • Read about famous namesakes, nickname ideas, and readers' personal experiences with the name.
  • Contribute your own ratings, opinions, siblings and insights...and even names.  It's pleasantly addictive!

I owe special thanks to the early beta testers who have given me invaluable feedback on the new tools.  You'll see many of your suggestions come to life in the weeks ahead.

Happy naming, everyone!

Your Alternate-reality Identity

Oct 15th 2008

Every life is a series of choices and chances, paths taken and not taken.  We can ponder the unknowables of who we would be, if.  If we'd grown up in a different place, or a different time; if we'd chosen a different school or a different career; if we'd looked different, or even been a different sex.  This last "if" has a special quality -- from the point of view of this blog, at least.  Because for most of us, our opposite-sex alternate reality has a name.

Even in this age of ultrasound, most parents still consider both boys' and girls' names for each baby-to-be.  In some families, the unused name is later given life in the form of a younger brother or sister.  In many cases, though, the name simply lingers in parents' minds as personal connection, insubstantial yet meaningful.  My husband and I had just-in-case boys' names picked out when our daughters were born, and I still feel a sentimental attachment to those names.  On some level, they're still "mine"...and in that way, they belong to my daughters, too.  But of course my daughters don't remember those names, and can only hear them as foreign to themselves.

In fact, my own alternate-sex, alternate-reality name feels just as foreign to me.  I was taken aback when my mother informed me that if I had been a boy, I would have been named Evan.  Now Evan is a fine name indeed.  It even ranked as one of the most "likeable" of all names in my informal poll a couple of years back.  But it doesn't feel like me.

It's a mind-bender of a question, "what name would suit you if you were the opposite sex?"  That's a lot of layers of hypothetical to fight through.  Yet it's clear to me that Evan's light, contemporary Celtic style doesn't fit my image of myself.

I can't help but wonder how much that is shaped by the name I have borne all of these years.  Laura and Evan are very different in history and style.  If I had lived my life as, say, "Megan," would Evan seem like a more natural masculine alter ego?  And if so, does that mean that as a Megan, I would have a different sense of self?

Try the exercise yourself: think about what you would name your own opposite-sex identity today.  Not necessarily the name you like best, but the name that feels most natural to you.  How does it relate to the name you actually bear -- and, if you know it, to the name you would have borne in your parents' alternate reality?