Calendar naming: Extreme edition

Feb 4th 2009

A few weeks back I talked about seasonal names that rise and fall based on the calendar -- specifically, the name April.  Around the world, the time of birth is a traditional source of naming inspiration.  Many African names such as Kofi ( from the Akan language, meaning "born on a Friday" ) commemorate the day or season.  Other traditions mark holiday births with special names, such as Esther and Mordecai for the Jewish holiday of Purim.

In some Christian traditions, though, calendar-based naming is a 365-days-a-year custom.  The Roman Catholic and Orthdox churches maintain saints' calendars, remembering and celebrating the lives of the holy on specific days of each year.  In many communities it is an old tradition to name children for a saint whose feast day falls on their their birthdate. And therein lies today's curious tale, of seasonal names as a footnote to history.

France was one of the world's trend-setters in the orderly regulation of names.  The Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts, a landmark set of reforms in 1539 that helped establish modern France, set down the first formal naming rules.  The ordinance established hereditary surnames and required all baby names to be registered, with priestly approval required. Practically speaking, this meant that babies were to be named for saints, most often the saint dictated by the calendar.

The Villers-Cotterêts rules held until the French Revolution, when the calendar itself was turned upside down. The new Republican government appointed a team of mathematicians who devised an entirely new calendar based on a decimal system.  While the Bible prescribes a day of rest after six days of work, the secular Revolutionary Calendar opted for efficient 10-day weeks.  (The working public failed to appreciate the mathematical elegance of the longer weeks.)

A committee of poets then took on the job of naming all the parts of the new year.  Months were simple enough, based on the features of the season.  Thermidor, for instance, came in the heat of summer.  But each day had to be named too, to replace the familiar roster of saints.  The poets settled on 365 days of plants, farm animals, and a few gardening implements.  So Ste. Agathe's Day, February 5th, became Lichen day in the Pluviôse, or rainy, month.

Yet the age-old tradition of a naming calendar had a deep hold on the populace. Some parents still felt an obligation to follow the calendar for baby names, even as the calendar turned agricultural.  You can see parental struggles recorded in a smattering of birth records from the 1790s. The new-calendar names make furtive appearances, assigned like aliases: Jeanne et Artichaut ("Jeanne and Artichoke.")

If names are a candid reflection of culture, then Jeanne et Artichaut  is a reflection of a cultural experiment gone awry. It didn't stick.  By the early 19th Century the old calendar was restored and its naming significance codified into law.  All baby names had to be found either on the calendar of saints or in classical history.

Perhaps this tale should give strength to parents contemplating calendar heresy -- say, naming a November baby April.  Be grateful you have the choice, and remember that the seasons won't sink a good name, any more than a June 30 birthday saves Artichoke from being a bad one.

That traditional favorite, Jack

Jan 27th 2009

Every January you see a raft of news stories chronicling the year in baby names.  This year, the favorite theme is parents "returning to traditional old favorites" like Jack, Ava and Olivia.  I've written before about the questionable antique status of Ava and Olivia (part 1, part 2), but it's hard to question Jack.  It's an old and storied English name.

But you do realize it's an old and storied nickname, right? Surprisingly, many people today have no idea that Jack was originally a pet form of John. In the lands where Jack now reigns supreme (#1 in England, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, etc.), you'd be hard-pressed to call Jack a traditional given name at all.

The English Census from 150 years ago lists 363 entries under Jack. Chances are that many of those were actually christened John, but let's take the number at face value: 363 solid, traditional Jacks. And the number of Johns in that census? 1,257,079.  That's 3,463 given-name Johns per Jack. For perspective, in America today there are only 101 Jacobs born per...Elmer.

Modern British parents flock to given names like Alfie and Tilly, but in generations past the idea of using those names at christening time would have seemed downright inappropriate.  You can catch a glimpse of that perspective in a human-interest piece that appeared in the New York Times in 1876.  The article, entitled "Curious Christenings," was a collection of bizarre and humorous stories of christenings gone awry.  At least, they were bizarre and humorous by 1876 standards. (The tale of the white minister who named the black slave boy "Jane" doesn't exactly tickle us today.)  Here's the relevant excerpt:

As an example of the way in which parents will insist on curious names, a gentleman says that he was visiting a clergyman of the Church of England, and one evening as they sat together after dinner a summons came to the rector to go and christen the child of a gypsy couple that were encamped with their tribe in the parish. The gentlemen went with the clergyman to the camp, when, ascending a short flight of steps, they found themselves in the four-wheeled covered wagon that served the gypsies as a house. The babe, four or five days old, was presented, and the mother, already recovered from her confinement, stood up as one of the godparents.  The clergyman asked by what name he should call the child and she answered Jacky. "John?" said he, somewhat surprised. "No, Sir, Jacky," she replied. "But you surely don't want him christened Jacky. You mean John, do you not," said he. But the mother insisted on the name she had chosen, and the child was christened Jacky.

Jacky!  Oh, those wacky, wacky gypsies.

So "tradition" does't seem to support writing Jack on a birth certificate. Just as with Ava and Olivia, though, we're not wrong to call Jack a traditional, old-fashioned name.  It's certainly an old and familiar name, not a newly invented one.  More importantly, it's traditional in theme and intent, sounding like a link to generations past.  If those generations past would have insisted on a different name at the christening time, well, that's their problem.

Red and Blue Baby Naming: Inauguration 2009 Edition

Jan 20th 2009

Hey, anybody remember the 2004 presidential election? I'll refresh your memory, it looked something like this:

The stark red-blue segregation became a national obsession, with stereotypes flying on both sides. The division between the "two Americas" ran deep.  We could all feel it, and we could feel it widening: a vast culturo-political fissure with total mistrust and misunderstanding on both sides.  A map redividing the country into "United States of Canada" and "Jesusland" was one of the hottest jokes of the year.  There was no hope of bridging the gap...until there was. As soon as Barack Obama started redrawing that electoral map, the red-blue meme passed.  But is it really gone? Or was it ever real to begin with? On this inauguration day, I'd like to revisit the red-blue faceoff through the lens of baby names.

A few years back, I started a project to track down the red-blue divide in name terms. Did blue (liberal) and red (conservative) America actually name their children differently? Yes, they surely did. But how they did was a stunner.  The "bluest" names were traditional, Christian, and single-sex; the "reddest" were newly invented, non-religious and androgynous.  (Try it on the NameMapper: select 2004 and type in Henry, then Rylee.)  In other words, our choices of names -- one of the most candid, heartfelt expressions of our values and dreams -- ran precisely opposite to our supposed values divide.

What did it mean? I went down a long path, reading stats and research on red and blue America.  Along the way, I discovered some surprising facts.  For instance, while Americans felt certain their opinions were diverging, actual opinion surveys showed the country's views converging into an age of uncommon consensus.  The division we saw on the maps and felt in our guts was hard to pin down in the real world.  So maybe the peculiar baby name data could point toward some answers.

If you have some time on your hands, you can check out the full article I wrote on the subject back in 2006. But here's the condensed version of where the names led me.

Let's say you have two groups of women making fashion choices. One opts for timeless classics, simple and a little formal; the other chooses the newest, trendiest, most eye-catching styles that make old fogeys squirm.  What drives the difference? If you had to predict just one variable, the obvious choice is age.  Was it possible that blue state parents were more conservative namers simply because they were older?

Sure enough, in 18 of the 19 states that voted for John Kerry in 2004, first-time mothers were older than the national average.  And the more Democratic the community, the stronger the effect.

Waiting to start a family is part of a self-reinforcing class cycle.  Girls from educated, middle-and upper-class backgrounds are more likely to pursue higher education.  To make the most of their investment in schooling, they'll put off having children until they've gotten their careers under way. When they finally do start families they're more financially secure and can provide good educational opportunities for their own children, starting the cycle anew.

You can see how political factors play into this maternal age cycle.  Higher education, for instance, is a classic predictor of liberalism.  A strict cultural conservatism, meanwhile—rejecting abortion, embracing traditional gender roles—would tend to lead you toward younger parenthood.  A conservative community ends up with young moms and thus young-mom style, a liberal community with old-mom style.

So age-based style is entwined with the old standbys of income and values.  But remember that in the red/blue baby name choices, style and values were in direct opposition.  Going head to head in a decision that parents take very seriously, style beat values by a mile. So perhaps the style-making variable of maternal age plays a bigger role in the cultural divide than we realize.

In fact, if you start with nothing but a maternal age gap, you end up predicting a lot of the behaviors that divide red and blue America -- even seemingly value-driven behaviors.  For instance, red-state residents are more likely to report that they attend worship services weekly.  But when do people go to church most?  When it's time to introduce their children to the faith.  Americans who are married with children are twice as likely to attend church weekly as their single, childless counterparts.  The earlier you have kids, therefore, the more the church becomes part of the fabric of your life.  In a community of young moms, the church naturally becomes central to the community's life.

You can follow this same thread to countless other aspects of personal and community life.  What it adds up to is that the age when you have children isn't just one more variable in the cultural spreadsheet.  It's your life story, and the life story of your community.  A "life story gap" is a recipe for mutual incomprehension.

Now here's the kicker. Remember how America's political and moral judgments turn out to be closer today than ever before, and how the widening divide we perceive is hard to pin down?  Well, the maternal age gap -- the life story gap -- is widening.  In 1970, Arkansas and Mississippi had the youngest first-time mothers in America with an average age of 20.  Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York were oldest with an average of 22, a difference of just two years.  By 2000 those numbers stood at 22 and 27, a difference of five years.  The difference is even bigger at the political and lifestyle extremes.  The percentage of Democratic voters in a state correlates closely with the percentage of all births to mothers over 40, which is growing fast.  The red-blue life story gap grows with it.

So that's what I concluded after tallying up the baby names back in 2006.  Does it still have any relevance in the new political world of 2009?  Here's a little sign that it may.  Barack Obama won all or part of 10 states that John Kerry lost.  Suppose you tried to predict which 10 based on the percentage of the vote Kerry took in each state. You'd get 7 of 10 right.  If instead you predicted based on the average age of first-time mothers in each state...8 out of 10.

I'm a baby namer, not a politician.  I don't have to try to bridge policy divides (thank heavens), but I do encounter plenty of hostility on both sides of the baby-naming divide.  Perhaps thinking about the life story gap can help bring us all a little understanding of one another's choices.  As we look across the chasm, let's all take a moment to envision our own lives as they might have been.  Henry and Margaret's mom, you may be just a simple life circumstance away from Colton and Ashlyn's mom.  Be we red and blue or purple, this nation could use a lot of mutual understanding in the years ahead.