Join me for a journey down the Mississippi with an all-American name.
Sawyer is an occupational surname that originally referred to someone who sawed wood for a living. Its free-spirited style, though, comes straight from Mark Twain's boy hero Tom Sawyer. Sawyer started to rise in popularity in the 1990s as part of a trend toward tradesman names, then spiked up after its prominent appearence on the tv series Lost. Like other literary surnames (Harper, Beckett), it has a broad appeal, luring in an educated slice of parents who usually prefer more traditional given names. It is pronounced...well, that's where today's story starts.
A site visitor clicked the "Report inappropriate content" on the Sawyer page in Namipedia. The visitor wrote:
There is an error in the pronunciation of this name. I named our son Sawyer and we have spent 22 years correcting people you (sic) slovenly say "SOY-yer." The word AND the name are correctly pronouned just as it reads: "SAW-yer." One wouldn't say, "I soy your mother at the store." :-) I hope you will change this. Thank you.
22 years of correcting people can't be any fun, but there's a reason all those folks said SOY-er. It's the standard pronunciation of the word and name in both the U.K. and the U.S. -- take a listen at this Oxford dictionary page. SAW-yer is an acceptable variant, used by a small minority of people. I added it as a second listing in Namipedia, but parents of a SAW-yer should know they're fighting an uphill battle. (As for the idea that not pronouncing a word phonetically is "slovenly," hey, this is English we're talking about. Even the word English itself isn't pronounced phonetically.)
As I learned more about the word sawyer, though, I came to realize that the standard listing for the name really is wrong. Not the pronunciation, but the meaning.
Look up sawyer in a modern dictionary and you'll find two definitions. First is the person who saws wood, second a beetle that bores into trees. Look it up in a baby name dictionary and you'll find just the first definition. That's proper, since little Sawyers are hardly likely to be named for the beetle. But look up sawyer in a 19th-century American dictionary and you'll discover something quite different. Here's an excerpt from Noah Webster's 1828 edition:
In America, a tree which, being undermined by a current of water, and falling into the stream, lies with its branches above water, which are continually raised and depressed by the force of the current, from which circumstance the name is derived. The sawyers in the Mississippi render the navigation dangerous, and frequently sink boats which run against them.
In the words of John Bartlett's 1848 Dictionary of Americanisms, "This may truly be called an American word; for no country without a Mississippi and Missouri could produce a sawyer."
It was this all-American word, this peril of the Mississippi and scourge of steamboats that gave Tom Sawyer his name. Tom, in turn, gave all the first-name Sawyers their names. After all, as a surname Sawyer is less common than Glover, Decker, Collier, Skinner and many others. Its style mojo comes from the book. So arguably, the "real" meaning of Sawyer that should be listed in baby name dictionaries is a submerged tree.
Just think of it. All of this uncertainty about the pronunciation and meaning of a name that is an English word, a familiar surname, and one of the most recognizable names in American literature. Meanwhile new names are being introduced every day. A Baby Name Wizard's work is never done.
A fan of the tv series Brothers & Sisters pointed me to some familiar-looking baby name books in this week's episode. Very familiar. Yet perhaps not? Here's a detail of the scene:
Those blue, green and pink bubbles of text...the whole color and shape...haven't I seen that somewhere before? Nah, must be my imagination....
Unless a mysterious ripoff book has suddenly hit bookstores ("The Baby Name Lizard"?), I'm guessing that the show's producers whipped up this little homage themselves. Apparently it's considered easier to create a fake book that resembles a real one rather than to secure permissions from the real book's publisher. That surely says something about both the tv and publishing industries.
It's pretty funny regardless, and I'd like to think that they were inspired by a genuine copy of The Baby Name Wizard lying around their offices. Because Brothers & Sisters is a show that generally does get names right. Look at the adult siblings at the heart of the show, born over a 14-year span. The eldest are named Sarah and Katherine, the youngest Kevin and Justin. And how about these two pairs of young siblings: Paige & Cooper, Elizabeth & William. If the writers have been using that "Baby Name Lizard" book, it's pretty darned good.
Your taste in baby names is shaped by many factors. If I had to point to just one, though -- one force that drives your opinions, that's impossible to escape -- it would be your generation.
That's obvious on the face of it. We all know that name styles change dramatically over time. When it comes to our own personal taste, though, it's hard to feel the generational influence. Here's how I usually describe it: the names of your own generation sound too ordinary, your parents' too boring, your grandparents' too old. But by the time you make it back to your great-grandparents' names, things start to perk up. You've never known a young Vivian or Julius, so those names sound fresh to you.
That places a style "sweet spot" at naming generations roughly 60-90 years older than you. But it also points to a second sweet spot at names 20-40 years younger than you. Those are the names that you and your friends name your children. Meanwhile you're turned off by names in middle, particularly your own age and 10-20 years older. So if you were born in the 1970s, you probably didn't consider '60s names like Sheila or Kent for your kids.
Now here's the kicker. That same generation of names that marks your style nadir is your parents' sweet spot. And those charming antiques you love? They're your parents' stodgy grandma names. Let's overlay some hypothetical curves:
Call the areas in green "argument zones."
Parents, this explains why your mother-in-law keeps suggesting names like Karen and Steve. Grandparents, this explains how your daughter could possibly consider a name like Julius (or Genesis) for a little baby. And to our youngest readers, prepare for your parents to totally miss the appeal of Conrad and Joyce. They don't have bad taste, honest. They're just products of their generation.