The dead classics hall of fame

Jan 11th 2008

Everything old is new again! Our schoolyards are hopping with little Amelias and Olivers. Just wait a century and almost any name can come back into style...right? Nope, you know better than that. We pick and choose from the past, finding the names that sound lively or elegant to our modern ears.

I've written about some of the style elements that can keep a name down, like clusters of consonants. But one of these days those consonants may start sounding fresh again and Myrtle will be ready and waiting. Are there really names that won't, that can't come back? For that fate a name needs more than an unfashionable sound. It needs a fatal flaw.

A fatal-flaw name usually conjures up an unpleasant image unrelated to the name itself. The name Adolf/Adolph, for instance, sinks under the weight of vast historical baggage. Pervis, in comparison, faces a comparatively lighthearted problem (cross pervert with penis, and voila). But from a fashion perspective, Pervis is every bit as doomed. In fact, in the 1990s more than 100 boys in Texas were given the first or middle name Adolf/ph while just four were named Pervis...and every one of those four had a Jr., III or IV after his name.

What other traditional names are buried so deeply that they have no chance of revival in our lifetimes? My starter list of canddates: Dorcas, Hortense, Oral. Feel free to suggest your own nominees for this unfortunate "hall of fame" of names that have fallen and can't get up.

Happy New Babies!

Dec 27th 2007

Every January 1, babies are front-page news. The first new arrival in each local hospital is feted as the living symbol of the fresh new year. It's the perfect match of calendar and birth, both opening doors to a fresh new world, limitless in its possibilities. It's only natural that parents of New Year's babies would commemorate the timing in their children's names, right? Umm...right? Anybody?

Most cultures have names that memorialize special times of birth. In past generations, American parents were no exception. (See this past blog on holiday name ideas, or try the name Easter in the NameVoyager!) Today, though, we're less willing to give over our name choices to the calendar. In part this is surely a reflection of smaller family sizes. A seventh child born on Christmas is more likely to be thought of as "the Christmas baby," while an only child born on Christmas is simply "the baby." And overall, names today are less about connections and memories and more about style. So a New Year's birth date won't be enough to lure most American parents to a name like Nova (Latin, "new") or Mwaka (Kiswahili/Ganda, "year").

Well then, how about a middle name? That's a nice compromise for many families, and possibly a boon to those who have dreamed up a first name based solely on style. When little Braeleigh and Zaydin want to hear the stories behind their names you can recall the New Year's Eve births celebrated in their middle names of Nova and Mwaka, or perhaps...

Dagny -- A classic Scandinavian girl's name, from Norse roots meaning "new day."

January -- The Roman god Janus represented points of transition, looking backward and forward at once. (Gennaro/Jenaro is a boy's name based on the same root.)

Jera -- The name of an ancient rune which shares a root with "year." Jera represented the completion of the yearly harvest cycle and the fruition of efforts.

Neo -- From the prefix meaning "new." Here's your chance to pretend you didn't just get it from The Matrix.

Naveen/Navin -- From the Sanskrit for "new," familiar via "Lost" star Naveen Andrews.

Primo -- Italian for "first," the name Primo usually indicates a first-born son but could also signal a 1/1 birthday.

Wishing you all a happy new year of names!

The 2007 Name Of The Year

Dec 18th 2007

Thank you to the readers who submitted hundreds of thought-provoking suggestions for the 2007 Baby Name Wizard Name of the Year. (Read about the NOTY requirements here.) Before I unveil the ultimate selection, a quick note on a name that didn't make the cut. Despite many nominations, Miley was out of the running for 2007...because it was already named a runner up for the 2006 Name of the Year! And now, the honorees.

Second runner up: Delilah
In terms of sheer baby-name viability, Delilah is the year's big story. Back in January I featured it as an example of a name that was rising despite biblical infamy. After a year drenched in the Plain White T's song "Hey There Delilah," this name has officially crossed over from "out there" to just "there." The name Lilah-with-an-h is benefiting equally and should be one of the fastest risers of 2007.

First runner up: Chuck
For name geeks, this name is a fascinating study in the machinations of style. In 2007 all of Hollywood seemed to converge on Chuck as the anti-style name. Producers loved the way Chuck conveys the message that "this character isn't about image." The name tickled them so much, in fact, that they led with it in titles like the tv series "Chuck" and the movies I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry and Good Luck Chuck.

It's not so much that Chuck is chosen to sound out of style, like Floyd or Wilfred. It sounds immune to style, a steady island of everyman in a river of sophisticates and metrosexuals. It's such a perfect choice than you can take the inverse of Chuck and find the fashion of the moment. Chuck's a nickname, therefore formality must be trendy. Chuck's all hard consonants, so smooth vowel-laden names are all the rage. But the Hollywood scriptwriters who play off of fashions also help create them. Already, their embrace of good old Chuck is taking the edge off the name. Like chunky plastic glasses a decade ago, Chuck is now ready to flip from fashion holdout to geek chic.

And the official 2007 Name of the Year:


This is no political statement, just a statement on names in culture. Senator Barack Hussein Obama is leading American political names into uncharted territory. If he should win the Democratic presidential nomination, his name would be a landmark for a major-party nominee. Already it's starting to create the unprecedented spectacle of first name as campaign issue.

While the U.S. is a nation of immigrants, it's fair to call Barack a "foreign" name. Senator Obama is named for his father Barack Sr., a Kenyan who came to this country to study as a foreign student. The name has almost no usage history in the United States. In 215 years of American electoral history encompassing 105 major nominees, the overwhelming majority of candidates have had traditional English names. In fact, the names George, James, John and William alone account for more than a third of all nominees. Among rarer names, most are based on English surnames such as Rutherford and Winfield. Many of these are taken from the nominee's mother's maiden name, and many were actually given as middle names: Thomas Woodrow Wilson, James Strom Thurmond, Stephen Grover Cleveland.

A few candidate names have had more creative flair, like those of Horatio Seymour and the man who defeated him, Ulysses S. Grant (born Hiram Ulysses). Both names harken back to a 19th-century vogue for classical names which also yielded hits like Rufus and Augustus. They were uncommon but not foreign, and in step with American fashions. The most unconventional name on the list is probably Adlai Stevenson, but even Adlai is a biblical name. It had been used in Stevenson's family for generations, including by a grandfather who served as U.S. Vice President.

No notably foreign names. Nothing remotely like Barack. Because Barack isn't just "un-English," it's very much something else.

Barack Hussein Obama Sr., the senator's father, was by all accounts a non-religious man of Muslim background. The names Hussein and Obama dramatically echo two of the biggest U.S. enemies of recent years, both Muslims: Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden. A few political commentators opposed to Senator Obama have already tried to use these facts to plant doubts about the candidate. In particular, they are trying to persuade faith-focused Christian voters that Senator Obama (a member of the United Church of Christ) is actually, secretly, a Muslim...and by extension, a little too close to the likes of Bin Laden. And it all starts with his name.

Many of the comments have focused on the middle name Hussein and the Obama/Osama similarity (see this December '06 column). More recently, the first name Barack has become a focus because it comes from the Arabic root Baraka, "blessing." (Side note: this corresponds to the Hebrew Beracha, "blessing," rather than the Hebrew Barak, "lightning.") One commentator seemed to question Obama's honesty regarding his name, asking "Why has he sometimes said his first name is Arabic, and other times Swahili?" To answer to this question from a pure baby-name perspective, it's much like arguing over whether the name Eduardo comes from Spanish or English. Its a name of Old English origin used in Spanish, so both "origins" are accurate. Swahili incorporates a great deal of Arabic, so Barack is from Swahili with an Arabic root.

As far as I know, it's completely unprecedented to ask a politician to defend the etymology of his first name, or of anything else for that matter. Since etymology isn't a political issue, it's reasonable to assume that the commentators are using it as a proxy for something bigger: that Barack Obama doesn't sound like a guy you should vote for.

On the flip side, Obama himself wears his name proudly as a symbol of his candidacy. It's an instant shorthand for the "freshness" of his multicultural, multiracial heritage...and it's extremely memorable. (Compare to, say, John Edwards. Or to Hillary Clinton, who has to go by her first name to stake out her own territory.)

Whether you take it as a proud point of strength or a weak point to attack, Barack marks a watershed for baby-name diversity in American politics. And with George, James, John and William on the wane, it's surely a harbinger of public name debates to come -- and of a wave of new little Baracks. That makes it your Name of the Year.