Naming an American Girl

Aug 20th 2009

Reader Laura (nice name!) wrote with a question about the names of the American Girl doll & book series. Each character in the series has a specific cultural/historical setting in the American past. Laura's letter says it best:

I was just reading in the New York Times about how they chose the name Rebecca Rubin for their new doll - "a 9-year-old girl living on the Lower East Side in 1914 with her Russian-Jewish immigrant parents, siblings and a grandmother known only as Bubbie."

It seems like for Rebecca they did some research to pick an historically accurate name, and I suppose they did for the other girls as well, but they all sound very "current" to me.  Certainly no Gertrudes in the bunch!

What do you think?

Addy Walker (1864 - Black)
Felicity Merriman and her friend Elizabeth (1774)
Josefina Montoya (1824 - Latina)
Julie Albright and her friend Ivy Ling (1974 - Ivy is Asian)
Kaya (1764 - Native American)
Kirsten Larson (1854 - from Sweden)
Kit Kittredge and her friend Ruthie (1934)
Molly McIntire and her friend Emily (1944 - Emily is from England)

Naming an American Girl is an intriguing challenge. It's a delicate balance of baby naming, character naming and brand naming. The company generally strikes that balance very well, though nobody's perfect.

Let's take Rebecca Rubin as an example. Could a Jewish girl born to an immigrant family in New York circa 1904 have been named Rebecca? Certainly. The 1910 U.S. Census lists 796 girls named Rebecca born 1902-1906 living in New York City. Judging by surname, a majority of them were Jewish...and three of them were named Rebecca Rubin.

QED, Rebecca Rubin is a plausible name for such a girl. That's a big step up from the likes of Disney's Tiana. But is it a typical name that represents its cultural moment? Consider that the same Census sample that gave us three Rebecca Rubins also yields at least that many Rubins with names more typical of the period, such Dorothy, Helen, Mary, Bessie, and Anna...not to mention 11 Idas, 11 Fannies and 17 Roses & Rosies. The trick is that none of those names sounds distinctly Jewish.

As a biblical matriarch, Rebecca is a classic "good Jewish name." It has traditionally sounded Jewish to non-Jews, too -- the "Jewess" Rebecca of Ivanhoe is a glaring example. (It took Shirley Temple as Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm to make the name an interfaith American favorite.) Today, Rebecca sounds timeless with a whiff of the 1970s. Unlike, say, Bessie or Ida, it definitely does not summon up 1914. This suggests that the dollmakers were focusing more on the religious connotations than the time period when they chose the name. That's a perfectly reasonable decision.

It doesn't hurt that Rebecca is still a well-liked name. As reader Laura noted, American Girl has tailored all of the dolls' names to modern tastes. In reality, little Miss Larson from Sweden would have been much more likely to be a Matilda or a Wilhelmina than a Kirsten. But Rebecca seems a bit stiff alongside doll names like Addy, Kit and Molly. One alternative that would have hit the quadruple-bullseye of Jewish heritage, period feel, informal style and modern appeal: Sadie. There were 11 Sadie Rubins in the Census list, and 6 Sarahs besides.

Authentic Ethnic Names, Baked Fresh Every Day!

Aug 13th 2009

Does your family have Scandinavian roots?  Would you like to honor that tradition with your daughter's name?  Here's a great choice to consider:

Ronja/Ronia

Ronja is a literary name, the heroine of a novel by a revered Swedish author.  The book and name are both well-known and well-loved throughout Scandinavia; the name is a current top-100 hit in most of the region.  Ronja is the local spelling, Ronia the standard English equivalent.

That's a rock-solid ethnic name, right?  A name distinctive to Scandinavia, with meaningful cultural/literary origins.  Now: does it matter when that literary origin took place?

The book in question is Ronja Rövardotter (Ronia the Robber's Daughter) by children's writer Astrid Lindgren, author of the Pippi Longstocking books.  (Regular readers may recognize this book as the source of another name I described recently, Birk.) Ronja was published in 1981, and a 1984 film version was a huge regional hit.  So the name is the product of one woman's imagination, less than 30 years ago. Doesn't that make it a modern, invented name instead of an authentically ethnic one?

Perhaps the answer is that it's both, modern and "authentic."  After all, the name Wendy was created by J.M.Barrie in Peter Pan. Vanessa was dreamed up by Jonathan Swift for Cadenus and Vanessa.  Great authors enrich their cultures with names as well as ideas, and that's every bit as authentic a process today as in centuries past.

If you look closely, you can see contemporary, authentic names being created all the time. For example, saoirse is the Gaelic word for freedom.  Patriotic Irish parents started using the word as a name in the 20th Century, and it's today it's the 29th most popular girl's name in Ireland.  It's not a traditional given name, but a truly and purely Irish one.

Does it mean anything, then, to talk about "real" or "authentic" names from a particular culture if new authentic names can be created every day?  I think it does mean something.  It means...that it means something.  That the name has cultural meaning and resonance beyond an individual family's choice.  A beloved book by a local literary icon or a term from a cherished linguistic heritage is an emblem of shared meaning, part of an ethnic identity that binds a people together.

In contrast, a baby name invented by one family is about individual rather than collective meaning.  Even if that name grows into broader popularity, it doesn't have the same hold on a culture's shared sense of self and community...for a while, at least.  Individual inventions have to prove themselves.  If an unrooted name manages to stick around long enough, it can create its own roots in the culture in the form of the generations of people who live their lives with that name.  Eventually, its origins may cease to matter.  After all, how many of us hear Vanessa today and think Jonathan Swift, or hear Cheryl and think "creative made-up name?"

Name analogies

Aug 6th 2009

Want to play a game?

Recently on Twitter, I pointed to a new name that a user added to Namipedia: Narelle. The submitter explained that it's a mainstream Australian women's name that was popular in the 1960s-'70s. A quick web search confirmed this. My description for non-Aussie readers was, "Think Michelle, but only for Australians."

An Australian reader agreed that she thinks of the two names as similar, so the analogy worked. And -- name geek time -- it was fun to think up. What other kinds of name analogies can we make?

How about time? Perhaps Riley = Kelly + 30 years. Or Messiah is to 2009 as General was to 1880? Try nicknames. Bob is to Rob as Bill is to Will. (Now try to work in Liam.) Or stylistic relationships, like Lacey is to Lindsey as Mckenna is to Mckenzie.

Better yet, pose them as puzzles. Mickey is to Brady as Debbie is to...?  That one's tougher than it looks, a little nameteaser to keep you up late on a lazy summer evening. Post some of your own, and I'll play along!