Born free

Nov 4th 2006

When a common word is adopted as a baby name, the word's meaning suffuses the name. Lily speaks of gentle sweetness, Raven is bold, Hope eternally sunny. But occasionally, the name can also help us understand the word.

Take this graph of the usage of one word name in the United States over the past century. From the dates, can you guess what the name might be?



That name, sparked by world events in three different decades, is Liberty. It's just one name but with several shades of meaning. 1918 marked the end of World War I. That year's little Liberties were triumphant celebrations as the world emerged from a dark and dangerous time. 1976 was the American bicentennial, the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Those Liberties were dedicated to the ideals of "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness." In 2001, for the first time Liberties were inspired by tragedy rather than triumph. In the wake of the September 11 attacks the name was proud and resiliant.

The 2001 crop of little Liberties also differed from its predecessors in another way: it stuck around. A lot has changed in America in the past five years, yet the name Liberty is still holding strong. In large part, I suspect that's a function of style. Names like Destiny, Trinity, Journey, Harmony and Serenity also make the top 1000 today. Yet naming a daughter Liberty remains a statement--of one kind or another. Whether it's the Liberty of "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice" or of "American Civil Liberties Union" varies from family to family. And someday, each Liberty will have to look in the mirror and decide for herself.

Our stylish ancestors

Oct 27th 2006

When I was writing about "forged antiques" -- names that sound like ancestral throwbacks when they aren't (part 1, part 2)-- one mystery kept weighing on my mind. If Olivia isn't really a revival from a century ago, why do so many parents of young Olivias tell me that their daughter was named after her great-great grandmother? The numbers don't seem to add up. Last year more than 15,000 Olivias were born in the U.S., or more than 50 for each Olivia born 100 years earlier.

Then I started to think back on my own family-inspired naming ideas. My maternal great-grandmother was named Rose, and I grew up hearing stories of her and her family. So I had a personal, sentimental attachment to the name, and considered using it for my first daughter. I thought it would make a particularly good middle name. But one day it struck me that Rose had a husband, my great-grandpa Herman...yet I had never for a moment considered Herman for a boy. What's more, I discovered that Rose was the single most popular middle name for American girls! My attachment to the name felt purely sentimental, but it was very much about style.

Every child born has 48 great-great and great-great-great grandparents. Add in aunts, uncles and cousins and you have a huge pool of ancestors to pick from. So if you're able to trace your family tree back far enough, chances are you can find an Olivia, or perhaps a Hallie or Lucia or Levi or Sebastian, whatever suits your style. Maybe you'll even find a surname that would sound stylish as a given name today. Hundreds of options, all without leaving the cozy confines of family. It's almost like adding an extra style list to the Baby Name Wizard book. Along with "Antique Charm" and "Brisky and Breezy," you have "Ancestral Elan."

But if scanning our family trees is just another exercise in style, why do we bother? What's the value in naming your baby after someone you never even met? What you get with the family-tree names is a story. You have a terrific answer waiting when your daughter asks why you chose the name Olivia. It's an answer that makes her a part of a tradition, a link between the past and future. Maybe you can even tell her enough about the person she's named after to make her name stand as a living reminder of where her family has come from, or what she might hope to become.

Of course, as you tiptoe out onto the branches of your family tree scanning for stylish ideas, you're stepping over a lot of names. All those overlooked Berthas and Lesters have stories to tell as well, and 100 years ago, Berthas and Lesters outnumbered Olivias and Sebastians 30 to 1. But heck, that's what middle names are for. Unless you happen to have a great-grandma Rose.

Name Madness

Oct 20th 2006

Some decisions are just made to cause conflicts. Around our house, the preferred way to de-fang those beastly choices is with an element of gaming. My husband and I end up flipping a coin a lot. (We used to play "odds or evens" until he realized that I had an unfair advantage because I could read his mind.) Once we even assigned an onerous chore through a silent auction where we bid the number of loads of laundry we'd do to get out of it. No arguments, lots of clean clothes, what's not to like?

So I was immediately drawn to the scheme that readers Natalie Miller-Moore and Dan Moore dreamed up to choose a name for their baby. Think of the name decision this way: you have a group of competitors and want to determine which one is the best. What do you do? Suppose you have 64 competitors...and it's March? Yes, it's bracket time!

The Moores' name playoff system works like the NCAA basketball championship. Choose 64 names, 32 boys and 32 girls, from the Baby Name Wizard book. (Hey, an author's gotta eat, right?) Rank them for "seeding" purposes and enter them on a form much like the office pools that sap our national productivity every Spring. Put the girls on the left, the boys on the right then start pairwise eliminations until you're down to one name for each sex. The ultrasound determines the ultimate champion.

You can do the seeding together or just divvy up the odd and even slots. The Moores passed out brackets to friends and family to get an idea of how their name choices played to the public, but the approach should work just as well to jumpstart a stalled private decision process. A Name Madness tournament might hold especial appeal to the many women who tell me that their male partners just won't talk about names. Because who can resist the competitive allure of a playoff bracket?

At the very least the process should bring a little fun back to your naming discussions. Choosing a baby name really shouldn't be a chore, it should be a delight.

If you're tempted, you can print out a blank name tournament bracket at http://www.babynamewizard.com/namemadness.pdf .