Peeping Toms and Bloody Marys

Aug 10th 2006

A reader here recently took issue with the suggestion that Tom is a friendly, likeable name:

I personally cannot separate it from the term "peeping tom"-it has pervy undertones, which are not exactly likeable IMO :).

A peeping tom is certainly not an attractive image. But is that association really so much stronger than a tom cat, tomfoolery, Uncle Tom, or Tom Thumb? And are the unsavory connotations worse than what emanates from a Bloody Mary or Jack the Ripper? I'd go further, but it would be unseemly for a baby name blog to set off not-safe-for-work alarms. I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader to conjure up undesirable associations for names like John, Cherry, Patsy, Jack, Randy, Fanny, Rod, Willie, Peter, and Dick.

Lots of traditional English names, and especially nicknames, are loaded with slang meanings. Many are also common words independent of their name usage (ever feel like the phone company's trying to Rob you when you get your Bill?) But in most cases, the name can take it. Names like Jack have survived and thrived despite a plethora of dodgy meanings.

In fact, such a large number of different meanings tends to yield a blunt impact, even when many of the connections are negative. John, for instance, can be a jilted lover, a prostitute's customer or a toilet, but it's still a strong and viable name. Personally, I'd put Tom in the same category: the many associations tend to cancel one another out.

A name can face deeper trouble when a single strong connotation takes over. Even then a long, strong history as a given name can usually carry a name through the hard times -- but a name like Cherry is out of luck. It was the fruit and flower connotation that attracted parents to the name to begin with, so when the connotation shifted the name bowed out.

"But hold on a second," you might be thinking. "What about Dick? Isn't that a classic old name that's been killed off?" A very fair question, which I'll talk about next time.

First names that are middle names that are last names

Aug 2nd 2006

Last week I talked about the difficulty of finding sibling names that strike the same note as Tatum. After reading your responses, I must tip my cap to reader Camilla for her inspired suggestion of Greer. Like Tatum, it's a compact surname that doesn't sound like anything else. (No name ending in -eer has ever made the U.S. top 1000 names list.) Also like Tatum it has a vaguely masculine sound but feminine associations, thanks to a well-known actress -- in this case, Academy Award winner Greer Garson. Bullseye, a perfect match.

Second place in popular opinion went to my suggestion Harper, with Flannery a distant third. I had also discussed Mackenzie, which has some of the same pop-culture-driven history as Tatum, and we could easily throw in Carson for author Carson McCullers. Each of the names mentioned is a traditional surname launched into feminine forename use by a single celebrity. But thinking about it further, I realized that Tatum still, in one way, stands alone. Which of these notable individuals doesn't match?

Eileen Evelyn Greer Garson

Laura Mackenzie Phillips

Lula Carson McCullers

Mary Flannery O'Connor

Nelle Harper Lee

Tatum Beatrice O'Neal

Up until Tatum O'Neal -- the baby of the group -- all of those famous names were middle names. The style-shaping androgynous sounds mostly started out as nods to family tradition, buried behind traditional feminine first names. While a few of the women used their more unconventional middle names as kids, most stuck with their first names into early adulthood. And at least one only used the distinctive middle name on a professional basis, sticking to her birth name in daily life.

Compare this to the current generation of surnamed girls. Not only do we lead with one androgynous surname but we often follow up with another: Madison Taylor, Jordan Mackenzie. Stylistically they're perfect first/middle matches, but they don't leave you any options. Perfect pairings are meant to stay paired. An aspiring author named Madison Taylor can't unfold a new identity by switching to her middle name, any more than a Mary Catherine or Sharon Diane could.

There's a lot to be said for a first/middle pairing that makes a child's full name a harmonious whole. But the tales of names like Mary Flannery and Tatum Beatrice make an intriguing case for mismatches too. A young Madison Miranda's name could grow up many different ways, just as she could.

Case study: Tatum

Jul 27th 2006

To me, the core of the Baby Name Wizard book is the "sibling name" suggestions. I wanted parents to be able to look up one name they liked and come away with a list of promising ideas. In most cases, choosing the sibling names was fun. Armed with my trusty NameMatchmaker program and a stack of reference materials I could match the style of most names pretty comfortably. But good luck with Tatum.

Try it yourself -- what's a natural sister match for a girl named Tatum? Worse yet, a brother? Here's what I ultimately came up with:

Sisters: Quinn, Ainsley, Rylie, Reese, Teagan
Brothers: Rowan, Gideon, Brody, Hudson, Zane

It'll do, I suppose. But Ainsley? Gideon? Hmm...might have to rethink for the second edition. Part of the challenge is the name's unusual sound (only Autumn comes close). But the real trouble with matching Tatum is its history. This is a name that broke the rules.

Tatum is an old English surname. Like many surnames it derives from a place/habitation name, in this case a contraction meaning "Tate homestead." A number of internet name dictionaries trace Tatum back further to a meaning of "cheerful" via the Norse name Tait, but other sources dispute that connection. Regardless, what we hear is simply an English place-based surname.

Many such surnames have evolved into popular first names. Ashley, for instance, comes from the surname meaning "ash-tree clearing." Whitney derives from "white island." Lindsay too comes from a dwelling name, usually cited as either "linden island" or "Lincoln's marsh."

You may notice another similarity among those three names, Ashley, Whitney and Lindsay. They all became male given names first, then eventually shifted to the girls' side. That's a well-traveled path, followed more recently by surnames like Taylor and Bailey. But Tatum, with its boyish sound, was never a boy's name. Its life as a first name dates to November 5, 1963, the birth date of actress Tatum O'Neal. Like fellow actress Mackenzie Phillips, O'Neal was the child of performers and was named for the surname of a male musician (in this case, jazz great Art Tatum). Also like Phillips, O'Neal found herself suddenly bearing a hot name in adulthood as a generation of parents embraced the surname sound for girls.

By skipping the genteel-boy's-name phase, Tatum acquired a more jaunty sound than Whitney and Lindsay. It's completely contemporary, despite its old roots. So what's a good sister match? Mackenzie certainly has the cultural bona fides but its sound and style are quite different. Given the chance to match it over again, I'd be tempted to toss aside the NameMatchmaker and choose Harper or perhaps Flannery, both surnames associated with prominent women (writers Harper Lee and Flannery O'Connor). As for brothers, darned if I know. Perhaps some surnames that are unfamilar as first names in the U.S, just like Tatum before O'Neal. Turner and Flynn, anyone?