Name Spotlight: Levi

Oct 10th 2008

Levi is a classic biblical name.  It is not, by and large, a classic English Christian name.  Written as Levi or Levy and pronounced LEH-vee or LEE-vee, it comes across as distinctly Jewish to most American adults.  But pronounce it LEE-viy and the name's image suddenly shifts.  Over the past generation, the name's whole identity has made that shift -- a shift encompassing a rich American stew of history, geography, religion and culture.

For most of the 20th century, Levi kept a low profile.  It didn't crack the top 200 nationally until the 1980s.  The most telling pattern, though, isn't when Levi came back, but where.  Take a look at this map, showing the states where Levi ranked among the top 100 boys' names 25 years ago:

map of the name levi

You're looking at the modern frontier, American states with rugged terrain and mostly sparse population.  All are overwhelmingly Christian.  So why Levi in those regions?  Because it's a "pioneer" name, one of the Old Testament men's names that conjure up a world of trappers, homesteaders and prospecters who ventured out to make their homes and fortunes in a rough and wild land.  The name Levi is one of the pinnacles of that hard-scrabble style, thanks to Levi Strauss and his legendary jeans.

The tale of Levi Strauss is one of the best known origin stories in American business.  It was the California gold rush, and young dry-goods purveyor Levi saw the toll that the 49ers' hard labor took on a regular pair of trousers.  So he fashioned some tough work pants out of sailcloth with copper rivets at the pockets, and a nation had a new workwear uniform.  The Levi Strauss company's frontier heritage is commemorated in the mule drivers on the label of my Levi's 512 mom jeans, and in the many young Levis living across the Mountain West.

So far, so good.  But the first point to ponder in this tale is that the pioneer Levi who propelled the name's transformation to Christian rancher chic was himself a Jew.  Levi Strauss was a paragon of the San Francisco Jewish community, a benefactor of Jewish causes and a member of the city's first synagogue.

The next intriguing tidbit is that Levi's famous work pants weren't actually invented in the 49er gold rush at all.  Strauss was born in Bavaria in 1829, and emigrated to New York to join his brothers in the dry goods business in 1847.  After five years in the family business he headed West, establishing his own successful dry-goods supply firm in San Francisco.  In 1872 Strauss got a letter from a tailor who had devised a clever method of using rivets to strengthen work pants; he hoped that Strauss, by then a prominent businessman, would partner with him to patent and develop the idea.  The two joined forces, and a clothing empire was born.

And one final item to put the whole Levi story in perspective: Levi's given name was Loeb Strauss.  He restyled himself as the more American-sounding Levi after arriving in New York.

So there you have the story of Levi: a tale of enterprise, ingenuity, self-reinvention, ethnic mishmashing, and romantic mythologization.  Is there any more American name?

Namer's Remorse

Sep 25th 2008

I hear from a lot of parents in the grip of naming dilemmas.  Some of them are just starting their name searches, while others are feeling the pressure as they count down to their due dates.  And yet others -- a surprisingly large number -- are already home with an infant in their arms, but still uneasy about the names they've chosen.

"Namer's remorse" is a complication you really don't need at an already complicated time of life.  It piles on top of the sleeplessness, the endless to-do lists, and the general life upheaval that comes with expanding your family.  Sometimes, in fact, it's a product of those factors.  The high emotional pitch of the first days at home tends to amplify every parenting concern.

Name anxiety can also be a safe place to channel some of the difficult feelings of new parenthood.  It's a big leap from the imaginary baby in your mind to the real baby in your arms.  Sometimes it takes a while to really feel like the mysterious little creature you're holding is your child.  (That's ok, it'll come in time.)  Similarly, the name you chose in advance may not seem like a natural part of your child, or a good "fit."  If that's worrying you, rest assured that babies grow into their names in surprising ways.  By the time she's running around, that name is likely to fit her like a glove.

But for a small percentage of parents, namer's remorse has a more straightforward cause: they simply chose the wrong name.  Heck, it happens.  If both parents are set in unshakeable namer's remorse, dreaming of the name that should have been, what should they do?

I have the answer for you: they should change their baby's name.

That sounds obvious, but there's an unspoken taboo against it.  Most parents treat birth certificates as near-sacred objects, graven and immutable.  In part, that reflects the power names hold on our psyches.  We tend to see names as a core part of a person or thing, an identity not easily overwritten.  Yet when it comes to infants, names are anything but immutable.  Stop and think about it and you'll realize that you're constantly calling your baby Baby, Sweetie, Little Gumdrop, or even (insert your own random family nickname here).  So your baby should handle a gradual shift from Elizabeth to Annabelle easily enough.

Will you handle the change as smoothly? Well, there's the practical annoyance of arranging a legal name change, and maybe a monogrammed baby blanket to finesse.  When it comes right down to it, though, I think the biggest factor holding most parents back from changing infants' names is the same factor that holds us back from a thousand other unconventional behaviors.  It's good old fashioned embarrassment. 

Yep, you already sent out 100 birth announcements.  Yep, friends and relatives may laugh at your indecisiveness.  So what?  The embarrassment will last a couple of days, but a name lasts a lifetime.  If you're trying to whomp up your courage, you can take a lot of the sting out of the embarrassing situation by acknowedging it head-on, with some cheerful self-deprecation.  I recommend a new ritual: a formal birth re-announcement.  Below is my take on one.  Readers, can you offer alternative compositions?

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Birth Announcement, Take 2

On August 12th we were blessed with a beautiful baby boy.  Before he was born, we had expected that his name would be Jayden.  Once we met him, we discovered we were mistaken.  Who knew?  He's actually:

Cooper Michael MacDowell
7 lbs, 4 oz.

Stephanie & Mike


Sep 20th 2008

Here are a dozen girls' names.  Can you spot any patterns in the list?


Go with the obvious: half of the names on the list start with L.  You're looking at the top dozen names in Austria, just one of the many countries infatuated with the lovely letter L.  Lena and Leonie are particularly hot in German-speaking areas; Lea is huge in France and Quebec; Lucia is the top name in Spain, with Lucy and Lucie soaring elsewhere; Laura is a favorite just about everywhere (good taste, world!)  Take any short name that starts with an L and ends with a vowel, and you're sure to be in style.

Regular readers of this blog may be experiencing a little deja vu right about now.  Yes, you've heard something like this before.  The same pattern came up in my discussion of rising names I've taken off my "Why Not?" list.  Names like Luna and Lila were rare in the U.S. just a few years back, but are suddenly in contention.  The global figures suggest that's not just a fluke.  L is the world's hottest letter for girls' names, and the U.S. is just hitching a ride on that bandwagon.


p.s. to those of you who've asked me about that mysterious little "login", it doesn't do anything quite yet, but stay tuned!