Mine, Yours, First, Last

Aug 19th 2008

What do these men have in common?

Millard Fillmore
Woodrow Wilson
Strom Thurmond

Before you start contemplating political philosophies, I'll throw in a fourth: country singer Dierks Bentley.  Any guesses?  All four men's given names are their mothers' maiden names.  (Some were technically bestowed as middle names, but that's what they're known by.)

Once upon a time, a surname-as-first-name wasn't just a matter of style.  It was a matter of familial connection: honoring forebears, strengthening ties, preserving traditions or advertising notable relationships.  The practice was especially familiar in the South, but you can find maiden-name-names all across American history.

Today, modern naming patterns are bringing a whole new twist to the surname namesake.  Because today, mom's "maiden name" may simply be her name.  Let's say you're Jane Smith, wife of John Jones.  You're expecting your first child and facing down the separate surname dilemma.  Do you just choose one parent's surname?  Hyphenate the two?  Use mom's surname as a middle name?  Give daughters mom's surname, while sons get dad's?  Or even create a new name for your kids...Jonesmith, perhaps?  I have friends who have done each of the above.  But one of the simplest solutions is to use both names together as a full name: Mr. Smith Jones.

It's not for everyone.  First off, some surnames are best left last.  (I don't imagine my daughters will be naming any babies Wattenberg Jones.)  It can also be confusing: I was once introduced to a young "Smith Jones" and, assuming that was hyphenated, thought I had totally missed his first name.  What's more, it can leave you in a bind when it comes to naming subsequent children.

Yet putting the extra surname first also has some real advantages.  It feels "fair."  It makes clear both parents' relationship to the child, and even subtly clarifies the parents' relationship with each other.  And it's a proactive step to merge two family traditions rather than just handing kids a double helping.  With surnames popping up across the baby name landscape, it may be an appealing option to more and more families.

When a name really does matter...to your wallet

Aug 13th 2008

Is naming destiny?  Usually, the answer is no.  Sure, a name can nudge your fate in one direction or another -- like boys named Dennis being more likely to become dentists.  But those effects are tiny in the grand scheme of things, and under each individual's control.  Are there any concrete and immutable effects of names?  Will a girl's life experience actually be different if you name her, say, Isabella instead of Olivia?  Maybe...if you come to Boston.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is a one-of-a-kind institution: a "palace" of art, brimming with one woman's extraordinary personal collections and personal vision.  It also has a very personal admission policy.  Anyone named Isabella is admitted free to the museum, forever.  (That might have seemed a small concession in 1903 when the museum first opened to the public; only 96 Isabellas were born in the U.S. that year.  Last year, though, the number was up to 18,874.)  So there's $12 in your pocket for having the right name.  What could be more concrete?

Lots of attractions offer name-based perks as a promotional gimmick.  If your name is George, you can tour George Washington's Mount Vernon estate for free on Washington's birthday.  If baseball is more up your George's alley, head to "Salute to the Babe" night in Fayetteville, North Carolina, where anybody named George (or Herman or Ruth) can cheer on the Fayetteville SwampDogs for free.  Meanwhile over at the Atlanta Motor Speedway's "Joe Momma" night, free admission goes to anyone named Joe who brings his mother.

Those perks, though, are just passing fancies.  The Gardner Museum is legendary for being fixed and unchangeable, and its Isabella offer is no exception.  It's the one and only absolute, reliable name advantage I know of.  Do you know others?  Perhaps a "Thrifty Parent's Guide to Money-Saving Baby Names" is right around the corner!

Instant name: just add N

Aug 7th 2008

Here's a rare name I expect to hear more of in the future: Graden.

Certainly, it has a fashionable sound -- another in the vast rhyming family that includes Aidan, Hayden, Caden and Braeden.  But there's more to it than that.  Graden sounds like a formal version of a popular formal name that sounds like a nickname.  Hmm, was that gibberish?  Let me give it another shot.

Classic multisyllabic men's names -- Thomas, Edward -- generally come with two standard nickname options.  There's a one-syllable basic (Tom, Ed) and a two-syllable diminutive (Tommy, Eddie).  That's sensible enough.  After all, the two main functions of nicknames are to shorten and to soften.

Today, though, the standard nicknames are decidedly out of fashion.  So far out of fashion that some parents are getting skittish about names that even resemble the form of a traditional nickname.  So more and more, you see parents tacking extra endings onto short boys' names, creating a new "formal" version for something that was never a nickname to begin with.

It's not a totally new phenomenon; Rexford is one example from past generations.  But the practice is growing.  And forget old add-ons like -ford, -burn and -wood.  Today there's just one way to extend a name: with the all-powerful letter -n.

For a case study, consider Colton.  Colton is a popular contemporary name, currently ranked #117 among American boys' names.  It was a surname before it became a baby name, but that doesn't tell the real story.  As a surname Colton isn't common at all, ranking behind the likes of Stumpf and Fortenberry in frequency.  Nor are there prominent Coltons to raise the name's profile.  The key to understanding the name Colton is that it made its debut as a popular baby name in 1982.  That's the same debut year as Colt -- which is to say, the first full season of "The Fall Guy," a tv series starring Lee Majors as stuntman/bounty hunter Colt Seavers.  At first, Colton was just a quiet shadow of the hardy young cowboy Colt.  But by the '90s, the more "formal" Colton was the clear leader of the pack.

Some more popular -n extensions:


All of them, notably, also have rhyming names in the top 1000.  Which brings us back to Graden.  So you like Grady, but perhaps find it a little boyish?  A mere flick of the -n gives you Graden.  You can still call him Grady if you like, and the full name blends right in with the current name landscape.  It's a nifty 2-for-1...as long as "blending in" is what you're after.  If you're customizing the name to make in more distinctive, though, keep in mind that uncommon and distinctive aren't always the same thing.  In an age where a third of all boys born get an -n name, Colt and Grady may end up standing out a lot more than Colton and Graden.