Fake names tell a story, too

Mar 19th 2008

Real baby names are my stock in trade, but I'm also fascinated by the names we don't give our children...but think we do.  Those include urban legend names as well as false names that sneak into "official" records.  Sometimes those false name reports reflect nothing more than bad penmanship.  Sometimes, though, they paint a picture every bit as compelling as real names.

Take, for instance, the Census records.  Not just name records from the census, but records of the name Census in the census.  Got it?  According to U.S. Census records, the name Census peaked in 1880 when 132 Americans bore the name.  Few if any are genuine.  No, the Partridge family of Oneida, NY didn't really name their three children Eugene, Helen and Census.  But the interesting thing is the patterns.  The alleged men and women named Census aren't evenly distributed across the country.  There are little concentrated pockets of them, centers of baby-name mystery.

In the 1870 census, Chickasaw County, Iowa boasted eight infants and toddlers named Census -- including two called "U.S. Census," history's only recorded uses of that name.  A decade later Chickasaw weighed in as completely Census-free, while new outbreaks of the name hit places like Prairie Point, Mississippi and Militia District 957 of Baker County, Georgia.  The story that emerges isn't about the name, it's about the census taker.  Perhaps "Census" was just a placeholder indicating an unknown child.  It seems likely, though, that we're looking at fossil footprints of the boredom and job dissatisfaction of workers of past centuries.

Want something a little meatier?  How about the sweeping family dramas suggested by the "name" Worthless.  Step into the world of a small North Carolina township in 1910.  Meet the Yelvertons, a family of  five where the father lists his profession as "farmer," mother and eldest son as "laborers."  And that eldest son's name is reported to the census taker as...Worthless.  Anybody care to picture what the day's been like for the Yelvertons?  Now jump ahead to Houston, TX in 1930.  Care to sit down to dinner with Mr. and Mrs. Griswold, their two grown children...and their roomer, Worthless?

They're little, personal moments in time, preserved in the sterile medium of official government records.  The examples above may not be happy moments, but I find them oddly touching nonetheless.  And I hope that for every child recorded as Worthless, there are a dozen memorialized at happier moments among the records for Sweet Child and Perfect.

p.s remember to enter the Baby Name Pool contest by April 1!

I'm so glad I asked!

Mar 17th 2008

Thank you, thank you to everyone who took the time to offer suggestions for the 2nd edition of The Baby Name Wizard!  When I wrote the original book I was inventing the format as I went along, trying to create the kind of reference I wanted for naming my own children.  It's amazing now to have it out in the world and to hear what works -- and better yet, have a chance to improve on it for a second round.

The overwhelming message in your comments is PRONUNCIATIONS, so I've put that at the top of my work list.  The Literary/Artistic style category is a go, too, and I've noted down some of the specific name suggestions.  I'm happy to say that many of the requests (including new entries for names like Miley, Cohen, Harper and more) were already in the works.  And quite a few of the requested items, including a Scandinavian name section, are already in the current edition!

One major suggestion won't make it in though, and I'd like to explain why. A few readers asked for name meanings and origins; several more said not to bother.  As for me, I could bore you for hours with my thoughts on "meanings and origins," the stuff of traditional name dictionaries.  For instance, I think it's a mistake to consider a name's linguistic origin to be its "meaning" at all.  But delving into the history of names can be absolutely fascinating, so I'm not surprised that some readers miss that information in my book.  I don't routinely include it for a couple of reasons.

First off, that material is already covered thoroughly and expertly in many other books.  I've recommended the The Oxford Dictionary of First Names here before, and I'll add Cleveland Evans' Great Big Book of Baby Names as another excellent reference.  Quality books like these devote a full paragraph to explaining the derivation and history of each name.  Which brings me to point #2...

...it would mean adding the equivalent of a whole extra book!  And BNW is already two books to start with.  Never noticed that?  Open the book some time and check out how teensy-weensy the print is in the name snapshots.  Or how the name lists in the style sections are printed in five single-spaced columns, compared to the typical two double-spaced.  Basically, each half of BNW is a book in itself.  It took a heroic effort on the book designer's part to squeeze my mega-manuscript into an affordable-sized volume.  (And now they have to find room for pronunciations!)

My approach to name origins has always been to describe them when they're particularly noteworthy or when they're relevant to a name's appeal.  I'll expand on that somewhat for the 2nd edition, but etymology buffs will still want a good dictionary at hand, too.

And a final note to the readers who found the book's binding to be its weakest feature, literally.  Yep, at least one early print run had glue that didn't bear up well under the constant flip-flip-flipping that The Baby Name Wizard endures.  My apologies.  From what I've heard later printings upgraded the glue, so with any luck the 2nd edition will be a book you can love without loving it to death.

Give me an earful

Mar 13th 2008
I'm currently up to my elbows in edits for the second edition of The Baby Name Wizard.  I'm reviewing every single entry, updating, expanding, and adding names.  Many names have shifted in style and meaning in the past few years, some subtly (Riley), some dramatically (Katrina).  And Shiloh, which was a last-minute cut from the first edition (drat) is now a must-have.  Plus the sibling suggestions for Tatum are off-mark, and Xander is not a vampire, and...well, I have plenty of work ahead.  Now please give me more!

What new names would you like to see added for BNW 2?  What styles would you like to see expanded?  Are there gaps in the style categories -- for instance, would a "Literary/Artistic" category be worthwhile?  Should I incude more pronunciation guidance?  Etc.

If you've ever found yourself talking back to the book, here's your chance to talk back to the author instead.  Post suggestions here!  I'm all ears, and I really want to make the next edition as useful as it can possibly be.