Clark Kent baby names: nickname as alter ego

Dec 17th 2009

"Meet my son, Thornton." It doesn't get more buttoned-down that that, does it? Thornton is old school, a dense WASPy surname linked with 19th-century-born writers Thornton Wilder and Thornton Burgess. Packing five heavy consonant sounds, Thornton doesn't sound particularly contemporary, let alone exciting.

But what about Thorn? There's a modern name with an edge, a soap opera favorite ready to scale cliffs or plot ruthless revenge.

With most names, a nickname just softens the full name or helps it loosen up and have fun. With a name like Thornton, it does more. It gives you two complete and distinct identities, like Clark Kent and Superman. The mild mannered shell peels back to reveal a dashing alter ego.

Not every name with a super-charged nickname can fit the bill. You can't get the same effect by, say, extending Thorn into Thornsyn or using it as a nickname for Thatcher. The long version (typically a surname) has to be traditional and familiar in its own right, and the nickname has to emerge from it with an ease approaching inevitability. And just as in the world of superheros, male examples dominate.

Here's my starter list of Clark Kent names. Can you think of more?


The Name of the Year, 2009: pt. 3, The Winner

Dec 10th 2009

We've counted down the first and second runners up, and now it's time for the official 2009 Name of the Year. Brace yourselves, name enthusiasts, because it may not be what you're expecting....


Yes, it's another Twilight name, which makes for a potent and timely launching pad. But the impact of Renesmee goes far beyond vampires. This name is the spark that lit a long-building cultural bonfire to usher in the Age of the Mashup Baby Name.

For those who have skipped the whole Twilight phenomenon, Renesmee is the child of the series' two young heroes, and thus half human and half vampire. Most importantly for our purposes she is named after her two grandmothers, Renée and Esme. (Her middle name, Carlie, comes from grandpas Carlisle and Charlie.)

Twilight author Stephenie Meyer has said that she chose the name because no normal human name would do for an otherworldly creature like Renesmee. It also strikes me as a realistic choice for a couple of teenage parents. Undead or not, they live in a time when creativity in baby name is prized, particularly by younger parents. What's more, they live in a celebrity-saturated world, in the long shadow of Bennifer.

When actors Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez started dating in 2002, the press christened the pair Bennifer. Since then, a portmanteau or "mashup" name has been de rigueur for every celebrity couple, real or fictional. (See yesterday's discussion of Tay Tay.) A young adult today has come of age surrounded by names like TomKat and Brangelina.

Renesmee, introduced at the end of 2008, brought a new name to our language. Real-life Renesmee sightings are increasing all the time. More importantly, though, it broke down the barriers between celebrity mashups and baby names. As a reader wrote, "I do know of several people that copied the idea and gave their children first or middle names that are mash-ups of the grandparents' names."

In Namipedia, I've seen a rising number of name submissions created from two parents' or grandparents' names. (I usually reject them, assuming that a name like Brendeth will only appeal to the narrow group of readers who also have parents named Brenda and Kenneth.) Our sister blog "Ask The Name Lady," too, is receiving more and more questions about how to combine family names like George and Edward.

Like all celebrity name trends, Renesmee's fashion power depends on the fact that the world was ready for it. To quote The Name Lady's column, "For centuries, the way to honor Grandpa George and Grandpa Edward was obvious. George Edward. Or Edward George, if you prefer. That's what a namesake is, right?" Renesmee became the name of the moment, and the Name of the Year, because parents today still love their relatives...but aren't willing to sacrifice their sense of style to show it.

With best wishes for the naming year to come,


The Name of the Year, 2009: pt. 2

Dec 9th 2009

Yesterday I started the countdown to the Name of the Year with the second runner up. Today we continue....

First runner up: Taylor

Whether you listen to the radio, read gossip magazines or just follow the world on Twitter, I suspect you'll agree: this was Taylor Swift's year. The young singer/songwriter was everywhere. From a name perspective, though, her real breakthrough came in the romance department. As rumors flew that Swift was dating "Twilight" star Taylor Lautner, a delighted fan and media corps labeled the pair "Tay Tay."

Consider Tay Tay the official clarion call that the androgynous surname generation has come of age. Taylor Swift was born in 1989, the very year that the name Taylor first cracked the top 100 for girls. Jordan broke through that same year, then Madison, Bailey and Mackenzie a few years later, then...well, you get the picture. Meanwhile Taylor held on as a male name. When Taylor Lautner was born in 1992 his name was a solid hit, ranking #52 for boys.

Up until now, these names sounded like kids. If you heard about a Taylor or Madison or Mackenzie, you could assume they were still playground-aged. But this is one case where gossip columns don't lie. From here on out, when you come across one of these names you shouldn't assume anything, including their sex. As one nominator wrote about the Taylors, "I think it is noteworthy that both can carry the name equally well. Nobody has criticized Lautner's masculinity or Swift's femininity because they happen to share a name with their significant other. To me, that seems very current."

On to the official Name of the Year!