Top Five Biggest Baby Name Stories of 2008

Dec 24th 2008

Names are always the story here at the Baby Name Wizard blog.  If you listen closely enough, names are always whispering to us about what's going on in our culture and our world.  But from time to time, they speak loudly enough that the whole public sits up and listens.  Here's a coutdown of the five biggest name stories of the year, and some thoughts on what they really tell us.

5. Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii

The case of a New Zealand girl named Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii made headlines around the globe because of the sheer bizarreness of the name. Look closer at the details, though, and you see a case study of children's rights and the significance that society attaches to names.  "Talula" wasn't a baby; she was a nine-year-old petitioning the court system for redress of the naming misfortune her parents had subjected her to.  The Family Court Judge took the extraordinary action of placing the child in government custody solely for purposes of changing her first name.  The court determined that a name that sparked bullying or created significant social hurdles constituted child abuse.

4. Track, Bristol, Willow, Piper, Trig
I've said about all I can say about the Palin family names, but there's no question they deserve a spot on this list.  They represent a great national coming-out party for a new naming culture that will be shaping what we call one another for generations to come.

3. Happy Birthday, Adolf Hitler
A white-supremacist family in New Jersey was turned away from a supermarket bakery when they requested a customized birthday cake for their son named Adolf Hitler.  The parents expressed shock and dismay, yet they couldn't have been surprised: the same store had been denying their requests for cakes with similar messages for years.  Public outrage flew in all directions, but gradually settled on the abusive nature of giving an innocent baby a name that will provoke conflict and ostracism (see "Talula Does the Hula").  Another angle to ponder: using a child's name as a billboard to generate publicity for a cause.  How long until a parent successfully generates global media coverage by naming a baby "Vote No on Proposition 12"?

2. Bronx Mowgli, Zuma Nesta Rock
Devotees of "wacky" baby names had a bountiful harvest this year, with top media-feeding-frenzy honors going to young Bronx and Zuma.  I've written before that the supposed wackiness of Hollywood names is actually overblown. (Quick, name Jennifer Lopez's kids! Oops, they're not weird enough to remember.)  But the massive attention paid to these names is starting to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Think of it this way: you're a performer, and have spent your life pursuing the spotlight.  You know that you now have an opportunity to give your child instant global fame simply by giving her an unconventional name -- even if you're a B-lister yourself.  Why not give your kid an advantage you would have killed for at the start of your career?

1. Barack Hussein Obama
In the wake of Obama's landslide victory, reporters clamored to report on the wave of new babies sure to be named in his honor.  It's a risky sort of reportage, assuming a phenomenon exists and then searching for examples to confirm it.  Plenty of reporters called me for comment on the huge surge of little Baracks...then asked me if I could find one for them.  The Rocky Mountain News managed to find a single child given the middle name Barack and ran a full feature, only to discover that the father in question made the whole thing up.  ("I'm so sorry," the mother said. "My husband's an idiot.")

Yet a president-elect named Barack Obama really is a huge naming story, even if he never inspires a single namesake.  A president with a non-European name is as unprecedented as a president with non-white skin.  The name breaks the mold in a way that speaks profoundly to the many Americans with foreign or unusual names.

Happy New Year, Baby Name Nation!

The elusive "bad" name

Dec 18th 2008

Not long ago, an interviewer quizzed me on camera about whether there's such a thing as a "bad" name: one that would mess up a kid's life. He wanted examples.  Staring into the lens, I did my best to evade the topic, as I usually do.  It's serious business, telling some real-life kid that his name is horrific.  And yes, that includes children of celebrities, whose names are routinely put through the wringer of public scorn.  I do my best to keep Baby Name Wizard a scorn-free zone.

But are there limits? Can a name be so terrible that it violates fundamental societal standards and demands condemnation?  That question is raised by the big baby-naming story of the week.  In Southern New Jersey, a supermarket bakery refused to make a personalized birthday cake for a young boy solely because of his name.  To the outrage of the boy's parents, Heath and Deboarah Campbell, ShopRite determined that "Happy Birthday, Adolf Hitler!" was inappropriate to render in icing.  (The Campbells got their cake at Wal-Mart instead.)  The dispute made headlines around the world.

Question: what is remarkable about this story?  Is it that a three-year-old American child is named after Hitler? Frankly, I don't think so. In this nation of 300 million people you can find every point of view, including Nazi sympathizers. (While the parents insisted that "a name's a name" and they chose it just because "wanted their children to have unique names," their lifestyle, including another child named JoyceLynn Aryan Nation, makes the situation pretty clear.)  Then is the remarkable part that a store censored a birthday cake? Again, I think not. In fact, the same supermarket had turned down a previous order from the Campbells for a swastika cake.  To me, the most fascinating part of the story is that the parents seem to expect public sympathy for their birthday cake plight, on the grounds that names should be above censure.

Mrs. Campell complained to a local newspaper reporter that "ShopRite can't even make a cake for a 3-year-old. That's sad."  Mr. Campell said "Other kids get their cake. I get a hard time....It's not fair to my children." Both parents insisted they don't expect the names to cause their children any difficulties in life, saying "How can a name be offensive?"

Despite the Campbells' protestations, the mere fact of "namehood" doesn't magically render words inoffensive. If you named your"%#$@!," you'd have to be prepared to bake your own birthday cakes.  Similarly, the names Adolf Hitler and Aryan Nation aren't just names, they're declarations of contempt for broad swaths of your fellow citizens. So yes, they can be offensive. I'll go a step further and suggest that the names disturb us not merely because of the opinions they represent, but because the parents bestowed those names on children who have no say in the matter. By choosing pariah names, the parents set their kids up for a lifetime of conflicts.  Age three at the neighborhood ShopRite is likely only the beginning.

Thinking back on the filmmaker in search of "bad" names, it seems I could now give an easy answer: Adolf Hitler is a bad name. But that answer isn't just easy, it's facile; it's a cop-out.  If names are "bad" because they're likely to cause children problems, where do you draw the line?

- At Adolf's sister with the innocuous first name and Aryan Nation middle name?

- At their other sister Honszlynn Hinler, apparently a "kreative" fantasia on the name of Nazi Heinrich Himmler?

- At the kind of names that economist David Figlio has found likeliest to get you left back in school?

- At a name that marks you as a foreigner or outsider in your community?

The extreme case everyone agrees on is fine and well. The tough part is inching in from that edge and still knowing where you stand.

Celebrity Naming, From The Other Side

Dec 11th 2008

It's part of the grand cycle of life, or at least the cycle of fame.  A new star rises in Hollywood with an intriguing new name, and a baby-naming phenomenon is born.

Some parents like the way these celebrity naming connections add spice to a name: an extra touch of glamour or cuteness or toughness, depending on the star.  Others avoid celebrity names, worrying that the famous connection will make them sound tacky -- or simply make the names too popular.  Many a mom has complained to me after a celebrity "stole" her previously uncommon name choice.

But there's a third perspective on famous namesakes. You don't often hear this point of view in our celebrity name discussions, but it's always lingering in the shadows.  Take last year, when Miley became America's #1 breakthrough baby name thanks to "Hannah Montana" star Miley Cyrus.  A decidedly interested observer was...Miley Cyrus.

Have you ever stopped to wonder what it's like to inspire a baby-naming craze?  Sure, trend-making is the stock in trade of celebrity. We can all point to Hollywood outfits, hairstyles and dance moves that have spawned a sea of imitators.  But a name is more than that. It's your identity -- especially when it's unusual.  Music stars in particular love to trade on their distinctive monikers to position themselves as one-named icons: Elvis, Aretha, Madonna, Beyonce.  How would a rising young star feel watching her unique name suddenly become ubiquitous?  Here's one answer from Ms. Cyrus herself, via the UK tabloid The Sun:

"In a lot of ways it is an honour for your name to be put into all those kinds of things but then again its kind of sad. I like being one of the only ones.

"But I have just moved into a new neighbourhood and the girl just three doors down from me is called Miley too. It's spelt differently though. I was so disappointed."

It's worth remembering that Cyrus is only 16, an age when we're all trying to carve out our individuality, global stardom or no.  But her comments still fascinate me.  It's the first time I can recall a celebrity frankly addressing the experience of inspiring namesakes.  For all that we parents grouse about celebrities "stealing" favorite names, how many more of us have "stolen" names of theirs?