Back when a nickname was a nickname

Sep 9th 2008

Quiz yourself: what were the given names of these accomplished, nicknamed individuals?

Babe Zaharias, athlete
Bear Bryant, football coach
Buck Owens, musician
Bud Abbott, comedian
Bud Selig, baseball commissioner
Buddy Holly, musician
Buster Keaton, actor
Buzz Aldrin, astronaut
Dizzy Gillespie, musician
Duke Ellington, musician
Red Auerbach, basketball coach
Red Skelton, comedian
Sissy Spacek, actress
Slim Whitman, musician
Sonny Bono, musician
(answers below)

Needless to say, all of those nicknamed folks were born at least half a century ago.  Nicknames of every kind are becoming endangered species in this age of "new formality".  But it's the pure nicknames -- the hearty, homestyle monikers that bear no relation to the birth name -- that are the greatest casualties of the modern naming era.  The entire genre has virtually disappeared, along with Red Skelton's hats and Red Auerbach's victory cigars.

It's natural for styles to come and go.  This style, though, has taken something with it; something warm and personal, something unique.  Because these names alone aren't just given, they're earned.

13-year-old Paul Bryant wrestled a circus bear, earning himself a nickname for life.  Little Mary Spacek was dubbed Sissy by her big brothers.  Young Mildred Didrikson was anointed Babe a la Babe Ruth because of her home-run hitting prowess.

While most names are planned before a baby is born, the pure nicknames are more often serendipitous, mementos of an individual life.  As a baby namer, I should be glad to see these post-hoc names go.  After all, they toss my hard work out the window.  Yet I can't help but fall for the names' loving spirit.  You don't become a Sissy or a Buddy unless somebody cares enough to make you one. 

.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .

Mildred "Babe" Zaharias
Paul "Bear" Bryant
Alvis "Buck" Owens
William "Bud" Abbott
Allan "Bud" Selig
Charles "Buddy" Holly
Joseph "Buster" Keaton
Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin
John "Dizzy" Gillespie
Edward "Duke" Ellington
Arnold "Red" Auerbach
Richard "Red" Skelton
Mary "Sissy" Spacek
Ottis "Slim" Whitman
Salvatore "Sonny" Bono

Of Names and Politics: The Palin Story

Sep 3rd 2008

It's an unprecedented event in American political history.  Never before has a vice-presidential selection caused such a stir, such a surprise...with her children's names.

In fact, no naming event has ever filled my inbox with as many reader queries as the unveiling of Sarah Palin--mom to Track, Bristol, Willow, Piper and Trig--as John McCain's running mate.  "Any comment?"  "I've never heard Trig as a name for anything but a math class."  "Is this 'an Alaska thing'?'"

In a way, yes, it is "an Alaska thing."  If you had nothing to go on but the baby names and had to guess about who the parents were, you'd guess that that they lived in an idiosyncratic, sparsely populated region of the country...and that they were conservative Republicans.

When I divided the U.S. map into name style regions, Alaska was a mix of two styles: Frontier and Creative Fringe.  Frontier naming regions include the Mountain West and the Appalachians.  The typical Creative Fringe state is a world unto itself in history and culture, like Hawaii or Utah.  Alaska is a natural blend of the two.

Frontier names, especially for girls, lean toward nature names and androgynous surnames/place names.  That would cover Bristol, Willow and Piper.  Creative Fringe names include new word-based names, elaborate, romantic names, and well, the creative fringe.  Neologisms are rampant, from Nevaeh to Track.

But there's more.  One reader noted, "Palin is an evangelical Christian, yet there is not a biblical name in the bunch."  It's a telling observation.

For the past two decades, a core set of "cultural conservative" opinions has served as a theoretical dividing line between "red" (Republican/conservative) and "blue" (Democratic/liberal) America.  These incude attitudes toward sex roles, the centrality of Christianity in culture, and a social traditionalism focused on patriotism and the family.  If you were to translate that divide into baby names it might place a name like Peter—classic, Christian, masculine—on one side, staring down an androgynous pagan newcomer like Dakota on the other.  In fact, that does describe the political baby name divide quite accurately.  But it describes it backwards.

Characteristic blue state names: Angela, Catherine, Henry, Margaret, Mark, Patrick, Peter and Sophie.

Characteristic red state names: Addison, Ashlyn, Dakota, Gage, Peyton, Reagan, Rylee and Tanner.

Even when biblical names are trendy in conservative, Christian-focused communities, they're typically not the classic names of Christian tradition.  They're Old Testament names that summon up a pioneer style with an exotic flair, often with a modern spelling twist.  Names like Malachi, Levi and Kaleb are hot in Alaska, while names like John and Elizabeth rule in liberal Washington D.C.

Why is it the blue parents who name with red values?  Because in baby naming as in so many parts of life, style, not values, is the guiding light.  The most liberal and conservative parts of the country differ on key style-shaping variables, like income, education level, and the age when women marry and have children.  A community where the typical first-time mother is a 22-year-old high-school grad is going to have a very different style climate from the community where the typical new mom is a 28-year-old with a college degree.  When you factor in the creative-naming effect that comes with remote and ideosyncratic regions, you get a neo-naming explosion.

p.s. If you're interested in regional naming differences, look for much more here soon!

The new social order: A, B, C, D...

Aug 28th 2008

Turn back the clock with me:

You're in third grade.  Your class is lining up to head out to lunch, or to recess, or to the library to pick out a book.  Waiting is excruciating, and places in line are all-important.  Then your teacher tells you all not to shove, that the order will be...alphabetical.

If your name is Aaron, chances are that memory can still bring up a rosy glow of entitlement.  If you're a Zoe, you may still feel a bitter pang of resentment at the injustice of alphabet tyranny.  But it's all just a memory, right?  As the grade school years fade away behind us, we enter a world that's overwhelmingly first-come, first-served.  When was the last time you lined up by name, with perks awarded to the alphabetical elite?

I'll tell you when: the last time somebody called you from a cell phone.

Today, most of us walk around with an alphabetized social register in our pockets.  Depending on your lifestyle, your register may number a dozen names or a thousand.  It may be subdivided into personal and business, or home and school.  It may be grouped by letter, or even by name.  (An executive with a huge contact list recently complained to me about how long it takes to scroll through the "Michael" section of his PDA.)  But whatever the format, you probably find that certain names pass before your eyes again and again out of alphabetical happenstance.

Think about the potential significance of that kind of "personal product placement."  In the social realm, what's the chance you'll forget to call a friend whose name is in front of you several times a day?  If that friend gets similar prime placement on other friends' phones, it could lead to a real bump up in his social life.  When it comes to business contacts, the right name could translate to closer client relationships, more active networking, and fresh opportunities -- the principles of old-fashioned Yellow Pages placement applied to your own first name.

Suddenly, an Aaron Abbott's old lineup advantage looks bigger than ever.  At least until the next communications revolution.