A bit of counterpoint

Feb 16th 2008
I just had a chance to read some of the fascinating discussion on name uniqueness in response to my last column.  It reminded me of another post I wrote a few years back, which I thought I'd offer as counterpoint (to myself!):

Are you Googleable? (June 2005)

Part 2: L'Etat, c'est nous

Feb 13th 2008
When I saw you last, I was suggesting that the growing "obsession" with baby name choices may be more reasonable than it seems.  To understand a bit more about this modern naming climate, let's step back a bit to understand what came before.  In fact, let's go back a few centuries....

You live a traditional village, let's say in England.  It's a stable community where multiple generations of a family live and die under the same roof.  You don't have a surname (that's just for the aristocracy), but your first name is John.  That's no surprise, right?  After all, in your neck of the woods there's also John the cartwright, John who lives at town's end, John William's son, John the redhead, John Harry's man, and on and on.  In fact, a quarter of all the men and boys in England are named John!  How do you identify anybody?  Why, exactly the way you just did. You identify them by their connections: to their homes, to their occupations, to their employers, to their families, or simply to their own unique qualities.

Fast forward now.  Starting in the 16th century most countries moved toward heritable surnames, yielding generations of Cartwrights who never built carts and Townsends who never saw town's end.  The industrial revolution made societies more mobile, eroding public identities based on personal connections.  Modern nation states required more from names, too. In Scandinavia, the patronymic naming system that had existed since the time of the Vikings (Niels Jensen's son Peder is Peder Nielsen, his daughter Anna is Anna Nielsdatter) was eliminated to aid record-keeping.  Taxing, educating and conscripting a mobile population required clear and traceable family names.

Then came mass media.  Newspapers served a steady diet of information about thousands of strangers, each with a name.  And how about popular novels?  Dozens of characters, and none of them -- for the sake of clarity
-- with the same name.  Soon movies would enter the picture, and radio, and television.  You're hearing a bevy of new names every day.

Next up, the 1960s.  Cultural shifts elevated individualism to the level of an unquestioned virtue, and traditional names like John took their biggest hits yet.  Finally, dramatically, the 1990s.  The Maastricht Treaty established a European Union with shared currency and fluid borders, while the Internet turned a world of 6 billion people into one rambling, interlinked neighborhood.  The whole meaning of a community was turned upside down.

Suppose you're an expectant parent in Munich today.  Your German baby could easily find himself working in Ireland or Italy, so you're tempted by international-styled names that are attractive and pronounceable in many languages.  (Sorry Grandpa Horst, family names just won't cut it any more.)  Or let's say you're an American family.  We'll call you the Townsends, descendents of good old John of Town's End.  You're thinking of naming your daughter Julia.  You type the name into Google, and...holy smokes, there are dozens of Julia Townsends.  Probably hundreds!  And somebody's already registered JuliaTownsend.com!!!

So what?  The 1910 U.S. Census counted 101 Julia Townsends who all managed to coexist peacefully, probably in total ignorance of one another.  Sharing a name with others is routine, and it seldom matters.  But remember, the Internet is one big neighborhood.  To a parent today, that means that all those other Julias just moved in next door.  Who wants her daughter to be merely another face in the crowd?  When you choose an email user name it has to be unique, shouldn't your child's name get the same consideration?

There's more, too.  You can't be a John of Town's End any more.  In the new online world, nobody knows your connections.  They don't know where you live, who your family is, what you look like, even your age or sex.
Most often your name alone is your calling card, your primary introduction to a world of millions of strangers.  Don't you want it to send the right message?  And make no mistake, names do send messages.  The more we move away from a core, shared name stock to diverse and creative choices, the more cultural signals each name sends.

So today, many parents approach a baby name choice almost like choosing a brand name.  Put yourself in their shoes: you're selecting a name to launch your child into life's competitive landscape with the best possible chances.  And why not?  If you believe that one name makes your child sound more intelligent, energetic, educated or trustworthy than another, why would you choose anything less than the best?

L'Etat, c'est nous

Jan 23rd 2008

A few months back a New York Times piece took up the burgeoning interest in baby names in France. French names, apparently, are being charted, talked about, and looked at as social indicators. According to writer Elisabeth Vincentelli, the phenomenon reflects "soul-searching in a nation already painfully struggling with how to define its character."

Let's take a look at the evidence presented for this wave of Gallic name angst:

* Guidebooks are charting the popularity of different names in France and identifying trends. This is reported on in newspapers and spawns lively web debates.

* French names can carry indicators of individuals' ethnic and class backgrounds. Studies suggest employers may be swayed by these signals to prejudice their hiring decisions.

* Sociologists are studying the way names travel through the socioeconomic spectrum. Today, lower-class French families tend to innovate more with new names chosen from pop culture, while the more privileged are "rediscovering" traditional old-fashioned names.

Hmm. Sound familiar? Yes, every single French name phenomenon described in the article -- right down to "Beverly Hills, 90210" spawning a generation of young Dylans -- is true of the United States as well. And of England, too. In fact, of just about every affluent society where official name statistics are made available and where name choices are free and open. In a rare twist, the reporter vastly underestimated the phenomenon. Baby-name obsession is no more French than text messaging and reality tv are. It's part of the fabric of our times.

Why is there so much name fascination today compared to generations past? Are we all nations "painfully struggling with how to define (our) character"? Is it an obsession with status, or with self? Is it another example of "helicopter parents" hovering over every inch of their children's lives? I think about this question every day, and I'm coming to the conclusion that the rising focus on names is completely rational. The world has changed, and the meaning and function of names has changed with it.

To be continued...