Antique or forgery, part 2

Oct 13th 2006

Last time I talked about some popular "antique revival" names like Olivia and Ava, and how they're not truly revivals at all. Yet parent after parent, and writer after writer, insists that they are. In fact, an eagle-eyed reader might have spotted those names on the "Antique Charm" list in my very own Baby Name Wizard book. So have we all been duped by a bunch of forgeries? I don't think so. Olivia, Ava and their kin deserve their place on lists of old-fashioned names, and I plan to keep them there--because they feel old fashioned, and sometimes that's enough.

Imagine you walk into a furniture showroom and see a sale on a "colonial diningroom set." Would you feel cheated to learn it had been built after 1776? Of course not. In furniture, colonial properly describes a style as well as a history. In baby names, so does antique.

What are the ingredients of an antique-styled name? First off, it does have to have some genuine tradition behind it. A long history, though, isn't enough to create a feeling of antique charm. Here are just a few of the girls' names that were more popular than Olivia a century ago:

A. Amy, Christine, Carrie

B. Nancy, Bonnie, Sue

C. Kate, Sara, Leah

D. Zelma, Ollie, Elva

Group A sounds like sisters from the 1970s, Group B from the 1940s. Group C is timeless with a contemporary feel, and Group D...well, nevermind.

Olivia and Ava differ from those names--and real great-grandmas like Mildred and Myrtle--in the shape of their sounds and the shape of their histories. In keeping with our contemporary sense of elegance, they're heavy on the vowels with no consecutive consonant sounds. As for history, they remained consistently uncommon for a hundred years. That made them familiar enough to sound traditional, yet didn't stamp them into a generation like Nancy and Sue. And since few people actually knew any Olivias or Avas in person, celebrities were able to help root the names' images.

Take another look at the Olivia and Ava graphs from last week. You'll notice two tiny peaks: Olivia in the '40s, Ava in the '50s. That would be actresses Olivia de Havilland and Ava Gardner, born in 1916 and 1922 respectively. Doesn't each actress perfectly embody the contemporary image of her first name? Ava is the more sultry name, Olivia the more delicate (Olivia Newton John's "Let's Get Physical" notwithstanding.) Many of the antique-styled hits are also shaped by their use in literature--especially British literature, but chroniclers of the American upper classes like Edith Wharton and Henry James count too.

The result is polished antiques that evoke a past divorced from any unpleasant realities. Women are either charmingly sweet (Lily, Chloe) or flowingly romantic (Isabella, Angelina). Men are elegant gentlemen (Julian, Sebastian). Here's a popularity graph of the six antique-styled lovelies in this paragraph:

In the end, the actual history of these names hardly matters. They achieve their goal of conjuring up a classic, old-fashioned elegance. Compare siblings named Isabella and Julian to Devyn and Kyler -- they're a world apart. The "forgeries" may not be authentic great-grandparents, but their cultural meaning is authentically antique.

Antique or forgery?

Oct 5th 2006

When parents with a traditional bent look for a fresh baby name, they look to the past. Not just one generation back, but four or five to the time of the baby's great-great ancestors. That generation of names has lain fallow long enough that the names sound new again. The names also take on a patina of grace and charm from the bygone era they evoke.

These antique revival names are especially popular for girls, as you can tell by a glance at the U.S. name popularity chart. Names like Emma, Olivia and Ava are all in the top-10. This graph of the number of Emmas born shows the classic revival trend:

Emma was an old-time favorite that had all but vanished, so now it sounds sweetly old-fashioned. Or take Olivia, another staple of "retro" and "old-fashioned" baby-name lists:

Wait a second. Where's the antique part? We all know that Olivia is a great-great-grandmother name...right? But if you look at the numbers, it turns out that a baby girl was actually more likely to be named Olivia in 1950 than in 1890. Huh.

Well, let's look at Ava instead. A recent article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about the antique name cycle claimed: "Old-fashioned names like Ava, Milo, Hazel, Hugo and Clara are coming back."

How's that for an old-fashioned name? And that graph is a major year out of date. More Avas were born in the United States last year than in 1880-1980 -- the whole century combined. How can a name "come back" when it was never here to begin with?

Perhaps they're even more antique than my graphs can show--say, top hits of the 1840s. But no, a check of census records says otherwise. The unavoidable conclusion is that Olivia and Ava aren't real antiques. They were timeless but uncommon names that are suddenly, dramatically contemporary. So why do we hear them as old-fashioned?

More on this next time....

The new life of the party

Sep 28th 2006

Reader James recently pointed me to an unconventional name-choosing story. In a New York Metro interview, "Project Runway" contestant Laura Bennett described how she and her husband named one of their five children:

Truman is 7. He was named by a cocktail-party crowd when he was about 3 months old.

He didn't have a name?

My husband could never commit to one. So poor Truman just went for months being called "the baby." His birth certificate said Baby White Male. Finally, we were at this cocktail party with a bunch of my old friends and they voted on Truman.

OK, your quick gut reaction...sound ridiculous? They didn't give their baby a name and finally let a "cocktail-party crowd" do it for them?

Yet the more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that those parents might have been on to something. Their only mistake was waiting so long to take the plunge. Suppose....

The baby's due in a month, and you and your partner are still sweating over names. You've debated every possibility into the ground, nothing sounds right, and you just can't agree. Don't have an argument, have a party! Invite a group of people whose taste you trust, and who understand your own values and style. Provide some good food and drink. (It's a party, after all.) Give the guests an initial list of top name prospects, and open the floor to write-in candidates. Let everyone share their reactions to each name and lobby for their favorites. Then vote.

At this point I'll bet many of you are recoiling in horror. "But it's our choice! And a name is so personal. I'm not going give the decision over to a committee!" Ok...but you're stuck, remember? Besides, it's not like you're just taking a poll of passers-by at the mall. Your son might actually be glad to have a name selected by the loving community around him, pre-screened to be a choice that warms their hearts. Better yet, the process will help all the guests at the party feel an immediate connection to the new baby--a special bond reinforced every time they say his name. Ideally, you could end up elevating your naming problems from personal dilemma to community ritual and celebration.

Or not. It certainly takes a leap of faith, or of desperation, to hand over the baby naming reins.

Has anybody out there thrown a baby-naming party? Anybody tempted? Anybody want to invite me?