"Star Wars: The Force Awakens" is a powerhouse at the box office and in toy stores. With its deep cultural roots and cross-generational appeal, it's likely to extend that reach to baby names. After all, even the much-maligned prequels managed to launch the name Anakin onto the top-1,000 baby names chart. My question for the new Star Wars entry is, which names?
After seeing the film with a large multigenerational group, I surveyed my fellow moviegoers for their reactions to the film's key names. Here are the stylemaking odds, counting down from the longest longshot to the likeliest hit. SPOILER ALERT: If you haven't seen "The Force Awakens," get thee to a cinema first then come back and read on.
Image via StarWars.com
The name of the film's biggest, baddest villain earned nothing but eye rolls from my panelists. As one put it, "It doesn't even work for a bad guy."
Odds of taking off as a baby name: 10,000 to 1.
The ancient space pirate Maz Kanata was a favorite with my group, "kind of a woman Yoda." They reluctantly rejected her name, though. The consensus was that Maz "would be a good name for pets, not humans."
Odds: 1,000 to 1.
With the rising popularity of the names Sky and Walker, I thought this name might have legs as a futuristic take on the tradesman style. My panel was having none of it: "It's too specific to the characters."
Odds: 100 to 1.
Could "The Force Awakens" spark a new wave of namesakes for old friend Han Solo? Perhaps not. "It sounds incomplete," one respondent explained. Another summed it up: "If Han hasn't worked yet, it's just not going to work."
Odds: 50 to 1
The name of masked baddie Kylo Ren split the panel along generational lines. The kids and teenagers thought Kylo could catch on as a baby name. "It's a pretty cool villain name, not too villainous." Their grandparents were unconvinced. "It sounds like a brand of laundry detergent or toothpaste," one retiree observed. "Remember Halo Shampoo?" chimed in another, and they sang a duet of the 1950s shampoo sales jingle.
Odds: 8 to 1
"Edgar Allan Poe!" shouted my panelists in unison when I brought up the fighter pilot's name. The literary association wasn't necessarily a bad thing, though. "It could be a winner."
Odds: 2 to 1
Finn is already a fashionable, fast-rising name, and the new Star Wars character could put it over the top. "Finn used to sound super-Irish to me. Associating it with a person of color broadens the image in an appealing way." "It was already a cool name, (Star Wars) makes it even cooler."
The sound of this name was a hit with our whole panel. Notably, the young heroine Rey resonated particularly with the teenage girls. One explained that unlike the rest of the Star Wars universe which she had inherited from previous generations, "she's mine." And better yet, "she wears sensible clothing THE WHOLE TIME!"
The big point of contention was the spelling Rey, like the Spanish word for king. Most didn't care for it, offering alternatives like Rae, Raye, Re and Ray, "like a ray of light." Some liked it best as a middle name. In one form or another, though, look for Rey to rise for girls in the years ahead.
Odds: Bet on it.
Names are personal, and they are public. No matter why you choose a particular name for your child, the name also belongs to the broader culture. It is past and present, it is alive in the world, and its meaning can change over time in ways that are out of your control. For 2015, a year marked by debate over the meaning of symbols and the relationship between our present and our past, the Name of the Year is:
At the beginning of 2015, the baby name Atticus was clearly defined. By "defined," I don't mean etymology. I'm referring to cultural meaning, our shared understanding of what a name represents. Parents who chose the name Atticus for a son were quietly expressing values of justice, equality, dignity, non-violent strength and a love of literature – and they could feel confident that others would receive the message.
That message came courtesy of Atticus Finch, the father in Harper Lee's beloved novel To Kill a Mockingbird. As the New York Times said in 2012: "There are very few heroes in American literature to rival Atticus Finch — smart, wise, modest, a great shot with a rifle, possessing extraordinary ethical strength, plus, he is the father we all wish we had." He was also blessed with a heck of a name. The name Atticus was striking and (at the time) highly unusual, and it had been associated with learning and wisdom since antiquity. It fit the character so well that it was hard to tell where the name ended and the character began.
Mockingbird itself was a wonder, a highly relatable, easy-to-read work of literary fiction. It won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize, and a film version the next year cemented America's image of Atticus in the impeccable form of actor Gregory Peck. When the year 2015 began, all of that was literary history, seemingly immutable.
Then history changed. In February, Publisher HarperCollins announced the discovery of a long-lost Harper Lee novel, described as a sequel to Mockingbird but written before that book. In this "new" story, titled Go Set a Watchman, an older Atticus Finch has abandoned his earlier principles and devolved into a bitter segregationist.
Parents who had named their babies Atticus took the news as a punch to the gut. Did this new Atticus forever change the hero they'd named after, and the name itself? Could you honor one view of Atticus Finch and not the other?
The Atticus picture was further complicated by the uncertain status of the newly released book. Watchman, it soon became apparent, was less a sequel than a rejected first draft of Mockingbird.
Back in 1957, first-time novelist Harper Lee had sold her Watchman manuscript to J. B. Lippincott publishers. A Lippincott editor saw promise in the book but encouraged Lee to reimagine it, focusing on the compelling flashbacks to the narrator's childhood. Over the course of three years of collaboration a new and vastly improved novel took shape, complete with a more uplifting worldview. It was published as To Kill a Mockingbird.
It's far from clear that the earlier, rejected manuscript was ever meant to see the light of day. Notably, its "discovery" was announced soon after the death of Lee's sister Alice, who had served as a highly protective manager of Lee's affairs. The author herself was in a nursing home, and her competence to approve the publication was unclear.
The circumstances offered an easy excuse for parents to reject the racist figure from Watchman as not being the "real" Atticus Finch. After all, Mockingbird was the finished work, a masterwork which had inspired generations. Surely it would be wrong to allow this early draft to overwrite its place in our culture. On the other hand, the new image was out there, and both versions of Atticus were based on Lee's own real-life father. Could parents legitimately ignore the parts of literature, or history, that they didn't like and hold on to the parts that they did? In the end, would the impression they intended their choice to make still hold, or was its symbolic meaning now indelibly harmed?
If these questions sound familiar, it may be because they've echoed throughout this year in realms far beyond baby names. Consider two examples:
• In June, a man motivated by racial hatred murdered nine people in an African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina. After photos emerged of the murderer posing with Confederate battle flags, major retailers vowed to stop selling Confederate flag merchandise and the state of South Carolina removed the flag from its statehouse. Opponents of these changes continued to defend the flag, insisting it was a cherished symbol of regional pride and heritage rather than a symbol of racism and slavery.
• In November, a group of Princeton University students staged a sit-in at the university president's office to protest the school's racial climate. One of their demands was to rename the university's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. President Woodrow Wilson, a Princeton alum and former president of the school, is remembered for his progressive legislative policies and promotion of global peace and democracy. Yet he also held strong racist views, and his administration segregated the previously integrated federal civil service.
The Woodrow Wilson case lays out the kind of dilemmas that the present day faces in honoring the past. Wilson's attitudes on racial segregation and inequality were undeniably horrible. Yet his contributions to the realm of international affairs, the Wilson School's subject, are equally undeniable. Does honoring one side of a man's accomplishments imply honoring all sides of him? And to what extent should we judge individuals of other time periods by the standards of our own? (Wilson's racial views were, unfortunately, quite typical for a white Virginian born in 1856.)
To put this quandary in baby name terms, should you name a child after a relative whom you loved despite knowing his many flaws? How much should leeway should we give our ancestors on the grounds that they were products of their generations? On a bigger playing field, consider the name Jefferson. If you choose that presidential name for a son, will you be honoring the author of the Declaration of Independence or a slaveholder who fathered children by one of his slaves? Neither aspect of Thomas Jefferson can erase the other. Then there's Confederate President Jefferson Davis to contend with. You may know what the name Jefferson means to you, but guessing what it will mean to others is another matter.
As we saw with Atticus, symbolic messages can change, sometimes quite suddenly. Just the fact of public attention can make the difference. A Harvard Law School official recently acknowledged this in a controversy over the school's seal, which is based on the coat of arms of a brutal slaveholding family:
"Symbols are important," Martha Minow, dean of the law school, said this week. "They become even more important when people care about them and focus on them."
For decades, the sheaves of wheat on the law school seal were simply seen as wheat. Now that their connection to slavery has been highlighted, they have become something very different. The seal's public meaning has changed. Similarly, in the wake of the Charleston massacre it became increasingly impossible to fly the Confederate flag without sending a message of racism, regardless of the flag flyer's intent.
The new message sent by the name Atticus is less clear. Over the years to come, we may well find that the alternate vision of the Finch family fades as a mere curiosity, or that the reservoir of good will that Atticus has built up is formidable enough to withstand it. But for parents considering the name, their decision is now part of the complex societal calculation in which we weigh our flaws, our present and our past.
Names shape how we perceive our world, and ourselves. That message shone through in the biggest name-related news stories of 2015. With thanks to the insightful readers who submitted nominations for the Name of the Year, we count them down:
Image via Daughter#3/Flickr
The lion shot in Zimbabwe in July was not the first killed by trophy hunters this year, nor the last. But he was a rare breed: a lion widely known by a human name. Reports of the killing universally used that name, in headlines like "What Happened in the Harrowing Hours Before Cecil the Lion Was Killed."
The use of Cecil's quaint, sweet name shaped the global reaction to the news story. It focused public attention, and transformed the event from an abstraction to a personal tragedy. The result was raised awareness of the risks of poaching, and new debate on the ethics of trophy hunting.
#4: Spurgeon. This was the name that demonstrated how fully style has trounced substance in the baby name wars. When devout Christians Ben and Jessa Duggar Seewald announced that they had named their newborn son after "Prince of Preachers" Charles Spurgeon, the public reaction was overwhelmingly harsh. Even major news outlets derided the family, often gleefully. Time Magazine covered the story under the headline "The Duggars Are Running Out of Names to Call Their Kids."
Spurgeon isn't the sort of name that usually provokes this kind of response. It's not made up, or fanciful, or creatively spelled. It's a traditional homage to a religious hero, which once upon a time was all the reason parents needed to choose a name. In fact, Spurgeon was a modestly common choice a century ago. But the sound of the name is now thoroughly unfashionable, and today that's a line most of us can't imagine crossing.
#3: Charlie. In January, Islamist terrorists attacked the office of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. As the world spoke out to condemn the violence and support free speech, one phrase that started as Twitter tag became a global rallying cry: "Je suis Charlie" ("I am Charlie.")
The outrage at the massacre would surely have been just as strong if the magazine had been called, say, "The Paris Satirical Weekly." But as in the case of Cecil the lion, the fact that Charlie Hebdo bore a human name took on symbolic power. The statement "I am Charlie" (like "I am Spartacus") moves beyond support to identification and unity.
© Annie Leibovitz/Vanity Fair
2015 was a watershed year for the visibility of transgender issues. The momentum was already growing when one magazine cover put it over the top: "Call Me Caitlyn." With those words, the star formerly known as Bruce Jenner used the power of names to introduce her new female identity to the world.
Caitlyn became the most talked-about name choice of the year, eclipsing every celebrity baby name. With its youthful image, carefully non-Kardashian spelling and modern girl-next door style, it was a one-name meditation on celebrity, gender, age and self-invention. (Read our analysis of the choice of Caitlyn.)