The days when the Myrtles were young

Mar 24th 2005

A reader pointed me to this commentary from NPR's "All Things Considered" on "names with backbone." The commentator begins by noting an odd phenomenon. Reading the obituaries he sees the same names "over and over again," names like Opal, Ethel and Hazel. He describes those names as an entire generation like "The Boy Named Sue" -- parents choosing unstylish names in order to toughen up their kids. In parallel, he suggests that baby boomers who gave their kids stylish names were coddling them. Here's an excerpt:

"There was a time when moms and dads didn't worry about whether their children were popular. They were more concerned about whether their kids had enough to eat. Parents wanted sturdy, rugged children so they gave them sturdy, rugged names. But as times got better, parenting had less to do with feeding children and more to do with nurturing their self esteem."
Names like Opal and Hazel will come back, he claims, "when we decide we've spent too much time sheltering our children, and we want them to grow up resilient and ready to fend for themselves, just like the boy name Sue."

At this point you might stop to wonder: how could an entire generation have be given the same unpopular names, "over and over again"?

Fashion is a subtle, pervasive force that shapes our impressions of the world. The commentator, who like most of us lives in the present, hears names like Opal as sturdy and unfashionable. He hears this so surely and vividly that he applies it to the motivations of parents 100 years ago. They chose names that sound sturdy and rugged, thus they wanted their children to lead sturdy, rugged lives. Right?

Travel back in time with me for an exercise of the imagination: let's try to hear Opal as the parents of a century ago heard it.

In the 1880s America was a largely agricultural country, and names like Mary and Margaret, John and George still dominated America's nurseries. But a new wind was blowing. Cities were growing, waves of immigration were transforming the country, and a new generation of names grew with it. From 1890 to 1920, as modern America was born, the new names parents chose were paved with gold.

For boys, parents chose glittering dreams of aristocracy. Alongside John and George, we saw boys named with the surnames of the upper crust -- Milton, Sidney, Whitney. Germanic names were also popular for both sexes, their dense continental sound as rich as velvet. And for girls we had names like jewels, delicate symbols of nature's beauty. The botanicals: Lily, Rose, Hazel, Myrtle. The gems: Amber, Ruby, Jewel, Opal. They were an gossamer vision of femininity, ready to be put on a pedestal. Talk about "nurturing their self esteem." Just hear the grandparents of the time grumbling: "Opal? What kind of fancy-pants name is that?"

Back to the present now. Can you imagine saying that parents chose names like Amber, Lily and Jewel because they wanted their daughters to be "sturdy"? Yet the only thing that separates those names from Opal, Hazel and Myrtle is our 21st-century fashion sense. In reality, all those names were wildly trendy creations that zoomed into style and then zoomed back out again -- the Tiffanys of the 1900s.

It's a peculiar conceit, imagining that the past was immune to fashion. It fits with much of America's mythology, an image of a rough-hewn, no-nonsense land built with our own hands. But there's another American mythology that fits better when talking about name trends: the land of opportunity. Names like Opal weren't sturdy and rugged, they were they stuff dreams are made of. And every generation bestows its dreams on its children in the form of names.

Satan's stylish spawn

Mar 19th 2005

I was recently asked about media influences on names, and I offered some examples of tv-launched hits like Samantha and Xander. Then someone suggested, "I bet I know a name that was totally sunk by a movie character. How about Damien from The Omen?"

Ah, The Omen. What could be a less attractive association for parents than learning that your child is the devil's own son? Yet Damien, a name that was virtually unknown before the film came out in 1976, has been a rising hit ever since. And it's not alone.

As a rule of thumb, evil characters don't inspire hit names. Star Wars begat thousands of little Lukes but no little Vaders. If the evil comes wrapped in a cute little package, though, it's a whole different story. Three of the biggest horror hits of the '60s and 70s, The Exorcist, The Omen and Rosemary's Baby, served up the spectacle of demonic children. The boys of The Omen and Rosemary, Damien and Adrian, were the literal spawn of Satan, while Regan, the girl of The Exorcist, was possessed during an ill-advised Ouija board session. Aside from demonic tendencies, these three kids had something else in common: their names soared in popularity after the movies came out. Together, the three names quadrupled in usage from the '60s to the '70s, and have tripled again since then.

No, America's parents aren't trying to raise a generation of demons. More likely, the same characteristics that made those names sound sinister a generation ago make them sound stylish today. Elegant and a bit mysterious, they're a clear step apart from the mundane world of Dick and Jane, and that's just how parents want it. The movie associations do matter though. They make the names at once more mysterious and more familar. The evidence is clear in Damien, a French spelling of Damian which was seldom seen before The Omen. Today, Damien and Damian are both top-200 American names.

So what kind of name would make a cinematic baby seem sinister today? To have the same chilling effect in a new film, I think you'd have to reverse course and choose a gentle, unassuming name. Adrian no longer sounds like an eerie choice for Rosemary's baby...but Rosemary would be just about right.

Häagen-Dazs names

Feb 27th 2005

Today, an American girl is more likely to be named Gianna than Johanna. The very foreignness of a name can be part of its appeal: Nadia is exotic, Nancy too "ordinary."

The same phenomemon is well known to makers of consumer products. American companies adopt foreign-sounding names to build their brand images. The specific faux-nationality depends on the image they want to convey. (Check out the French accent of any U.S. cosmetics or hair-care aisle.) And that image can be more important than any authentic foreign connection.

Take Häagen-Dazs. The ice-cream maker, founded in Brooklyn, NY, was a pioneer in pure distilled foreignness, unencumbered by meaning. Vaguely Scandinavian in form, Häagen-Dazs is actually just artful gibberish. Few parents would go that far, coining a whole new name with fake foreign roots. But parents do take liberties with spellings and variants of common names to link them to other cultures. A case in point: Megan.

Several popular variants of Megan incorporate traditional Irish-style spellings. Meaghan, for instance, echoes Irish Gaelic classics like Eoghan and Fearghal. It's a particular favorite of families of Irish descent in the U.S., Australia and Canada. Yet it's not an Irish name.

Megan is Welsh, a traditional pet form of Margaret. Meaghan (and Meghann, etc.) appear to be modern creations, rare in Ireland and the U.K. In fact, to an Irish speaker, the extra "h" in the middle transforms the name entirely. G is prounced like the familiar hard g in Megan; gh softens to a gutteral cousin of y or w. So Meaghan would be...umm...something along the lines of "Ma-hwyn." (The rules of Gaelic pronunciation frankly overwhelm me, so if I've mangled that, be gentle!)

Yet across the ocean from Ireland, parents are choosing the name Meaghan to reflect their Irish heritage. As a quick demonstration, I ran Google searches for Meaghan paired with five of America's most common distinctively Irish surnames (Sullivan, Murphy, Kelly, Kennedy and Ryan) and totaled the results. Then I ran the same search using the English surnames closest in frequency to those names. The result: Irish surnames yield 11 times as many Meaghans. Clearly, this name is chosen to reflect parents' Irish roots -- even though the name itself has none.

Is this irrational, inventing a new name in the name of tradition? Not necessarily. Just as Häagen-Dazs achieves its goal by "signalling" Scandinavian, Meaghan successfully "signals" Irish. Parents are drawn to the name for its Celtic roots, but want to move it into their specific ethnic territory. The result may not be Irish, but it is Irish-American -- clearly and authentically.