The Jane Austen Name Report

Jul 24th 2014

The name Austin is a mix of Texas twang and Austin Powers swing. A tiny spelling shift to Austen produces something else entirely: a literary homage.

It's fitting that Jane Austen's surname, rather than her given name Jane, is the usual path to honoring her work. The characters she created, particularly the men, are remembered primarily by their surnames. In part, this reflects the manners of the time. One can hardly imagine calling out "Hiya, George!" to Mr. Knightley, the proper gentleman of Emma. But it also reflects the baby-name world that Austen inhabited and passed on to her characters.

Thanks to the Austen devotees at "The Republic of Pemberley," I was able to tally up the 146 characters in Jane Austen novels who have both first and last names. Here are their first names in Wordle form, with the font size representing frequency of occurrence:

If you saw that name cloud out of context, I can't imagine you would have guessed its source. It's recognizably English, but nothing about it specifically screams "Jane Austen!" Yet it's a faithful representation, not only of Austen's work but of the setting of her own life.

16% of men in Jane Austen novels are named John. Her top 10 men's names account for 72% of her male population. In real-life England in the year 1810, those numbers were 19% and 85%. Given the need to keep characters distinct in the narrative, that's a remarkably realistic namescape. (The numbers would be even closer if you converted nicknames to full names.)

That doesn't mean that Austen's character names are a pure historical abstract. Her women's names are a bit more diverse than reality; "only" 52% of Austen women have a top-10 name. Even among the men, you'll see leanings that may reflect name trends among Austen's circle of acquaintance, or simply her own tastes. William, the 2nd most common name in Regency England, is seldom heard in her books, while men named Charles are legion.

Then there are the little quirks which bring a naming worldview to life. For instance, nine men in Austen bear the title Captain, and two of those have a first name. Both are called Frederick. They are the only Fredericks in her books.

Overall, though, the names in Austen world are resolutely normal, which in her age meant repetitive. In six novels, we meet 20 characters named John or Mary. As a result, character names play little role in defining the characters. Even the more diverse surnames provide few clues. "Mr. Bingley," "Mr. Wickham." Which one is wealthier? Which one is the cad?

This even playing field of names is a huge contrast with most modern literature, and with the modern world itself. Remember how 85% of men in Austen's England had a top-10 name? In England today, the top 10 names account for only 15% of boys. In the United States, it's 8%.

Imagine a world where you couldn't draw any conclusions about a person from his name. A world where a titled lady and a chambermaid were likely to share the same name. Where one boy in every five could be called John, and nobody was traumatized by having to share. You don't have to imagine: it's all in the pages of six novels that transcend time.

The One Hundred Club: Girls' Names on the Verge for 2014

Jul 16th 2014

I recently introduced this year's "100 Club" for boys: names that reached the threshold of 100 new American babies for the first time last year. Now I'd like to present the girls. While the boys' list was a colorful collection featuring the ancient and the deadly, the girls are a portrait of contemporary style with a global flair. Many of the names have risen gradually, and are close cousins to other popular names. Others have suddenly caught on thanks to celebrities near and far, real and fictional.

The Girls' 100 Club:

Aiza (Popular Urdu name, boosted by British-Pakistani model and actress Aiza Khan. See Eiza below.)

Annalynn (While actress Annalynne McCord is the most prominent bearer of this name family, the e-less version of the name has been the steady riser over the past half decade.)

Arabelle ("Bell" is the hottest syllable around, and the form Arabella is already a fast-rising hit.)

Asiya (A classic Muslim name in honor of the virtuous wife of the Pharaoh in the time of Moses. A slow but steady riser as a cross-cultural "liquid name.")

Cosette (Character from Les Misérables; the film was released just before the start of 2013.)

Daleyza (Young daughter of singer Larry Hernandez, as seen on his reality tv series Larrymania.)

Eiza (Via Mexican actress and singer Eiza González. Despite the close similarity to Aiza, these names appear to be rising independently.)

Elliette (With the growing use of Elliott for girls, some parents are turning to a French-styled ending to make the name recognizably feminine. Éliette is an established French diminutive, but the double-l version isn't used in France.)

Ever (A subtle sister to inspirational names like Destiny, Promise, Miracle and Journey, Ever rose with the big leap in the name Everly.)

Janney (Janney Marin is a reality tv star and the daughter of popular singer Jenni Rivera, who died in a plane crash in 2012.)

Lennox (Popularized by the tv series Melissa and Joey, Lennox's masculine rhythm and the obvious nickname Len/Lenny make it something of a surprise as a girl's choice. Along with Lux [see below], this name points to growing demand for -x options for girls.)

Lux (Latin for "light" and a homophone for "luxe," Lux is also the "Lady of Luminosity" in the video game League of Legends.)

Merida (The princess heroine of the animated film Brave.)

Navya (Via the title character of the Indian tv drama Navya, and Indian actress Navya Nair.)

Novalee (A gradual riser ever since it was introduced in the 2000 film Where the Heart is.)

Renesmee (The Twilight baby name is finding takers in the post-Twilight era, as the saga's young fans grow up.)

Tahiry (Glamor model and "video vixen" Tahiry Jose stars on the reality tv series Love and Hip Hop.)

Waverly (A place name with the same fashionable core as Everly, this name is coming of age along with the Wizards of Waverly Place generation.)

Nobodies Abroad: Joe Schmo, Meet Otto Normalverbraucher

Jul 10th 2014

Two weeks ago I talked about the names Americans use as placeholders, showing off the many facets of anonymity. For even greater variety, allow me to introduce the nobodies of other lands.

Many languages have "null names" parallel to John Smith or John Doe. The local equivalents of John are common choices: the Netherlands refers to Jan Jansen, Russia to Ivan Ivanov, France to Jean Dupont, and much of Latin America to Juan Pérez. Another common root name is Fulan/Felani, with variations like the Arabic Fulan Al-Fulani and the Spanish Fulano de Tal.

But as in the U.S., nobodies can be just about anybody. Some of the international placeholders capture an essence that none of our terms quite match. Below are some highlights of the world's colorful everymen and women.

(Fun tip: try searching for these names on supposed "real names" social networks. To get you started, here's a LinkedIn lineup of 25 Australians named Fred Nerk, a local equivalent to Joe Schmo. One lists his occupation as "Head Yokel at Yokels.")

Don Nadie (Spain): "Sir Nobody"

Dozaemon (Japan): An anonymous drowned body. From the name of an 18th-century sumo wrestler with an extremely pallid complexion.

Jan met de pet (Netherlands): "John with the cap," the typical man on the street.

Matti Meikäläinen (Finland): Meikäläinen has the form of a Finnish surname, but actually means "one of us."

Max and Erika Mustermann (Germany): A very literal placeholder, Mustermann translates roughly to "Sampleman."

Ola Nordmann (Norway): A personification of Norway and the typical Norwegian, somewhere between a John Q. Public and England's John Bull.

Otto Normalverbraucher (Germany): "Otto AverageConsumer."

Pihtiputaan mummo (Finland): Literally, "the grandmother from Pihtipudas." Represents the least tech-savvy person imaginable, to whom new products and jargon will be confusing.

Ploni Almoni (Israel): A placeholder name for millenia, Ploni Almoni is the Bible's own John Doe. For more of a "Joe Blow" effect, try Israel Israeli.

Svennebanan (Sweden): "Swedish banana." A kind of Swedish Joe Sixpack, the lowest common denominator of everymen.


A note of thanks: I compiled and cross-referenced these names from many sources, but I'm particularly indebted to Wikipedia's placeholder names page, and a former page on John Doe from NationMaster, now sadly defunct.