Over the past several years, researchers have discovered that we're not alone in the naming universe. Another species, too, confers names: dolphins.
In 2006, a team of biologists determined that each dophin develops a distinctive whistle pattern that other dolphins use to identify it. (News story; original paper.) Relatives and close group members respond strongly to an individual's whistled name, even when the sound pattern is produced by a synthesizer. Strangers, meanwhile, swim on and ignore it. The name also appears to encode metadata about the dolphin's identity, such as age and sex.
Now, a new study reveals that dolphins don't just recognize each other's identifying whistles, they call them out. A dolphin mother, for instance, may produce the whistle of her calf to attract his attention when they are separated. (News story; original paper.) That sounds like a name, alright.
Dolphin names get me all philosophical. If naming practices of other cultures can give us new perspectives on the nature of names, naming practices frrom a whole other order of mammals must demand a step back for some serious reflection. What does it mean to have a name? What are they for, and what do they tell us? Are human parents, sweating over the perfect name choice for a child yet to be born, engaged in an arbitrary rite of our culture or a profound and universal undertaking?
Here are a few thoughts I've had as I've read more about the world of undersea names. I'm curious where the topic leads you.
A name is a lot more than just any string of sounds or characters. Even among dolphins, whistle-names apparently carry side messages like "I'm an adult male." Now think about how much of this "metadata" a full human name can encode. The more complex our societies and cultures are, and the more we're aware of relationships, differences and history, the more information a name is likely to carry.
Culture, Distance and Name Diversity
The breakthrough 2006 dolphin name finding was based on a population of wild dolphins. An earlier study of dolphins living in captivity had found no individual naming, just shared calls.
The broader issues surrounding animals in captivity are far beyond the scope of this site, but from a pure naming perspective this difference is thought-provoking. In the confines of an aquarium, you know everybody and you know exactly where they all are. Names may simply be unnecessary in that environment. In the larger, far-flung community of dolphins off the Florida coast, tracking identity becomes an important challenge.
Do we see the same patterns in people? Consider that surnames are a relatively recent addition to our human identification system. Before that extra layer of identification was added, given names had to carry the whole identification load. Yet given names were far less diverse back then. Around the year 1200, at the cusp of the surname age in England, the top 10 names for boys and girls accounted for two thirds of all babies born. So half the families you know have a William and Alice? No big deal, you know who everybody is in your tank...err, village.
Today, in the internet age, we talk about the "global village." Not surprisingly, name diversity is skyrocketing. The top 10 names for American boys and girls account for just one twelfth of babies.
When Are You Named?
Dolphins' names aren't given, but rather self-created in youth with maternal training. We humans, in contrast, assign names at birth or before. On the rare occasion that we hear of parents who couldn't decide on a name and allowed their child to remain nameless throughout infancy, we're scandalized. Why? Does a name matter to a babe in arms? Perhaps naming at birth helps us as adults to bond with the child, but we seem to give it far more weight than that, as if having a name is essential to being human.
Could we name later? Could we, indeed, wait until the child is able to participate in the process? One obvious problem is that the name you'd choose at age 3 would surely be different from what you'd choose at 10, or at 25. One mother I met addressed this with the unusual solution of encouraging her children to change their names fluidly in childhood. That approach, though, compromises the core identification function of a name. It also strips the name of some of its unique stature, turning it into a personal expression of the moment -- a role already filled by many other choices like clothes and hairstyles.
Perhaps the answer is that adults choose names for children because it takes some perspective on the world to choose well. (NOT because we're prioritizing our own "personal expression" over our children's...right?)
A pre-birth announcement:
The Baby Name Wizard, Revised 3rd Edition
To Be Born May 7, 2013
At a Bookstore (or Kindle, iPad, Nook, etc.) Near You
Weight: Around 516 Pages (over 100 pages more than the last edition!)
Proud Parents Laura Wattenberg and Crown Publishing Group
That May 7 date places the book's publication right in the middle of "Name Week" -- the week that the annual baby name statistics are announced. I'm looking forward to a super-charged Name Week and the chance to spread the word about about the way baby names are changing, and what those names have to tell us. (I plan to be out and about, so if you're interested in some name action in the form of a talk, book signing or interview, please drop me a line!)
The Mega Name Week will cap off a busy baby naming season ahead. A month-by-month calendar for all of you organized name enthusiasts:
February: Keep an eye on this site, which is getting a facelift to make it easier to read and navigate.
March: The 8th Annual Baby Name Pool opens. It's never too early to start scanning those telenovela and reality tv rosters for ideas!
April: Final Name Pool submissions are due on the 15th, like your income tax returns but a lot more fun.
May: The 2012 name stats are released, the Baby Name Pool champion is crowned, and the revised, expanded and all-around awesomer edition of The Baby Name Wizard book is released. Huzzah!
It started with the -oes. Unconventional a generation ago, girls' names ending in oe suddenly skyrocketed. Today, three of them-- Chloe, Zoe and Khloe -- rank among the top 50 names for American girls:
Since the beginning of that surge, Greek-derived names with non-silent-e endings have been one of the hottest categories in traditional names. They offer an elegant balance: classically feminine and fashionably vowel-heavy, without the typical -a ending or a girlish diminutive. Even Penelope, which had languished due to the mid-century popularity of the nickname Penny, is now a fashion plate:
Have all of the Greek -e names already been "discovered"? What's to become of all the parents who love these names but want a less common choice?
In fact, the vein of ancient -e names runs deep. The challenge is to find spellable, pronounceable names that sound good to modern ears, while avoiding the grimmest mythological associations. I've highlighted the likeliest choices, along with a list of more adventurous options for parents willing to push the envelope on ancient style.
The Top Contenders
Ariadne -- A potential tongue-twister, but this name is appealingly literary and offers outstanding nickname options. It's mythological roots are also flexible, with multiple stories in Greek and Celthic mythology.
Daphne -- A familiar choice, but one that has never been common. It may be the sweetest of the -e names; the resemblance to "daffy" puts some parents off.
Hermione -- This name is now strongly linked to the Harry Potter series, which may give you pause. But that does mean that everybody now knows how to pronounce it. Somewhat popular in the U.K. but rare in the U.S.
Ianthe -- A romantically literary name, for better and worse.
Ione -- Packing three syllables into just four letters, this name is a pure quirky classic. In some sans-serif fonts it can like the word Lone. (Dione eliminates this problem, but is inevitably mispronounced as two syllables.
Phoebe -- You might think this name belongs in the same category as Chloe, but it remains surprisingly uncommon (#310 in America at last count).
Xanthe -- A classical walk on the wild side.
And Just Maybe...