The View from Abroad: A Look Back at the Future Part 2
Yesterday I talked about old-fashioned "lady and gentleman" names that were hot in Europe five years ago, and looked at whether U.S. parents had followed in those fashion footsteps. The result was yes and no -- yes for girls, no for boys.
Why the divide? As usual, each name has its own story. Phil is fighting against a middle-aged vibe in the U.S. and doesn't fit the dominant sound patterns of the moment: lots of vowels, -r and -n endings, and high Scrabble-value letters. Yet the European favorites that do fit those patterns fare little better here. Leon, Felix, Simon, Theo and Victor are all much hotter across Europe than in the States.
I think there's a broader pattern underlying the boy-girl difference. Here's the question that leaps out at me: If American parents aren't choosing "international gentleman" names like their European counterparts, what are they naming boys?
I believe the role played by the "gentleman" names in Europe is largely filled by Old Testament names over here. So instead of Leon, Felix and Theo, we have Caleb, Eli and Jonah.
The recent surge in OT names has been much stronger in the U.S. than elsewhere. 17 of the top 50 U.S. boys' names are now from the Old Testament. (That doesn't even count OT/NT crossovers like Michael and Joseph.) There seems almost no limit to the style here, with names like Ezekiel, Nehemiah and three different spellings of Isaiah in the U.S. top 500. And names like Jacob and Ethan, which are runaway hits here, are merely popular in the UK. Where we have a flood of Jakes, they have Jacks.
In the United States, Old Testament boys' names carry special cultural signals. They have a rustic pioneer style, owing to their 18th-19th century American history: Ethan Allen, Eli Whitney, Levi Strauss. That trailblazing aura appeals to a lot of American parents. As a nation, our style leans rugged rather than urbane; no fancy-pants boys' names, thank you very much. In fact, many of the Old Testament names are most popular in the rural, rugged parts of the country that also favor names like Colt and Maverick (two names that are virtually unheard of in Europe).
The Minuteman and Conestoga Wagon imagery doesn't play the same role in the European cultural imagination. Nor do the names play the same role in history -- just try to think of an Englishman named Eli. To European ears, then, Old Testament names tend to sound more esoteric, or more strictly biblical...or more Jewish. More than one American parent of an Old-Testament baby has told me of European friends being confused, or even concerned, that they chose such a Jewish-sounding name.
It's not a hard and fast rule, though. The Old Testament classic Reuben is a hot name across Europe but has gone nowhere in the U.S., despite its fashionable vowels and -n ending. That's a humbling reminder for those of us who seek order in the swirling chaos of name styles. You can have history, sociology and phonology on your side, and still be felled by a simple sandwich.