The View from Abroad: A Look Back at the Future Part 2

Feb 26th 2010

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.


By Eo (not verified)
March 4, 2010 9:22 AM

Valerie-- "Philomela" is a real gem I'd never heard before! Where did you hear it? I'm not as fond of "Philomena" for some reason. But do like the male "Philemon" (pronounced FILL-i-mun, I assume) which is a New Testament name of Greek origin meaning "a kiss"!

I think Philemon is a possibly fresher alternative to Phillip...

I even have a sneaking interest in "Phyllida", a name related to Greek mythology (see Phyllis) which never caught on over here, but did crop up in Britain in the Thirties and Forties-- I associate it with brittle, glamorous "divorcees" in English novels of the period! Means something like "green bough, flowering".

...But Phyllida, my Phyllida!
Her colour comes and goes;
It trembles to a lily,
It wavers to a rose.

"The Ladies of St. James's", Henry
Austen Dobson

By Eo (not verified)
March 4, 2010 9:27 AM

And Phyllida, like Philemon, puts the emphasis on the first syllable-- FILL-i-da-- one presumes, or the above poem fragment wouldn't sound as good as it does!

By Amy3
March 4, 2010 9:43 AM

@Eo, I love that poem bit. What a beautiful way to start the day! Thanks.

@ErinW, I do think Adeline and Adelaide are too close to Annabelle to use as fns. However, I love Jillian paired with either as the mn. Bonus for me is the reptitive double L between Annabelle and Jillian, and I agree with whoever commented on the similar spirit of Annabelle and Jillian. They make a lovely sibset.

March 4, 2010 9:48 AM

another Laura: My aunt's name is Socorro. She goes by the nickname Sue. Nowadays, it's a unique name. Most people only know my aunt as Sue, so the full name gets very little use. The greatest difficulty I see with the name, though, is getting the trill right for the "rr". The typical Anglicization of the name is "Suh-CORE-oh" (or, unfortunately, "huh?").

ErinW: Annabelle and Adelaide/Adeline are very close to me. Since both have the same syllable length, cadence, and initial sound, they blend very closely. Would you like the name Adelia? That will get you the Addie, avoid identical cadence, and prevent a rhyme with Annabelle that Adele would give.

I'll talk a lot more about "beat up" names later.

March 4, 2010 10:00 AM

another Laura-Socorro is odd to me. Mostly because I've never come across it and don't know the meaning and think it's a mouthful on a tiny baby. However, Cora is a cute nn and there are definitely names that are just as long and many that are worse names/words to bestow on a child. It also has that surname vibe so if you like it -go for it.

Re Lorelei-I knew one in college(mid 40's now) whom I believe had this spelling. I think it's a pretty altenative to Laura/Lauren. Maybe it will make a comeback with all the L names cropping up.

By knp
March 4, 2010 10:29 AM

another Laura: I have never heard of Socorro, and I would def. be the person not getting the trill right (I never have been successful at that!). I have forgotten your other children's names, but sometimes something different is exactly what is called for!! Love Cora or Corro as nn.

Lorelei: I think this name is almost TOO pretty!! ;)

This board was a great start to my morning today! thanks all!

March 4, 2010 11:38 AM

Socorro makes me think of the town in New Mexico...

The only Lorelei I ever knew was a rather sad woman, whom I did not like at all. So the name has rather unfortunate white trash-y, tragic overtones to's actually one of the few names that makes me shudder, and is the reason why I never watched Gilmore Girls. :)

By hyz
March 4, 2010 11:41 AM

I agree Socorro would be a bold choice. I would NOT expect almost anyone to trill the rr, though--it's just not going to happen. I think you'd also have to expect a lot of "huh?" and confusion, but maybe it wouldn't be as bad as I think, considering all of the made-up names that are so prevalent these days--people almost expect the unexpected. Cora is a good nn to "normalize" it, so that may be a good answer, but this may be one of those names best in the middle spot (Teresa Socorro works for me!). I do like the meaning and reference--really, it's a lovely name, just a little unusual.

knp, I agree with you on Lorelei! I love the sound of it, but I almost feel it's too frilly to use!

And EVie, I'm totally on board with your spelling rant!

I like both Philomela and Philomena, although the story of Philomela is certainly not the most rosy--I guess it has a happy ending, but it's rather gruesome. Here's behindthename's summary:

From Greek Φιλομηλα (Philomela) which meant "friend of song" from φιλος (philos) "friend" and μελος (melos) "song". In Greek myth this was the name of the sister-in-law of Tereus, who raped her and cut out her tongue. Prokne avenged her sister by killing her son by Tereus, and then Tereus tried to kill Philomela, but she was transformed by the gods into a nightingale.

March 4, 2010 12:20 PM

EVie- loved your rant about German pronunciation too- every time I see Leisel, I think "Do you really want to pronounce it Ly-zel?" :)

Eo- I don't know where I first came across Philomela, having been an NE since I was very young! I certainly didn't know the myth- thanks for sharing that hyz. Gruesome!

Philomel is lovely too- Shakespeare uses it in Midsummer Night's Dream:

"You spotted snakes with double tongue,
Thorny hedgehogs, be not seen;
Newts and blind-worms, do no wrong,
Come not near our fairy queen.

Philomel, with melody
Sing in our sweet lullaby;
Lulla, lulla, lullaby, lulla, lulla, lullaby:
[Never harm,
Nor spell nor charm,
Come our lovely lady nigh;
So, good night, with lullaby.]

Weaving spiders, come not here;
Hence, you long-legg'd spinners, hence!
[Beetles black, approach not near;
Worm nor snail, do no offence.

Philomel, with melody, etc.]..."

By AndreaJ (not verified)
March 5, 2010 11:32 AM

I have a book somewhere that talks about the class connotations of Biblical names and how they were used in the literature of the period. The Biblical names, especially the more obscure versions, were definitely used more for the lower classes -- the sort of people who were main characters in Thomas Hardy or, I suppose, Dickens or other popular novels of the day. You'll also see them used for servants in some Victorian literature -- Hannah, Dinah, Zillah, Hepzibah, Jemima, etc. They were names used by religious Methodists or other churches that tended to have more poor members. The upper classes tended to use the more standard English names or classical names from mythology or literature, though there were probably some upperclass people who used Biblical names and some rural people who used the clsasical names. But when a rural character had a very unusual classical name there was usually some explanation given for it and it is seen as vaguely comical or as giving the person airs, just like the very unusual Biblical names. The ideal servant in Victorian literature seems to have a nickname for a plain English name -- Betsy or Lizzie for Elizabeth; Ned for Edward; Tom for Thomas; Annie for Ann; Nell for Eleanor, etc. I'd guess that also emphasizes for the Victorian reader that these people are OK, they're English and not foreign, they know their place in society and don't put on airs, they don't hold extreme religious views, etc. Using the nicknames for the servant characters both makes the reader feel sympathetic to them if they're main characters and emphasizes their lower class status. The upper class characters are often referred to as Elizabeth or Edward. Elizabeth is referred to as "Miss Bennet" by the narrator even though her family calls her "Lizzy." She's an upperclass character.

Americans of the same time period would have probably been members of the rural population or servant classes of England and probably had similar religious convictions as people who had Biblical names in England during the early 1800s. But it was probably more common for well-to-do Americans to have Biblical names because of the country's Puritan past. The British Victorian authors thought it was particularly comical to have a wealthy American character with an odd Biblical first name or, better yet, a junior name.

By Rook (not verified)
March 8, 2010 4:59 PM

Becky -- For less common, but not too strange Biblical girls' names (not all OT, I think, but I'm taking them off the top of my head), how about something like Susannah, Hadassah, Judith, or you could use a place-name like Sharon or Bethany?

By elleireland (not verified)
April 17, 2010 7:45 AM

For all the girl-OT posts: so far nobody has mentioned one of the prettiest, Tirzah. I knew a Tirzah in college who was a great musician, so now that's the association I make. Later, several alumni used that name.

I need to go look it up in the Bible and see who she was...........she was obscure.

For Jane, mother of 5 - yes, the two names are too similar. I can tell a tragic tale of the family with two girls, Laura and Loris. Why, oh why?

But you can honor your husband's request by having three names. Like Tessa Violet Lou. He can call her whatever he likes.