When Names Were Heroes, Part 2

Jun 23rd 2011

Yesterday I described how baby name homages to heroes have been disappearing. Today, some thoughts on what that change says about our attitudes and naming culture.

In part, the shift away from hero naming represents the triumph of fashion in baby names. As sound and style play ever larger roles in naming decisions, homages have to yield. Note, for instance, the decline of "Juniors," and the way grandparents are increasingly honored with middle names or initials rather than direct namesakes. We still love our parents (and ourselves), but style comes first.

Cynicism about public figures appears to play a role too. We do name babies after presidents today, but we wait until their history is fully written, just in case. Ronald Reagan's death inspired far more little Reagans than his election did. Similarly, names like Ava, Harlow and Lana take their spark from celebrities who have moved beyond scandal-prone reality into Hollywood myth.

What's more, a Golden Age Hollywood name is seen as cool and retro, while a modern celebrity association seems to embarrass today's parents. Even when a baby name appears to be ripped from the headlines, they'll disavow it: "OUR Isabella has NOTHING to do with Twilight," they rush to assure you. That's quite a contrast to the generation of little Shirleys who were cheerfully, forthrightly named after Shirley Temple.

Perhaps, then, it's not just hero names but frank, public admiration itself that's out of style. The homage names that do still pop up take different forms, like naming after crime victims. Compare two different figures who were big in the news in 2009: Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger and Caylee Anthony. Captain Sullenberger had the word "hero" permanently attached to his name for saving the lives of hundreds of passengers on a doomed airplane. Ms. Anthony, a toddler, was tragically murdered. The naming effect was a thousand more Caylees, and scarcely a Sully to be seen.

In fact, using a baby name as a public expression of empathy is more common than ever. Crime victims of past eras didn't have a naming impact like Caylee (or Laci, or Natalee). Strange as it may sound, today we'd rather link our children to victims than to heroes.

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