What’s in a (Popular) Name?


What's in a name?

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”
Juliet, in Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)

A recent article in The Atlantic about how our names impact our lives got me to thinking about how and why we name our children – and what they say about us, about our parents, what our names mean to others of their generation. And why are some names popular at certain times in history. Like now.

According to babycenter.com, these are the ten most popular baby names for 2013:

Girls:

  1. Sophia
  2. Emma
  3. Olivia
  4. Isabella
  5. Mia
  6. Ava
  7. Lily
  8. Zoe
  9. Emily
  10. Chloe

Boys:

  1. Jackson
  2. Aiden
  3. Liam
  4. Lucas
  5. Noah
  6. Mason
  7. Jayden
  8. Ethan
  9. Jacob
  10. Jack

That just makes me feel like I’ve missed a genealogical bus somewhere. Of those 20 names, I doubt I’d name a child most of them. But that may be a generational thing; I was raised with a different set of names. Some of these names are also – from my perspective – old-fashioned. I suppose that’s the around-again effect we see in so many other cultural items (like the endless recycling of pop music tropes from the 60s and 70s…).

Still, I wouldn’t name a child a lot of things, from Crystal to Britney to River (or Dweezil or Moon Unit). I might give a girl the middle name of Yseult and a boy Tristam, but only because I would want to be able to explain the wonderful, romantic story behind those names… I wouldn’t want to burden them with these as first names.

My wife’s name, Susan – a name that I love to hear and still sounds like wind chimes to me after more than 30 years – doesn’t appear in the top 100, while my own shows up at a mere number 80. That surprises me somewhat, because at least when I was growing up, my name was a rarity and Susan was popular, at least in my travelled circles.

The list at babynames.com is radically different (sorry for the caps, but that’s how they inappropriately formatted the lists):

Girls:

  1. CHARLOTTE
  2. AMELIA
  3. OLIVIA
  4. AVA
  5. ARIA/ARYA
  6. VIOLET
  7. SOPHIA/SOFIA
  8. SCARLETT/SCARLET
  9. AUDREY
  10. EMMA

Boys:

  1. LIAM
  2. NOAH
  3. OLIVER
  4. AIDAN/AIDEN/ADEN
  5. ASHER
  6. OWEN
  7. BENJAMIN
  8. DECLAN
  9. HENRY
  10. JACKSON/JAXON

Again, Susan isn’t on the list, and Ian has risen slightly to 73. but Jaxon? Who calls their kid Jaxon? Jackson I might accept, but Jaxon? Why not Jazon instead of Jason?

It’s one of those cloyingly cute spellings that cause people to cringe when forced to correct others who expect it to be spelled correctly, with a “ks.” It’s like “z” instead of “s.” I refuse to buy anything or shop anywhere with a name that replaces a proper “s” with a “z” because it’s not cute, it’s stupid and anti-intellectual. And it lumbers the kids with a name they have to apologize for all the rest of their lives.

(Just to be contrary, I pronounce words that replace a proper “s” with a “z” as if they had a “zuh” suffix: boyz becomes boyzuh, catz is cat-zuh. Or if I’m feeling contrarily Canadian, I pronounce them “boy-zed” and “cat-zed”… and if I met a Jaxon I would call him “Jazz-on” – the X as in xylophone…)

Tom Leher, the humorous songwriter back in the 1960s, once commented about a friend who was so eccentric he spelled his name Hen3ry, the three being silent. But there’s a wide gap between eccentricity and stupidity. Jaxon falls on the stupid side of that divide. Most abrasively cute things do because they are so heavily imitated they become the lowest cultural denominator. Chia pets, backwards baseball caps and Facebook kitten pictures included.

The US Social Security website also has a top ten for baby names:

Girls:

  1. Sophia
  2. Emma
  3. Olivia
  4. Isabella
  5. Ava
  6. Mia
  7. Emily
  8. Abigail
  9. Madison
  10. Elizabeth

Boys:

  1. Noah
  2. Liam
  3. Jacob
  4. Mason
  5. William
  6. Ethan
  7. Michael
  8. Alexander
  9. Jayden
  10. Daniel

Really? Noah is number one? That’s a bit Biblical for my taste, although it’s not offensive, just seems archaic. Jacob, Michael and Daniel are Biblical, too, which makes me wonder if this is the result of the growing influence of the American religious right (aka the American Taliban).

What surprises (and annoys) me is that names like Robert, James, Joseph, Richard and Carl are beaten out by something artificial like Jayden. Ethan and Liam are traditional, but Irish – are there that many Irish descendants in the USA? Or is it an affectation based on Hollywood film stars’ names? I suspect the latter.

And there’s that Jayden again in this list. Is this a real name, or something someone made up? Seems there is a Biblical Jadon, but the source is likely Star Trek. I loved the Star Trek series, but not to the point of naming my children after characters on it (what, Data isn’t on the list?). From there it seems to have become a Hollywood favourite, which infected fans sufficiently to name their kids as the glitterati have done.

(Why aren’t Angelina and Brad on the list? Are they too old hat?)

Most of the girls’ names strike me as fairly traditional, except for Madison. It’s another invented name, apparently stemming from a movie character played by Darryl Hannah. It’s a unisex name, but the way, although the trend has been more to female use, but for me it will always be followed by Wisconsin.

Looking up Ian* over the past 65 years, the name has risen steadily in popularity from 678 to 80. Susan, on the other hand, has done the reverse: fallen from fifth to 844. I wonder should I break this to my wife?

Rather curiously, growing up I never knew another Ian, but when I moved to this town, I got to know several (at least five come to mind). I worked for several US magazines in the 1980s, and was always trying to explain to my contacts that it wasn’t Jan or Lan or Yan. And it wasn’t pronounced “Een” or “Eye-an” or ” “Ein.” My first Airmiles card was made out to Jan Chadwick. I tried to correct if and got Lan instead. What, Americans have never heard the name before?

Remember growing up, when your friends give you nicknames or abbreviated your name? Robert became Bob or Rob. Edward became Ted or Ed. Sam. Bill. Sue. Jill. Some names got reduced to a single letter: T, B and J. What does Ian become? I? Pronounced “ee.” Nah.

These have been American lists, so what about Canadian baby names in 2013? According to Today’s Parent (and they took their data from StatsCan) here are the top ten:

Girls:

  1. Emma
  2. Olivia
  3. Sofia/Sophia
  4. Zoe(y)
  5. Maya/Mia/Mya
  6. Emilie/Emily
  7. Chloe/Khloe
  8. Lea/Leah
  9. Sara(h)
  10. Ava

Boys:

  1. Liam
  2. Jacob
  3. William
  4. Nathan
  5. Samuel
  6. Oliver/Olivier
  7. Lucas
  8. Noah
  9. Benjamin
  10. Ethan

Some overlap, but a little different. Neither Susan nor Ian are even in the top 100 in our Canuck list. I am somewhat surprised that there are not more traditional English and Scottish influences in the lists, given our national history, and that it looks like our naming choices are almost as much influenced by the glitterati as they are in the USA.

But these are commonplace names, all of them, in comparison to what Bounty.com says are the most unusual kids’ names parents hobbled their children with. Girls first:

  1. Zelie
  2. Tea
  3. Rosielee
  4. Vogue
  5. Summer-ray
  6. Sunny
  7. Tru
  8. Sorrel
  9. Pinky
  10. Ream
  11. Phoenix
  12. Olympia
  13. Nolly
  14. Orchid
  15. Puppy
  16. Purdy
  17. Pepsi
  18. Paradise
  19. Peppa
  20. Nirvana

And boys:

  1. Tiger
  2. Victory
  3. Tucker
  4. Tory
  5. Prosper
  6. Porter
  7. Perseus
  8. Luck
  9. Kassius
  10. London
  11. Lohan
  12. Geordie
  13. Gerrard
  14. Dallas
  15. Dior
  16. Boden
  17. Denley
  18. Bramwell
  19. Denton
  20. Drey

Really? Someone named their kids Pepsi and Victory? Luck and Ream? What, the kid is a package of printer paper? Nirvana? Prosper? Drey – as in “cloth merchant” or the parents were too stoned to remember that Andre has a first syllable?

Those poor children. These twisted, sorry parents.

One day, I suppose, parents will be naming their kids after Internet sites and features. Blogger Smith. Facebook Jones. Java Johnson. WordPress WIlliams. I hope I don’t live to see that day.

~~~~~
* Ian is a Scottish variation of John, sometimes also spelt Iain. It is sort-of Biblical, in that it appears in English translations of the Bible, but is as historical as Jaydon and Jaxon, just much older. There is no “j” sound in Hebrew of Greek – the two main languages of the Bible, nor in Latin the language they were first translated into. The name “John” appears in none of these original languages. Nor does Jesus, by the way. The closest Biblical equivalent to John would be Yonathan or Yohan (and to Jesus; Yehoshua). While in English, the name Jesus is very rare, in Spanish is it more common, but pronounced as “Hay-sus” because Romance languages also lack the “j” sound.