Tuesday, March 23, 2010

What's In a Name?

I am fascinated by names. Personally I've never liked my first name. Too common. When I was in Catholic School there were only 25 or 30 kids in the class and four of us girls had the same name. I guess it was popular the year I was born. On the other hand, I'm glad I didn't get some weird, way-out name like Sapphire or LaTonda.

I am particularly interested in last names and I love how nearly every day I hear of a last name that I've never come across before. I was watching a documentary about Chinese history and they spoke to an archeologist whose last name was Marshover. Not too esoteric perhaps, but a name I've never heard.

New (to me) last names always make me wonder about their origin. Did this man's ancestors live over a marsh or something? I mean some names are obvious. The "profession" ones, for instance. Baker. Cook. Wheelwright. But then you get one that seem like just a melodious collection of syllables. Hartsmede. Callio. Ashlyn. Many, I'm sure, are place names. Some are derived from a non-English language. But each in its own way is interesting.

Another thing that I find interesting is how names go in and out of fashion and how, in some cases, you can guess the age of the person merely by knowing their first name. I don't believe any female under the age of 70 is named Bertha or Gertrude. Nor any man younger than 50 named Adolph (unless his parents are white supremacists, in which case I don't want to know him). And yet names always seem to come around again. Flower names are again popular with girls. Rose, Lily, Daisy. And yet for a while I knew of no babies named after anything botanical, unless it was of the hippie generation and it was something wild like Orchid or Poplar. For a while it seemed every girl had to have a "creative" name like Madison or Dakota. Then the classic names came around again: Jane, Anne, Hannah. In my grandmother's generation there were several branches on the family tree with names like Lucy. Then nothing for about 40 years, and now Lucy is back.

Some names never seem to leave the map. There are a respectable number of Elizabeths or James in every generation. And then every generation grows its own. Were there any Ashtons in the 19th century? Or anyone in World War I whose name was Heath? And I'm sorry to any Cody reading this, but your name sounds like it should belong to a big dog with a bandana around its neck.

Many parents draw their inspiration from fiction. I read an article today that said Atticus was becoming quite a popular name for boys and I know someone with a daughter named Scout. Jane Austen heroines are also quite common now; lots of Emmas and Charlottes. I suppose there are worse sources for names (anybody who names their child after a retail establishment should be sterilized. Tiffany? Macys?) but if your inspiration is a romance novel, your child will definitely need therapy. (Over the years I've met a Caressa, a Jakeman and two birds: Raven and Falcon.) Honestly, how do you face the world with a name like Caressa? Are you predestined to become a pole dancer?

There are some names that I find downright ugly. With apologies to anyone named Dorcas, I think it's a horrible name. Yes, I know it's biblical, but it's just so unappealing -- a growl and a hiss. And in some cases I find names unappealing because they are tainted by someone unpleasant. I once knew a horrible girl named Christine, a perfectly respectable name and yet I dislike it because I disliked her so intensely.

But then again, I'm shallow and judgemental.


Duke said...

Biblical names seem to stay in style, like James. One of the worst fads was giving kids (mostly girls) two last names. Madison, Ashley, and so forth are really last names. Using them for the first is both pretentious and stupid.

Any time you name a kid after a location, like Montana, it sounds like a wild west gunslinger. "Look out! The Montana Kid is in town". They are terrible names.

Probably the biggest stupidity is twisting common names into weird spellings. Bobby becomes Bobyee and crap like that. Besides insuring the kid will naver have his name spelled properly his entire life, it just looks retarded. As if the kid named himself at the age of 2.

Then the grandaddy of them all, simply arranging random letters until they form something approaching a word. Arzeilea, and other names that make no sense, cannot be pronounced, and cannot be spelled.

My wife worked in hospital admitting for a while. She often when to the maternity ward to see women arranging letters into names. It was, and still is, pretty common.

Linda Granholm Myers said...

When I was in fifth grade, there were 11 girls in my class, and five of them - including me - were named Linda. 1948 to 1950, I think, were the years it was #1. I haven't heard of a Linda in the last 30 years. I guess it's like the Ethel and Ruby of the late 40s.

I have a grandson named Kaleb - I want it to start with a C! And a granddaughter named Malayne - her mom says she was reading a Dean Koontz book and the heroine had that name. The tough part for Malayne is the mistakes people make when pronouncing it. It's Muh-lay-nee.

Her twin sister's name is Mary, so there you are.

Decca said...

Duke, the odd spelling things is a topic that came up the other day. I volunteer with a woman named Alleyn (pronounced Alan). I also know men who spell it Allen, Alun. Alyn, and Alann. Far too many choices.

Linda, thanks for the guide. I wouldn't have known how to pronounce Malayne just by reading it.