May 20, 2006

Well, At Least Purgatory is Still Right Out

LOYAL RANT READERS know I find it greatly annoying when well-meaning but foolish parents name their children something strange: so much so, in fact, that I’m apparently becoming an expert on it. I can assure you that, much to my surprise and delight, a 2004 entry from The Rant has been named source material for the Dutch Wikipedia entry on stupid celebrity names. As the entry is in Dutch, I have no idea what it actually says, but considering Holland’s proud mercantile traditions, I can only assume the best.

I was disheartened again, though, to see that another unfortunate trend in naming one’s children has recently emerged in American life. The New York Times has the story in full:

In 1999, there were only eight newborn American girls named Nevaeh. Last year, it was the 70th-most-popular name for baby girls, ahead of Sara, Vanessa and Amanda.

The spectacular rise of Nevaeh (commonly pronounced nah-VAY-uh) has little precedent, name experts say. They watched it break into the top 1,000 of girls' names in 2001 at No. 266, the third-highest debut ever. Four years later it cracked the top 100 with 4,457 newborn Nevaehs, having made the fastest climb among all names in more than a century, the entire period for which the Social Security Administration has such records.

Nevaeh is not in the Bible or any religious text. It is not from a foreign language. It is not the name of a celebrity, real or fictional. Nevaeh is Heaven spelled backward.

It is also, one hesitates to mention, how one commonly pronounces NIVEA, the skin-care product brand from Hamburg-based Beiersdorf AG, which is notable for its smarmy television commercials. Somebody – make that somebodies -- at The New York Times failed to notice this.

That omission aside, the Times still managed to have fun with the story on an institutional level. For instance, somebody at the Times decided the story would be perfect for Jennifer 8. Lee, whose middle name is actually the number eight, to cover. Somebody at the Times also came up with the clever headline: “And if It’s a Boy, Will It Be Lleh?” Ha, ha!

Now, that second item is one of those cutesy little digs which might make a man momentarily question the Nineteenth Amendment. However, it is instead properly repudiated with a polite request for the Times copy desk to go stifle itself. Or, at the very least, a grumbled invocation of Sesuj Tsirhc.

But let’s be serious for a moment.

The name, as you’ve guessed, rings a sour note with me. It’s not merely that it may be confused with a similar-sounding skin-care product, or that it will also likely prove a challenge for many to spell. To me, the name is a walking billboard proclaiming the self-centeredness and indulgence of those who conferred it upon their child. Some might even consider it a warning sign: a placard, if you will, notifying other adults that said child’s parents will undoubtedly and immediately bore them to tears with dull stories about their little tyke. Yes, you may have just met them ten minutes ago, but be ready to reap the whirlwind when the pathetic helicopter parents blast off about the latest indignity the cruel world has heaped upon their little angel.

Such indulgence is particularly unfortunate when it affects children. It’s symptomatic, I think, of the weakening of the traditional family dynamic in American life, and the unspoken covenant that reminds one of how important the shared bonds of one’s last name are. For instance, back in the old days, parents would routinely mete out worse punishment to their child than their child’s teachers would. This was not merely because the kid needed direction, but because he had embarrassed his parents, a far graver sin. Nowadays, parents don’t seem to feel a bit of shame when little Johnny acts up, and instead attack the teachers or coaches or whomever disciplined their brat – even though doing so has connotations which are far more negative. It’s very, very strange, but perhaps understandable in a popular culture which places far more importance on the individual than on family.

“Nevaeh” is also unfortunate for the standard reasons I dislike out-there names. It has no ethnic connotation and no indication of one’s family traditions, meaning that anyone with the name loses out on positives that might be associated with it. Furthermore, there’s a danger the name may pick up negative associations. As Steve Levitt and Steve Dubner pointed out in “Freakonomics,” the original name – Heaven – is generally indicative of low educational status in a family. It would be particularly unfortunate if Nevaeh were to face a similar fate.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at May 20, 2006 11:02 AM | TrackBack
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