May 28, 2008

What's in a Name

IN THIS WEEK'S EDITION OF The Economist, the magazine printed a letter from a David Miller of Austin, Texas, in which Mr Miller discussed the social ramifications of naming one's children. Mr Miller was a bit uncharitable in his missive, but I do not think his point was entirely off the mark. Mr Miller wrote, in part:

I recently attended a ceremony at a university and was amazed at the recurrence of traditional first names; a plethora of Anns, Elizabeths, Johns and Stephens (many of them Asian-Americans) with nary a Staci, Crystal, Cody or Elvis in sight. Parents express their aspirations when they name their children, and usually get what they expect.

Even for a Staunch Traditionalist like myself, I think this is a bit harsh. People can and do succeed even if they were given an iffy name at birth, while those who received excellent names often turn out badly. Plus, even iffy names may be perfectly acceptable if they were given for family, ethnic or other connections that play a big role in one's life. Still, this is a big reason why I think giving one's offspring proper names is so important, and why naming one's child is a decision which must be treated with the highest gravity.

Thus, I was gratified to see the Social Security Administration recently hinted that it shared this view, and politely rapped the knuckles of America's more free-thinking parents on their name choices. In a rather extraordinary release, the agency highlighted one of the particularly odd trends taking shape in American life, that of strange names for male children:

For reasons likely to puzzle baby name experts around the world, American parents have become infatuated by names, particularly for their sons, that rhyme with the word “maiden.” These names for boys include: Jayden (No. 18); Aiden (No. 27); Aidan (No. 54); Jaden (No. 76); Caden (No. 92); Kaden (No. 98); Ayden (No.102); Braden (No.156); Cayden (No.175); Jaiden (No.191); Kaiden (No. 220); Aden (No. 264); Caiden (No. 286); Braeden (No. 325); Braydon (No. 361); Jaydon (No. 415); Jadon (No. 423); Braiden (No. 529); Zayden (No. 588); Jaeden (No. 593); Aydan (No. 598); Bradyn (No. 629); Kadin (No. 657); Jadyn (No. 696); Kaeden (No. 701); Jaydin (No. 757); Braedon (No. 805); Aidyn (No. 818); Haiden (No. 820); Jaidyn (No. 841); Kadyn (No. 878); Jaydan (No. 887); Raiden (No. 931); and Adin (No. 983). This startling trend was present, but less pronounced, with girls' names: Jayden (No. 172); Jadyn (No. 319); Jaden (No. 335); Jaiden (No. 429); Kayden (No. 507); and Jaidyn (No. 561). Social Security spokesman Mark Lassiter indicated that the agency would resist any legislative efforts to standardize the spelling of these names.

Now, looking closely at the list, one will notice that No. 54 (Aidan) is a perfectly fine Irish name, so one might suggest this particular name is not like the others. But the others -- oy. Some of these names are so amazingly awful it boggles the mind. Consider: in naming their boys Raiden, 210 American couples voluntarily named their children after the thunder god of the Mortal Kombat universe.

Here's the truth -- that's just wrong. I don't care if the couples met at the local video arcade and first made out after beating Mortal Kombat II -- you don't name your kid after the lame-o thunder god character. (The Rant, as one might suspect, played Sub-Zero).

But it doesn't stop there. Consider what the agency said about the necrotic, civilization-destroying influence of America's celebrities on baby name choices:

Although “American Idol’s” Sanjaya did not influence this year’s list, other young celebrities influenced the naming of American children. The 2007 success of popular race car driver Danica Patrick undoubtedly inspired her first name moving from number 352 to number 307. Similarly, the name of the first pick in the 2007 NFL draft, Oakland Raiders’ quarterback JaMarcus Russell, rose from number 914 to number 743 on the boys’ list.

Shiloh, the youngest daughter of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, debuted on the list at number 804. Maddox, the name of their oldest child, has seen steady gains since first appearing on the list in 2003 at number 583 and now ranking at number 226. Suri, the name of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes' daughter, did not make the list. But Britney Spears' second son is named Jayden, which ranked at number 18. Miley is new to the girls’ list this year, entering fairly high at number 278, attributable to the popularity of teen sensation Miley Cyrus.

Does anybody else find it patently disturbing that 297 American couples named their boys after an Oakland Raider? Well, I certainly do. But that's not the only worrying football-related statistic I discovered after plowing through the list of names. Even more alarming, 3,336 American couples named their boys Peyton, after -- well, you know. (1,221 couples named their boys Payton, which on one hand could be considered even worse because of the non-standard spelling, but on the other could be considered far better because Walter Payton would have approved). It is also worth noting that Peyton is a more popular girls' name than it is a boys' name, which opens an entirely different can of worms, but we'll get to that in a bit.

Now, I see nothing wrong with naming one's child after a football player. However, if one does this, there are plenty of perfectly fine football names one should choose instead of, say, Peyton. For instance, what about Terry? Or John? Or Lynn? Or Franco? For that matter, what about Jerome, Troy, Hines, Santonio, Marvel, LaMarr, Jack, Ernie or Mean Joe? Give your kid a good start in life -- don't doom him to a preening, smug existence in which he must boast about his so-called "rocket arm" even while his inability to deal with defensive pressure means his team sits at home -- again -- on Super Bowl Sunday.

Also, while I see nothing inherently wrong with naming one's son with an ambiguous name, one must take care to make sure the name works, as the choice can be fraught with peril. Peyton clearly does not work because one's son should not be typecast as a whining pansy who blames his failures on others. However, a name such as Lynn or Gale -- especially Gale -- would clearly work. After all, none of the kids would make fun of Gale, because his name would signify that he needed just 18 inches of daylight to kick their asses.

But there is good news amidst all this. The twenty most popular names for boys and girls only contains one that makes one wince and three that should have been tabled at their second reading. For the boys, the only truly miserable name is "Jayden," (No. 18) which brings to mind an unpleasant and hardscrabble existence somewhere in California's high desert.

For the girls -- where choosing a proper name is twice as important -- most of the names are also excellent, but I myself would instantly veto Madison (No. 5), Olivia (No. 7), and Addison (No. 11). Addison is a bit too masculine for my taste, Olivia is too old-fashioned (when I hear the name, I think of a Rhoda Henry-like character) and Madison -- well, that's what we named the dog when I was growing up. The way I see it, one wouldn't name one's kid Rover or Fala, so that's right out too.

At least, I hope.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at May 28, 2008 09:10 PM | TrackBack
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