What’s in a Name?

(National Review, December 31, 2017, Issue)

My children attend a typical suburban public high school featuring an atypically beautiful, talented, funny, diverse, and precocious group of kids. With the swirling madness that’s permeated American life, these kids actually imbue me with hope for the future.

There’s just one tiny problem. I can’t remember any of their names. It is, in fact, impossible for me to distinguish one of these young people from another using the labels that have been assigned them by their creative parents. Aaliyah? Adalyn? Allegro? Who knows? (The names, incidentally, have been altered to protect the innocent—primarily myself.) So I am forced to concoct monikers for my children’s many associates, such as “the one with the extraordinarily whiny voice,” or “the one who is always reading those weird Japanese comics,” or “the tall one,” and so on.

The failing is mine and mine alone, of course, but I do come with a generational excuse. As was the case with many of you, when I went to high school, American kids were permitted to have perhaps one of six first names—and two of those
names were the alternative spellings “Michelle” and “Michele.” As far as I knew,
the Baby Boomers tasked with christening Gen Xers might have been the laziest
name-givers in history. Because of them, I have met around 2,000 people named
John in my life but not a single one named Caspian or Magnus.

My name, David, for instance, was traditionally bestowed to firstborn males in
Jewish families in honor of the king of Israel. The results were less than regal,
given where I grew up, as I was not merely one of five Davids in my small class but one of three David H’s. No Jebadiahs. No Harpers. No Augustuses. Lots of Davids. In the decade of the 1970s, nearly 450,000 babies would be named David in the United States. Heck, I’ve corresponded with two people who share both my first name and my surname. Most kids today will never know such indignity.

But it turns out I can’t blame our parents alone, as each generation’s naming habits have become increasingly individualized and varied over the past 100 years. In the 1880s to the 1950s, the names John, William, James, George, Charles, Robert, and Joseph (and, at the tail end, Michael) would dominate the top ten for boys’ names. There was rarely any genuine variation to the list other than the names’ occasionally switching spots in the rankings.

Nowadays, according to Nameberry, a site that concerns itself with this vital topic, some of the most popular names for boys last year were Atticus, Asher, Milo, and Silas. Three of the top-ten names of 2017 had changed from the year before. Some of the biggest movers were Kai, Liam, Cassius, Finn, and Ryker. While in the 1950s around 25 of the most popular baby-girl names were used by roughly half the population, these days you’d have to include over 100 names to cover 25 percent of American baby girls, and those names are constantly fluctuating.

There are a number of reasons for this trend. Obviously, some names enjoy cyclical popularity. I’ve begun to notice kids’ sporting names that had been, in my lifetime at least, reserved for octogenarians. My instinct is to put “Aunt” in front names like Olivia (the most popular baby name for girls in 2017), Agnes, or Beatrice.

Another driver of variation is that fewer men are being named after their fathers. While there were once many juniors, III’s, and IV’s in areas of the United States that embraced “honor cultures,” today this naming convention is becoming rarer in all parts of the country.

The diversity in names can also be chalked up to an influx of immigrants who come here from areas outside of Europe. Anglicizing European names is unproblematic when compared with Anglicizing names imported from other areas of the world. Habits have changed, as well. While a generation of Jewish immigrants that came before me took on deliberately American-sounding names—Seymour, Morris, and such—today newcomers are more prone to keep their culture’s conventional names. There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of those tendencies.

On the other hand, some sociologists argue that names transmit important social information to a wider world. So, for instance, while in the past we sought to associate our offspring with blessed saints, historic personalities, national leaders, and revered family members, today some of us name our kids Rumi because that’s what Beyonce and Jay-Z came up with for their daughter.

Striving for uniqueness—and I admit that I am somewhat guilty of this; who doesn’t want his kids to be special?—rather than embracing tradition is a reflection of contemporary attitudes. It’s difficult to avoid the fact that our progressively anarchistic naming conventions reflect a collective narcissism. In the past, parents were concerned about their children’s fitting in or carrying on a legacy. Today, there is strong emphasis on standing out. A weird name is an easy, if often lazy, way to make that happen.

Don’t get me wrong. In many ways the diversity is pleasing. If you feel compelled to name your child after a New York borough, or fauna, or something Gaelic, or maybe something that makes us think of a blacksmith in a New England town circa 1620, go for it. I mean, we should envy the Xaviers and Logans of this world. No decent scriptwriter would name a superhero Dave, after all. But sometimes, when I’m flailing to recollect one of my children’s friends’ names, I worry that maybe we’re losing something important as well.

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