Magazine | December 31, 2017, Issue

What’s in a Name?

Ladbrokes spokesperson Jessica Bridge (left) and a journalist react outside Kensington Palace in London May 4, 2015. (Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters)

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 one of perhaps 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 naming habits have been increasingly individualized and varied over the past 100 years. From the 1880s to the 1950s, the names John, William, James, George, Charles, Robert, and Joseph (and, at the tail end, Michael) dominated 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 of 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 Beyoncé 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.

– Mr. Harsanyi is a senior editor of the Federalist.

David Harsanyi is a senior editor of the Federalist and the author of First Freedom: A Ride through America’s Enduring History with the Gun, From the Revolution to Today

In This Issue

Articles

Features

Books, Arts & Manners

Books

A Turn to Darkness

He focuses on the duo of Vladimir Lenin and Woodrow Wilson, who gave birth to what Herman calls “the New World Disorder.”

Sections

Magazine

Letters

City of Light, City of Magic Cleveland has suffered dismal, frustrating, or tragic sports franchises, without exception, since the Eisenhower administration (“The Week,” November 13)? Come west of the Hudson sometime ...

Most Popular

Politics & Policy

Elizabeth Warren Is Not Honest

If you want to run for office, political consultants will hammer away at one point: Tell stories. People respond to stories. We’ve been a story-telling species since our fur-clad ancestors gathered around campfires. Don’t cite statistics. No one can remember statistics. Make it human. Make it relatable. ... Read More
National Review

Farewell

Today is my last day at National Review. It's an incredibly bittersweet moment. While I've only worked full-time since May, 2015, I've contributed posts and pieces for over fifteen years. NR was the first national platform to publish my work, and now -- thousands of posts and more than a million words later -- I ... Read More
Economy & Business

Andrew Yang, Snake Oil Salesman

Andrew Yang, the tech entrepreneur and gadfly, has definitely cleared the bar for a successful cause candidate. Not only has he exceeded expectations for his polling and fundraising, not only has he developed a cult following, not only has he got people talking about his signature idea, the universal basic ... Read More
Culture

Feminists Have Turned on Pornography

Since the sexual revolution of the 1960s, the feminist movement has sought to condemn traditional sexual ethics as repressive, misogynistic, and intolerant. As the 2010s come to a close, it might be fair to say that mainstream culture has reached the logical endpoint of this philosophy. Whereas older Americans ... Read More
White House

The Impeachment Defense That Doesn’t Work

If we’ve learned anything from the last couple of weeks, it’s that the “perfect phone call” defense of Trump and Ukraine doesn’t work. As Andy and I discussed on his podcast this week, the “perfect” defense allows the Democrats to score easy points by establishing that people in the administration ... Read More
Elections

Democrats Think They Can Win without You

A  few days ago, Ericka Anderson, an old friend of National Review, popped up in the pages of the New York Times lamenting that “the Democratic presidential field neglects abundant pools of potential Democrat converts, leaving persuadable audiences — like independents and Trump-averse, anti-abortion ... Read More