Names – The Last Shall Be First

October 16, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

What to name the baby has become more and more of a problem. A few generations ago, you could give a boy a name that had always been in the family. When is the last time your heard a parent call, “Junior, come here”?  Parents in a high-status family could give a son a family name as a first name. Calvin Trillin used to say that his upper-class Yale classmates in the 1950s were named things like Thatcher Baxter Hatcher, III (and had nicknames like Mutt and Biff).

In more recent generations, parents have been choosing names the way they might choose a work of art for the living room. It has to be different – you don’t want the same thing that everyone else has – but not so different that it’s weird. And if you are a college-educated person of some taste, an enlightened person, you don’t want a name that’s the equivalent of those cottage-and-stream cliches or Elvis on black velvet.

Hence, the proliferation of books with advice on what to name the baby. The graph from Google nGrams shows the number of mentions of the phrases “what to name the baby” and “baby names” in books since 1900.

Even during the baby boom (1946-1964), interest in baby names did not increase. That boom didn’t start until the late 1970s. 

My favorite baby-name book was Beyond Jennifer & Jason : The New Enlightened Guide to Naming Your Baby.  As the title says, you want to get beyond the currently popular names – the book was first published in the 1980s – and note also that word Enlightened.  The title of the most recent edition is Beyond Jennifer & Jason, Madison & Montana: What to Name Your Baby Now.

As the lede in a Huffington post (here) put it, “We’re always looking for baby names that are wonderful but also unusual.” It then offered a list of “100 great names given to fewer than 100 babies in the U.S. last year.” The names on the 100 under 100 are not so unusual as to be weird. Many are revivals (Winifred and Mamie, Roscoe and Chester), some are foreign transplants (Pilar and Romy, Laszlo and Aurelio), some are borrowed from other things – flora and fauna mostly.

Then are the last names that have become first names
  • Baker
  • Baxter
  • Mercer
  • Shepherd
  • Slater
These follow others that have already become widely popular, though they first started out as names that enlightened, upscale parents chose – like Carter as in Burden (b. 1942), identified by the Times as a “progressive patrician”). Last year, Carter was the 32nd most popular name for boys. Here are others in the top 100:
  • Mason (4th)
  • Hunter (36th)
  • Taylor (59th for girls)
  • Tyler (63rd)
  • Parker (74th)
  • Cooper (84th)
Like Thatcher Baxter Hatcher, these names suggest ancestry going back to the Mayflower and before that to landed English gentry. But only to our American ears. No upper-class British parent would have given a kid these names.  Like Thatcher and Baxter and Hatcher, they are the names of commoners whose family names come from an occupation.  These are ordinary tradespeople. (Hatcher is topographical – like Hill or Forest – rather than occupational. It denotes someone who lived near the gate or hatch. Baxter is a variant of Baker.)

Parker et. al are not so popular across the pond. Only two of these trade-names made the UK top 100 last year –  Mason (27th) and Tyler (37th) – and I suspect that neither of these will turn up very often on the rolls of Eton.  In Britain, if you want to suggest good family, you don’t give your kid a name like Baxter or Cooper.  George, Harry, William, and James will do nicely, thank you, especially if they are prefaced by something like Prince.

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