FAST-US-7 'Names' in U.S. Popular Culture
Can't Stop Playing the Name Game
William Safire, New York Times

FAST-US-7 (TRENAK15) United States Popular Culture (Hopkins)
Department of Translation Studies, University of Tampere


NEW YORK - "I was such an ugly baby when I was born," Henny Youngman used to joke, "that the doctor slapped my mother."

However beautiful the baby may be, the decision about its name is usually the mother's, according to Edward Caflary, editor of Names: A Journal of Onomastics. Mothers of sons tend to stick with traditional names: Michael is still popular, along with the standbys John and Matthew; lately, there has been a good run on Nicholas, Jacob and Samuel. Although no national survey is authoritative, it seems that Christopher, Austin, Joshua, Zachary and Andrew are holding their own, with Brandon, Cody, Christian and Dylan moving up in the kindergartens, but Mark and Luke are already in their 30s.

Macho names are fading fast: Fewer boys are named Rock, Lance or Pierce. Whatever happened to William? It's way down the list with Richard and Robert, and it's "goodbye Charlie" to the once-hot Jason.

Girls' names, like their clothes, are much more subject to the swings of fashion. Surging past Michelle, Jennifer and Jessica, according to a list posted by Michael Shackleford of Maryland, the new Top Five includes Emily, Kaitlyn, Brianna, Ashley and - atop the list - Sarah.

It's nice to see Sarah, with, its biblical overtones, rising to new popularity. I was blessed with two Sarahs in my life - my aunt and godmother, Sarah Siegmeister, and my longtime secretary, Sara Cutting - and spelled with or without the final "h," the sibilant name comes lovingly off the, lips, along with its diminutive Sally. With Sarah atop the Top 40, can Rachel, Rebecca and Ruth be far behind? (Ruth, with its touch of sadness, is quite far behind, and Hagar, as Abraham's jealous Sarah made certain, is out of it.)

Mothers seem to be searching for the uncommonn in daughterclature. Kaitlyn is big these days, an updating of the ever-popular Catherine. Brianna is the feminine form of the Irish Brian.

Women in today's maternity wards whose names are Loren, Karen, Linda, Lisa, Hillary, Michelle and Kimberly -- and whose mothers are Barbara, Mary, Jane, Helen, Dorothy and Betty -- name their daughters Megan, Alyssa, Hannah, Brittany, Haley and Jasmine. (Maria seems to be falling from grace, as Grace did long ago. Not a trace of Tracy.)

Androgynous names abound: Taylor, Cameron and Madison can be borne by male or female. This means it is harder for prospective employers to tell a job applicant's sex when reading a résumé, a possible reason for the choices.

As names make news, news makes names: A generation ago, Jacqueline was hot, as Diana is today. Controversy can make or break a name; it is too soon to tell if Paula will be many babies' Monica.

In hilarity heaven, St. Henny will catch the groaner on monicker. Rootless etymologists think it is probably from the Shelta language of itinerants in Ireland; monicker began there as munnik, derived from the Gaelic "ainm," in turn taken from the Greek no-men, meaning "name." From that stem sprout noun, the name of a thing; nomenclature, a system of names leading to nomenklatura, the names of the old Soviet elite; anonymous, no name at all, and nomination, the naming of a candidate. Contrary to Shakespeare, plenty is in a name.


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Last Updated 27 April 2010