Name of the Day: Zane

by appellationmountain on October 12, 2009

He’s part-classic, part-cowpoke and all boy.

Thanks to Violetveruca for mentioning him a few weeks ago. Today’s Name of the Day goes out to her son: Zane.

Worried your kiddo might be called zany? There’s good reason.

In Italian, the evergreen John is Giovanni. Gianni is a contracted form of Giovanni; somehow, in northeastern dialects (think Venice) Gianni was shortened yet more to Zanni. In sixteenth century commedia dell’arte – a style of improv in vogue for decades – Zanni was the default name for the bumbling manservant. The art form faded over the years, but Zanni stays with us as the adjective zany.

Plenty of baby name guides link Zane to John. They just sidestep the whole comic aspect.

But that’s not the only possible attribution. With the rise of the commanding and equally classic Alexander, parents embraced Zane as an alternative to over-used – and gender-bending – Alex. As Xander and Zander gain in use, it is easy to imagine more boys wearing Zane as a diminutive.

And yet Zane’s rise probably has little to do with John or Alexander. Instead, Zane first charts in the US Top 1000 in 1921. And if you cast about for an explanation, there’s one strong possibility: novelist Zane Grey.

Known for immortalizing our ideas about the West, Pearl Zane Grey was himself part of American history. On his mother’s side, he’s descended from Ebenezer Zane. Ebenenzer served in the Colonial Army during the American Revolution and later went on to blaze Zane’s Trace – a road connecting Ohio to Kentucky, back when it was all wilderness. The future writer grew up Zanesville, Ohio, named in honor of his famous ancestor.

Grey’s career began in the early 1900s and gained steam over the next few years. His 1912 bestseller Riders of the Purple Sage inspired numerous big screen adaptations, as did several of his other works.

Zane first appeared in the US Top 1000 in 1921, and has charted ever since. In 1985, he broke into the Top 500 and began a slow climb to the mid-200s. He’s hovered around #250 since the late 1990s, ranking #235 in 2008. That puts Zane in the company of names like Griffin, Leo, Kai and Drew – not expected, but not uncommon, either.

Assuming it is the surname that inspired use, I went searching for his origins. Some relate him to the Germanic zand – tooth. It’s not a terribly common surname, though there’s Hollywood’s Billy Zane, best known for his turn as Rose’s ruthless betrothed in 1997 blockbuster Titanic.

With his Western vibe, last-names-first style, connections to two classics and zippy Z, it’s easy to see Zane catching on.

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