Drumroll, please … this is post #1,000, written over more than two and a half years.
More than 700 of those posts are deep dives into one particular featured Name of the Day. Here’s a quick look at what I’ve learned over the past two-going-on-three years.
1. The more I write about names, the less significant I find their stated meanings.
I used to be very concerned about meanings. How could anyone name a child Mallory or Tanner? The only thing I liked about my very common – and quickly shed – first name was that Amy had a pleasant meaning, consistent from baby name book to baby name book.
But the more I’ve written, the more I realized that the assigned meanings are often open to debate. The obvious example is Katherine – everyone might believe she means pure, but that’s folk etymology, made true by the weight of a billion baby name books. For other names, though, pop culture and current events loom larger than the name’s stated meaning. If you named your daughter Monica in 1995, you were asked about Friends. (Though Monica had been in the US Top 100 for more than three decades when the show debuted.) Three years later, it was all White House sex scandal. Monica exited the Top 100, and continues to fall rapidly.
That’s not to say parents shouldn’t consider a name’s meaning – if it matters to you, then it matters. But unless you’re using a straight-up noun name – Sky or Honor or Indigo – it is almost always more complicated than you might think.
2. The Myth of the Normal Name persists and will be with us always.
We have very short memories when it comes to names, and we’re heavily influenced by our experiences. It’s surprising to discover that Melvin and Ethel, Luther and Loretta were once perfectly ordinary choices. (Those four are Top 100 picks from the 1920s.) Our names (Jeffrey and Michelle, Chad and Dawn) will sound just as dated in another generation or two. And when we’re grandparents, some of us will be asking why no one calls their kids Chloe and Austin, Elijah and Isabella anymore.
Names are governed by customs and trends, and both shift over the decades, strongly enough that what sounds normal to someone in her 50s is unthinkable to a new parent today. And yet sometimes we’re harshly dismissive of emerging names, convinced that it’s just short of child abuse to name a boy Julian or a girl Taylor, not realizing that they’re solidly established Top 100 picks in the US. They might not be our personal style, and that’s fine – but they’re nothing if not normal.
3. Rules are elusive.
We want to believe that given names are fixed and unchanging, but they’re actually amazingly flexible. Dominant spellings evolve (Sallie to Sally, Philip to Phillip). Surnames and first names are more fluid than they appear at first glance. Gender shifts across languages and continents.
Take spellings. Many of us want there to be correct, etched-in-stone, though-shall-not-alter spellings. Most of the time, it isn’t so. There are better spellings – spellings that are familiar, that don’t require us to stop and question if the parents intended a different pronunciation for Alyzabeth, or if Zachareigh is a girl. (I’d guess no and yes, but I’d be prepared to be wrong in both cases.)
But standardized spellings are a very recent phenomenon – much, much younger than the practice of addressing each other by a given name. Any name with a history longer than a century or two has multiple spellings.
The same goes for the idea that surnames should never be given as first names. An astonishing number of names have traveled from first to last and back again. Some fall out of use, others become so common that we forget their origins.
When I first started writing, I set out to gather and explain the rules – as if no one would name her daughter Jordynne if only she understood. 1,000 posts later, I’m less certain than ever that I’m right. And I’m quite certain that Jordynne’s mom couldn’t care less!
And here’s one more, a bonus, The Very Most Important Thing I’ve Learned Since January 2008, when I wrote my very first post.
There really is no substitute for thoughtful, engaged, and equally name-obsessed readers. I would’ve long since grown bored with Baby Names of the Day without your challenging, intriguing suggestions. And your comments? I learn, I laugh, once in a while I even talk back at the monitor, forgetting that we’re not all on the playground together.
So cue the confetti – that’s all for post 1,000.
Or wait – not QUITE all. Stand by for a Very Special Give Away – the first one ever at Appellation Mountain. A chance to win is coming to you next Saturday, so check back. (Well check back before then. But next Saturday? Definitely stop by!)