Playing the name game

The nature of names, the trends they follow and the meaning they carry

With new name variations and fewer social boundaries, individuals are now testing the limits of their creativity in naming their kids.
With new name variations and fewer social boundaries, individuals are now testing the limits of their creativity in naming their kids.

With the likes of Apple, Bronx Mowgli and Moon Unit, one thing’s certain—names are strange things. Poet W.H. Auden called them poetry in the raw and deemed them as untranslatable, but others attribute names the power to determine one’s personality when he or she grows up. Names are often the first thing someone else will know about a person—and in most cases, names stick for life.  

Most common names have etymological associations. If your name is Richard, it’s derived from “powerful leader”; if it’s Sarah, it’s derived from “princess.” Names can refer to virtues—like Clement or Constance, to occupations—for instance George, to the Bible—Daniel and John. Names can indicate power or station, as in Henry IV, or through the use of honorifics like Sir or Madam. Even animals like dolphins use names in the same manner as humans do.

English professor Sylvia Söderlind said a person’s name is the most prominent part of themselves.

“It’s the thing that identifies you from everyone else. [But] there’s no such thing as a name meaning something. It is the least descriptive part of you. My name means ‘from the woods,’ but that is very irrelevant to who I am.”

Söderlind said various cultures confer less arbitrary names.

Some Native American names refer to events that occurred at birth, like Running Dog or Red Cloud. In Africa, people may be named after the day of the week they’re born on. Former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s first name, for example, refers to the Friday he was born in the Akan language.

When people have more freedom to choose, though, names often follow fashions or trends. “When I was growing up [in Sweden], my name was an old-fashioned name, and I hated it,” Söderlind said. “But then, the King of Sweden married a woman named Silvia, and all of a sudden, there was a whole generation of little girls named Silvia, because it was a queenly name.”

When it comes to surnames, family history can complicate their meanings—and significantly lengthen the phonebook.

One man from Philadelphia eventually became referred to as Wolfe+585, Sr. because his last name began with Wolfe and had 585 other letters in it. One of the simpler translations of the name from Fairleigh Dickinson University, called him “wolf slayer who lives in the stone house in the mountain village.” The longest one that I found has to do with his ancestors having been shepherds who protected their sheep from aliens by migrating to Earth from another planet 12,000 years ago.

A 22-year-old Chinese man named C was required by law to change his name, since only Chinese characters recognized by official computers are permitted in names.

Other countries like Denmark and Portugal are even more restrictive; parents are required to choose from lists of acceptable names, selected for readability as well as good taste.

Laws about naming are actually quite common, even in Canada. They can be in place to prevent confusion—such as laws against surnames with too many hyphens—to prevent embarrassment for the child or to prevent unpronounceable or unreadable names. Recent accepted name attempts in various countries include Metallica and Gandalf. Rejected were names like 4real, Ikea  and Brfxxccxxmnpccccl- llmmnprxvclmnckssqlbb11116.

Although most parents in search of a baby name don’t stray quite that far, philosophy professor Adèle Mercier said people often like to be creative with their name choices.

“I think there are phases, where parents look for names for their children that are not so popular.” “Some older names start sounding like they could be younger names,” she said. “Many parents will name their children the same name, recognizing that the name is rare. So all of a sudden, you have an influx of Emilies. I would predict that in 20 years, Moses will become a popular name.”

There are over three times as many commonly used female names as male names and many languages also tend to have male and female versions of the same name—such as Mario and Maria in Spanish and Jean and Jeanne in French—but English has few of these and few gender-neutral names as well. Our language and culture don’t seem to support them.

“When a name becomes popular, it becomes so popular that people start using it for women,” Mercier said. “At that moment, they cease to be usable for men. You’d be surprised at the number of female names that used to be male names but now have a ring of femininity. It’s a deeply sexist direction, as if the name had been sullied.” She said names like Carol, Evelyn and Leslie were all formerly male names—along with currently gender-neutral names like Chris and Kim, which used to be masculine but may now be in the process of transition.

Intentional name-changes to avoid prejudice or make a name easier to pronounce in moving to a new culture are also quite common.

Mercier said these name changes can also be accidental in their nature.

“When you arrive as a refugee, you arrive without papers,” she said. “You say your name in a language the border guard does not understand and he does a kind of transliteration of your name.”

Mercier said these unintentional changes can also be purposeful, like people who deliberately change their names.

“You assume not a different identity, as you’re the same person, but you accept to be referred to by a different sign,” she said.

On the Internet, a name changes are often trivial. Anyone can come back under a different name and expect to be greeted as someone else entirely, as any association or reputation is associated not with the person but with the name. In this context, the lack of a name that can be concretely associated with someone also results in an online disinhibition effect, where people act or speak with less restraint than they would use in real life.  But name changes can also be deeply significant. This is especially true in literature, where a name often symbolizes fundamental transitions. Any name can be significant—and since the author has complete control over what it is, any choice suitable to the story can be made, Söderlind said. Names can be shorter or longer, using harder or softer sounds, to indicate things about that to which they refer in a kind of foreshadowing. Other connections can be made through similarities, as in Scarlett O’Hara’s association with the colour.

“The author names a character in order to create connotations, and in literature a name gathers connotations in the narrative,” Söderlind said. “Ordinary names connote ordinary people you could meet on the street, while someone like Huckleberry Finn lives outside society. He is a child of nature. The reader will immediately sense that they belong to different contexts.”

Söderlind said the most successful names go on to become cultural phenomena.

“Names take on the associations from literature. [They] take on a life of their own when they leave the page,” she said, adding that names like Lolita and Don Juan have come to refer to character types now, not individuals.

“What they stand for has been created by the text.”

—With files from Matthew Sigurdson

Unusual celebrity baby names

Pilot Inspektor—Son of Jason Lee

Moon Unit—Daughter of Frank Zappa

Kal-El—Son of Nicholas Cage

Prince Michael Katherine—Daughter of Michael Jackson

Ireland—Daughter of Alec Baldwin

Apple—Daughter of Gwyneth Paltrow

Sailor Lee—Daughter of Christie Brinkley

Sage Moonblood—Son of Sylvester Stalone

Diva Muffin—Daughter of Frank Zappa


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