David Murdock: What’s in a name? (Quite a bit, actually)
As I’ve mentioned before in this column, I am somewhat fascinated with the process of naming children.
Whenever one of those lists of the most popular baby names appears, I will look at it to see what names are becoming more popular. Over time, general trends emerge, and there are people who devote their scholarly time to tracking those trends. For me, it’s more of a hobby that started with an observation a professor of mine made in a lecture long ago.
Discussing the name of a character in a book, the professor made the claim that naming is a powerful act of agency and went on to point out that naming a character is much like naming a baby. The name affects how people perceive that person or character from then on. I noted it and went on, but every time I see an article about naming practices, I’ll read it.
Parents do wield much power when they name a child, and most do not realize it. If a child has too unusual a name, other children will likely tease that child. On the other hand, if a parent gives a child too popular a name, that child is sure to end up with a nickname to differentiate him or her from all the other children with that name. Naming can be tricky, especially since Southerners are prone to give nicknames anyway.
I fall into the latter category: “David” was the second-most-popular name for boys the year I was born. In high school, I was almost never called “David” by my classmates. I had a variety of nicknames at my disposal since almost everyone called me something else. The most lasting was simply “Murdock.” Some of my best and closest friends from childhood still call me that. Those friends also wield an enormous amount of power, whether they realize it or not.
Having an unusual name is another reason why people acquire a nickname early on. Last week, there was an article on Fox News Magazine’s website about names that are going extinct. The article listed several boys and girls names that were given to five or less children in the United States during 2013, according to the Social Security Administration.
Some of the fading-in-popularity names really surprised me — “Barbra,” for example. I suppose it’s the spelling that is fading and “Barbara” is not. That also would explain “Sondra” fading away. Two did make me feel nostalgic — “Nanette” and “Claudine” — I’ve known both a Nanette and a Claudine.
The one that surprised me that anyone had ever gotten that name was “Thisbe.” Thisbe is a character from the Roman poet Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” — sort of the original Juliet. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone ever being so named.
The boys’ side surprised me, too. “Elmo” is fading out, but that makes sense. Once a name is “Muppet-ized,” it tends to slip in popularity. After all, how many guys named “Fozzie Bear” do y’all know? The same with “Waldo” — I can hear the playground chants now — “Waldo, where ARE you?”
“Sherwood” also is fading away, and so is “Llewellyn.” That seems just fashion, though. Both names have fluctuated in popularity over the years. But there was one on that list that surprised me that it’s even still used — “Inigo.”
Inigo is an old Spanish name that occasionally has crept over into English name registries, but has been in a steady decline for centuries. I wonder if the character “Inigo Montoya” from “The Princess Bride” has anything to do with the fade, but it seems that would add to the popularity of the name.
The boys’ name I simply cannot believe got a few uses at all is “Icarus,” another character from classical mythology.
Since Icarus comes to a bad end, I’m surprised that anyone uses the name at all.
Names are an important aspect of a person’s personality. I know I’ve always been interested in King David’s life in a way that I probably would not have been without being named David, and surely that affects the way I see myself.
Nicknames have the intimacy of family and friends behind them, a sort of shared experience that is recalled with the name. That’s why expecting parents, writers and people who study the naming habits of writers and expecting parents buy baby name books.
Think of it this way. I bet not many people out there know Jean Louise Finch, but all of us know “Scout.”
Gadsden (Ala.) Times columnist David Murdock is an English instructor at Gadsden State Community College.