Tuesday, December 21, 2010


To do almost anything nowadays, you need a license from the government. But one equal opportunity area open to everyone regardless of education is parenting. Unlike in some European countries, no bureaucrat can tell you what NOT to name your baby.

I did some research for a recent speech comparing the most common names of 1944, the year of my birth, with those of 2010, according to the data compiled by the Social Security Administration. I consider the list of 1944 names to be "normal" names. The most popular boys' names include James, Robert, William, Michael, David, John, Richard, etc., while girls' names include Mary, Elizabeth, Barbara, Sandra, Susan, Deborah, Judy, Carol, etc. My name, Kenneth, was No. 16. Some of these such as Michael, David, Mary, Deborah and Judith, are biblical in nature. But, unlike today, the parents of 1944 did not name their kids Jacob, Isaac, Elijah, Isaiah, or even Noah. Today's parents often have difficulty even spelling these names, and indeed, Jacob, Isaac, and Isaiah are often spelled several different ways.

The 2010 list is replete with boys' names like Ethan, Jacob, Aiden, Jayden, Noah, Logan, Liam, Jackson, not to mention Elijah and Isaiah. But why Jacob and not Abraham? Even Jesus, a common name with Hispanics, is not in the top 100 this year. Neither is Mohammed. Someone had posted on the Internet that Mohammed was the top boys' name in England this year, but my research found that to be untrue--it is No. 48.

Current popular girls' names include Isabella, Olivia, Emma, Ava, Madison and Addison. In the Chicago area, many parents ( Cub fans presumably) call their sons Addison, often in conjunction with Clark. For example a boy might be called Clark Addison Smith. If you're not from Chicago, this may appear meaningless, but Clark and Addison Streets is the location of Wrigley Field. However, I'm not aware of any kid named 35th or Shields, the location of U.S. Cellular Field.

Parents name their kids to reflect their expectations of what the child will be. Many of the popular names come from movies and books. For example, we have the Twilight effect in which the characters from Stephanie Meyer novels include Jacob and Bella. A vampire in the novels has the surname Cullen, which is now a popular boy's name. Also Emma was a popular name 100 years ago but disappeared for about 80 years. Now it's back.

The name Madison was a boy's name, probably since James Madison wrote the Constitution.
The San Francisco Giants have a pitcher, Madison Bumgarner who won a crucial game in the 2010 World Series. But Madison has been one of the top five girls' names ever since actress Daryl Hannah's performance in Splash. My cousin Mitch was the special effects supervisor in the movie. Ms. Hannah's character was a mermaid (don't ask!) without a name, paired up with co-star Tom Hanks. As the two walked down Madison Avenue in New York, Hanks decided that she needed a name. Spotting the street sign, Hanks declared, "we'll call you Madison." Apparently a lot of people liked her character in the movie.

One Robert Lane of New York's Harlem neighborhood named his last two sons (out of 7) Winner and Loser. They lived up to their expectations, but not in the way their father might have anticipated. Loser Lane (people called him Lou) worked hard in school and obtained a degree in criminology. He joined the NY Police Department and rose up through the ranks to become a detective and later, a sergeant, receiving many decorations along the way. Winner Lane, on the other hand distinguished himself by the length of his criminal record--burglary, domestic battery, and other assorted acts of mayhem. Maybe they were switched at birth.

Several boys' names have now become girls' names. For example, Leslie, Sidney and Shirley used to be boys' names, but nobody has been named Shirley for the last 50 years. As the late actor Leslie Nielsen said, "Don't call me Shirley!"Legendary sportswriter, Shirley Povich, the father of newscaster Maury Povich used to frequently get mail addressed to Mrs. Shirley Povich. Other girls' names like Evelyn and Beverly were once common boys' names in England.
A character in Gilbert & Sullivan's H.M.S. Pinafore was called Sir Evelyn, pronounced EE-velyn, but other characters would call him Edith in jest. But you never see girls' names becoming boys' names, except for maybe Italian (male) opera singer Andrea Bocelli.

Then we get kids with the names of former presidents. Jackson is one of the top ten boys' names in 2010. Here I thought they were named after the guy on the twenty dollar bill, but my wife informed me that the kids were probably named in honor of Michael Jackson. Other popular boys' names include Tyler and Carter although I doubt that most of these parents even heard of our 10th president or would dare name their kid after Jimmy Carter. Top 100 girls' names include the aforementioned Madison, Taylor (probably not after Mexican War hero Zachary Taylor) and Reagan.

We also see many kids named after places. Many girls in my generation are called Virginia or Georgia. But now the top 100 has Brooklyn, Savannah, Aurora and even Eden. Boys don't get place names except as nicknames. In my day we had Minnesota Fats, Indiana Jones, Amarillo Slim and Milwaukee Phil. I'm sure Mr. Fats and Mr. Slim are proud of their monikers. Then there was playwright Tennessee Williams (real name Thomas Lanier Williams) who legally changed his name to reflect his father's native state. Mr. Williams' brother, attorney Dakin Williams was an acquaintance of mine.

The recent movie Four Christmases had two brothers Dallas and Denver, played by Tim McGraw and Jon Favreau. They were named for the cities in which they were conceived. That one actually makes sense. But they'd probably draw the line at Detroit. Actually their third brother, played by Vince Vaughn, was named Orlando, but he called himself Brad.

Then we have names in the top 100 that make no sense whatsoever, like Piper, Esme and Cadence for girls. For boys we have Fynn and Chase, which would be a good name for a future banker.

Finally, in the book Freakonomics, they describe a young girl named Temptress who was constantly getting into trouble. Her mother told police she named the girl after the actress on the Cosby Show. Actually the actress was Tempestt Bledsoe. Tempestt, Temptress--what the heck! Another spelling challenged mother named her daughter--I'll pronounce it--shi-TEED, but spelled Shithead. At least she spelled THAT correctly. Are we surprised when these kids end up behind the 8-ball.

My favorite sports names are former basketball star God Shammgod and former NFL receiver Fair Hooker. Both are juniors, so their fathers went through life with the same names. I couldn't find any information about how their fathers turned out, but Mr. Hooker Jr. became a banker after retiring from football. Incidentally, he was traded for a player named Jubilee Dunbar. if Mr. Shammgod's and Mr. Hooker's parents were signaling their expectations of what the child would be, well, I don't want to go there.