Thursday, January 23, 2003

NAMING NAMES: Stuart Banner of the Volokh Conspiracy has an interesting post up now on baby names -- why is it, he asks, that "Madison" is so damn popular?

Well, contra Stuart's theory, it probably couldn't have started with the tv show Moonlighting, because Cybil Shepherd's character was Madelyn "Maddie" Hayes, not Madison -- though, of course, Bruce Willis' character was David Addison, so smush the two together, and . . . well, no.

The real starting point for Madisons is generally conceded to be the 1984 movie Splash, in which Daryl Hannah's character (yes, her again), a mermaid, chooses the name by pointing at a New York City street sign.

(Other big cultural reference point: the romance novel The Bridges of Madison County (1992, with a 1995 film) likely added to the cultural cache. Madison was also the name of Erika Christensen's character in 2001's Fatal-Attraction-meets-competitive-high-school-swimming movie Swimfan, for what it's worth.)

But that was 1984. The name didn't pick up steam until 1997. Why not? Here's one theory, at least-- basically, that in 1984, everyone assumed it would be really popular, so they didn't choose it as a name, but the women who were preteens then are becoming mothers now, and they remember liking the name, and now they can.

I find this explanation lacking. Splash just wasn't that enduring of a movie. Yes, it was cute and all, but it's not like it's on constant TNT rotation like The Shawshank Redemption and The Devil's Advocate, so it's not buzzing about the public consciousness. People just don't talk about the movie anymore as anything other that Tom Hanks' first starring role. The movie helped give the name legitimacy, but not popularity. (Come to think of it, were there a glut of boys named Axel after the release of Beverly Hills Cop?)

As someone who's now working on deadline to choose a name for a daughter (we have a boy's name, if needed), I've got some perspective. Let me lay out a theory.

What's really popular in naming girls these days are retro names that (a) sound old-fashioned (but not fusty, like Mildred) and high-class, even waspy, while (b) also can be shorted to be cute nicknames for kids, especially if they can end in e sounds. Take look at the list again: Madison (Maddy), Alexis (Lexi), Abigail (Abby), Olivia (Oee) are right up by the top, along with other proto-establishment names like Morgan, Taylor, Grace and Victoria.

In other words, today's parents are looking for names versatile enough to make their daughters sound cute while young, but with a long form classy enough to remain confirmable as Supreme Court justices later on in life. (That doesn't explain the appearance of 9,571 girls named Destiny or all the Kayla/Kaylee variations, but so be it.)

There's a second part to it. For a lot of the retro-sounding names, they're not names that are popular among the generation of new parents -- few of us have any contemporaries named Grace, Olivia, Hope or Madison. So, to us, how can they be popular? So we all think they're great, unique names -- until we see the list at the end of the year, and the enrollment lists for our daughters' nursery school classes, and then, things stop looking so unique. (Ask my wife or any of the thousands of Jennifers born in the aftermath of Love Story in the early 1970s)

At the same time, my generation are so surrounded by women named Jane you'd think naming a daughter Jane would also seem too generic -- and yet, because of that impulse, there were only 667 Janes born in 2001 (#422 on the list). That's less than Lacey, less than Yasmin, and less than Marisol, Aurora, Tatum, Piper, Deja, Julissa, Jayda, Emely, Cheyanne, Kaleigh, Kaylie, Kayleigh, Haleigh, Precious, Shania, Madalyn, Harley and Destinee, among others.

Yes, you read that right. If you want to give your daughter a unique first name in 2003, name her Jane. Who knew?

Finally, for the 2328 girls named Skylar born in 2001 (#143, at a rate of more than 6 per day) who may be reading this blog years into the future, you should know that you shouldn't be angry at your parents, but rather should look up two gentlemen named Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, who were movie stars long, long ago, but who likely have publicly-listed phone numbers and email addresses at this point, and will be happy to take your disgruntled calls. Did you know that Mr. Affleck was once engaged to President Lopez?

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