What’s in a Name?

Sometimes nothing.

I have a problem with Palin.

Not Sarah, Bristol.

Don’t get me wrong  I have nothing against the kid; it’s her name,

Why does someone name child after a historic British coal port( the Bounty was a refitted Bristol collier: just had to throw that in. I know a lot of stuff), particularly  someone named Sarah, with its Biblical   resonance of patience and hope, a name much favored in in colonial America, and parenthetically, the name of a beloved grandaunt of mine?

If her parents had continued with the same theme,  perhaps they would have named Trig and Track Weymouth and Dartmouth.  Kinda classy, eh? As to Willow and Piper, I’m out of ideas here.  Cardiff seems a bit butch, and Southhampton pretentious.

This is a good point to say that I am not going after Ms Palin here.  The governor has had more than her hare of scurrilous ad hominem attacks, as any fair minded person would note, regardless of one’s opinion of her politics.

Rather, Bristol’s name is a prominent example of a phenomenon that has irked me for decades,  Made up names with no etymology that suddenly appear, so that suddenly every other child you meet bears them..

In the 80s there was Brittany, and I wondered where her sister Normandy might be.  Then came Brie, who surely merited two stalwart brothers, Roquefort and Camembert.  Good names for musketeers.

And first came Kimberley.  If you are going to name your daughter for a South African gold field, why not go on?  Siblings might be Durban for a boy, and Pretoria for his sister.  The was a Nicholson movie in the 80s( Possibly “Heartburn”), wherein Jack recounts some of his less well advised flings to a woman he is getting to know.  When he mentions a “Kimberley,” his date raises her eyebrows and Jack explains, “She was one of the early Kimberleys,” Kimberley then already a cynosure( I’ve been waiting ever so long to stick “cynosure,” in somewhere, maybe since high school.)  for vapid, very young, and probably blonde.

My antipathy for this kind of name, may spring in part from my Catholic upbringing.  Catholics had proper names – the names of saints, even if some, like Philomena and Christoper, turned out never to have existed.  Rich proddies, of the old Anglo ascendancy we still resented, had last names for first names, like Everett and Eliot.  Names from the old testament were mostly for long dead people in American history, although half the Jewish boys we knew seemed to have been named Joshua.

So what’s behind these faddish names from nowhere?  Even when I was quite young, I resented signs such as Ye Old Malt Shoppe( I’m not making this up; it was on Mamaroneck Avenue in White Plains, New York)  This was America, not “Merrie Englande” and we didn’t need to pretend to be anything other than what we were.

I’m much too lazy to follow this line of inquiry on the internet; someone must have studied it  – someone has studied pretty much everything, and instead,prefer to speculate.  The names, I think, represent an inchoate longing for a status or history that is perceived as superior to one’s own.  An early example of this was in second generation immigrant kids with Anglo names.  Everyone knows a Jewish Seymour ( Surely no kin to Lady Jane).  I had a fifth grade classmate called Aldrich Carmenini.

In my view the phenomenon is most sadly apparent in names that have become popular in black America since the Civil Rights Era.  The parents of Rashads, Maliks, ,and Jamals surely had no knowledge of the Arab slave trade.  As to Taneisha, Kenisha, Sheneika and so on, they are categorized as afro-centric, but look at a few newspapers from Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa, and you find that they certainly are not African.  As for the many names beginning with La, and others with superfluous apostrophes and ending with accents graves(D’vonte ), their origin may be  the same fawning reference  to Europe  as the height of “class” seen in “ye olde.”

This is a pity.  I am in the middle of Simon Schama’s “Rough Crossings: the Slaves, the British and the American Revolution,” and reflect as I often have, that no community is more deeply rooted   in American history than Black Americans.  There would be no shortage of names to reflect this   Martin is pretty obvious, but Douglass tells a story, and if Sojourner is a mouthful, Truth would be a lovely name for a girl.

I do wonder if  the naming customs I speak of reflect a loss of a sense of place, origin, and continuity, when the past is forgotten, and the future obscure   Perhaps I simply fret too much, and in years to come, other generations will be named in memory of the deeds and accomplishments of a host of  Bries, Kimberleys, Latoyas and D’Vontes.

And to any Kimberleys and others who might chance upon this: nothing personal. A name is what you make of it.



One thought on “What’s in a Name?

  1. All I know…based on 35 years in law enforcement, is never loan anything to a woman named Brandy, Crystal, or Tiffany. And NEVER date her mother

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