If you were to go solely by the tabloids, you might think that every celebrity’s baby boy was given the name of a New York borough or a Disney character or was his parents’ quirky Scrabble-letter invention.
There is a very healthy segment of show biz parents who are creating a major backlash to this trend–either that or they just like conservative, classic names. Instead of screaming ‘Hey-look-at-me!’ (and my mama), these names provide a sort of protective coating against that kind of often mocking attention, a layer of dignity and tradition.
Evidence? Here, just looking at boys born since the Millenium, are some of the timeless classics, in their complete, traditional forms, that have been recent celebrity choices–not that they always succeeded in making their bearers paparazzi-proof. (And, by the way, I’d be interested to know if you think the preference for this kind of name relates to the celeb’s own personal or public image.)
DAVID — Mo’Nique, J. K. Rowling
FREDERICK — Mayim Bialik
In addition–though it’s not quite the same thing–there are the nickname versions, like Kate Winslet’s Joe and Charlie Sheen’s Bob, and the not-so-timeless semi-classics like Rainn Wilson’s Walter. And of course, there are the female equivalents–Amanda Peet’s Frances, Kelly Martin’s Margaret–but that’s for another time.
What better time than Thanksgiving to look back at the first names to arrive on our shores?
As you may remember from your third-grade history book, the first English-speaking settlement, called the Raleigh Colony, was established on the Atlantic coast in 1587, and although it didn’t survive for very long, some of its name records did. Not surprisingly, of the 99 men who settled there, 23 were named John, fifteen were Thomas, and ten were William, with a small sprinkling of Old Testament names in the mix as well.
The passenger list of the Mayflower, which set off on its transatlantic journey in 1620, had a different element, in that about half of its passengers were members of the fundamentalist Protestant sect known as Pilgrims. And although many Pilgrims were content to use Bible-sanctioned names, the more extreme of them considered such names blasphemous and so invented their own ‘virtue’ or ‘slogan’ names consisting of ordinary vocabulary words, ranging from Abstinence and Ashes to Zeal-for-the-Lord.
So while most of the 102 men, women, and children aboard the Mayflower–the future settlers of the Plymouth Colony–were named John, Mary, James, Edward, Thomas, William, Elizabeth, Susannah or Sarah, there were also among them those with such distinctive, attention-worthy names as:
MYLES (yes, Standish)
OCEANUS (born during the voyage)
When we talk about the strong popularity of biblical names these days, what we’re really talking about are Old Testament names. Looking at the popularity list, we see Jacob at #1, followed by Ethan, Joshua, Daniel, David, Joseph, Noah, Nathan, Samuel and Benjamin, while for girls, Hannah and Sarah are still in the Top 20.
Sure, thousands of babies each year are still named John and Thomas and Elizabeth, but these are seen as very conservative choices, often given to honor a family member. And then there’s poor Mary. We’ve been known to say to parents if you want a really unusual name, how about Mary?–the most widely used female name in the English-speaking world for centuries has long been in steep decline. The statistics are pretty dramatic: in 1925, more than 70,000 baby girls were christened Mary, in 1950 there were still over 65,000, while by last year the number had shrunk to less than 4,000. Similar story with John: 57,000+ in 1950 to just over 4,000 in 2007. Why? For one thing, their massive long-term popularity robbed them of any individuality, and for another, so many of today’s parents carry around elderly images of a Great-Uncle Jim or a Grandma Betty that they don’t seem fitting for a baby.
But there are other New Testament names besides the old standards. Rather than being strictly Hebrew names, as those in the New Testament, these have Greek, Roman and Aramaic elements, giving them quite a different flavor. So, moving beyond Mary, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, here are a few possibilities:
MAGDALA (place name)
And for boys: