Like Jenny-from-the-block (well maybe not quite), I was a roller-skating, rope-jumping, potsy- (hopscotch to you) playing child of the Bronx streets. At that time I was completely unaware of how the mostly pretentious –sounding names of those streets might have referred back to past heroic figures (Popham? Burnside? Bathgate?). In my mind what they were identified with was the kids I knew who lived on them—Nelson Avenue was associated with the Mazur sisters, Jessup with my classmate Nancy, Loring with my bf Margery’s grandmother, and Shakespeare with my elementary school.
(One name that fascinated me and couldn’t be ignored was Featherbed Lane, a street that I passed on the way to school every day and was home to my Aunt Pearl and family. It was only later that I discovered the probable origins of the name—that during the Revolutionary War, locals covered the street with feather beds so that the soldiers fighting the British could move quietly through the area—though there were other explanations as well.)
Here are some of the mostly surname names from my neighborhood and beyond:
During my childhood, if you were from the Bronx, it was practically in your DNA to hate all things Brooklyn. But now that I’ve matured into a more rational and objective name observer, I do have to admit that that other borough does have a better selection of street names—less stuffy and a lot more that are actually suited to a baby. In fact there are so many Courts and Places with standard first names that you have to wonder if the streets weren’t named after the builders’ own babies.
Here’s a selection—there are lots more:
Since April is National Poetry Month, this seems like a perfect time to revisit some of the most poetic of baby names. We’ve already seen starbabies named Poet (Soleil Moon Frye), Sonnet (Forest Whitaker), Auden (Noah Wyle), Tennyson (Russell Crowe), and of course any number of Dylans (traceable back to poet Thomas), not to mention a growing profusion of Emersons.
By some quirk of fate — or maybe it’s prophecy fulfillment – poets in general seem to have more poetic surnames than prose writers do. Here are some poet-name possibilities:
In the course of leading a basically bicoastal life, I’ve had the opportunity to spend a lot of time walking and driving the streets of both New York and L.A. And I have to say, as rhythmic and melodious as so many of the California names are– e.g. Alameda, Amanita, Mariposa, Morella– for native New Yorker me there’s nothing like the solid, straight-forward, usable street names of downtown Manhattan, from Greenwich Village to the Wall Street area, names resonant with references to early American history.
The names of these meandering streets, lanes and alleys were subject to shifting trends. Many British names were changed after the Revolutionary War, for example, and for a time fashion dictated that streets named for local property owners would carry the first names only. Leaders in the War of 1812 provided a goodly share of names, as did figures connected to Trinity Church.
Here are Lower Manhattan street names with their historical roots–any of which would make a possible namesake.
BLEECKER—the street ran through the farm of Anthony L. Bleecker
CLARKSON – Revolutionary War hero Matthew Clarkson
ELDRIDGE –named for a Lieutenant killed in the War of 1812
ELIZABETH — unknown
The boys’ names that ranked among the Top 1000 in 1880, the first year for which statistics were kept, include hundreds of choices no longer in use – or at least very rarely heard. Some of the categories of lost names overlap with the now-obscure girls’ names, while others are different.
Nickname-names, for instance, so packed with lost names for girls, include some lost choices for boys, though more of the nickname names in use in the late 19th century are still widely used today: Joe, Jack, Jake, Jim, and so on.
Those nickname names we’re not hearing much of any more but which were popular in 1880 include:
They’re not like those jaunty Irish surnames that kind of jump out and hit you in the face–no way you could see Finnegan or Donovan as anything else. But Scottish surnames, somewhat more subtly, have affected American nomenclature to a surprising degree.
Many that could pass for Irish or English are actually old Scottish clan names, and several have long been accepted as first names in this country–a list that includes Allan, Bruce, Douglas, Leslie, Mitchell, Murray, Stewart, Gordon, Lindsay, and, of course, Scott.
Scottish surnames are divided into two groups: Highland and Lowland. Highlanders didn’t use fixed family names until relatively late–until the 1700’s a man was often designated by his father’s name or would adopt the last name of a laird to curry his favor. It was the Gaelic Highlanders who used the prefix ‘Mac‘ to denote ‘son of”.