By Meghan Daum
Normally I’m all for making fun of parents who, by dint of ZIP Code or number of tattoos, fall into the hipster category and assert their nonconformity by giving their kids names that, once upon a time, were considered best suited for pets. Hang around a playground in Silver Lake or Brooklyn‘s Park Slope and you’ll hear enough calls of “Roscoe!” and “Lulu!” to think you’ve accidentally wandered into the dog park.
Still, I say we stop piling on parents who named their kids Atticus.
Recently we saw the release of Harper Lee‘s Go Set a Watchman, a novel that, depending on whom you ask, is either a first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, a sequel, or the result of outside parties tampering with a manuscript the author never intended for publication. (Lee, who is not in great health, has not and maybe cannot clarify matters.) The book’s literary merits, which most critics agree are few, have been overwhelmed by the revelation that Atticus Finch, the beloved hero of Mockingbird, is not a champion of civil rights but a racist himself.
As jolting as this is for the literary community, it’s apparently downright earth-shattering to the many parents who in recent years have named their sons — and occasionally their daughters — Atticus. After decades of obscurity, the name first began to show up on the Social Security register around 1986, reaching the top 1,000 in 2004. As of the publication date of “Watchman,” the website Nameberry, which tracks Internet searches of names, blogged that it was the most popular name for the first half of 2015, edging out Ezra and Asher.
But not for long. As one widely circulating news headline put it, parents with kids named Atticus were “crestfallen” over the new book. At least one Twitter user implored the spoof account Los Feliz Daycare, which tweets about the hyper-parented travails of kids with names like Zolton and Emoji, to weigh in on the tarnishing of Atticus (still waiting — perhaps Los Feliz Daycare needed to take a holiday to recover from the shock).
Will all the Atticuses (Attici?) out there now suffer permanent damage to their reputations, not to mention their self-esteem? Probably not, because there’s never been much evidence that names play a huge role in people’s destinies. Sure, there’s the well-known National Bureau of Economic Research study that showed that job applicants with “very African American-sounding names” fare less well than applicants with Anglo-sounding names. But the dynamics of racial discrimination aside, it’s amazing how well people can do with some pretty unfortunate names.
Take the story, recounted in Freakonomics and elsewhere (and not an urban myth, even though it sounds like one) of the Lane brothers. Named Winner and Loser, they grew up together and were exposed to the same stimuli. Winner fell into a life of crime and wound up in prison and later homeless. It was Loser who became a star student and athlete, won scholarships to private schools and later became a police detective. At work he went by Lou.
Given how mainstream the name Atticus is, chances are good that plenty of parents who’ve chosen it are only dimly aware of its literary origin. As with most trendy names, the appeal is mostly visceral. With Atticus, there’s something about the way the consonants roll off the tongue that makes the name especially satisfying to say out loud.
And consonants themselves seem to be trending these days. Nameberry lists Beckett, Ryker and Felix among its Top 50 names for boys. The letter “x” also continues to be hot, thanks in part to celebrities like the Jolie-Pitts, who have children named Knox, Maddox and Pax. Robert Downey Jr. and his wife recently welcomed a new son named Exton. Jessica Simpson named her daughter Maxwell. Her sister Ashlee named her son Bronx. Presumably not because she’s from there or could even necessarily locate it on a map.
All this is to say, the Attici are all right — and will most likely remain so. Besides, when it comes to the stigmatizing effect of names, everyone knows it’s last names that matter most. Why else would both Jeb Bush and Hillary Rodham Clinton be using campaign logos that invoke only their first names — and in Clinton‘s case, only her first initial? Being associated with a disappointing literary character is nothing compared with being familially connected to embattled presidential administrations of yore.
Or maybe not. Guess what girl name has been inching up in popularity in recent years. Nixon.
Meghan Daum is an opinion columnist at The Los Angeles Times and the author of four books, most recently The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion.