Rescuing Names from Old Stereotypes

Rescuing Names from Old Stereotypes

It doesn’t seem fair.  Why have some perfectly good names become permanently tainted by their links to a particular fictional character while others haven’t?  How come Olivia is OK despite her porcine persona, all Oscars aren’t considered grouches, and even Dexter‘s popularity seems to be rising in spite of his avocation on TV as a serial killer, while Jemima and Jethro, Elmo and Eloise remain somewhat stigmatized?  I say let’s take another look at some of these names and see if we can’t get them out of quarantine.

The first place to look is on Sesame Street.  Seems that once a name is tagged to a  fuzzy multi-colored Muppets, it becomes his exclusively.  Here are some reasons why they shouldn’t have to be:

ELMO–A lively O-ending saint’s name, Elmo is the patron saint of sailors, and the legendary St. Elmo‘s fire is a bright glow that sometimes appears on ships during thunderstorms, as well as being the name of a seminal 1980’s Brat Pack film.

GROVER–A fine upstanding Presidential and nature-ish (originally given to someone living near a grove) surname crying out to be considered for its own spunky self.

KERMIT–Enough with the ‘It isn’t easy being green’  froggy references.  Instead think of its relation to the well-liked Dermot, Kermit evolving from the Irish surname MacDermot, or son of Dermot.   And Teddy Roosevelt used it for his son

And a couple of others with kiddie references:

ELOISELong associated with the imperious little 6-year-old who ruled the Plaza Hotel, Eloise is the most likely on this list to redeem herself, what with the growing popularity of similar names like Eloisa and Elodie.

LINUS–No, using this name does not condemn your baby boy to clinging to his security blanket for life a la the Peanuts character.  Linus has considerable grown-up charm and some interesting associations: in Greek mythology he was the inventor of rhythm and melody who taught music to Hercules, and a distinguished modern namesake is Linus Pauling, winner of two Nobel prizes.  And, believe it or not, cinema characters named Linus have been  played by Humphrey Bogart, James Stewart, Matt Damon and Harrison Ford.

WALDO—  Nobody’s really asking “Where’s Waldo?” anymore, nor should we ever close the door to any friendly o-ending name.  Especially ones with ties to Ralph W. Emerson.

Then there’s the Dickens Curse, classic names associated with really reprehensible  characters:

EBENEZER–With every annual rerun of A Christmas Carol, we’re reminded of the miserly Scrooge–but let’s not forget how old Ebenezer reformed at the end.  A Biblical place name widely used by the 17th century Pilgrims, it boosts one of the great nicknames–Eben.

URIAH–As other iah-_names grow more popular–Isaiah, Josiah, Jeremiah, et al–Uriah is still being  shunned for its connection to the odious Uriah Heep in David Copperfield,_ though we’re noticing that some younger parents seem to be willing to give this Biblical name–he was the unfortunate husband of Bathsheba–new life.

And then there are the designated Hayseeds:

ABNEREver since L’il Abner became a Sunday comics smash in the 1930’s, Abner went from being the heroic Biblical commanderof King Saul‘s army to the quintessential simple-minded country bumpkin.  But since the strip stopped running in 1977, can’t we give Abner back his dignity?

JETHROJethro Clampett of The Beverly Hillbillies was L’il Abner come to life, stamping a lingering rube imprint on the name.  Which is a real pity, as this is an extremely appealing name with real substance: in the Good Book, Jethro was Moses‘ father-in-law, and then there was the eminent inventor/reformer Jethro Tull, namesake of  a seminal British rock group.

Most regrettable of all are those that have fallen victim to racial profiling:

JEMIMA–For decades Jemima has been a stylish aristocratic favorite in the UK–probably because the Brits weren’t so exposed to the stereotypical Mammy image of Aunt Jemima on pancake mix and syrup packaging, and then on everything from dolls to cookie jars, obscuring the name’s Biblical beauty.  (Jemima, meaning dove or bright of day was the eldest daughter of Job.)   But now that even the advertising image has changed and Jemima has slimmed down and wears pearls rather than a bandana, it’s definitely time to liberate this wonderful name.

REMUS–Uncle Remus had a similarly demeaning effect on his name as Aunt Jemima had on hers, first apppearing in Joel Chandler Harris‘s Uncle Remus Stories and then in the Disney film Song of the SouthRemus actually has a solid ancient history, appearing in ancient Roman lore as co-founding the city of Rome with brother Romulus.  Not quite as accessible as some of the others, it still could be onsidered along with other Latin names.

About the Author

Linda Rosenkrantz

Linda Rosenkrantz

Linda Rosenkrantz is the co-founder of Nameberry, and co-author with Pamela Redmond of the ten baby naming books acknowledged to have revolutionized American baby naming. You can follow her personally at InstagramTwitter and Facebook. She is also the author of the highly acclaimed New York Review Books Classics novel Talk and a number of other books.