Where Are the ‘Guys’ of Yesteryear?


When I was at school, my friends had sensible names, names rooted in the land, names their grandparents bore. Names like Charles, Guy, and Ian (which my French friends pronounced “Eye-an”). The girls were called Portia, Sophie, and Honor.

Names meant something then. Names always mean something. That’s why we gave up on regular names. Charles was a banker, and Portia went to charity balls. The Ians had a bit more flash, but when holidaying in Europe visited only Scotland.

I can see how that sort of thing can tire, but I can’t see that we made things better with our Justins, Leonardos, and Chloës. Names that fairly scream out, “Look at me — I’m a star!” Or the names invented last week in California — Ryan, Ariana, and Elle.

I almost prefer the ostentatious Episcopalianism of the nomen as praenomen: Jefferson Smith, Jackson Browne, Lincoln Nebraska. There was formerly a requirement that presidents at our better universities bear not one but three last names, and no first name, like Harvard’s Abbot Lawrence Lowell. Names puffed up with self-importance, names that doomed a child to become an insufferable windbag.

These were names that usefully signaled, “No popery here!” There were, I suspect, very few Francis-Xavier Adamses or Bridget Teresa Winthrops. That would have been too confusing for the help. The result was a world that divided up very nicely. Low-church Protestants gave their children Old Testament names; the Methuselahs and Abishags with social aspirations named their children Winthrop and Carter; and Catholics gave their children saints’ names. Of course Jewish parents also used biblical names, unless they were Reform, which is how we got the Sheldons and Megans.

Things can get pretty confusing with all the religious conversions, and names are a useful way of getting things straight. When you meet someone called Chris at a synagogue, chances are he wasn’t born Jewish. Then there’s my friend Deal Hudson. He confided in me that he was a convert. He needn’t have bothered — I had figured it out. Another friend, called Parker, converted from Episcopalianism to Catholicism to Russian Orthodoxy. I bet the Orthodox spotted him as a convert, too. “I don’t know, Fyodor, to me he seems different.”

Names are a big thing in Quebec, where I’m originally from. My French friends call me Fronk, like the interior decorator in Steve Martin’s Father of the Bride, which they spell “Franck” when they write to me. They used to go by a single name, but now they too have succumbed to name inflation, where Yves becomes Yves-Marie and Pierre becomes Pierre-Anthony.

The fascination with first names, in an egalitarian society, is a way of devaluing last names. Time was when spouses were referred to as “Mr. Carlyle,” and a husband might be forgiven for forgetting his wife’s first name. Perhaps that was a little too formal, but I regret the loss of social distinctions when everyone is on a first-name basis. My friend Paul-André well understood this. He was an intimidating senior professor when I was a law student, and when I joined the faculty a few years later, he was the first person to welcome me. “Oh, hello, Professor Crépeau,” I stammered out. “Ah, non, non,” he answered suavely. “You must call me Paul-André.” “Oh, thank you,” I gushed. “And may I call you Fronk?” he added slyly.

For reasons that wholly escape me, we seem in the midst of a Celtic revival. Not just Seans, but Deirdres and Scotts (which is what Brians are called in America). This must have something to do with the Celtic music revival, but I don’t know what came first. Probably the names, I suspect. “Hey, I should listen to this fiddle music — my name is Diarmud.”

It was Ernest Hemingway who began the tradition of giving girls last names: Brett, which begat Brooke, which begat Haddon. We can’t say that this caused feminism, but it stands to reason. Hemingway had his own problems with women, but I don’t know what the fathers were thinking of. More recently, women have begun to bear three-barrel last names. Names like Hillary Rodham Clinton, power names, names that sound like law firms. I used to work at the Blake Cassels Graydon law firm, and if I ever write a novel, that’s what I’ll call my heroine.

Tell me how it all happened. Where is Flora, the pretty Roman maid; or Blanche, light as a lily; or Joan, the good maid of Lorraine? Where is Jack, who slew a giant; or Tom, the piper’s son? But where are the Guys of yesteryear?


This column originally appeared in the December 2003 issue of Crisis Magazine.

F. H. Buckley


F. H. Buckley is the Foundation Professor of law at George Mason School of Law and the author of "The Morality of Laughter" (University of Michigan, 2003).

  • Lindsay


    My name is Lindsay, and yes, I am a convert. BUT do I get points for being named after my grandfather who was named for his grandfather and not the 1970’s actress?

    Very entertaining.

  • Mark

    I just watched a show on the BBC about the Normans. It seems they’re to blame for all the Williams, Henrys, Richards and Roberts that abound on this little island. Before they arrived, we Englishmen had proper names like Athelstan, Willibrord and Aelred. Such a shame.

  • Austtin

    The old line Protestants used to have names like “Charles Worthington Van Osdale IV” or some such thing. Jews had first names like Solomon, David, etc.
    And of course, Catholics had handles like “Francis Xavier” or “Patrick Kevin”, etc. You could figure out what religion someone was by their name quite often.
    Now you have names like “Anderson Steinberg” which seem odd at first, but I am getting used to it. The gender neutral names such as Robin, Leslie, etc used to be popular but have been supplanted by girls named “Madison”, “Brittney” etc

    Still I miss “Dick and Jane.”

  • Alex


    Why not miss name like Publius Cornelius Scipio, Caecilia Metella, Vercingetorix, Jebdiah, Assurbanipal. and Gilgamesh?

  • Philip

    Ariana, Ryan, and Elle — invented last week in California? Wha’?

    Ariana is from the ancient Greek “Ariadne.” Ryan is old Gaelic. Elle was long used as a diminutive for such sturdy Christian names as Elizabeth and Eloise.

    Give it a break.

  • Wolfgang G.

    What ever happened to the old Catholic custom of giving children either Biblical names (well, Judas has never been very popular …) or else names of saints or blessed? This makes for a pool of 6000+ names not even counting derivatives and linguistic versions thereof, but it wouldn’t include arbitrary modern inventions, which are a particularly American (well, to some extent even English) thing. Let’s leave those to others, will we? For obvious reasons no examples are provided.

  • Samuel

    Good point. Fun read.

  • Jared B.

    Where I can visit a Catholic website and still be made to look inferior for being Irish. 😛

  • Edward Thomas Joseph Johansen

    We have a Persis Lucille, Odilia Pearl and a Chesterton Paul. Our next might be an Elmer or a Penelope. I wonder how we would fair under the scrutiny of your nomen litmus test. Names are fascinating but no where near how fascinating some people are. Thanks F.H.!

  • Marie-Agnes

    Yes, a little silly, particularly about the California names, but sometimes silly is good. I happen to love the hyphenated, mostly French names like Marie-Therese, Jean-Claude and so forth. I like the Scots Duncan, the Welsh Bryn (now for girls!) and the Irish Eire (yes, I know someone whose niece’s name is the Gaelic spelling of Ireland) but what I note in our parish baptistry are increasingly ethnic names being given within thoroughly Americanized families. Recently we’ve baptised Angelo, Domenico, Adriana, Isabella, Gianni, Gian-Carlo and Eamon, Liam and Padraic…I think that’s how it was spelled.

    I named my sons John and James. They are the only John and James they know. Lots of Jon’s (as in Stewart) and Jamie’s (as in Bionic woman) but no John’s and no Jameses. They feel kind of special, actually.

  • Peter Freeman

    I wonder if, in a hundred years, people will be having a similar conversation about the pseudonyms people once used on the Internet…”Where are the hotGuy1990s? the lolkitty57s? the g33kl@ds of yesteryear? Now, it’s all just government issued IP addresses…”

  • Patrick

    I also think the call-everyone-by-their-first-name thing is very strange. To this day, I’m uncomfortable calling someone who is more than, say, a decade older than me by their first name. It just *feels* disrespectful, sort of, and I’m not even what you’d call a terribly “by the book” person otherwise, obsessed with proprieties and social graces.

    “Ryan” isn’t a new name, by the way – it’s old and Irish.

  • Amy

    I come from a huge Irish family (16) all named for saints, except me. When I was old enough to figure it out I felt different. Married a man with a very unusual first name and his last usually used as a first. I guarantee he is the only person on this planet with his name. When I google my name, I see that I share it with dozens. Not a good feeling.

    I named my daughter Flannery because it had a lyrical sound and I knew there wouldn’t be another for miles around. Plus, I hope that some day she will be able to call on Flannery O’Connor (whose was baptized Mary Flannery) for intercessory prayer. Her boyfriend insists I did it so that men would have to “tuck in” to be sure they’ve heard correctlysmilies/cheesy.gif Mostly, I think it sounds pretty, and I think that’s a good enough reason.

  • TeaPot562

    Because of my wife’s genealogy, I know that my first name (same as my Dad and his dad) came from the last name of a Methodist circuit-rider who ranged across Oregon and Washington in the 1850s and 1860s. He so impressed people with his preaching and conduct that two small towns – one near Spokane, WA, one near Roseburg, OR – are also named after him.
    My birth family converted to Catholicism in 1947; since then, the name has passed on to a son (ordained in 1987) and a grandson (son of our youngest daughter, born in 1999).
    I suggest that names cannot determine current faith or level of faith practice of the person carrying the name.

  • Pammie

    My current list of horrific names include Mason (boy or girl), Madison,Destiny, Logan ,Braeden, and Jaden amongst others. Great bit of reading on the subject! Give me good old saints names, who will intercede for their namesakes in Heaven.

  • Mary

    I’m a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to baby names. My daughter is only five, but I’m already worried about the caliber of men she’ll be bringing home someday. During tough times, can you really depend on a grown man named Raden, Jaden, Hayden, Ethan, Mason, Dylan etc.? I know my husband and I will definitely be rooting for a John Paul or Maximillian!

    (BTW–For a fun take on trends in baby names, I recommend reading “Freakonomics.”)

  • Bernard Francis Xavier

    (As the Brits call first names). What happened to insisting on a saint’s name at baptism? I recall when our oldest, Blane (a Celtic saint and bishop) was baptized, the priest did not consult us ahead of time but baptized him using his middle name, Timothy. And no mention of the grand Irish custom of all girls having the Blessed Virgin’s name somewhere? Accounts not only for all the Marys, but the XXXXX Maries.

  • Peter

    Does anyone know why it is acceptable to name a child Jesus in Spanish and Portuguese speaking countries but it is considered inappropriate in the rest of the Christian world?

  • Mrs. F

    My husband has three brothers named Jose: Jose Antonio, Jose Alfredo and Jose Alfonso. Imagine that the policeman thought when he pulled them over and asked for ID . . . As a teacher, I would have room with three Jordens, one girl, one boy and another boy who had it as a last name. In one class I would have Taylor Madison (a girl) and Madison Tailor (a boy). Jade is a girl or boy, and so is Ryan, apparently. Jasmin is a popular name, but can be spelled Jasmin, Jasmine, Jazmin, Jazmine, Jazzmin, Jazzmyn . . . or Yasmin, in some cases. I had twins with the same first name not once but twice, and a pair of twins with identical names. One went by the first name, the other by the middle name. One can imagine the confusion.

    I will never name a child junior, because very Junior I’ve taught was a pill.

    Peter, I think the tradition of naming childen Jesus in certain countries started by naming them Something de Jesus (of Jesus), so a child would be PAblo of Jesus and it eventually became common to just name them Jesus. I have at least five nephews named Jesus, twice that many Joses, and more Marias than I can count. Really, there needs to be a revival of different Hispanic names.

  • Peter

    Mrs F, Thank you for your explanation. It would seem from what you said that the original intention was to show that the child belonged to Jesus rather than naming the child after Him.

    Thanks again.

  • Rachel Olson

    As Protestants we named our children: Aria Christiane (my husband and I are both musicians), Nadia Yelena, Sophia Raina and Joseph Andrew, since we’ve become Catholic we’ve had two more: John Michael and Kathleen Rose (after my mother). We also like the name Eva Marie if we are blessed with another girl someday.

  • Elizabeth Anne Mary Catherine Gill

    Oy, don’t get me started on names. My cousin has three children: Bryce (for Bryce Canyon, he was almost named Zion) Olympia (because of the Olympics) and Parker because, uh, because…….Well we don’t know about him. smilies/grin.gif My mother thinks I’m crazy for wanting to name my son ‘Charlemange’ but likes my other choices like ‘Naomi’ and ‘Susanna’. As much as I like the tradition of naming after saints (me, Elizabeth Seton), we are supposed to raise up new saints, right? So new saints names!!! smilies/grin.gif Some new names are just really dumb, but others are good….. Poor Parker.

  • KyPerson

    I had a student once named Gynipher – pronounced Jennifer.