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.