This blog is devoted to remembrances and essays on general topics, including literature and writing. It has evolved over time, and some older posts on this site might reflect a different perspective and purpose.

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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Names We Give Our Children

            There was a story in the local newspaper recently about a high school basketball game, and the first two paragraphs are worth quoting in their entirety:
            “With the defensive attention shaded towards Soquel High stars Ragine Graves and Madison Rocha, Saturday afternoon’s Central Coast Section Division IV quarterfinal playoff game gave Keahna Clark a bushel of open looks.
            “She made the most of her opportunity.”
            I don’t know if any other readers felt the same way, but I was grateful for the “She” at the beginning of the second paragraph. Forced to make a gender guess based solely on the first paragraph, I probably would have gone with the women but been far from certain about it. If you haven’t found yourself puzzled by the first names of the currently young, you just haven’t lived long enough. It will happen, guaranteed.
            In my far-from-wild youth in suburban Southern California, it seemed as if half the boys were named John, Jim, Bob or Bill. Two of my best friends in high school were John Sutton and Jim Ludlum; John had a brother named Jim and Jim Ludlum had a brother named Bill. On the street where we lived, we often played ball with the Knauf brothers, Bob and Bill.
            As your life changes, so do your friends, but the chances are the names don’t change that much because each generation has its own set of highly popular names. Starting with high school, I’d say I’ve had five best friends over the years, and three of them were named John. The other two were Paul and Jeff.
            In my school days there were few other Mikes; I recall only one other in my high school graduating class of nearly 400. My last name, Wallace, was almost as common a first name as my first name, Michael. So I was quite surprised when, in my early 30s, the wire editor at the newspaper where I worked informed me that Michael was the most popular name for newborn boys that year. Not long after that she and her husband named their new son Michael, though not after me.
            When Linda and I were expecting our son, we were looking for a name that was solid and traditional but not too common. We settled on Nicholas, and apparently a lot of other parents at the same time had the same idea. Our Nick has known many other Nicks as he has gone through school, and in fact, one of his current best friends is also a Nick.
            In girls’ names there seems always to have been more diversity and change over the years. In my parents’ generation there were a lot of Gertrudes, Mabels, Lucilles, and jewel names: Opal, Ruby, Sapphire, even Jewel. In my generation, nearly none.
            That was true on the male side as well. My father’s name was Clarence, and among his best friends were Harold, Mel, Walt, and Harry; I can recall one Walt in my high school class and none of the other names at all.
            Some day the Dylans, Taylors, Madisons, Ragines and Keahnas will seem as quaint to the contemporary ear as the Mels and Rubys of bygone days. The old standards keep making comebacks, to be sure, but not always at the same times. If you go to the wedding section of the paper, at least in California, you’re more likely to come across a marriage between a John and a John than between a John and Mary.