When I think of iconic Americans, my list – in no particular order – would be as follows: Ben Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Walt Whitman, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Abraham Lincoln, Abigail Adams, Frederick Douglass, Eleanor Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, William Penn, Oprah Winfrey, Donald Trump, Martha Stewart, Jimmy Hoffa, Marilyn Monroe, George Herman “Babe” Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Thomas Edison, Jackie Robinson, Audrey Hepburn, Al Capone, Michael Jordan, Michael Jackson, Joe Namath, Mark Zuckerberg, Steven Spielberg, Andy Warhol, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Martin Luther King, Jr., Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Gloria Steinem, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Michelle Obama, Barack Obama, and Bruce Springsteen.
While this list is far from comprehensive, I think we’d agree that, for better or worse, these are the people often associated with success in America. But, other than greatness, what else do these individuals have in common? Besides Oprah and Barack, all of these people have normal, standard, run-of-the-mill names. And, after compiling this list, I’m left wondering whatever happened to these classic names because I rarely see them anymore.
In a famous comedy bit, George Carlin laments the change that boys’ names have undergone. We used to have Tom, Tim, and Tony; now we have Tyler, Todd, and Tucker. To Carlin, our boys’ names have gotten “soft,” thereby creating a generation of “soft” boys. While the Carlin bit is hilarious, and while he is right that names are a significant role in our lives, I’m not quite sure that we can equate a name with a personality type. Will a “soft” name really make one “soft?” Will a rugged name make one tough? I’m not sure. I think that my life may have been maybe slightly different if my parents had gone with their original plan of naming me Brett (whether I was born a boy or girl) after George Brett, my dad’s hero in 1980, but mainly I think that the worst that would have happened is that my full name would have sounded funny (Brett D’Antonio? Come on…) and people may have questioned my 100% authentic Italian background. Overall, though, I think I’d still be the person I am today.
However, many parents these days seem to feel the same way as Carlin, in the sense that the name equals the person. However, instead of naming their kids the rugged names for which Carlin would have hoped, parents are naming their children the most bizarre names possible. Why? Do they want bizarre children? Not necessarily, but I think I know what they do want: they want their kid to be extraordinary.
This craze over the past decade of naming our children the most outlandish names possible seems to stem from the idea that the more “original” the name, the more unique and awesome our kids will be. How can you not be cool when you’re named after a car, a city/state, a season, an alcoholic beverage, an allergy medicine, a little-known character in your favorite novel, a title of your favorite album, or your great-great-great-great grandwhatever who lived during the Ottoman Empire? So it goes…
Another naming technique that is popular today is turning words from other cultures into names, even when your family is not at all associated with that culture. Here’s a conversation I’m likely to have at some point soon:
Me: “Oh, look at your cute little baby. What’s her name?”
Random Person: “Friður.”
Me: “Oh, that’s interesting. Is that a family name?”
RP: “No, it’s Icelandic for ‘Peace’.”
Are you fucking kidding me??? You’re an Irish family from Northeast Philly. Are you secretly hoping that your kid will become some kind of Norse god? Seriously people, we need to get a grip.
The problem is that American children already think they’re way too special. In fact, recent research has shown that American children have the highest self-esteem of any other children in the world (read Generation Me by Jean Twenge), but they aren’t actually doing anything to achieve this level of self-esteem. Meaning, our kids feel really good about themselves without having done anything noteworthy at all.
The irony of all this is that instead of having a bunch of awesome kids with cool names, what I tend to see is that kid (extraordinarily) named Clementine or Andronicus or, my personal favorite, the kid with a last name for a first name, sitting in my developmental English classes in a community college, looking all dazed and confused, yet thinking he/she is all that and a bag of chips. To boot, Clementine, Andronicus, and Rockefeller are all failing my class; plus, they smell bad because mom hasn’t directed them to shower in the past three days. Trust me, they are anything but extraordinary.
Parents, your children are not pets. They are humans. They will have these names for the rest of their lives. They will have to go to school with the names you give them. They will have to get jobs with the names you give them. They will have to try to get laid with the names you give them. So, please for the love of Dyw (that’s “God” in Cornish and will probably be a name I’ll see in one of next year’s English classes), give your kids reasonable names that won’t leave us all snickering behind your – or, more importantly, their – back.
I’ll close on a sensitive note, despite all my better judgment. Parents, your kids are already, by definition, unique and special: there is no one in the world who is your particular child. Your kids will be extraordinary and special to YOU – guaranteed; they don’t need an outlandish name to prove their awesomeness. Your child’s name won’t make him/her cool; only YOU will be able to do that.
This post is dedicated to two of my closest friends who are expecting their first child. I hope they get used to my unsolicited parenting advice.