What’s in a name?

The twitterverse and media had all sorts of fun with the boys’ and girls’ names registered in Alberta in 2018. Released in January 2019 under the province’s open government policy, the lists of baby names included some real, well, horrors. Who names their son “Despot”? Who names their daughter “Anger”? What kind of marriage ceremony will that make for in twenty-odd years. (“Do you, Despot, take this woman, Anger, as your lawfully wedded wife?”)

Crazy/weird baby names are nothing new. Hippies named their kids River and Starshine. Daytime soaps in the Eighties and Nineties seemed to inspire legions of girls with names like Ashleigh and Amanda. Five boys in Alberta in 2018 were named “Bowie,” for obvious reasons. My wife, who is an educational assistant, once had a kid at her school named “Yzerman.” As I was writing a biography of the star hockey player when i heard that, it was no mystery to me what inspired his parents. Those of us who were not saddled with truly oddball identities reflexively think: whatever happened to good, old-fashioned names? Names that have been in someone’s family for generations?

Problem is, a lot of names we think of as “traditional” aren’t, really. Names of our parents and grandparents were as prone to following cultural trends as ones today. I learned that myself when a fascinating database became available, for free, online through a data visualization tool created by a company called Flourish. Working with two researchers at the University of Edinburgh, Fluorish created interactive graphs of the popularity of thousands of first names in seven geographically diverse counties in the United Kingdom. This doesn’t help you if your family is from Italy or Afghanistan, but if your ancestors are from the UK, there’s a lot to learn about how your first name has risen and fallen in popularity between 1838 and 2006, as I discovered in my own case. And with a little sleuthing, you might be able to figure out how you ended up with yours.

Surfing the Fluorish database tells us something that shouldn’t surprise us: people have long been hugely influenced in how they name their kids by celebrities. In the UK, that means royalty, as well as stars of stage, screen, sports, and music. “Albert” grew steadily in the nineteenth century because of Queen Victoria’s consort, peaking at 1.98 percent of boys’ names in 1902. “Philip” took off after his engagement to Princess Elizabeth was announced, reaching 1.54 percent in 1953. But results can also be counterintuitive. “Elizabeth” was in steady decline in the twentieth century. Having a queen of that name didn’t turn around its popularity. And as Anna Powell-Smith of Fluorish has blogged, Margaret was long a popular girls’ name, but it began to collapse “just as the famously spoiled Princess Margaret was starting to hit the headlines.”

In my own case, “Douglas” is not a particularly popular boys’ name, but I thought I knew where it came from. My mother had an older brother who died when he was five, and I was named for him. That’s true as far as it goes, but how did my namesake Douglas get his name? Despite being a historian, I don’t know a tremendous amount about my family’s past. Both my sets of grandparents emigrated to Canada after the First World War, my father’s family from Scotland, my mother’s from England. Both of my grandfathers were soldiers in that war. Beyond that, the family history is a bit of a fog, although on my maternal grandmother’s side I have traced the family back to a forty-year-old widow with five children living in a workhouse in Norwich in 1841 (and a lot of rural poverty on the way back there). I know that my mother’s dad came from a family of jewellers in Birmingham, but there’s no one named Douglas that I’ve been able to find among them.

I assumed that Douglas was just one of those old-timey UK names that might have been inspired by a family friend in my grandfather’s generation. The data presented in Fluorish, though, held a surprise. Never particular popular, the name had a striking spike from 1914 to 1918, soaring from 0.08 to 0.54 percent, before beginning an abrupt decline that not even the actor Douglas Fairbanks could turn around. The dates of the First World War are impossible to ignore. So is the fact that the commander of the British Expeditionary Force on the western front, where my grandfather was a junior officer, was Douglas Haig. And so: yes, I am named for an uncle who died in childhood, but ultimately I was probably named for a First World War field marshal. That struck home for me through my current research on a project involving that war, Jackson’s Wars. Haig, the “butcher of the Somme,” in November 1916 ordered the execution for desertion of one of the Canadian soldiers I have been dealing with.

My wife’s name, Deborah, has a similarly suspicious pattern of popularity. It’s another one of those names that we might think are timeless, but Deborah was virtually unknown all the way until the mid 1950s, when it began a rapid spike that peaked at 1.24 percent in 1964 before collapsing. My wife, born in 1961, was part of that spike. I can’t say for sure (her mother is no longer alive), but her name probably owes itself to the popularity of actress Deborah Kerr, who made some of her most beloved films during the rocket-rise of her name: The King and I (1956), An Affair to Remember (1957) and The Grass is Greener (1960). Deb tells me that whenever she hears of someone that shares her name, they inevitably were born around the same time she was.

Having explored the data visualized by Fluorish, I’m now far less inclined to criticize modern parents for choosing names that aren’t “traditional.” Family heritage still count for something in baby naming, but celebrity is nothing new in influencing how they’re chosen. But please: no more baby girls named Anger.

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