Americans and their crazy names

“Don’t these Americans know the difference between given names and last names!?”

Any European who cares about names and languages might have thought something along these lines when confronted with the boys whose given names are Jackson, Lafayette, Dylan or Hunter or the girls named Madison, Paris, Shelby or Courtney (all of these names are originally last names or place names). “Who would give such names to their kids?” you might ask yourself, and also “Why?”

As a name scholar (or at least former student of onomastics, the “science” of names), used to (Indo-)European name tradition(s), I am fascinated about how thoroughly different North American name tradition is from what still lives on in “the Old World”.  Or at least, it seems very different. This is my educated way of saying what my other, often non-linguist, friends often express in this way: “Man, Americans are so retarded they don’t even know the difference between first names, last names, cities, countries or anything! Gawd..!”

I started thinking about these things when I read the opinions posted about names on a fan page for the fantasy book series A Song of Ice and Fire (lately converted to the immensely successful TV series Game of Thrones). According to the internets, people in the United States have started naming baby girls Khaleesi, which is a fictional title meaning “Queen/wife to a khan-style leader”. This title is borne by one of the chief characters of the series (whose name is Daenerys, for the interested). I have a lot of judgemental crap to say about this particular issue, but I shall refrain! I will merely mention that many who watch the show, and have not read the books, mistakenly believe that Khaleesi is the name of the character.

Where I and most readers of this blog come from (Norway), no one I have ever heard of would ever even remotely consider naming their child King or Queen (or any equivalent in our native language, or any language that most people understand), much less Khaleesi (though on a side note, I think Khaleesi would be more acceptable for people who don’t perceive the word as a title). I believe that such names are unacceptable because there is a strict dividing line between what is a first name (Peter, Ahmed, Susan, Maria etc.) and what is a last name (Johnson, Smith, Hill etc.). (I use international examples of names here, seeing as I write in English). Unisex names are rare, and usually a result of cultural loans or language development. Furthermore, most people will have a quite clear intuition about what is an appropriate name for a person, and what is a name for a city, country etc. Tradition is key here! Thus, names like Brooklyn for a person of any gender or Paris for a girl (the fact that this is an Ancient Greek man’s name clouds the issue a bit) seem quite ludicrous in our tradition. They do however seem to be sufficiently acceptable in North American culture. As chaotic as North American name tradition may seem to outsiders, I will claim that there are clearly rules governing the naming of persons in North America as well! They are just quite different from the rules we are used to in European traditions.

What originally sparked the quite lively (and quite opinionated) debate on the fan page for A Song of Ice and Fire, was that a young mother asked the group what they thought about Valyria as a name for a baby girl. (For those not in the know: Valyria is the name of a fictional city-state, which conquered half a fictional continent and subdued and/or destroyed a bunch of fictional cultures and civilizations with fire and blood (and dragons). At some point, after all the conquering and butchering, the capital of the empire was consumed by some fiery apocalypse only known as “the Doom of Valyria”.) I pointed these things out, and ventured that since Valyria is the name of a city, and a city that isn’t supposed to have such a nice history at that, I could not be more opposed to giving such a name to any person (even though it might sound/look nice for a girl). To drive my point home, I commented that “Naming a girl Valyria, is equivalent to naming a girl London, Rome or Persepolis!” (Seeing as they are all the capitals of conquering, enslaving empires). Some guy then responded along the lines of “Persepolis!? That’s totally crazy! Who would ever name their daughter that?”

…  “Who would ever name their daughter Valyria?” was what I thought. At this point, the subjective, semi-judgmental me gave way to the linguist that is forever lurking very close to the surface of my consciousness, like a fish, ever waiting for some juicy fly to snap at.

If Persepolis as a name for a girl is unacceptable for most people in North America (which I reckon it probably is), then Persepolis must simply violate some North American naming rule(s). This implies that there actually are rules at all, which to an unknowledgeable outsider such as myself is quite significant in itself! The thing is, though, that this particular insight raises a lot of questions, as such basic insights are wont to do. I for one can’t describe the naming rules in linguistic/anthropological terms. I will forward some notions, though:

The constraints are definitely related to the sound and/or spelling of the names; the link between the sound of and visual impression of a form, and any given names the community has been in contact with, seems to be very important. Other connotations are also important (e.g. ethnic, social), but I think they are secondary, and so is the original meaning of a name. Which of these two are most important will vary, I believe, but sound/spelling will usually be more important! Let it be said, though, that the actual semantic meaning of a name is quite unimportant in most Indo-European naming traditions. These thoughts are vastly inadequate in trying to map such a vast territory as English-speaking American naming tradition, but they are at least relevant perhaps as preliminary hypotheses!

A professor in onomastics (once again: “name science”) whom I have great respect for, and who is also an extremely likeable person, once said to me (and I am paraphrasing): “With American circumstances, there can be no fun being a name researcher.” Implying: There does not seem to be any rules, and thus, any research would be quite meaningless. I quite agreed with him at the time, but my perspectives on language and naming have changed. The fact that there does not seem to be any rules to us name-culturally conservative Europeans, but that some names are still quite unacceptable “even to Americans” poses very intriguing questions to me: What rules actually govern the giving of given names to American infants, and how strict are they? How did these rules get the way they are? How different are these rules really from whichever rules determine what names are acceptable in (Indo-)European culture? And: Are we seeing developments similar to the ones that must have led to the current American situation in a Europe that is becoming more culturally diverse all the time?

These questions, my friends, would be enough subject matter to occupy an entire research center for name studies employing several researchers and graduate students for several years. Now, all I need is someone to cooperate with, and a fantastically big bag of money.

Linguist-man, out.

Literature:

https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Appendix:American_given_names (22. Jun. 2014)

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2 responses to “Americans and their crazy names

  1. Frode Th. Omdahl

    I get your point, my friend. But name traditions are so much more than “North American”, by which you totaly forget Native American name traditions, and European name traditions. An example: In Ethiopia, among Coptic Christians, patronyms are the only tradition, but without suffixes. My friend Samson Yohannes is the son of Yohannes Samson, and the father of Elias Samson. So Why not Just accept the North American Anarchistic name tradition as something new and fresh, even if it looks quite stupid in our European eyes? My friend Myron, the author, wrote about Eirik the Red and his son Leiv, and named them “Mr. Red” and “Mr. Eiriksson”. Eirik the Red’s wife Thorbjørg Knarrabringe (Thorbjorg Boat Chest”) he called “Mrs. Red”. It is not about stupidity, it is about not knowing.
    Good luck with your new blog.
    Frode

    • Hey, mate!

      I do not, in any way mean to say that naming tradition of the current English-speaking people living in the United States is stupid. Insofar as it needs my acceptance, I completely accept that English-speaking North America operate by different rules than Europe when it comes to naming people.

      I’m sorry for being imprecise in pointing out that I was not commenting on Native American naming tradition at all, but I didn’t want to get entangled in too much clarification etc. I am trying to keep the blog easy to read. I simply do not know anything specific about Native American/First Nation names, and those traditions also fall bit beside my point here. That being said, Native American languages and name traditions are of course part of the melting pot which seems to have generated new rules for names in North America.

      What I try to do in my post, is discuss how this different name culture can be perceived through the eyes of the unknowing (traditional) European (i.e. me and others like me). And my point is exactly this: The name tradition is not completely “anarchistic”; otherwise you could name women “Persepolis” and call men “Sue” (which I believe, only Johnny Cash has ever concieved of!). There are definitely rules, and I would very much like to study them!

      Hope this clarifies! Thanks for reading, and thanks for the reply!

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