Years ago my father described my Uncle Bill’s first day at Concord School. My uncle did not answer to his name any of the three times his first-grade teacher read it from the attendance list. When she confronted him, “Isn’t your name William Robert Scott?”, he replied quite forthrightly: “Nope, my name is Billy Bob!”
I never tired of that story, although I had difficulty picturing the tall, distinguished naval officer my uncle became as the boy with the Billy Bob moniker. But that bit of Scott Family lore foreshadowed my fascination with names in general – along with the hundreds of students who entered and exited my classroom over forty years, all of whom just happened to have names.
In fact, my lifelong interest in names has ranged from royal ones that serve as mini-histories of England’s monarchy: Charles Philip Arthur George and Charlotte Elizabeth Diana, for example, to the UDC baby supplement I annually read aloud to hear how the names will sound come diploma time.
Parents assign the names their children must eventually make their own. Actually, in some ways, names say more about the parents than about those tiny bundles lying in hospital nurseries.
Any name may convey cultural, ethnic, and religious information, but then some parents prefer to add a conservative, traditional flavor to the titles their offspring will carry through life. Thus, names like James, William, and Elizabeth have continued in the top 10 of popular names for a century, according to the Social Security Administration, which keeps track of such information.
Another form of traditional baby naming is family-oriented, establishing a legacy by repeating the names of relatives. In my family, one sister carries the name of our mother’s sister who died in infancy. My middle name, Elizabeth, was also my paternal grandmother’s middle name. As our family expanded, the names of fathers and grandfathers showed up on modern birth certificates as did the maiden names of female relatives. And one of the “grands” shares his middle name with his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather.
Some parents step away from the traditional to choose currently-popular names, like all the other babies have. In the 80’s and 90’s, it was trendy to name children Michael and Christopher, Jessica and Jennifer. One predictable result that nonetheless surprised many: school classes were filled with multiples of Michaels and Jennifers. I myself had a last period class of twenty students, five of whom answered to Jessica. Weeks of confusion ended when I put them all in one row and took potluck whenever I called on “Jessica”!
Other parents find themselves caught up in different type of popularity by naming their children for the famous personalities or fictional characters of the day. During the Shirley Temple years of 1935 and 1936, the second most frequently-bestowed name was Shirley. A few years later there were more than a few Rhetts and Scarletts running around. Nowadays lots of little girls in America carry the name of a Disney princess, while Oberyn and Rhaeger from Game of Thrones have their own tiny namesakes.
Traditional and pop-culture names, however, hold inadequate appeal for parents seeking more attention. Last year, some parents foisted the names of Trigger, Cayenne, and Coyote along with Sequoia and Quill upon their innocent, unsuspecting babies.
Fortunately, most modern parents manage to satisfy their desire for unique names by settling for unique spellings. I remember struggling in my early teaching years to keep track of Debby and Debbie and Debi as well as Cathy, Kathy, Kathie, and Kathi.
Now, however, school rosters are littered with Tristan, Tristen, Tristin, and Trystan in addition to Hailey, Hailee, Haleigh, Haylee, and Haley. Add five forms of Kaitlyn, six spellings of Makayla, and a whopping ten versions of Aiden – well, it is enough to drive a teacher over the edge!
Ubermodern names are pushing names from other eras into extinction. The likes of Gladys, Claude, Sherman, Edna, Rufus, and Wanda are slipping away even as Everly, Nova, Maverick, and Easton are inscribed on 21st century birth certificates. I understand that Randolph and Cornelia seem inappropriately heavy and outdated for today’s kids, but I also wonder how Kaston and Emberly will eventually sound at the retirement home.
We need only compare school honor rolls that have appeared in the UDC through the years to understand the changes in baby-naming. 1950: Dorothy, Clinton, Delores, Marcella, Asa, and Chauncey. 1980: Kevin, Ted, Angie, Karla, Ken, Donna, and Ben. 2015: Madyson, Kaden, Parker, Kendall, Alanna, Libby, and Trey.
Thirty-five years ago my youngest sister married a man whose last name is Rambo. They gave their daughters the very soft names of Chelsea and Grace, in total contrast. And although she absolutely does not need it, Grace – a petite math teacher – carries a name that precedes her march into her middle school classroom: Miss Rambo!
My middle sister and her husband honored their mothers by naming their daughter for her grandmothers: Esther Joy. My mother, who was never overly fond of Esther, was appalled. Over the years we tried out a few nicknames for the junior Esther, but all of us have long known that she is accurately named. My niece Esther is, well, Esther.
I wish for all of us and our descendants that we grow into our names honorably enough so that perhaps some child someday may be named in loving memory of us.
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.