Henry County, Kentucky.  If your name is your fate, what does the future hold for Rylynn Shikaela Novaleigh?

There she is in the paper, age one, wrapped in the boa her mother chose from the photographer’s prop basket, a healthy child happily tasting the air with her tongue.  If I watched soap operas or listened to country music, perhaps I could identify the sources for her name.  But perhaps not.  As far as names are concerned we now live in the world of The Borrowers, and like Arrietty and Homily and Pod in that book, many children are now called not by names but by glued together pieces of names.  The example above (which is not actually the child’s name, but comparable) draws from Ryan, Lynn, Kaela, Nova Scotia and Lee, but unless there’s a Lynn or a Lee or a Canadian Celt in this baby’s family–and none was evident in the paper–this long and flowery name refers to no one.  That is the point.  The child is unique; so must her name be.

Rylynn Shikaela is no doubt much loved by her grandmother, but she is not named for her.  We have been trending this way for a while, and have fully arrived. In a listing for a 50th wedding anniversary in the same paper I found this family:

Great-grandparents: John and Joan.  Children: William (“Bill”) and Nancy.  Grandsons: Darren and Dan.  Great-grandson: Dakota.

“John” and “William” are hardy perennials, but I don’t know a Joan or a Nancy under the age of forty.  Too staid, too plain, and too out of style.  I know a bevy of Dakotas, though.

So?  What other people name their children is none of my business, and in general I don’t much care.  You could hand me your niece Lignonberry and I’d be as pleased to hold her as if she were an Alice; I like babies.  But I am interested in the meaning of words, particularly those that have no meaning, and in the language we use to define ourselves.  And if we required any further evidence that we are rearing the Great Deracinated Generation, these names that have no root would clinch it.

One of the ways our media-flogged culture works to undermine our ties to our own places and our own folks is to push the cult of originality.  Now even the names of our children have become sacrifices to to it.  We live in large sprawling cities, most of us, in a country of 300 millions and a global village of billions.  In such a great madding crowd, how can our own children stand out?  How will the Social Security Administration ever distinguish our progeny from all the other Bakers and Does and Jacksons (and Wongs and Singhs)?  So we give our child a name no one else has because we’ve cobbled it together, or we give her a fashionable name with what we hope is a unique spelling.  Around here if you are going to name a child Bailey, Mackenzie or Caitlin, she is going to be in kindergarten with four others.  Hence Baeleigh, M’Kenzee and Kaytlynne.

The Joan and John above were probably named for somebody—for grandparents or aunts and uncles, most likely.  Thus they were tied through their names to their families and their family’s history, and to the characters of the people they were named for.  Their progenitors Joan and John, if they were still living when these two were born, would have been just that much more tied to their namesakes.  A name is not the only thing that glues a family together, but it is one of the threads in the rope that binds us to our closest relations and our shared past.

I’m guessing, though.  It’s possible neither was named for a friend or relation after all, but for Saint Joan, say, or one of the thousand famous Johns of history or literature.  Or perhaps their parents simply liked these names.  In such cases “John” and “Joan” still tie these two to their culture in a way that has some depth of meaning.  I know I keep a casual mental list of famous (or infamous) Katherines and Daltons, as I expect most of us do, and many young people ponder their name for a time as they struggle to understand who on Earth it is they are.  A name can be something to live up to, and of course setting a high standard used to be one of the purposes of naming.  Children named Michael or Elizabeth or Henry or Lucy—to pick names from my own culture–have a rich history to mine, and it comes not just from the original meaning of the words but from the angels, saints, royalty, scientists and poets who bore these names, too.

The Montanas and Cheyennes of this world don’t have that.  They have a link to a place, yes, but it’s a place to which few of them have any connection and many of them will never see.  And the Rylynn Shikaelas?  They are left to ponder nothing but their own uniqueness, and does anybody think, given the solipsism we are all prone to, this is a good thing?

Not all of this is new.  Americans and even our more restrained British cousins have a history of creative naming, as you will find reading any humorous tombstone collection, and I am as fond of Capability Brown as anyone.  But generally in the past most parents have restrained themselves.  The Ima Hoggs of this world are anomalies, and the more exotic-sounding names of previous generations were usually honorably Biblical—Melchisedeck, Abijah, Jael.

But this is a free country, we like to tell ourselves, and what men and women are free to do by gum they’ll do.  Today as we play Adam with our own progeny we are limited mostly by our imagination, such as it is, though when filling out the birth certificate we can’t generally use a symbol–we’d have to call the baby “Two” not “2”–and we usually can’t be profane.  Still, someone has successfully gone to court in California to rename himself “God,” and where the courts get involved there’s no brake on ridiculousness: you remember the man who changed his name to “Coke is it.”  One way or another, then, the Ima Hogging continues; search a bit and you’ll find people named Scab Dover and Cutin Chubby and Monday Morning Maile.

I myself know a woman born Precious, and the great-nephew of Shadrach Meshach Abednego Nebuchadnezzar King of the Jews Jones, but these names (unlike Ima’s) were never intended as a joke.  Most parents name their children in love and in earnest, not in jest.  As our children are dear and irreplaceable to us, we want everyone to acknowledge their uniqueness.  We worry that their individuality will not be easy enough to spot in themselves, given our busy and overpopulated world, and thus we must name them so they stand out.  We believe they will gain more by some originality of name or spelling than they will lose by being plucked from the nominal web of their kin and culture.  This naming business is a little snatch at celebrity, a savory mess of pottage, and we are hungry for it.  Let the birthright take care of itself.

Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture


  1. Dear Ms. Dalton,
    Wonderful essay, brilliantly rendered, and wrong!
    I do apologize for being so direct, but I consider you one of the sharper knives in a drawer full of sharp knives and while this polemic is beautifully rendered, as they all are, it’s off the mark, which is rare for an essay penned by K. Dalton.
    You ask, “How will the Social Security Administration ever distinguish our progeny from all the other Bakers and Does and Jacksons (and Wongs and Singhs)?” And answer, “So we give our child a name no one else has because we’ve cobbled it together, or we give her a fashionable name with what we hope is a unique spelling.” But the answer to this observable cultural anomally is incorrect. The answer is related to LCD, lowest common denominator e.g. in a social,intellectual,moral and cultural sense.
    We have a significant group of Americans, of all races and ethnic backgrounds, who are paid to stay at home and do nothing more challenging than watch Oprah. In many instances they engage in a behaviour that is best described as ‘questionable’ e.g. they buy, sell, and use significant quantities of illegal pharmaceuticals, drink large amounts of alchohol, contract and spread sundry sexual diseases, steal, rape, murder, sell their bodies, and procreate out of wedlock. And, in participating in this behaviour they know that they can get medical relief for the associated health problems they’ll contract, they can receive money for food and housing, and they can get money for the children they breed. That is, they live for free, without working! They are the social parasites that the readers of this blog have been supporting all of their working lives! And, it is this group that began the phenomenon of affixing weird names to their progeny-LCD!
    As far as why they give their children these names, I don’t know, I’m not a shrink but I’d think the problem is related to self-worth; perhaps, because they despise themselves, they despise the issue of their bodies? Who knows, but it probably is a spiritual pathology that permeates American society.
    I really enjoy this blog because it takes on the more interesting questions of human existence and the liberal American experiment. To solve the myriad of social, political, and spiritual problems it’s necessary to address them directly without fear of violating the silly, stupid, and inchoate dictums related to political correctness and multi-cultural diversity.

  2. Good morning, Mr. Cheeks. Always good to hear from you.

    Yes indeed, weird naming used to be a privilege reserved by the lowest class, celebrities and the occasional humorist, but it’s creeping up the economic ladder, just like tatoos. We all know plenty of people not on welfare who spend hours with Oprah and Entertainment Tonight. The child I mention here I found in a first-birthday announcement in my local paper, and people on welfare usually don’t insert those. (I do suspect she has a very young mother, which would help explain it.) My belief is this is yet another example of how what was once considered uneducated and unsocialized behavior is becoming more mainstream.

    My other point is that even those who stick to actual names still long for originality–hence the exuberant spellings (which are completely middle class), the boys’ names for girls, and names like Phinneas (which I like, by the way). I didn’t elaborate the point here, but I think part of what drives this fashion is the psychological stress we feel living in such large communities, without enough smaller buttressing institutions to help us break up our city neighborhoods into more manageable groups of people. Being sharper tongued I can never write with as much humane good will as Bill Kauffman and Jason Peters, but I have a lot of sympathy for both this stress and even this manner of showing it.

    All good wishes to you.

  3. And, good morning to you, Ms. Dalton. Up early feeding the stock, no doubt? We’re gettin’ weather up here from you folks, all wet and dreary. Send a little sunshine, please!
    Thank you for the response. And, it was sharp (in a no nonsense, Kentucky, kinda way)and direct which is also appreciated. Also, please be aware I only criticize really smart folks!
    However, being a stubborn Ohio Valley lad, I’m stickin’ to my LCD theory. I see too many examples, in fact your response helped to support my position.
    In a philosophical way, when the gummint gives people the means to exist, particularly people who are young or middle aged and healthy enough to work, there’s a kind of backlash. These people not only begin to despise their own ‘self,’ they despise that which is responsible for their self-loathing (culture, gummint)and this hatred is expressed in many forms e.g. the “parents” who named their daughter “Shitass,” and yes, that really happened.
    We’re designed to do work and when someone else carries us there’s a sorta alienation that’s established in the person.
    It’s all very sad, but, I think, that there are answers to these dilemmas, and here at FPR people such as you and your colleagues have the skills necessary to begin the conversation, from an FPR perspective.

  4. I shall chime in on the side of Ms. Dalton. In my circles, both in Eastern PA rural where I grew up and in Western PA suburbia where I live now, the ala carte name for a child is a fixture of solid middle-class and upper-class respectable families. And there is a lemming-mindedness to all this where the same trendy names (ably highlighted in the original post) keep showing up with the same “exuberant spellings”. So much for originality. I think there must be a lesson in there about how the pursuit of originality leads one to a place of being purely derivative. As C. S. Lewis opined (in an essay the title of which I can’t recall):

    Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.

  5. I reveal my elitist tendencies here, but what I worry about with names like Caitlin or Trey or Bryce, both in frequent use by college-educated upper middle class parents, is how it will tag the poor children as they grow older, revealing that their parents were semi-educated, even if medical doctors or lawyers, and culturally ignorant. How would I react as an adult if I had such a name? I’d be tempted to change it, because it’s essentially meaningless, but I’d hesitate because it would have become part of me and my family history.

    My favorite example of a cobbled together name is from my mother’s family. She’s Filipino, and Filipinos have something of a history here. One of her nephews is named, of all things, Rofebar. Ro from Rosario (a good Spanish Catholic name belonging to the grandmother), Fe from Fernando (grandfather and uncle), and bar because the poor child’s father had just passed the bar exam. Now beat that.

  6. Not sure I can beat that, MMH, but the Bar Jester would like to elevate the level of discourse with an infusion of high moral seriousness:

    Three men and their daughters all died on the same day and all stood before St. Peter, who spoke to the first man thus: Sir, you spent your life in pursuit of money, going so far as to name your daughter “Penny.”

    And to the second thus: Sir, you spent your life in pursuit of drink, going so far as to name your daughter “Brandy.”

    Whereupon the third man turned to his daughter and said, “Come on, Fanny, we’re getting the hell out of here.”

  7. There are two children in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” The older is named John Wesley; the younger, June Star. How’s that for an implicit critique of social trajectory?

    As a pediatrician, it’s relatively easy to follow naming trends. And yes, these are mostly from families struggling with the corrosive effects of inner city life. At least in my town, geographical locations west of the Mississippi (Dakota, Cheyenne) seem less favored then they once were, but Neveah (that’s “heaven” backwards) has seen a real spike. Some come completely by surprise. A colleague of mine once took a young couple aside to explain why they might not wish to name their child Macabre.

    Not long ago, I came across one family pair whose name choices nearly outdid O’Connor. The older was Chance Lutheran (not the real last name, but close enough for you to get the idea) and the younger was
    Akhenaten Lutheran. Whether that’s better or worse than Cotton and Increase Mather, I don’t know, but it got my attention.

  8. Cheeks,
    You should not be talking about the indolent children of the Swells in our tony compounds like that. It is a crushing burden to have no place else to go but down from your personal aid, fashion-college admissions consultant and en-suite bedroom. Where sir, is your compassion?

    As to strange or unusual names, I grew up with a couple but it could have been worse…instead of being named after the matinee idol Dirk Bogarde and my uncle Walter , I could have been a gurl and named after aunty Edna. But, the champeen name I have had the pleasure to hear sung over the cubicles of an office by a cheerful and slightly seditious secretary is a fellow named Richard Hertz who, I’m sorry to relate, actually liked the popularization “Dick”. Everytime he called, nobody got any work done for at least 30 minutes.

    My apologies .

  9. Well thought out. My children are both given names heavy with meaning specifically because we expect them to live up to their namesakes. (To the point where when discussing names, I told my husband that we couldn’t name our son Phillip just because we liked the name. He mentioned his grandfather was named Phillip.) And the ludicrous assertion that only people on welfare (unless we are speaking of corporate tax breaks) name children common names made difficult to spell as an attempt at originality seems to me to be someone that doesn’t get out much.
    My general rule has been to try to picture the name on top of a resume or President of the United States ….I suppose we will have a Jaden as president soon enough.

    (BTW, both LDS and African -American communities have unique naming cultures that are fascinating.)

  10. Odd names have certainly been around a long time. My first name David is taken from a great-grandfather, and my second name Grant from another ggfather, who was named after General Grant to mark the family’s allegiance to the Union. All very ‘normal’ and lineal.

    But: the original David’s brother was named Rand McNally, and the original Grant’s brother was named Dallas Houston!

    Incidentally, the Africanesque names in the black community started quite abruptly. If you look at a list of births, you’ll find black females born before 1968 had average American names like Evelyn and Diane. Black females born after 1968 have Africanesque names like Shanaeqa and Tyreshia. The line is sharp.

  11. I found this front porch amusing, the essays often compelling, until I read this post, and the subsequent commentary. If I had false teeth, something I suppose most of your commenters are legible for but don’t need due to their fine lineage and socioeconomic standing, they would have fallen out.

    How silly you people are. No wonder the world I ended up with is in this condition.

    My grandmother, an anthropologist, would have had you for dinner, but the bitter taste of an upscale entitled ignorance would have compelled her to spit you out.

    Yes, I imagine naming children after the plantation owners who raped them became less of a fad once they freed the slaves.

    I went to college with a large group of people who had names to live up to. My observation was that namesakes seldom live up to anything,we called it elite scum. Could easily be your children or grandchildren, the blinders parents wear are pretty tight.

  12. Great topic.

    To resort to odd spellings is often a giveaway, that the parents are losing confidence in the pizzazz of a name. (That is one of Nelson’s Laws of American Nomenclature.) When Bailey becomes Baeleigh or Brittany becomes Britni, that’s a sign of a “stock” whose value is plummeting.

    Boy’s names may carry a transient “charge” of cuteness, pizzazz, etc. when they are used as girl’s names (Bryce, etc.), but it doesn’t work the other way (to name a boy Megan, etc.).

    In (modern) times, when white American Christians feel pushed by the culture or want to challenge it more, they may be more apt to give their children biblical/Christian names (Jeremiah, Sarah, etc.) although there are limits beyond which they will not go (Habbakuk, Onesiphorus), or give them distinctive family names (often sounding somewhat “ethnic.” If I’m right, you should see lots of biblical/Christian names or distinctive family names among children who were homeschooled and have now grown to adulthood. Conversely, when they feel secure within the mainstream and even dientify the military and economic strength of the nation with the security of the practice of the faith (as, I think, in the 1950s and 1960s was often the case) or at least the place where they live, they may be more likely to use names that stand out less(Brian, Jennifer, etc.).

  13. Kate, you’ve once again hit upon a matter dear to my heart the way only a so-called “pet peeve” can be close to the heart. As Mark Twain delighted to point out in his novels, American black culture has a long history of the autochtonous eccentric and deracinated name, and that practice continues into the present day. Those curiosities (from Valle de Chambre [a Twain character] to J’Dishus Jones) have always struck me as poignant signs of a culture uprooted, transported, exiled, degraded and enslaved. What has always struck me is that there is not more discussion of this phenomenon. Presumably that stems from some kind of “white guilt”: the history of black naming, as opposed to the impossible history of black names, is a field where non-black academics would fear to tread, and which is of minor enough importance except as a sad symbol not to demand attention.

    Is there a relation between that long history and the more recent lower-middle and middle-class trends of bestowing deracinated empty names? I’d be very interested to learn. But there seem to be two distinct, if connected, trends in such names at present. First, and foremost, the deracinated ethnic name, e.g. “Conor” and “Caitlin” and “Coleen” are traditional Irish-American names that have become simply popular names per se as the Irish have assimilated and as Irish culture has become a commodity rather than a serious liability. It’s worth observing that Colleen and Cara, two old Irish-American names could *only* be Irish-American names, since they are simply the Irish words for “girl” and “friend” rather than actual Irish names. I presume “MacKenzie” falls into this category, even if it is a Scottish Christian and surname; it does the trick as well as Caitlin for those who do not know better.

    Second, the pure deracinated name, which most of us would presume derives from our saturation in mass culture, e.g. as you say, the best is “Dakota,” but also the “Forrests” and the “Willows” and “Thorns” and “Apples.” Deracinated doesn’t quite seem right for some of these. I remember working class Catholics back in Boston clearly naming their kids after the manner of Soap Operas (e.g. Victoria/Torie), but it’s clear that a lot of these names, in the hands of celebrities in particular, seem to be anti-Christian and anti-Western in intent. That is, such names do not just testify to deracination, a loss of a sense of belonging to a culture of names as a propitiation both to our ancestors and as a promise for the future. They often signal a conscious unease or disaffection and a rather weak, but ugly, attempt to “secularize” children and family life. Such trends are up there with the academic attempts to rename Anno Domini the “Common Era.” They are, thus, offensive not merely in terms of taste, but are, rather, actually meant to be offensive, to call into question the culture to which Christianity gave life and form.

    -24 July 2009 A.D.

  14. Olivia,

    I mean this charitably, if irritably — you hardly do credit to your grandmother’s memory by using it as ammunition on the Internet.

    “If only my grandma were here, she was an anthropologist and she’d stick it to you” does not reflect a great deal in the way of maturity or intelligence.

    There is also considerable irony in your righteous “keeping-it-realer-than-thou” insults directed at Ms. Dalton & Co’s “lineage and socioeconomic standing”. Given the couple biographical facts you’ve dropped, I find it very unlikely that you have experienced real poverty yourself.

    As to African-American names — which seem only tangentially and remotely connected to Ms. Dalton’s overall thesis, not that you seem terribly interested in addressing this thesis coherently, much less politely … well, why, yes, that’s right, I can’t imagine why any self-respecting black man would want to carry around a name like “Cassius.”

    Or “Abraham”.

    As to your anecdotal experiences at an elite college… that’s not exactly a smashing rebuttal. Nobody was claiming that getting named after an ancestor magically — SHAZAM! — confers virtue.

    As I understand it, the point is that our society has become increasingly shallow and superficial, and that this shallowness and superficiality is reflected in the frivolity with which a great many people approach the naming of their children.

    And that the names children bear may — along with many, many other factors — affect how they perceive themselves.

  15. FPR isn’t a “Christians Only” venue, but perhaps we could hear from Christians who believe that God bestows salvation in Holy Baptism. Granted, Scripture doesn’t specify that the baptismal formula used must specify the name of the person to be baptized, but only the Name of God, that is, “the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” At the same time, I should think that the gravity of Baptism would commend to parents and pastors a cautious attitude towards choice of names for children.

    I, a Lutheran, grant that the Roman Catholic and Orthodox practice of naming children for saints must have been a good barrier against the infliction of cutesy names on children. (I wouldn’t assume that this practice is still strong in those communions, though.) Something in me loves the idea, which you encounter in Russian novels such as War and Peace, of the celebration not of birthdays but of name-days. Name-day rather than birthday celebration strikes me as a great conservative practice to revive, even though I am not absolutely sure how it works! Was it (help me on this, someone) that you celebrated as “your” day, your saint’s day — so even if you were born in November, if your saint’s day was in May you’d celebrate in May? or was the idea that you celebrated annually on the anniversary of your Baptism? That is the practice that really commends itself to me. Unfortunately I don’t find people in my circles very interested, not even in something simple like a notice in the weekly church bulletin, to the effect that “this week we celebrate the Baptisms of [names with dates].”

    (Another thought: There has to be a relationship between the whimsical and/or deracinated names for people, which have become so common, and the substitution of “Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier” in Baptism, stripping away the Name of God.)

  16. Dear Mr. Nelson,

    You can start tomorrow on my Patron’s feast day.

    Italian and some Hispanic Catholics still prioritize the Saint’s day over the birthday, and some celebrate the baptism day in lieu of the birthday; in any case, they thus celebrate the name day in like fashion to how most of us celebrate birthdays, i.e. party, cake, etc. We Wilsons celebrate both, though we’re not as consistent with the Patron Saint’s day simply because we don’t really have a long tradition to give it form.

    It’s a wonderful practice whose theological and ethical foundations clearly suggest more and better ideas than that of a birthday.

  17. Thank you, James Matthew Wilson.

    It sounds, from this Orthodox site, like their practice is celebration of the day commemorating their patron saint:


    I’d be interested from hearing from anyone whose church/communion/denomination encourages the celebration of one’s Baptismal anniversary as the occasion for gift-giving such as is more common on birthdays.

  18. What do you all make of the name I saw in our local paper last year: Furious Cane. No kidding. Fury for short?

    Our own son was named for Henry’s eighty, the 80 acres of farmland my wife’s family owns that had been purchased from an old family friend.

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