Jerome Shea       February 16, 2010      Weekend Wonk

A couple of weeks ago Leslie Linthicum, one of my favorite Albuquerque Journal writers, did a touching piece about Spanish first names—“given” names, Baptismal names— in northern New Mexico. You are probably thinking Carlos or Juan or Miguel, but you would be wrong. No, these are names that I had no idea existed until I settled in New Mexico: Eustaquio, Dionicia, Epifanio, Procopio, Estanislao, Tranquilino, and a host of others. Why especially in the mountains of northern New Mexico? Because many families up there trace their roots back centuries, when el norte was still part of Mexico, and even before that, before those families left Spain. These names have Greek, Visigoth, and even Moorish origins. Sadly, as a rule the people who bear such names are very old themselves (Leslie’s hook was the announcements from Espanola’s funeral homes). As the people die off so also will the names, probably. Grandchildren are likely named Carlos or Linda, Jose or Maria. Great-grandchildren will likely be christened Robert or Susan, even Aidan or Ashley.

All of which got me, Jerome Paul Michael Shea, thinking about given names. (A couple of months ago I told a young woman that my name was Shea. “That’s my name, too!” she chirped. I guessed correctly that Shea was her given name, not her surname. I am bracing myself to someday meet a perky Shea Shea.)

Names are serious business. Not for nothing is “handle” the slang term for one’s name: that is how people first grab onto you. And most names have some kind of cachet, some sort of mysterious something that clings to them like ectoplasm. How often have you heard someone say “He just doesn’t seem like a ‘David’ somehow” or heard someone exclaim that a friend’s name fits her like a glove. There are, evidently, some women who should be named Daphne and others who shouldn’t. Or sometimes a name is just right for a child but an embarrassment when that child becomes a dowager (Britney?). Or vice versa. According to one source, the most popular baby girl’s name in this country in 2008 was Amelia. That strikes me as a name that takes several years to grow into, a name redolent of horsehair sofas and antimacassars. But perhaps that is what the parents were aiming at. “Madeline” has made a surprising comeback. To me, that name has “great aunt” written all over it.

Some common words would make wonderful, euphonious names. For years I have been suggesting to friends in the family way that Diarrhea would be a lovely name for a girl child (“Step with me into the garden, Diarrhea”). So far, no takers.

Names go in and out of fashion. Back in 2001, according to one source, the top five boys’ names were Jacob/Jakob, Michael, Matthew/Mathew, Joshua, and Christopher; the top five for girls were Emily, Madison in various spellings (remember the movie Splash, which made a big splash?), Hannah (starring Darryl Hannah—coincidence?), Ashley in all its spellings, and the regal Alexis. In 2008 we have Aidan/Aiden/Aden, Ethan, Noah, Cayden/Caden/Kayden/Kaden, and Caleb/Kaleb. Liam was moving up fast on the rail that year and would be number three in 2009. For girls we turned, seems to me, old fashioned: Amelia, Isabella/Izabella, Madeline in various spellings, Emma (Jane Austen here?), and Abigail. There is often a riot of different spellings. Madyleyne, Madalynne. Ashleigh, Ashlee. Madysyn. Anything, I guess, to give your little bundle of joy a distinction over the other little bundles named Madison. Where Cayden came from I have no idea. And I used to deride Chad as the ultimate silly preppie name until I found out that there is actually a Chad (d. 672) in the calendar of saints. Who knew?

The Puritans named their offspring to instill virtue. The names Prudence and Grace were common as rocks in the pasture, but Ever Vigilant Winslow, now there was a moniker, bested only by Shun The Devil Cabot. We did not see such a flowering until the hippies came along centuries later (Moon Unit, Flower Petal, Rainbow Rider).

Names beget nicknames. I am Jerry to all but my wife and a few close friends. Seemed easier just to bow to the inevitable. But some resist. I know two men who were christened Charles. One is a Chuck; call the other one Chuck at your peril.

Some names, like some topcoats, are reversible: Marshall Brandon, Brewster Curtis. These drive me nuts when I am reading the class roll. And then there are gender ambiguous names: Leslie, Kim, Kelly, Tracy, Stacey, Taylor, and so forth.

A name can make or break you. Percival was one of the greatest of Arthur’s knights, a hero to be reckoned with. Naming a kid Percival today would be almost child abuse. Remember Ernie Kovacs’ fey poet, Percy Dovetonsils? One’s name can hold one’s fate.

Just ask that boy named Sue.

Correction: In the last two wonks I used the phrase “three in the tree” to describe a certain stick shift arrangement. Son Dan says he has always heard it as “three ON the tree.” That makes much more sense. I do try to get these things right, but sometimes, to borrow from the great Fred Allen, you just feel like sticking your quill back in your goose. Three on the tree it is.

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