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Location: Chicago, Illinois, United States

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

I am the new Hortense

When I was growing up going in Shades Valley Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama, there was a pillar of the community named Horty Jones. She was a vibrant, opinionated and somewhat eccentric woman, but what I remember most about her was that she was old. Mind you, for an 8-year-old, 13 was old. 30 was incomprehensible. 50 meant one foot in the grave.

One day I asked my mom why Horty Jones had such an odd name. Mildly surprised by the question, she responded that Horty was short for Hortense, as if I should have known. I had never known a Horty or a Hortense before (or since). Her name might as well have been Tyrannosaurus Rex, because as far as I was concerned, she was from another age, another planet.

I remember thinking, "Why didn't Horty's parents name her something normal? My mother's name (Virginia) seemed vaguely exotic (no one else I knew had it), but familiar since hers was one of the first names I ever learned. My Dad's name (David) was still in common use. I had never really encountered the idea that names could come and go, like hoopla hoops or flagpole sitting.

What a difference some age makes.

Here are the most popular baby names of 2004 (with 2003 in parenthesis)

Girls' names
1 Emma (Emily)
2 Madison (Emma)
3 Emily (Madison)
4 Kaitlyn (Hannah)
5 Hailey (Hailey)
6 Olivia (Sarah)
7 Isabella (Kaitlyn)
8 Hannah (Isabella)
9 Sarah (Olivia)
10 Abigail (Abigail)

Boys' names
1 Jacob (Jacob)
2 Aidan (Aidan)
3 Ethan (Ethan)
4 Ryan (Matthew)
5 Matthew (Nicholas)
6 Michael (Joshua)
7 Tyler (Ryan)
8 Joshua (Michael)
9 Nicholas (Zachary)
10 Connor (Tyler)

Where is Steve? How long have I been missing? But now that I think of it, I don't know a single Steve under 30. Horty Jones is now dead. Is this a mortality wake up call? What about Ann (my sister) or David (my brother) or Richard (the name of far too many men I've dated)? But then, I don't now any truly young Anns or Davids or Richards, either.

And pardon me, but are all young boys being named after porn stars? I'm sure we're all breathing a sigh of relief that Zachary's popularity was short-lived, but is Connor really an improvement? The girls names sound considerably more old-fashioned. So, is Hortense due for a comeback?

The question I keep asking myself is "Why?" Why would we an entire population forsake family names, forsake our own names, in order that our children might be stylish? Do parents actually think that their child's faddish name will last better than a namesake?

And how much longer can Waspy names dominate the list? The real areas of growth in the population would suggest that before long Fernando or Mohammed should be much more popular than Tyler. Or will the pull of assimilation be so strong that we see Muslim boys named Nicholas?

Maybe we've got it wrong. We don't have to use faddish names, or namesakes, or even Biblical names. African Americans have some very beautiful and original names, blending African and Anglo sonorities. The American Indian tradition of the first thing the father sees on leaving the tent from the newborn babe produces great imagery, but is limited primarily to the physical realm. For sheer poetry, the Asians have us all beat. Their names often have actual meanings in the language, meanings which relate to beauty and spirituality. To illustrate, I have included a very tiny sampling of Chinese names:

AN: peace
CHANG: free; uninhibited
FANG: fragrant; sweet smelling
HUAN YUE: joyful; happy
HUI YING: bright; intelligent
JIA LI: good and beautiful
JIN: gold
JING: crystal; sparkling
JUN: truth
NA: graceful
TAO: peach; symbol of long life
XIA: glow of the sunrise or sunset
XUE FANG: snow fragrant
ZHI: Irises; orchids; noble character; true friendship

For the record, the only opportunity I have ever had to name any creature was my dog. Stanzi. That was Mozart's nickname for his wife Constanza. I was playing the role of Mozart in Amadeus at the time, and it was a lovely way to commemorate the experience. Maybe not poetic, but at least somewhat original.


NB -- Spellcheck didn't recognize Horty or Hortense. But it caught my misspelling of Tyrannosaurus. So maybe we should stick to dynosaur names. They last longer.