Friday, May 18, 2012

Name Post: Names in Space

Right now I’m reading A Matter of Taste by Stanley Lieberson, a Harvard sociology professor who studied how names, fashion, and culture change. It’s all pretty interesting stuff, but one of the things I'm struck by most is how little turnover there was in names until relatively recently. He makes the point that it wasn’t until the late nineteenth and early twentieth century that the leading names given to children began to change. As one dramatic example, he uses data from England and Wales and shows how if you look at the 50 most common names for boys and girls in 1700, these same names are all on the list in 1800. Today, living as we are in a time where tastes in names are changing frequently (as evidenced by the 2011 name lists released by the social security administration earlier this week), it’s hard to imagine names will be identical anywhere in the world in the next 100 years.
Laura Wattenberg of Baby Name Wizard fame makes the same case on her blog this week. She shows how for boys in particular, there was historically very little turnover. She looks at the top 5 boys names in the U.S. for 1947: James, Robert, John, William and Richard and compares it to the top 5 boys names in London in 1260. They are (guess what?): John, William, Robert, Richard and Thomas.  In other words, 4 of the top 5 boy names were consistent for seven centuries. That is madness.  (
                In many countries I’ve gone to this year, it’s been surprising how little flexibility there is in terms of the restrictions for naming your child, and how it seems like many governments and societies are figuring out how to deal with foreign-sounding names in their country for the first time. I’m reminded more and more to be patient because this IS a relatively recent phenomenon.  Thanks to less familial pressure to pass on names, and more sources than ever for new ones, names are crossing (cyber) space now more than ever.  This brings up a lot of questions, many of which I’ve previously mentioned here—like how I’ve noticed there’s a hierarchy in terms of what names are deemed acceptable (legally or socially) to be used worldwide.
                I might still roll my eyes at an American couple with no ties to India naming their daughter Shanti (meaning “peace”), or, likewise, an Indian couple with no ties to America who names their daughter “Brittney."  I am slightly embarrassed to admit that I feel this way though, because it’s impossible to say what names should and should be able to cross spaces and what names shouldn’t be. In Bali I met a man who named his son “Yoga” because he wanted an “import name” and he knew Americans liked it. I met a woman in Berlin who expressed discomfort with the idea that German babies might be given “African bush names.” Things get personal and political quite quickly. 

Waterworks Park
                What I’ve found interesting about my conversations in Belfast over the last few weeks is that many of them have made me think about how names move across different spaces on a micro level. In the past week, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting with a diverse group of people, including a group of teenagers at the WAVE Trauma Center (a cross-community care organization that offers support to people who have been bereaved, injured or traumatized as a result of the Troubles), researchers at the Ulster Historical Foundation, and academics at Queen’s University. In all of my conversations, the question of names and the physical spaces they are worn in have been at the center.
                The students at WAVE were the most candid about these across town divisions. “Protestants are all Sammy Joe or Bobby Lee, they love the two-name stuff,” one Catholic student told me.  “You’d never meet a Catholic named William or Billy because of King Billy,” another told me, referencing King Billy, who won the crowns of England, Scotland and Ireland by deposing King James II & VII, but, more relevant in Belfast, who participated in several wars against the Catholic King of France, Louis KIV. His victory over James at the Battle of Boyne in 1690 is still celebrated in Belfast with marches (organized by Protestant groups) on July 15thevery year. As you can imagine, because of Belfast’s recent history, many of these marches have become violent in recent years and there are many questions about the “right to march.”
                Students at WAVE told me stories of their own names; many were from their family or chosen for religious reasons; one teenager named Jason told me his mother gave it to him because the initials spelled out the months, “J-July, A-August, S-September, O-October, N-November.”  Most interesting to me was that several students spoke to the experience of having multiple names in different places.  A Catholic student named Terrance told me that when he was a kid, on the walk to school when he and his mother would go through Protestant neighborhoods his mother would tell him, “If anyone asks, here you’re Billy.” Another student told me a similar story; in Protestant neighborhoods, her mother would tell Niamh and her brother Kieran to go by Barbie and Ken. “It was kind of a joke, but kind of not.” She added. 
                It’s not a rare occurrence for people to go by different names in different places. In Zambia, I wrote about how many children were called by traditional, tribal names at home, and English, biblical names at their (often mission-funded) schools. Worldwide, it’s a common tendency for people to go by formal names in public and nicknames at home.  What’s interesting to me is that for these teenagers growing up, these name shifts all happened in public, outdoor spaces, in streets that literally blend into each other.  They are streets that may look identical to outsiders, but to Belfast natives at this time, indicated a complete shift. A shift so dramatic, it required an alternative title. 

Belfast's Angel of Peace statue.
                There are exceptions, of course.  Most people didn’t create aliases for themselves depending on what neighborhoods they were in, and some people might have names that sound more neutral in the first place. Most people I talk to say that you could guess a person’s religion (and what part of town they live in) around 90% of the time. (Some estimate more, others less). One person told me about a Protestant Bishop with kids who bear the Irish names Niall and Kieran.  And this may all be changing with the ever growing pool of names to choose from. “Today people are naming their kids weird names like Princess and Zara, like the store, and Africa Louise and Sapphire,” one student at WAVE told me.
    Despite the exceptions, as Tim Symth at the Ulster Historical Foundation put it, “There is a very very very good chance that Seamus McCarney will be Irish/Gaelic/Catholic and William Scott will be Protestant. Today, there may be fewer judgements about what that means, but the names will carry the same associations."
I’ve asked some people why they think there are still such strong divides in the names chosen by Catholics and the names chosen by Protestants. Part of this is because religion has dictated names; Catholics traditionally named their children after saints, but more than this, family customs have dictated how names are passed on.  Gillian Hunt at the Ulster Historical Foundation talked to me about how traditionally in Ireland the first son was named after the paternal grandfather, the second son after the maternal grandmother, and a similar pattern followed for girls. She told me that there is even evidence from Wales in the wills of deceased grandparents that more money was left to the grandchildren who bore their names.
                Most often things seem to fall too neatly on a binary; on one side is a person with an Irish name who, resultingly, is assumed to be Catholic and Republican. On the other side is a person with an English name who is assumed to be a Protestant and Loyalist.  Today people in Belfast seem determined to find the exceptions, as if to prove that things haven’t always been this way. Last night I went to the book release of a reprinting of Presbyterians and the Irish Language by Roger Blarney, a book that gives evidence for Protestants’ own role in preserving and promoting the Irish language. As one of the speakers said, “this book shows how people were promoting the language without the baggage it has in the twenty-first century.”
 It is certainly interesting to see examples of people from all communities embracing an Irish and Gaelic heritage, but you can’t simply return to a time when there wasn’t baggage to make it not exist now. Ironically, I spent my evening at that book release and my morning at Stormont, the house of the Northern Irish parliament, accompanying Tricia at a protest for injured victims of the Troubles. (For a news article and short video of the protest, click here: can very briefly see me walking behind the big banner).  

Names often become labels. Studies (like the one done by Freakonomics a few years ago), have shown how names are often color-coded in the U.S. and there is a significant statistical difference in the names used by African-American families and Caucasian families. My friend, Clara, recently sent me an NPR article ( about the differences among names in red states and blue states. 
           The social change, equalizer, liberal arts school progressive in me wants to tell everyone to mix up the names, “let Catholics use Protestant names, and Protestants use Catholic names! Or keep using names like Africa Louise and Princess and keep everyone guessing! Hold hands! World peace!" But the other part of me recognizes that this kind of supposed equalizing would also be ignoring the fact that these names are inherited from families and distinct cultures. Encouraging people to mix up the names in Belfast would be encouraging people to abandon their cultural traditions, akin to the tribal names being lost in Zambia as more and more English (and biblical) names are being used instead. The problems aren’t the names themselves, they are the stigmas attached to them.
                I mentioned what the WAVE students had said to Gillian and Tom at the Ulster Historical Foundation. I asked them why these children might have gone by different names in different neighborhoods, what was it exactly, that their parents were scared would happen if they used their real names?  “It’s not that a Catholic in a Protestant community or a Protestant in a Catholic community wouldn't be acceptable, but it seems safer to use other names, just in case.”
Just in case. I’m reminded of Medbh’s words about opening the outer door, but leaving the inner door mostly closed with a tentative gap--a gap of fear that's wide enough for these children to be renamed by their parents when they visit other parts of town, but small enough  for them to be in the same room telling me about it.


  1. hi nell--another eye-opening post. how much you have discovered and how much you have described. you are usig your time well. such discipline, such dedication.
    (always in the elephant print dress)

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