For a long time I’ve fantasized not about raising a child but about having one to name. In high school I was certain he’d be Cornelius. It’s hard to argue with Pope Cornelius, patron against earaches and twitching, and Don Cornelius, host of Soul Train, not to mention a robber baron, an occult philosopher, and a talking ape. It is flexible, too, offering nicknames like Niall (Gaelic), Neel (Indian), Cory (what the boy of Boy Meets World went by), and Neilos (Greek root of the Nile).
To name a baby is to give him the very thing that lives on even after he is history. Naturally, he shouldn’t be called something so familiar as to seem generic or, worse, forgettable—hence Cornelius. I’m not in high school anymore, though, and I’ve pretty much abandoned the idea of there ever being a Corny Frank. I don’t, after all, want to get myself in trouble with the likes of Troy Patterson, the TV critic for Slate, who has linked Otto and Ursula, names as edgily out-there as Cornelius, to “this moment of maternity cults [and] daddy memoirs.” Likewise, David Brooks has found Anouschka and Elijah to be “abusively pretentious,” akin to hummus snacks in their gross hipster “attitudinizing.” No matter that over 90 percent of the Elijahs born in New York City in 2007 were African American or Hispanic—that is, almost certainly outside the Park Slope demographic. Cornelius would work just as well for Brooks’s purposes.
Celebrity chef Aldo Zilli named his daughter Twiggy because, as he explained, he hoped she would look “as good at thirty as the real Twiggy does today.” My ambitions are slimmer: to bypass date-stamped names like Troy (it and other monosyllabic male names like Todd, Brent, Brad, Kurt, and Lance were most popular in the late ’60s and early ’70s) and names as unremarkable as David without broadcasting what Brooks would call my “unearned sense of superiority.” I aim for the unassuming yet snappy, the novel yet unobtrusive. A Marilyn is what I’m looking for. Much can be made of Norma Jeane Mortenson’s assumed name—how it was most popular a full decade before the actress first graced the movie screen, how its growth in popularity intersected with Evelyn’s decline and presaged Carolyn’s subsequent rise, how its hills and valleys are echoed in the trajectory of the not-as-popular Marianne—but nothing turns the M less buxom or de-moles that i. Marilyn Novak can attest to this. She was Columbia Pictures’ best shot at getting what Twentieth Century Fox had, but first the studio had to change her name to Kim.
I am Hannah. My mother was a Winifred born to a Winifred born to a Winifred. I am not Winifred. My mother hasn’t been Winifred ever since she officially became Carter, which used to be her middle name. I am Hannah Maitland. Maitland is not my mother’s maiden name, although it does come from her side of the family. I used to hate my middle name—too girly, too cutesy, like Caitlin, and saddled with that awkward d—but then I realized that Hannah Mait sounds like animate.
I am Hannah M. Frank. I am Anne M. Frank, because Hannah is like Anne, you see—and Ann, Chana, Anya, Annika, Chana, Nancy, Anaïs, Anke, Nina, Nanette.… Her middle name was Marie, though, and her first name was Annelies. And, I mean, I am not Anne, nor am I Cordelia, which L. M. (Lucy Maud) Montgomery’s Anne (formerly Ann) of Green Gables so wished she was.
Marilyn Novak becomes Kim Novak. Barack Hussein Obama, the American Name Society’s 2008 Name of the Year, once went by Barry. Albert Einstein becomes Albert Brooks; Mel Kaminsky becomes Mel Brooks. My mother, Winifred Carter, becomes just Carter, a name with sturdier genealogical roots than Winifred—it goes all the way to Rev. Thomas Carter, who settled in Massachusetts in 1637. The names Sheldon, Irving, Murray, and Stanley are all originally of English or Scottish origin, and they are also the names given to many first- and second-generation Jewish-Americans, my father included—backfiring attempts at assimilation.
Jack, Mike, Ned, Bill, Tom, and other diminutives were among the names most frequently given to slaves. When freed, many former slaves renamed themselves—Mike became Michael; Ned, Edward; Tom, Thomas. The naming patterns of subsequent generations of Americans, black and white alike, continue to reflect shifts in society at large, and names themselves remain markers of race and class. Name prescriptivists—those who think Kaiden and Kaydence tacky, to say the least—might here heed Cleveland Kent Evans, the author of The Great Big Book of Baby Names. He recommends taking the historical long view. Think of Katherine, Katharine, Catherine, Kathryn. Think of John, Juan, Hans, Ivan, Evan, Ian, Sean—and Shonn, Reyshawn, DeChone. Think of Jennifer! There is a twentysomething by that name on Mad Men, the TV series set in the early ’60s. Unlike the names of other characters (Peggy, Roger, Ken, Betty, Don, Joan, etc.), Jennifer is strikingly anachronistic. The name did not make the Social Security Administration’s annual popularity list until 1938, when it was given to fifty-two female babies in total. In contrast, 101 were named Dorcas, 792 Ernestine, 4,438 Mildred, 25,495 Betty, and 56,191 Mary—and, according to the Social Security Administration list, for every 1938 Jennifer there was a boy born named Virginia.
If I wasn’t related to a woman named Carter, I might very well lump her name in with Emerson, Ryan, and Avery—unisex names, names I don’t care for. Of course, unisex names are rarely exactly that. When was the last time you met a male Shirley? Soon enough, parents of boys stop giving their sons “girls’ names,” a trade-off scholars have likened to white flight: “A change in the gender composition of a name alters the inclination of parents to give the name to their newborn son or daughter,” write the sociologists Stanley Lieberson, Susan Dumais and Shyon Baumann. “This entails a mechanism that is exactly the same as the way residents respond to racial changes in a neighborhood.”
Were I to have a daughter to name, I’d prefer to give her a name like Jane or Isadora. These may at first seem but pale substitutes for John and Isadore, as if all I could do upon getting an X instead of a Y was stick an a on it, but in truth I love the female forms on their own terms—more than I love what they mimic. I could do Isadora or Theodora or Louisa or Cornelia and not feel too shabby.
I could do Ida. The first Ida I knew was the Ida who vanquishes goblins in Maurice Sendak’s Outside Over There, and the second Ida I knew was the Ida Brown from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s later Little House books, and I loved Ida. I still love Ida: Ida B. Wells, Ida Husted Harper, Gertrude Stein’s Ida, a Novel. I think Ida could be the next Ruby, Violet, Grace, or Hazel, all of them fashionable or downright blockbuster names that, alongside Ida, last boomed around the turn of the twentieth century. I see little reason the name won’t reappear in the top thousand in the next decade or so, just in time for my own chubby-wristed Ida to be one of three in her day care. Inevitably, the success of number 4 Ava and number 11 Addison will help out Ada, which is already steadily climbing (it was given to 287 babies in 2004, 323 in 2005, 394 in 2006, and 452 in 2007), which, with help from Ivy and Iris (some 2,161 of them in 2007 alone), will give Ida no excuse not to trudge along after. Unlike Violet or Hazel, Ida does not wilt. It comes from the Germanic root id, for “work.”
Alternatively, this daughtercould be named Winifred after my mother, who, you’ll remember, is now officially Carter but was born Winifred (the name of both my maternal grandmother and great-grandmother). But it seems odd to pay tribute to my mother by bestowing on her granddaughter a name she always hated. Instead I could honor the woman my grandparents thought my mother would be, the one they had predicted but who failed to ever be. That is, this future daughter would evoke a never-was past, the romanticized would-be woman my mother didn’t become. At the very least, the name would remind the poor child that she is the daughter of a daughter of a daughter of a daughter of a daughter while encouraging her to thumb her nose at me as I did at my mother and my mother did at her mother before me.
There’s no point in worrying about it now, though. In a secular take on Ashkenazi tradition, I got my father’s deceased cousin’s first and middle initials. Without that Hyman Moshe, there would be no Hannah Maitland; without that Hyman Moshe, I wouldn’t be animate. Already, to name a child is to imagine what goes on her tombstone. I don’t want to imagine who will die so that she might live and be immortalized. I should, instead, remember how another Winifred, the one in D. H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow, describes the male lovers she’s taken, and make certain that I don’t treat my future child as they did her:
They don’t come to one and love one, they come to an idea, and they say “You are my idea,” so they embrace themselves. As if I were any man’s idea! As if I exist because a man has an idea of me!