The Idler: What’s in a Name?

Far be it from me to be judgmental. The names that my friends give to their own children are their business. But ever since my otherwise sensible college roommate named his first-born daughter McKenzie, I’ve been off the reservation.

What do girls’ names like Jordan, Chandler, Avery, Cassidy, Haden, McCall, Brooke, and Brittany have in common, other than usefulness in denoting a yacht club? First, they are unrelievedly masculine. It is as though mom and dad were thinking “We want our young Lindsay to be taken seriously after she is graduated from Princeton and moves to the corporate boardroom. It won’t do to name her Mary Margaret.”

Could be. But Mary, Margaret, and Michelle sound a lot more feminine than Mallory, Macey, or Maguire. Why stop at McKenzie? If boardroom virtuosity is so important, why not put the poor kid out of her misery and name her Milken or Trump? Anyway, one thinks of a certain politician named Margaret who did rather well despite the handicap of a ladylike moniker.

These names are also unrelievedly Anglo-Saxon and Celtic. Little Taylor-with-two-middle-names may not be a blueblood, but she’ll need more space on application blanks than a Mayflower preppie-with-hyphenated-last-names. Perhaps the social ambition of modernist parents accounts for their obsession with placenames from the British Isles.

(Even Bill and Hillary got into the act with Chelsea. If they were really as culturally diverse as they pretend, they could have named the young lady Shenikwa, Lawonda, Winnie, Letitia, or Rosario. Guess they didn’t want just another Joan, Jean, or Jennifer.)

Trendy names are not Judaeo-Christian. They are not the names of martyrs, angels, saints, famous Americans, epic heroes, or deceased loved ones. Above all, they are not biblical. Parents do not aspire for their children to have the bravery of young David, the loyalty of Ruth, the patient love of Rachel, or the passionate faith of St. Paul. Instead, they aspire for young Madison or Morgan to manifest the marketing flim-flammery of an ad agency or the soul of a brokerage house.

Boys have not been immune from the pagan onslaught. Brandon, Cody, Kelsey, Colton, Hunter, Logan, Preston, Keaton, Judd, Ryan, Chance, Tyler, and Crawford are a far cry from Michael, Peter, and John. The only good boy names with a contemporary ring are Travis — of whom no more need be said in the Alamo state — and Justin (early Christian philosopher and martyr, although most folks in my neck of the woods probably think of the local boot company).

Yet, so many wonderful names are available. Take, for example, the following list offered in the First Book of Maccabees:

Remember the deeds performed by our ancestors, each in his generation,
and you shall win great honor and renown.
Was not Abraham tried and found faithful,
Was not that counted as making him just?
Joseph in the time of his distress maintained the Law,
and so became Lord of Egypt.
Phineas, our father, in return for his burning fervor
received a covenant of everlasting priesthood.
Joshua, for carrying out his task,
became judge of Israel.
Caleb, for his testimony before the assembled people,
received an inheritance in the land.
David for his generous heart
inherited the throne of an everlasting Kingdom.
Elijah for his consuming fervor for the Law
was caught up to heaven itself . . .
Daniel for his singleness of heart
was rescued from the lion’s jaw.
Consider, then, how in generation after generation
all who hope in him will not be found to falter.

(1 Mac 2:51-58, 60-61)

If these inspired recommendations fail to please, there is always the canon of early popes, martyrs, and saints in the first Eucharistic Prayer. A sampling of names still mellifluous to the Western ear would include Linus, Lawrence, Lucy, Cecilia, Anastasia, Bartholomew, Matthew, Simon, and Thaddeus.

Pockets of resistance to the modern spirit perdure. My buddy Paul named his son Gregory Ephrem Athanasius, after the three great defenders of Christianity in the Latin, Syriac, and Greek tongues, respectively. I wish young Greg well. He’ll be one of the few kids in his class whose name means something.


  • Charles Helms

    Charles Helms holds a D.Phil. in Theology at Oxford University.

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