Friday, August 14, 2009

27 Olivers

I think every little boy at the playground today except mine was named Aiden. Every little girl was either Isabella or Madison. Or maybe it was "Isabella Madison," all one name, like Anna Marie.

I'm totally fascinated by names. I can't watch a movie without getting hung up on the characters' names, wondering, Why did the screenwriter choose that? I love the way characters' names tell us about the world of the film, pointing out the story's major themes, or simply giving the audience a better sense of who each individual character is. It still bothers me that while everyone else in E.T. seems to have an obviously significant name, Drew Barrymore's character is named Gertrude. The only Gertrude I can think of (other than Stein) is Hamlet's mother. So...huh? How does that fit? And why do we not find out the baby's name at the end of Knocked Up? I mean, come on!

Names outside of fiction are even more interesting. I talked to a woman a few weeks ago whose little boy was named Otis. For as long as I can remember, Otis has been a dog's name in my mind. I wanted to ask her about how she chose the name, but I didn't because somehow it felt sort of rude. However, it's clear that this mother doesn't share my association with the name Otis. Or else she named her son after a fictional pug on purpose, but that seems kind of insane and I find it hard to imagine. Of course, I named my son after a fictional pirate on purpose, so I don't have a peg leg to stand on.

Regardless of how he got his name, I doubt that little Otis will run into another Otis any time soon. I have yet to meet another Westley. (One of the receptionists at Rob's office was shocked to hear that our son was named Westley-with-the-T, because that was going to be her grandson's name. Needless to say, she remembers who we are when we come to visit Rob at work.) I would be lying if I said popularity (or, more accurately, lack thereof) was not a deciding factor in choosing our son's name. It totally was. I love the way Zachary sounds, and it works really well with Rob's last name, but it was wildly popular when I was pregnant. I didn't want my son to be one of five Zacharys in his class.

Like most Robs, my Rob is actually a Robert. He has said that it doesn't really bother him that his name is so common* (he never has to spell his first name out for anyone, ever) but that it can be a major pain in the ass around peers. When you're hanging out somewhere with three other Robs, you all end up getting called by your last names, which sounds a little gym-classy. Watson! Stevens! Drop and gimme 20!

I was always strangely envious of the girls who got to be "Melissa P" or "Melissa F" (I guess because I always felt like such a weirdo, and you can't really be that weird if there are a bunch of other people with your same name), and the Elizabeths and Katherines who had an abundance of nicknames from which to choose. I never got to be anything cute like "Liz" or "Kat." I was stuck with an easy-to-tease, easy-to-misspell name that was not only a staple lyric of the Christmas season, but is also an iamb, and therefore can't really be sung to "The Name Game." I probably would have killed to have been "Noelle L" among other Noelles in elementary school. But I know enough Jennifers and Sarahs and Kates who absolutely hated having that extra letter tacked on to their first name. My own unusual childhood aside, I didn't want my own child to have to go through school with last initial in tow.

Jennifer, Dorothy and Westley

Based on the names I hear at the pool and the playground, and read on your blogs, many of you had the same idea. Originality seems to have become another thing to consider when choosing a baby's name, along with origin, meaning, and flow with whatever names are going to come after it. I find it strange that a name's popularity can put it out of the running for that first-name slot. Like some sort of Robert-and-Jennifer backlash.

What's even stranger is when the "original" names suddenly become popular. A wonderful couple we know are expecting a baby girl at the end of this month. They chose the name Kaylee, and shortly after announcing it, were bombarded with Kaylees. Rob and I kind of pulled Oliver out of a hat for Westley's middle name. We liked the way it sounded, and apparently, lots of other people do, too. It's no "Aiden," but there are lots of Olivers out there, especially in Seattle. After thinking the name was so unusual and underused, I'm hearing it all the time. Maybe in the next few years, people will start using it for their daughters, and "Oliver" can be the next "Jennifer."

*How common? "Robert" was the most popular name for boys in the United States from 1924 to 1939, and has been among the ten most popular names for most of the past 100 years. That's a lot of Roberts. (P.S. I love you, Social Security Administration Online, for fueling my name obsession.)