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Brand names

Culture | Taking pop culture to a new level, some Americans are naming their children after consumer products

Issue: "Soldiers in harm’s way," Nov. 15, 2003

NAMES, THE EMBLEMS OF A PERSON'S IDENTITY, used to mean something. "Abraham" means "father of a multitude." "Moses" means "draws out," as of the River Nile and as he would draw the people out of slavery. "Jesus" means "God saves," so that His very name testifies to His deity and His saving work.

In other tribal societies, people are sometimes named for animals ("Sitting Bull") or for something else in nature ("Red Cloud"). The same holds true for European tribes: "Beowulf" means "bee wolf," a figure of speech for "bear." In the Middle Ages, children born on a Saint's Day were named for that saint, giving them their patron saint. Puritans started naming their children after virtues, such as Faith and Prudence, or after other abstractions such as Increase.

Then the meaning of names began to lie generally in some association, as in naming a child for someone in the Bible. Many names have family significance, with children named after parents, ancestors, or other relatives.

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The main criterion for names today, though, is not so much their meaning as whether they sound good. Some parents, in order to ensure their child's utter individuality, make up unique names, a set of musical syllables and unusual spellings designed to ensure that no one else in the world has exactly that name.

As the pop culture-the world of entertainment and commercialism-drives out traditional culture, from education to the church, it shows up too in the names people choose for their children. Decades from now, adults will find themselves saddled with the names of by then old-fashioned pop stars who happened to have been big at the time their mothers gave birth. Soap-opera characters, it has been noted, are a major influence on the names of real babies.

A new trend in baby names, however, takes the pop-culture influence to a new level. Cleveland Evans, a psychology professor at Nebraska's Bellevue University and a member of the American Name Society, studied Social Security records for the year 2000 and found that many children today are being named after consumer products.

Twenty-two girls registered that year were named "Infiniti." Not "Infinity" with a "y," as in the illimitable attribute of God, but "Infiniti" with an "i," as in the car. There were also 55 boys named "Chevy" and five girls named "Celica."

Hundreds of children were named after clothing companies. There were 298 girls named "Armani." There were 164 named after the more casual "Nautica." Six boys were named "Timberland," after the boot.

Sometimes the clothing namesakes are more generic, with a special emphasis on fabrics. Five girls were named "Rayon." Six boys were named "Cashmere," seven were named "Denim," and five were named "Cotton" (though perhaps this was for Increase Mather's son).

Forty-nine boys were named "Canon," after the camera. Seven boys were named "Del Monte," apparently in honor of canned vegetables. Twenty-one girls were named "L'Oreal," after the hair dye, presumably to let them know that "you are worth it."

"Sky" might be the name of a nature-loving flower child's offspring (as in River Phoenix), but 23 girls and 6 boys were named "Skyy." This is a brand of vodka. Parents are naming their children after other alcoholic beverages, too. Nine girls were named "Chianti." Six boys were named "Courvoisier."

Perhaps the ultimate product name for kids uncovered by Mr. Evans was ESPN. Two separate parents, one in Texas and one in Michigan, named their sons after the sports cable network. A reporter for the Dallas Morning News traced down the family of big sports fans and learned that the correct pronunciation of little ESPN's name is "espen."

So what does this mean? Are children being seen in the same terms as consumer products or other possessions? Certainly, just as there are trophy wives, there are now trophy children. The desire to own a baby is driving much of the new reproductive technologies. Babies are already being bought and sold in the practice of hiring surrogate mothers.

Certainly parents have the right to name a child anything they want, and it is wrong to give someone a hard time just for having an unusual name, which, as in Johnny Cash's boy named Sue, can be a character-building experience. (Maybe he could have changed the spelling to "Sioux.")

For some, the "Christian name," as it is called, is given at baptism. And its true significance comes from that one individual identity being identified with and joined to a greater name: "ESPN, I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit."

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