What are we trying to say with names?

by Yule Heibel on February 27, 2005

Something about names struck me the other day. Looking through xeroxes of a sort of family tree my paternal grandmother had drawn up decades ago, the surnames all struck me as consistently and weirdly heterogeneous, especially when read as a list:

Distaff: Lampert, Rixmann, Plocner, Wiesel, Bonn, Welker, May, Crein, Riegel, Walbroels, Zorn, Arndt, Zimmerschith, Welker, Hild, Tiefenthal, Winkelbach, Goller, Loyser, Hild, Busch.

Spear-side: Heibel, Pirnay, Thomas, Lemaire, Herbst, Lejeune, Sturm, Cornet, Selbach, Pirson, Blasberg, Koll, Sichelnschmidt, Goffinet, Jacob, Gillet, Blaise, Burton, von der Eichen, Desforges, Noel.

(It all began to strike me as made up. I mean, in 1813, Wiesel (“weasel”) marries Riegel (“latch” — ferrets in bondage, anyone?), while in 1793 Herbst (“autumn”) marries Sturm (“storm”)? Sounds pretty silly.)

The first names, on the other hand, were nearly homogenous, predictably uniform, and repeating frequently. Looking at the women’s given names, starting with the grandmothers, I see:

Distaff: Elisabeth, Maria, Emma, Gertrud, Elisabeth, Anna, Helene, Philippina, Maria, Agnes, Catharina, Sophie, Elisabetha, Albertine, Clara, Barbara, Maria, Elisabeth, Henriette, Jakobina, Antoinette, Julianna, Elisabeth, Anna, Clara, Helena.

Spear-side: Marie, Marie, Josephine, Hulda, Maria, Catharina, Leopoldine, Magdalena, Elisabeth, Anna, Anne, many more Maries (every 19th and 18th century Belgian woman seems to be called Marie), Katharina, Margarethe, Maria, Anna, Marguerite, Elisabethe, Marie.

So, how come? Do other people recognise a great variation in surnames compared to a great homogeneity in first names in their family trees, too?

The distaff side’s first names exhibit slightly more variety, but it’s also the case that this was the more prosperous family branch, while the spear-side, as reflected perhaps by the stolid consistency of first names, consisted mainly of shop-keepers, traders, day-labourers, and farmers.

Presumably, there was some value in this earlier age in having a given name that fitted in with general social expectations by being the same as nearly every other person’s. If you were a good Catholic Belgian girl in 1780, one of your given names was bound to be Marie, no ifs, ands, or buts about it. If you were slightly more secure in a middle-class urban environment that placed value on enlightened protestantism, your name might be a bit different: Sophie, Barbara, Clara. If the family had hellenic aspirations, you might be called Helene. If antique-Roman, perhaps Julianna.

The names suggested to me that an enlightened capitalist-utilitarian and urbanised culture (protestantism, assimilation to modernity, whatever) encourages given names that signal a slight measure of distinction. A modern girl couldn’t simply be “Marie,” which was for the rural or village bumpkins stuck in rituals and liturgy. A modern girl had to be Philippina, Sophie, Antoinette. By a similar token, the efflorescence of hippie given names in the 70s, or new age ones in the 90s, might be seen in that same vein: the desire to belong to a rebelling or alternative culture seems to be an extension of an 18th/19th century modern mercantile mindset that insists on distinction (or difference) as the key to progress. To get ahead, you have to be slightly different, but not so different that you’re a total loser loner. You are, after all, still affiliating with a group, albeit one that reaches a bit beyond. The list of cool, alternative names spawned in the 70s by generally middle-class drop-outs is long. Behind every one, there’s a parent seeking some form of distinction, some proof that her (or his) baby is different, therefore worthy, and therefore proof of the parent’s in-the-know status. The 90s and 00s new agers are simply after-thought consumers of that hippie strategy (itself a logical expression of capitalist logic), now apeing and competing with Hollywood stars for the weirdest name: starting with the lovely Moon Unit, through China, River, Lourdes, Apple, Summer, Liberty, Rain, Montego, Dakota, Durango, Sunshine, and so on (and sure, why not add my first name to the list of weird given names? But I got mine in the late 50s, before all this hippie stuff came back ’round.). At this rate, “Mary Smith” (or “Marie Desforges,” if she’s Belgian) might yet see a comeback, especially since the effort to come up with unusual baby names means that kids get named after products and media more frequently than one would think: in my family, Herbst and Sturm really did marry, but their kid today could be called “Autumn Storm,” no irony, with a sibling called “ESPN,” while another might answer to “Accuweather.” You know, just to keep an eye on the heavy weather at home…


Doug Alder February 28, 2005 at 7:51 pm

You can go back 20 generations in your family? WoW I can only go back two.

Yule Heibel February 28, 2005 at 8:31 pm

Well, the Belgians (that was my paternal grandmother, born 1884 — her name of course was Marie) go back the farthest, to 1760, mostly I suspect because they never strayed far from their nest (Stavelot, Belgium), and the church records are quite comprehensive. The Heibels peter out before then, with Koll & Blasberg’s daughter born in 1783. On the maternal grandfather’s side, the records dry up around the beginning of the 19th century, but the maternal grandmother’s records go to the end of the 18th century. It’s not 20 generations, though, and I’ve never thought of it that way, mainly because my parents were already so old when they had me, and their parents were all dead, except for the Belgian grandmother, who was positively ancient. My maternal grandmother was born in 1881 (and died 11 or 12 years before I was even born) — so it isn’t a stretch to trace her folks and their folks and maybe one more generation, before you hit the early 19th century! I think I can go back 6 generation, and then it’s 1777: great-great-great-great-grandmother Sophie Hild, born 1777.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: