What makes names so powerful? A recent thread on tumblr offered one answer, based on connection. Some excerpts:
“u ever think abt how some names have been used for centuries, millenniums even…like how many times has the earth heard a mother calling, ‘alexander!’…how many times have the stars caught a lover whispering, ‘freyja’…how many times has the ground we’ve walked on and continue to walk on felt vibrations of a friend excitedly yelling, ‘mary!’”
“#names are so amazing because everyone’s name is *theirs* but that name has been used thousands of times by so many people but right then and #there it is *their* name #and theirs alone”
This discussion surprised me because it runs opposite to the naming zeitgeist. The idea that perennial popularity is a font of beauty and power is one you simply don’t hear today. Typical social media posts about popular names look more like this:
Or this, about souvenir mini-license plates with names on them:
Yes, an unusual, intriguing, individual name can be a lovely gift to a child. But I don’t even have to tell you that. This is 2021, so you probably feel the pull of unusual names instinctively. It’s an understanding that we arrive at without coaching, one that we experience as highly personal: “I happen to prefer unusual names.” Yet it’s also a generational characteristic, a product of our times. (Not unlike “I’m just feeling worn down right now” a year and a half into a pandemic.)
I often have to reassure parents that popularity isn’t disastrous. “Don’t talk yourself out of a name you truly love,” I’ll say. “Were Michael Jordan and Elizabeth Taylor less individual just because they had common names?” “Remember that ‘popular’ just means well-liked.”
The tumblr thread goes further. It reminds us that a name can be extraordinary not despite its steady use, but because of it. The connection of a shared name can extend around the world and across generations, honoring our shared humanity.
In other spheres of life, we’re able to appreciate the appeals of both the fresh-and-new and the tried-and-true. A brand-new item can be innovative and exciting; an antique can be warm and full of heritage. Novel experiences can expand our horizons; repeated experiences can become cherished traditions. Our holiday celebrations are enriched by the knowledge that they are shared by countless others, past and present. Perhaps we can learn to view popular, traditional names with the same generous spirit.