Once upon a time, before Frank Zappa named his son Dweezil and his daughter Moon Unit, before Demi Moore named her girls Rumer and Scout, there lived a boy named Jack and a girl named Jill. Plain folk with plain names.
Now, meet generation next. The mothers and fathers of children named Sun-Everlasting God, Dezire Messiah, Treasure, Sincere, Heaven Lee, Nobility, Trinity and Diamond. Sounds like a liturgical recitation, but these are the actual names of local children born within the last few months. Forget about names for the new millennium (Annikin and Millennia). It doesn't get any better than this.
But why would parents choose such names and, as entertaining as they are, what effect, if any, will these names have on the children? They can't all be rock stars, pro wrestlers, super models and movie stars--occupations where an unusual name might be an asset.
And although the best and the brightest of them may be computer engineers, scientists or even teachers, how does Sun-Everlasting God get elected in a secular society? Certainly, Dezire Messiah will have a tough time in Hollywood; there's already a Diamond in pro-wrestling. And who will ever believe Sincere is, well, sincere?
Clevland Evans, associate professor of psychology at Bellevue University in Nebraska and author of "Unusual and Most Popular Baby Names," has written extensively on the subject and believes he may know the answer to the first two questions.
"American culture has always been the most individualistic culture in the world, but we're even more that way than we used to be. This idea that everybody should be unique, and that you need to give your child a name that expresses that, is very popular in the culture. In particular, I get all sorts of e-mails and responses from people all the time who want to know what the most popular names are so they can avoid giving them to their children."
Local birth announcements for the past few months are a testament to just how creative some parents can be. Take a look and a quirky pattern emerges in the form of six categories: deities, personal traits, liquor, precious stones, the rampant and seemingly indiscriminate use of the accent mark, and people who like to use the letter "y."
Perhaps recognizing that what a parent decides to name a child is often visceral, Evans notes that talking about socioeconomic differences usually is difficult. "That's one thing that Americans have such a hard time with," he says. "Nobody is offended when I point out that African Americans, on the average, have a different set of names than white Americans, but I have a lot of people in the U.S. that get really offended when I point out that upper-middle-class people have a different set of names they like [to use] than working-class people do. Americans like to think that we are a classless society and the only thing class means is that you have more income, and otherwise, we are all alike. No, there are a lot of tastes and other things that go along with [it], than just income."
Take for example the upper middle class, he says. Although they are looking for new and unusual names too, they opt to go back and revive something that's not being used much at the moment--names like Emma or Henry. "They're reviving these old things, where the working class are the ones who will pick up on names that are new, names that have not been used as first names until recently." The name Brittany, he says, is a perfect example. "Until about 30 years ago Brittany was only a province of France."
The wealthy, he says, are less likely to choose that name. "Wealthy people want antiques. They like old stuff because they are socialized to appreciate the past . . . the past has been good to their family, their culture. With poorer people, the past hasn't been necessarily good to them. Focusing on the future is what is positive for them, and so newer things are what they like."
Looking at people's tastes in clothing or furniture, he says, is further proof that socioeconomic factors play a part in the choices we make. "Poorer people are much more likely to want newer styles, where more wealthy people are more likely to go for things that are more traditional. It's the same way in baby names."
As for cultural differences, he points to the use of alcoholic beverages as first names. Whites are more likely to choose names like Brandy or Sherry. Chardonnay and Shampagne, names given to two local children, are much more likely to be African American, he says.
"African Americans are much more comfortable creating new names for their kids. They're more comfortable taking some of those words like chardonnay over, but of course, they're even more comfortable just making things up from syllables like Shamika [or] Shalonda than people of other ethnic groups are. It's been that way since the 1960s."
Ageism, he says, is another factor, especially when choosing girls' names. He says that a lot of Americans will not give a child, especially a daughter, a name that they know anybody over 25 has. For some, a name that was popular in their own age group or their parents' age group is not new enough. Part of that, he says, is ageism.
"Ask people to tell you what are the women's names they think are ugly, that they would never give a baby today. Most of them come up with a list of names that are the names that are popular for women who are in nursing homes, because it is so bad to be elderly, especially as a woman in our culture.
"Everybody thinks names like Ruth and Ida, Bessie and Maude are ugly. They'll tell you it's the sound that makes them ugly. It's not the sound, because you can find pairs of names that sound almost exactly alike, but have completely different images like Elsie and Kelsie. It's that Elsie is associated with wrinkles in their mind [and] that makes it sound ugly. Kelsie is new, so it sounds pretty."
Culture, class and attitudes about aging may play a part in what parents name a child, but some names might not be explained away so easily. They border on the romantic and fantastical, saying more about the parents as individuals than the group they belong to. Twenty-two-year-old Loijielyn Cruz Marasigan, an accounts payable clerk from Rockville, named her daughter Lady Marien. The story of Robin Hood was not an influence, she says. Marien is a combination of her nickname, Jien, and her husband's first name, Marlon. Combining the names of the parents to produce a child's is a family tradition, but adding Lady made it special.
"You don't want a typical name," she explains. "We wanted it to be Princess Marien but that was too long, so we chose Lady, and it still sounds like royalty."
"We wanted something easy to say, pretty, feminine, but different," says Shelley D. Nembhard, a 35-year-old RN at Mid Atlantic Medical Services Inc., who moved here from England eight years ago. She and her husband, John, an EKG technician, named their daughter Rhayvenne Starre. Their families, she says, "didn't know how to react, but they got used to it." They get "a mixed reaction" from non-family.
The couple also has a 3-year-old daughter named Chynna Raynne and an 8-year-old named Thea. "We wanted to give them names that were different, but not something that they'd get teased for in school," she said.
When Mysty Snelson, a 31-year-old clerk at the National Institutes of Health, was looking for a name for her daughter, she found the answer in a book called "Heaven," by V.C. Andrews, author of the best-seller "Flowers in the Attic." She named her Heaven Noelle Bradbury. Of the uniqueness of her youngest child's name, the mother of three says, "I've noticed that a lot of people really love her name or are really turned off by it and ask me 'What about when she starts school?' It'll be interesting to see how people react in the future."
She may not be waiting and watching alone. According to Evans, the name is not so unusual anymore. Three local baby girls were given that name within the last few months, and it's catching on in other parts of the country. In 1998, five newborns in Nebraska alone were named Heaven.
"We live in a mass culture," Evans says. We "watch the same television, listen to the same music, read the same newspapers."
So, Heaven is safe. But what about Trinity, Dezire Messiah, Messiah Emanuel and Sun-Everlasting God? Or Nobility and Favour? What will the effect be on these children? According to Evans, psychological research generally shows that having an uncommon name is neutral or slightly positive, especially for girls. However, he says, "that's for the mass of uncommon names, which don't sound humorous or have a negative connotation to people.
"The [example] I always use," he says, is that of "a little boy born in Florida a few years ago named Tragedy. Obviously, if you name your child something like that, it's going to be a negative influence. There's a way to get too creative that people then can't take you seriously. The happy medium is the way to go."