Monday, May 21, 2007

A Rose by any other name. . .

While many lines in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet are memorable, and frequently quoted, perhaps few are quoted as much as—

What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
Juliet speaks these lines in Act 2, scene 2. She is looking out a window, dreamily thinking of Romeo. Now, what precisely is the prompting of those lines? She has learned that Romeo, this handsome young boy who has stolen her heart, is the son of her family’s sworn enemy—the Montagues. Juliet is a Capulet, and for insults that happened long before the play began these two families have been feuding.

In this scene, she first says—

O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name;

Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,

And I'll no longer be a Capulet.

Even though these lines are frequently said as though Juliet is looking for Romeo, in fact she is wondering—why are you named Romeo Montague? Then, her declaration—

What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.
What she really wonders is—why can’t you be you and yet be named something else.

All of which brings me to my musing—what is in a name? Does it really matter what name our parents give us? If you have children, no doubt you pondered the name you picked out fairly carefully. Maybe you chose an old family name. Maybe you picked something trendy.

When we named our first child, we had two names—a boy’s and a girl’s name. When we had a boy, we named our son Geoffrey, choosing the old English spelling purposefully (after all, I was an English major, and Geoffrey Chaucer is a major author!). When we had our daughter, we selected only a girl’s name, as we knew what we were having. We purposefully didn’t pick something too trendy. Her first name begins with K (hence the KGMom name I use, i.e. the first initials of my children’s names).

My name, Donna, is one of those generational names. Usually, when I meet someone named Donna, she was born somewhere between 1940 and 1960. Donna has fallen away in popularity, although it was never in the top 10.

Speaking of top 10, every year, I have TWO of some name in my classes. Usually, the two will be a girl’s name, and I know it must have been the trendy name for whatever year in which these young women were born. This year, the double name was Ashley. One year it was Amanda. One year, Amber. A names are popular!

There are many places on the Internet that give a rundown of the top 10 names by year. One of the most comprehensive is the
Social Security Administration, which lists them back to 1880. You can learn there that from 1880 to 1924 the top boy’s name and the top girl’s name were John and Mary! In 1924, the top boy’s name changed to Robert. Not until 1947 does the girl’s top name change, and then it changed to Linda.

For kicks, here are tables for the top 10 names in 2006, 1950 and 1900.


1 Jacob; Emily
2 Michael; Emma
3 Joshua; Madison
4 Ethan; Isabella
5 Matthew; Ava
6 Daniel; Abigail
7 Christopher; Olivia
8 Andrew; Hannah
9 Anthony; Sophia
10 William; Samantha


1 James; Linda
2 Robert; Mary
3 John; Patricia
4 Michael; Barbara
5 David; Susan
6 William; Nancy
7 Richard; Deborah
8 Thomas; Sandra
9 Charles; Carol
10 Gary; Kathleen


1 John; Mary
2 William; Helen
3 James; Anna
4 George; Margaret
5 Charles; Ruth
6 Robert; Elizabeth
7 Joseph; Florence
8 Frank; Ethel
9 Edward; Marie
10 Henry; Lillian

In general, girls’ names change more than boys’ names.

I would bet that many people wonder, if they don’t already know, why they got the name they have. My birth family had first names all beginning with D. When my sister was born (written about in
Sibling Stories II) my parents contemplated giving her a non-D name, not to break the run of Ds but just because they were considering another name. I believe it was my aunt who said in horror—you have to give her a D name. Whatever the reason, my sister was named Denise. (My brother is Daryl.)

Sometimes being named for someone works out well. Sometimes not. My husband rues his first name which his mother had heard of from a family acquaintance. Since his name is in reality a surname, he frequently has his first name misunderstood. People call him various names, but not necessarily his first name.

When our daughter was little, she would challenge us and ask why we gave her the name we did. Well, I said—there weren’t family names that I thought would work. My mother-in-law was Mary, a grand old name, but it didn’t seem to fit. My mother’s name was Dorcas, which is really an old-fashioned name. I had aunts named Ada, Kathryn, Katherine, and Leoda. None of them seemed quite right, although our daughter said she would have liked Kate (at least she felt that way when she was little). And the grandmothers’ names were even less suitable: Ida, Lillian, Emma and Cora. Now, Emma is very trendy and might have worked—but, oh well.

When I was little, I coveted a grand sweeping name like Gloria. (Oh boy, am I ever NOT a Gloria!) We have many of us been there—thinking another name would change us in some way.

Just remember Juliet’s pronouncement—

What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.


Climenheise said...

Curious that we so clearly did not either get or give the trendiest names. Is there something of the iconoclast in the Climenhaga genes (or Smith or Slagenweit or Shaffer)? Perhaps.

Vaughn: a diminutive of John (I think). Nevin: also more of a last name than a first name. We found that so few Vs were around that we tried N the second time, only to discover that it was only known where we lived then (in Lancaster County). People elsewhere were unfamiliar with it.

My only problem with Daryl is Bob Newhart. He should be renamed Daryl (with any spelling), just for the privilege of having people ask about his other brother Daryl.

Anonymous said...

Aren't you glad we didn't go with Bonnie (the other girl's name we thought of)? If you had been a boy baby you likely would have been Dalton, coincidentally another D. Dalton Brewer was my boyhood idol in Southern Rhodesia in the 1920s. By the time your brother came along Daryl won out over Dalton. The person who said we shouldn't (or couldn't) leave a D was Sally Howells, a South African lady in Bulawayo. I don't recall that Aunt Kay or any other person this side of the ocean had any idea what we were considering.
Love, Father "C"

Mary said...

Donna, this was so much fun! While I worked at the high school for many, many years, I'd post the 5 most common names for boys and girls I enrolled in the freshman class. It was just trivia, for fun. Christopher was a hit for many years as was Jessica.

No one names their child Mary anymore. And even when I was in a Catholic high school, there were many named Mary Ann, Mary Beth, Mary Sue... None of them were plain old Mary.

Mary said...

Also want to mention, even I was bored with my name in Grade 3. I started signing my papers "Maria". I thought it had a nice ring to it...until my Mother got a phone call from school. LOL!

LauraHinNJ said...

Mary - A girl I work with, every girl in their very Irish family, has the middle name of Mary.

This was fun, Donna. I think I was named after the song in the Dr. Shevago movie (I know I spelled that wrong!)

Anvilcloud said...

I guess I'm a 1900 kinda guy although I was still pretty popular in 1950 even though I was three years old at the time.

Beader Girl said...

1. Very cool that you correctly interpreted Juliet's plaintive cry, "Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?"
2. My name is Elaine and didn't seem to appear on any of your lists, a fact which delights me. There is value in being different and I think my rare name is way cool, as they say!
3. Interesting post!

KGMom said...

To all--I am glad you had fun with this post.
I acknowledge, to the Canadian readers, that the US Social Security Admin data doesn't help. Here's a link for top names in Canada, and it also has links to names by province--
Daryl--take hear; I believe the spelling on the Bob Newhart show was DARREL.
Father C--Bonnie? Bonnie? not really. If I am not a Gloria, I surely am not a Bonnie. Thank you for your choice!
Mary--you are right; many names get Mary Something or Something Mary.
Laura--for a while after Dr. Zhivago came out, I was obsessed with the name Larissa (her full name in the novel, but she goes by Lara). By the time we had our daughter, I was on to other names.
AC--hhmmmm. Could be William, or John or Robert. AC suits you fine.
Beader Girl--one of my best friends is named Elaine. And having just checked the top 25 names in Ontario province, it is still not in the top 25.

KGMom said...

Daryl--take HEART. Not take hear. Oops--proof-reading fails.

Climenheise said...

Take hear is actually right, since all of the versions of my name sound the same, however one spells them. I have noted that one tends to spell this particular name according to the way the first person we knew who holds it. For some people around here I am always Darel, no matter what I say!

Pam said...

Very interesting post!

My name was derived from my initials and was used from day one. Never have I been Patricia, always Pam.

Cathy said...

Donna - This is great! Holy cow. Thank you for straightening me out on the 'wherefore art thou, Romeo?' Dang - that's embarrassing. I have understood the rest of the quote, but had really missed that first line. Ouch.

I always envied my sister Beth's name. Funny, though. She's the only 'Beth' I know. I guess down the street there's a teenager who's called 'Elizabeth.'

In the past year I read some apparently well-researched study that showed that people actually marry people whose names are alliterative with their own. I'm Cathy and I married a Keith. My brother Bob married Robin - Deb married Ted. Scary, huh? More in a name than maybe we ever imagined.

(I think 'alliterative' is the correct word here?)

Cathy said...

Dang! AC is being coy. We STILL don't know his name.

Body Soul Spirit said...

The first born girls in my mother's family were named Mary Elizabeth for many generations. One generation was called Mary, the next Elizabeth. My mother is Elizabeth and called me Elizabeth Ruth (tradition broken!) I called my first daughter Elizabeth Marie and we call her Beth. I love traditional names best.

Dorothy said...

What a great post Donna. I was named after my aunt, and ever since then, I've noticed that there is no one under 50 with my name! Hmmmmmmmm.........
I named my daughter Laura and gave her a family middle name, which was popular to do in the 1960's. Since then, she has taken such a ribbing because of it..since her middle family name is also a man's name.."Oliver". I guess i just wasn't thinking when I did that.. the soup recipe...thanks!

KGMom said...

A few more responses:
Pam--interesting that your name results from initials. Since our family name begins with W, we were very careful not to give our children middle names that would inadvertently spell something strange. Pam, of course, is not strange.
Cathy--I always liked Beth too. From Little Women, I think. Yes, AC is being coy--my bet is on John.
Ruth--that is a lovely family tradition.
Dorothy--thanks for stopping by. I had a sister named Dorothy which I have previously written about.
Well, your daughter's middle name being a family name is a nice tradition, even if she gets teased.
Glad you like the soup recipe--the most recent? There are several more, posted each Saturday!

LostRoses said...

When I named my daughter Sarah over 30 years ago, my elderly aunts were horrified. They said it was a "servant's name". I've since learned that indeed it seems to have been a common practice in England to rename the maid if her current name seemed too uppity for a servant. And my old aunts never saw "Upstairs, Downstairs" where Lady Marjorie did the same to her maid!

KGMom said...

LostRoses--thanks for stopping by.
Sarah a servant's name? Now there's a new twist for me. And I confess to not having watched "Upstairs, Downstairs", though I watched many other Masterpiece Theater works, so I did not know about renaming servants. Ahh -- the good old class system.