What’s in a name? Let’s Ask Emma!

by | May 10, 2009 | Detroit Free Press, Comment | 0 comments

Since today is Mother’s Day, it seems a good time to take stock of the first thing a mom gives you when you come into the world, and sometimes even before you do.

Your name.

Oh, I know Dad may be involved in this. Sometimes. But based on an unscientific poll of specific individuals – in this case, me – one concludes that more often than not, Mom has the final vote on what to call the little angel.

And today it’s Emma.

Yes. Emma. According to the Social Security Administration, Emma is the now America’s most popular baby name for girls. Funny. I don’t know a lot of Emmas. It used to be Emily, which held the title for the last 12 years. And I don’t know a lot of Emilys. Then again, I don’t hang out with 12-year-olds.

Or in the newborn ward.

But there it is. Emma. Followed by Isabella. Emily. Madison. And Ava. Those are America’s five most popular baby girls names.

Which begs the question, and it is not as simple as it sounds: Why?

Chalk these up to TV and movies

What happened to Mary, Sue, Amy, Alice or Beth? It’s not that I think they are prettier or more mellifluous. Just more American. I mean, Emma, Isabella, Emily, Madison and Ava sounds like roll call at a British boarding school. Except for Madison. Don’t get me wrong. But did anyone really name their baby Madison until the movie “Splash,” when Daryl Hannah made it famous?

Emma, meanwhile, burst onto the list the same year that Jennifer Aniston named her baby Emma on the TV show “Friends.” It has been rising ever since.

Isabella, I can’t account for – although there was the queen. That was a while ago, though. And she was Spanish.

Let’s face it. Trying to make sense of baby name popularity is a lost cause. It used to be easy. People named their children for their parents, or grandparents, or even themselves. That kept names pretty simple. Everyone was called John.

But somewhere along the way – I want to say the ’70s – parents began to see naming their child as a reflection of their own creativity. So never mind that Grandma was named Ruth. The baby was … Roxanne. Or Roxy. Or Rhianna. Never mind that Grandpa was named Morris. The baby was Mychael. Or Micah. Or Max.

Wow. Max. There was a while, I swear, when every new baby seemed to be named Max. It was so popular, even girls were being named Max. Sometimes, even the family dog.

People also chase celebrity names. For a while, there were a lot of Elvises. And a good number of Madonnas. Today, you might have to name your kid 50 Cent. Which is dangerous, given inflation.

Inspiration from the Bible

By the way, the most popular boy’s name last year was Jacob. Followed by Michael, Ethan, Joshua and Daniel. Those don’t sound British. They sound Amish.

You’ll notice a distinct biblical bent to that top five. Which is OK. But I do wonder why certain biblical names are so popular, while others are not. For example, when was the last time you heard a kid named Cain?

Maybe people want only the good characters from the Bible. Then again, you don’t see that many American boys named Moses. He was a heavyweight.

The truth is, you never know why you’re called what you’re called. Personally, I was never supposed to be Mitch. My mother gave my naming options to her brother, my uncle, as it looked like I was going to be born on his birthday.

And I was.

And he came in and said, “I’ve chosen.”

And she said, “OK.”

And he said, “Marmaduke.”

And she said, “WHAT?”

Which is how I became Mitch. And why mothers always should name their kids, not uncles. It is also why you should thank your mother today and every day for the wonderful moniker that she chose. Because in the end, could you really imagine yourself with any other name?

Except maybe you, Jedidiah.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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