June 8, 2012

Twenty Something / Christina Capecchi

From Mary to Mia: The sacred act of naming children

The Social Security Administration recently released 2011’s most popular baby names that they gathered from applications for Social Security numbers, and there’s been a shake-up in the female ranks. Sophia knocked off Isabella for the No. 1 spot. Jacob, meanwhile, held strong, maintaining his top standing among boys for the 13th consecutive year.

This news goes largely unnoticed, but I find it a fascinating cultural statement. And I love how precise the results are—that something so personal and sprawling can be roundly quantified.

Mary, the most common name chosen in the past 100 years, given to more than 3.6 million babies during that period, has fallen to No. 112, outranked by Morgan (No. 75), Mackenzie (No. 68), Mia (No. 9) and Madison (No. 8).

The 2011 list contains a spate of ethereal names—Nevaeh (No. 35), heaven spelled backward; Serenity (No. 66); Trinity (No. 77); Destiny (No. 91); and Genesis (No. 82), which sprang out of Old Testament obscurity. Spiritual themes are less popular for boys, where parents get more traditional.

Saint names have not disappeared, with classics like Christopher (No. 21), Joseph (No. 22) and Thomas (No. 63) winning hearts alongside the spicier alternatives of Sebastian (No. 68), Dominic (No. 76) and Xavier (No. 77).

One of the most persistent trends of 2011 is babies whose names were dusted off from their great-grandmothers’ era. Witness Grace (No. 16), Vivian (No. 154) and Alice (No. 142) alongside William (No. 3) and Henry (No. 57). I expect a lot more Lucys, which cracked the double digits in 2010, a status it last enjoyed in 1924.

Some of their Roaring ’20s counterparts have slunk into oblivion, like Mildred and Myrtle, Gladys and Gertrude. But these names are not exempt from a comeback, no matter how they may sound to the modern ear. My money’s on the toothy ones like Thelma, Ethel and Edith, which appears to have turned a corner. She has been on a steady decline since 1919, when she was No. 29, but Edith is robust, making a two-year climb from No. 842 to No. 771. Celebrities are helping make the old new. Last month, Bruce Willis named his daughter Mabel, and Katherine Heigl’s new girl is Adalaide.

Whether you fall in the trendy or the rare, it is supremely satisfying to be called by name—to hear it spoken, to see it written. The body responds.

And there is no quicker way to create distance than to get a name wrong. I routinely field Christiana and Christine, which sound worlds apart from Christina.

My thoughts have evolved as I read the bestseller One Thousand Gifts written by Ann Voskamp, the 38-year-old wife of a Canadian hog farmer and homeschooling mother of six. The book’s premise—to cultivate gratitude by counting the blessings in daily life—has awakened housewives and executives, bridging bloggers and believers.

I uncapped my yellow highlighter when I arrived at this passage. “Naming is Edenic. …When I name moments—string out laundry and name-pray, ‘Thank you, Lord, for bed sheets in billowing winds…’—I am Adam and I discover my meaning and God’s, and to name is to learn the language of paradise.”

An 84-year-old Trappist monk that I met this month brought the concept to life, asking me, “Now, do you know your trees?” Scotch pine, he explained, have short needles in clusters of two. Red pine have long needles in clusters of two. White pine have long clusters of five.

Those simple numbers and names—red, white; two, five—are a toddler’s building blocks and, yes, just as surely, the language of paradise.

(Christina Capecchi is a freelance writer from Inver Grove Heights, Minn. She can be reached at www.ReadChristina.com.)

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