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Bring back Opal and Maude


The older I get, the more I read the obituary pages. The more I read the obits, the more I notice that certain names keep appearing over and over.

No, I don’t mean the same people are dying. Just the same names.  Hazel, Ethel, Myrtle and Opal are dying off and taking their charming, colorful names with them.  Along with them go Viola and Evelyn and June and Gladys and Harriet. I could go on.

These were the girl names of the post-Word I era, the generation that gave us Herbert Hoover, aluminum outdoor furniture, the fox trot and air conditioning. Air conditioning has survived; so has the fox trot, though I could be wrong.  But girls named Lottie, Pauline and Darla seem to have gone the way of the dinosaur and the rotary telephone

I have a theory about this, though it’s not a very good one.  It’s the “Boy Named Sue” theory.  You may remember that Johnny Cash hit song, “A Boy Named Sue,” where the boy wants to know why his father named him Sue.  I couldn’t be there to raise you, his father answers, so I figured a boy with a sissy name would have to grow up tough and learn to defend himself.

Pioneer parents who settled hardscrabble America didn’t want their kids playing basketball or joining drill team.  They didn’t want children attending Harvard or Tulane. They wanted sturdy, rugged offspring, which required sturdy, rugged names. The boys were Wilbur and Elmer and Clyde. Girls were Edna and Harriet and Ethel and Opal. (Though I’m sure some pioneer football coaches considered the  intimidation factor of a 210-pound tackle named Wilbur.)

As the nation was transformed by the automobile and the invention of the three-ring binder, baby names were re-invented. Parents no longer worried about putting food on the table. They worried about being liked by their kids.  Editors at Family Circle magazine and the producers of Sesame Street established new rules about successful parenting: Always nurture your child’s self-esteem and, for God’s sake, give your kids popular, fashionable names. Otherwise no one will play with them at recess.

Alarmed parents began to name their daughters Carol, Linda and Kathy.  Then it was Tricia and Megan. There was no popular vote on this. It just happened. Like microwave dinners and Cher’s singing career.

Today’s baby-name era has been traced to the evening of Dec. 18, 1992. A Long Island expectant mother known only as Scarlett was shopping for light fixtures at an elite lighting boutique in lower Manhattan when a saleswoman remarked, “How about this Pink Lotus?” The young mother was mesmerized. “ It’s Tiffany,” the saleswoman said. “The finest name in $43,000 reading lamps.”

Within days, all hell broke loose. Parents across the USA, even those who buy bed lamps at garage sales, started picking preppy, Ivy League names for their babies, including ones pre-enrolled at Ulysses S. Grant Military Reform School in Wentworth, Missouri.   I’m not saying all teenage girls born in the nineties were named Tiffani, Brittanee and Ashleigh. Only half of them were.  The other half were named Mackenzie, Kyleigh and Bailey. Parents were convinced no young girl could survive the pressure of the 21st century unless her first name ended in the “ee” sound.

I will admit that Ashlee and Tiffany sound more feminine than Fern and Vera — more sugar and spice and sex appeal.  Fern and Vera sound more tomboy, more frogs and snails and puppy dog tails. Brittany sounds like a girl who changes her matching wardrobe every day. Fern sounds like a girl who changes her own oil every 3,000 miles.

On the other hand, would you rather leave your children with a babysitter named Gertrude or one named Tinsley? According to my research, “Tinsley” is a Latin-Slavic term for someone who doesn’t know how to change a flat tire.  Gertrude means “warrior woman.”  I rest my case.

It’s possible that first names are like neckties and hairstyles — fashions that cycle in and out of style. Tiffany and Brittany had their day; so did Linda, Carol and Kathy. If we wait long enough, names like Agnes and Minerva and Maxine will stage a comeback. Then Tiffany and Brittany will return with goofy spellings like Tiffaneeee and Brittni. Unless that’s already happened.

It will take time, or national turmoil, to resurrect those dying names I see on the obituary page. It will happen when we decide we’ve spent too much time sheltering our children, that the best we can give them are a resilient spirit and the power to fend for themselves in times of hardship, like sorority rush week. It will happen when voters are forced to cast ballots choosing between President Ralph and President Pierpont.

We need leaders unafraid to make knotty decisions and stare down America’s enemies.  It’s been done by leaders named George and John and Thomas.  For now, however, I’m holding out for Ralph, Virgil Agnes, and Minerva.

© 2016, David Chartrand

[As heard on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.”]