Sunday, July 11, 2010

Name Games

The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names. ~Chinese Proverb

One of my eighteenth century relatives, my grandmother's father to be precise, was Winfield Scott McGregor. As I was growing up, I always thought the name unusually interesting. Kin on my mother's side were Scots and the middle name reinforces that heritage.

It wasn't till later that I realized the name's origin was someone famous, Winfield Scott, champion of the Mexican War and Lincoln's general-in-chief at the start of the Civil War in 1861. So when great grandpa William McGregor had to come up with a name for the son born that year, 1861, he aimed high and pulled "Winfield Scott" into the family tree.

As I was doing genealogical research a few years back, studying census records from the early 1800s, I noticed a Harrison in the family tree, as a first name given to a boy born while soon to be president Harrison was famous. My dad's grandfather, born during the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant, unsurprisingly became Grant Newman.

Many of the names in our family are "family" names that re-appear over many generations, paying tribute to the family heritage, but as noted above some were derived from a famous person from the current culture, a tradition that continues to the present in many if not most American families. Hence the many babies born today based on television stars or Hollywood celebs.

This spring I met a young man with the name Dylan tattooed on his left forearm. Dylan fan that I am, I never would have considered wearing a tat to exclaim it. So I asked about the inscription there. He was indeed a Dylan fan, but the names on his forearms were those of his two sons. He'd named his boy after the influential singer/songwriter, like many others these past forty years. In fact, the name Dylan has been slowly pushing upward in popularity so that it is now one of the top names for boys. Here's the data:

1966: #926

1975: #366

1985: #188

1995: #34

2005: #24

Funny thing is, Dylan himself was not born Dylan. He just liked the sound of it. As we know well, his birth name was Robert Zimmerman. The story goes that he blended two other famous names, that of poet Dylan Thomas and Marshall Matt Dillon of Gunsmoke fame. It sounded good to Bob, and other's liked the sound of it to. He still had to earn his fame the hard way, though.

What's the story behind your name?

Top right: Dylan memorabilia formerly on a wall in my studio. Lower right: Portion of a wall in Haight-Ashbury.

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