Unexpectedly Familiar Names: Tennessee

Some names are rarely used yet known by almost everyone. Chances are you have heard these names many times. They are often names of cultural icons, often appearing in literature or film, as authors, actors and characters. And these strong associations may overtake these names, leaving them unusable in the minds of some parents-to-be. Yet often these associations can be overcome. For the trendsetting parent who can look past the associations, these names might just have the perfect blend of unexpected, yet familiar.

Unexpectedly Familiar Name: Tennessee

Name-savvy parents often flock to baby names with literary connections. This name gets its literary clout from playwright Tennessee Williams. Here’s the thing: the playwright’s parents, Edwina and Cornelius Coffin (C.C.) Williams, didn’t pick Tennessee for their son when he was born back in 1911. The name on his birth certificate was Thomas Lanier Williams. He was a III. Tennessee was a pen name inspired by the home of Williams’ paternal descendants.

A few months ago, a couple of names inspired the “Unexpectedly Familiar Names” series. The first name was Humphrey from the late Humphrey Bogart. The second name was Tennessee.

I had toyed with writing about Tennessee within the next week or two, but was hesitant, because while the name is definitely familiar yet unexpected, I was unsure it had enough appeal. The goal of featuring names on Upswing Baby Names isn’t to focus on names with mass appeal, but the names must at least have some counterculture appeal. Does Tennessee have enough counterculture appeal?

Tennessee is a state and sure, some states have baby name appeal, such as Virginia, Georgia, and Carolina. But not all states have that name-like quality. Would you name your child Connecticut? or Pennsylvania? What about Michigan or Wisconsin?

Just like only certain last names make good first names, only certain place names make good first names. Tennessee has four E’s. The name is nothing but a collection of E’s and N’s and S’s with a T leading the pack. These duplicate letters might make the name seem charmingly quirky to some, yet cumbersome to others.

And then Reese Witherspoon gave birth to her son Tennessee James last week. That settled it, this week Tennessee would be our featured name. How could it not? How’s that for another example of zeitgeist in action. Maybe Tennessee won’t be unexpected for long.

While no one knows for sure, the assumption is that Tennessee was inspired by the actress’ childhood home state. Blogger Abby Sandel speculates on nameberry that, maybe Tennessee could be the next Dakota.

That seems like a natural comparison. Both are state names. Both come from Native American languages. The names even share a Hollywood connection, now that Tennessee has become a celebrity baby and Dakota is the stage name of former child star, Dakota Fanning. (Dakota is the actress’ middle name.) And both names work on either boys or girls.

There are minor differences between the two. Based on past use, Dakota is the more modern of the two.

Dakota hit the top 1000 on girls in 1985 and on boys in 1990. Dakota is now past-peak on girls. The 1990s were Dakota’s time, when it reached #56 in 1995. On boys the name hasn’t shifted much in popularity. Dakota has remained in the boy’s top 200-300 since the 1990s. Dakota means “friend” in the Native American Dakota language.

While Tennessee has been a lot less common than Dakota, it did hang out at the bottom of the top 1000 in the 1880s on girls. Tennessee comes from the Native American Cherokee language.

A couple of weeks ago, I would have said that maybe the Tennessee Williams association can’t be overcome, but maybe that shouldn’t matter since Tennessee Williams isn’t a bad association. Now thanks to Reese Witherspoon, maybe the association can be overcome.

The actress’ third child has a more unusual name than her other children. The name of her daughter, Ava, was just on the verge of its upswing when she chose it back in 1999 (it ranked at #256 and eventually became a top 5 name). When she named her first son Deacon back in 2003, the name was outside the top 1000, but ended up there the next year (at #899), perhaps due to her influence. Deacon has gradually risen, but still ranked outside the top 500 last year at #662.

Will Tennessee experience some minor success like Deacon or will it be seen as another celebrity baby name too strange for the rest of us?

Readers: Do you believe Reese Witherspoon will help Tennessee become a mainstream baby name?

Photo credit


  1. It immediately made me think of Elvis (can’t help it, I’m a huge fan) and then of the movie G.I Blues where his characters name was Tulsa of all things. As of Tennessee, I just can’t see it. It’s too long (only three syllables but a ton of letters) and I mostly just cannot picture it on a person.

    Also Ava, Deacon and Tennessee?


  1. […] 1950, right after the stage run and before the box office début of A Streetcar Named Desire, the Tennessee Williams play that launched the career of Hollywood icon Marlon […]

Speak Your Mind