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?

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Unexpectedly Familiar Names: Humphrey

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: Humphrey

“You’re not a star until they can spell your name in Karachi.” – Humphrey Bogart

In most parts of the world, Humphrey Bogart is undeniably a household name. Perhaps to the extent that the public considers his name off-limits, belonging to that élite class of famous names which include Cher, Madonna, Oprah, and Kermit. Names that might as well have copyright protection. In this age of “anything goes names”, however, this surname-name might have a shot at breaking away from its famous bearer.

Humphrey’s history runs deeper than the Hollywood actor. This name has much in common with Raymond, from our great-grandparent name series. Both names are English in usage, but were derived from German. Humphrey is composed of the elements hun for “warrier, bear cub” and frid for “peace”. Both names were also brought to England by the Normans. Perhaps Raymond and Humphrey would make good brother names.

Long before Bogie was born, the name had royal roots, initially made famous in England by Humphrey the Duke of Gloucester (1390 – 1447). The name is still used somewhat more often in England, but has become obscure in both countries. In 2011 there were 13 baby boys named Humphrey in the U.K. and only 6 in the U.S.

Around the time of the actor’s birth, Humphrey could have faded into complete obscurity if not for its famous bearer. The name wavered in and out of the bottom top 1000 from 1880 (the earliest year data is available) to 1894, shortly before the actor’s birth in 1899.

Unlike his wife, Lauren Bacall, who adopted her stage name at her agent’s suggestion (she was born Betty Joan Perske), Humphrey was the actor’s given name. Like many early bearers of a surname, the actor was given the maiden name of his mother, Maud Humphrey. His father, a surgeon, also had a distinguished name, Dr. Belmont DeForest Bogart.

The name Bogie inherited from his mother caused him ridicule as a child. Maybe a century ago, Humphrey would have seemed mock-worthy. Now, however, with more boys being named Isaiah (#43 in 2011) than Mark (#159) Humphrey doesn’t seem as strange as it would have seemed a few decades ago. This is not to suggest we have entered a time when every name is ridicule-free. There are still a few names that are best avoided due to teasing-potential. Uranus comes to mind.

But as far as Humphrey is concerned, most little 21st century Humphrey’s shouldn’t fear teasing. When Humphrey is broken down, it is very similar to the stylish Henry, and Jeffrey, which is a contemporary Dad name, but seems youthful enough to fit on a modern child. In fact I met a Jeffrey who was only a year or two older than my daughter, and the name didn’t come across as out-of-place on a 4-year-old, especially since this child was never Jeff, only Jeffrey.

Another thing going for Humphrey is that it is an underused surname-name, a kind of name that is sought by many contemporary expectant-parents. The only downside is the strong association with the actor may be hard to shake. But maybe even this is not such a bad thing.

Even if the name is forever associated with Bogie, for those intrigued by old Hollywood names, the actor is not the worst namesake. The strong popularity of Ava suggests old-Hollywood names have a certain modern appeal.

Readers: What do you think of Humphrey?

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