One of the things that fascinates me about language is how it constantly shifts and morphs. Words change or fall out of favor; old ones come back inexplicably, like “whilst,” which I see all over Facebook (albeit in a mostly ironic context). Language is more a liquid than a solid, always sloshing around the gallon jug of culture and sending new bubbles to the surface.

It’s the same way with names. Funny how you can often estimate people’s age just based on their handle. Anyone named “Irene” or “Doris” is not likely to be catching major air on her skateboard at the X-Games. A male named “Flynn” probably isn’t getting mail from the AARP. When was the last time you met an Abraham? Bet it’s been a while.

A name, after all, is a word for which our personage provides the definition, and words are fickle things. Naming a child is a responsibility that affects the little tyke throughout his or her life – once a “Glenn,” always a “Glenn” – but it’s also an opportunity for creativity. And the creative zeitgeist is a feather blowing in the wind, subject to random gusts and variation. When I was in grade school, my class was silly with Richards and Justins. Seemingly every other boy was saddled with these monikers, and if my own school experience can serve as a microcosm of the popular naming trends of the time, that means my general age group is saturated with Richards and Justins in approximately the same proportions. Which I imagine makes things confusing at worksites and in board rooms throughout the country. “Justin, do you have that report ready on the mating habits of the duck-billed platypus? No, not you, Justin. The other Justin!”

Tracking down the origins of names is a tricky business. You’d think that researching the subject would simply be a matter of bellying up to the ol’ laptop and typing a search request into Google – “the history of names,” or “names throughout the centuries.” No such luck. People have been naming each other since before recorded history, so any information is at best scattered and speculative. The most clear-cut genesis of many popular modern names is the Bible; that’s where a lot of the “Johns” and “Davids” and “Josephs” come from, and those have had some staying power. (King David, meet David Caruso.) Other appellations seemingly come from nowhere, or certainly not from the Bible, at any rate. There’s no Book of Kimberly or Book of Jennifer. Jesus never had any contemporaries named Ashley or Melissa. And I’d bet dollars to doughnuts that there was never any Israelite power couple known throughout the land as Blake and Amber. You’d be more likely to hear about a pair like that through a scandalous news segment on Inside Edition.

Researching the history of surnames yields a little more success. While specifics are hard to come by, it’s estimated that last names became the norm in Western countries about 1,000 years ago, at the turn of the last millennium. Prior to that, only a relative handful of we Homo Sapiens roamed the Earth; a single name generally sufficed. Socrates. Plato. Caesar. They were, respectively, the only Socrates, Plato and Caesar in the known world, so there was no confusing them with, say, Socrates Lachance, or Plato O’Brien. There’s something kind of cool about having just a single label; like Bono or Cher, it seems to connote status and importance. It would also, I’d imagine, make it more difficult for their parents to discipline them, since mom and dad weren’t able to whip out a long string of names in times of serious transgressions. Here’s a sentence you never heard in 450 B.C.: “Socrates Toby Julio Garfield Christofferson! You get back here this instant!”

According to the esteemed website Crests.com, which is esteemed because I was able to find it, surnames were the result of a swelling population, which made it difficult to keep track of a rising number of Peters and Pauls. Peasants in particular were often assigned surnames based on their home village or a distinguishing geographical characteristic – that’s where “Newtown,” “Rivers” and “Atwood” got their beginnings. This revelation is a shining light on a murky history, but it also highlights the nature of chance, and how the whims of antiquity still affect us today in ways large and small. The last name “Greenwood” likely came about because the family lived near a particularly lush forest, but they could just as easily have been called “Bigtree,” or “Bunch-O-Leaves,” or “Beardroppings.” We could be witness to a presidential race featuring such candidates as “Donald Stumps” and “Hillary Rock-That- Looks-Like-A-Foot.” I shudder to think where “Lagasse” comes from. Maybe my family lived adjacent to a prairie overrun with flatulent horses.

Most people know about occupational names – those surnames that came from a person’s job, like Cook, Miller and Taylor. These perhaps have the most clear-cut origins in our asinine little name game, but again, they represent traditions of old that have become calcified into modern culture. If our species were inventing the surname just now, and used the same practices, it’s easy to envision whole families of Techsupports, Computerprogrammers and Couplestherapists. How fantastic would it be to have a name like Johnny Astronaut? Or Jenny Hygienist? I might have to legally change my name soon.

First names are still something of a mystery. Maybe they came down to whichever sounds felt pleasant coming out of their parents’ mouths – comforting syllables around which to wrap their lips while cooing to beloved young ones. That’s a nice thought. It also implies that, while the long train of humanity keeps chuggin’, these names will continue to evolve and change into versions more exotic than we can even imagine.

Maybe a thousand years from now, someone named Turquoise Jalapeno-Popper will read this column and smile. Nice to meet you, Turq. Your handle’s got a hell of a ring to it.

Jeff Lagasse is a columnist and Assistant Editor at the Journal Tribune who also goes by Jack Blaze, Billy Baldhead and Mike Muscles. He can be contacted at 282-1535, ext. 319 or [email protected]


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