A merica doesn’t have princesses in the sense that Japan and Britain and a few other countries do. But it has its princess substitutes, from presidential first daughters such as Caroline Kennedy and Chelsea Clinton to a handful of the nicer Hollywood actresses. Just as with real princesses, there is always a great flurry of media interest when one of these American “royals” gives birth, and mothers-to-be across the land take note of the famous new baby’s name.
In the latest such glad event, however, mothers-to-be weren’t the only ones struck by the names that Oscar-winning actress Julia Roberts gave her newborn twins last week. Everybody was. For a moment, people stopped thinking about Iraq and Ukraine and earthquakes and what to have for dinner, and exclaimed to each other: “She called them what? Is she serious?” Newspaper commentaries echoed the sense of outrage — and of sympathy for little Phinnaeus Walter and Hazel Patricia, who it was generally agreed were doomed to a life at the losers’ lunch table.
“Phinnaeus?” grumbled one grammar-challenged Internet chatter. “You can’t even google that hardly.”
Why such indignation? Ms. Roberts had not, after all, burdened her babies with the kind of New Age nonnames that have long plagued Celebrity Land. (Think of poor Moon Unit Zappa, daughter of the late rock idol Frank Zappa. Or the Phoenix clan: River, Summer, Liberty and Rain. Or tart little Apple, born just this year to another American actress, Gwyneth Paltrow.)
Nor did Ms. Roberts follow the crowds down the other annoying paths of modern English-language baby-naming. She didn’t take more or less ordinary names and spell them funny: Mykel, say, or RayChelle or Breeanna. She didn’t favor any of the approved retro names such as Hannah and Henry, Susannah and Sam, that have overrun the West in the past few years. And her twins weren’t named pretentiously for cities, like Madison or Sydney, or neighborhoods, like Chelsea, or a New York City borough, like Brooklyn, the name that England’s ditzy Beckhams gave their firstborn son.
No, she went super-retro, plucking names from corners of the past so dusty and unfashionable she seemed almost inspired. Consider Hazel, a name that’s pure mid-20th century — staid, white-bread, upright.
If you don’t count the bossy maid in the popular 1960s American TV sitcom of that name, or the wife of an ’80s-era Australian prime minister, there hasn’t been a notable Hazel in living memory. Patricia is of the same vintage. Put the two together, and you get a mental image, not of a brand-new Southern Californian celebrity baby, but of a Midwestern great-aunt, in pearls, downing a 6 o’clock sherry.
As for Phinnaeus, the disgruntled Googler was right: There aren’t many out there. A Phinnaeus P. Gage had his skull pierced by an iron rod while he was working on a railroad in 1848 and is still mentioned in medical textbooks.
If you are not too strict about spelling, there are a few literary precedents, including the title character in Anthony Trollope’s excellent 1869 novel, “Phineas Finn.” And — did anyone know this before last week? — the “P” in showman P.T. Barnum’s name stood for Phineas. Pair this creaky, doddery, slouch-hatted 19th-century name with Walter, which suggests old newsreels and college professors with Mitteleuropa accents, and its new owner should be all set for a life of bourgeois obscurity, just like his sister.
These were names from eras that have fallen between the cracks. Eras the opposite of glamorous or interesting. Eras that went nowhere. Or so the public seemed convinced. There was a palpable sense in some of last week’s comments that the names Ms. Roberts and her husband had chosen for their twins were not just silly or cutesy or boring — people are used to that — but perverse.
It was an interesting reaction. One realized all over again the emotional resonance of names, indeed of words in general. They trigger images and associations that carry a shaping power of their own. Some names are used so often they become timeless, or neutral — the Johns and Marys of the world. Sometimes an individual can change a name’s image, for the worse (Adolf) or for the better (Arnold).
Given Ms. Roberts’ cultural clout, of course, even Phinnaeus and Hazel might become cool in time. But in general, as this trivial controversy reminds parents everywhere, it pays not to underestimate the prejudices children might encounter if they are sent out into the world with a “funny” name.
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