Every Tom, Dick, and Harry – Naming Kids Today

Every Tom, Dick, and Harry – Naming Kids Today

I’ll get to Tom, Dick, and Harry  shortly, but I do need to establish the context in which those names came to mind, arriving with great compassion for parents-to-be who labor so lovingly to find just the right name for a baby whose personality is not yet known.  For reasons that may become clear, I begin by looking at the music of Cole Porter, Indiana aristocrat, Whiffenpoof, and composer.

I’m generally impressed with Cole Porter’s inventive lyrics, especially as they slyly approach naughtiness then veer at the last moment to an unexpected end-rhyme.  The most lighthearted is performed elegantly by Ella Fitzgerald:   “Let’s Do it – Let’s Fall in Love”.  Below a few of the more marginally inappropriate exhortations.

Birds do it, bees do it
Even educated fleas do it
Let’s do it, let’s fall in love

In Spain, the best upper sets do it
Lithuanians and Letts do it
Let’s do it, let’s fall in love

Some Argentines without means do it
People say in Boston even beans do it
Let’s do it, let’s fall in love

In shallow shoals, English soles do it
Goldfish in the privacy of bowls do it
Let’s do it, let’s fall in love

The chimpanzees in the zoos do it
Some courageous kangaroos do it
Let’s do it, let’s fall in love

I’m sure giraffes on the sly do it
Even eagles as they fly do it
Let’s do it, let’s fall in love

There’s something wryly puzzling about the courage needed for kangaroos to enter into whatever union Porter has in mind; at his best, he composed show tunes that were both suggestive and sophisticated, and slightly odd.

Now, to get to the subject at hand.  Porter used the then familiar phrase “Every Tom, Dick, and Harry” as the title of a song in Kiss Me Kate, implying that the female lead spread her affection widely.  Tom, Dick, and Harry indicated a  whole bunch of guys, and theater goers absolutely knew what he meant.  These were the names of regular guys, not hoity-toity (chi-chi/ pronounced “she-she”) or precious, just ordinary, unaffected, nice guys.  The names were without distinction of class, and served the purpose of identifying an unexceptional but inclusive cohort of men.  The song doesn’t travel well these days, perhaps because the linking refrain between stanzas, is, “Uh Dick Dick, Dick, Uh Dick, Dick, Dick.”

I haven’t heard the phrase recently, and I wondered what combination of names would signify a similar constellation of men with whom Bianca, say, in Kiss Me Kate might have dallied. ( I don’t hear the word “dalliance” often either, so perhaps that stage, somewhere between flirtation and consummation, may have vanished).  I did a quick search of the most common names given boys born in 1976, now forty year old men.  Porter’s lyric would have become, “Every Michael, Jason, and Christopher” or “Every Mike, Jay, and Chris”.  According to the sites I’ve visited, the greatest number of forty year old women would be named, Jennifer, Melissa, Heather, Michelle, or Kimberly, with Angela a strong favorite in some regions.  That generation (the under-appreciated Generation X) turned around and named their sons Jacob, Michael, Ethan, Joshua, Matthew, Daniel, Christopher, Andrew, Anthony, and William.  The top ten names for their daughters?  Emily, Emma, Madison, Isabella, Ava, Abigail, Olivia, Hannah, Sophia, and Samantha.  The boys’ names are downright Biblical, the girls’ simultaneously more fanciful and somewhat archaic (except for Madison which may have sprung from too many viewing of Splash).

This naming thing is fascinating, not only because it provides a kind of cultural snapshot, but because it reflects the aspirations of parents by generation.  Game of Thrones has spawned a number of contemporary name choices; it’s easy to see how Arya and Daenerys, Bran and Tyrion might signify character and purpose.  I can’t imagine what sorts of aspirations families have in naming their newborns, Cersei or Khaleesei.  My grandfather was named Orlando after a character in Shakespeare’s As You Like It (as he didn’t), and names continue to come from the Bible, from ethnic heritage, occasionally from places and brands (Brooklyn, Montana, Dakota, Lexus, Nike, Armani, Prada).

Some names have currency for a while, then disappear; Brandys and Brittanys seem to have lost some allure, perhaps due to the unfortunate habit of ending such names in “i” dotted with a small heart.

Demographic research has been done from an exhaustive study of names given to babies in California over a period of forty years.  The single conclusion drawn is that the cycle appears to start with what might be called “high born” names (classy ), fairly quickly adopted by less affluent parents.  If the theory is correct, “high born” names are adopted five times faster than “common” names, thereby becoming more common in a relatively short time.

Thus the task of picking a name becomes problematic if the hope is to avoid sending a daughter (Jennifer) to a kindergarten class filled with Jennifers, Jennys, Jens, J-dogs, and Jiffers.  Had I a practice as a naming consultant, of course, I’d suggest the name Guinevere or the original Welsh, Gwenhwyfar, perhaps moving into Lord of the Rings territory.  Welsh names are delicious, but risky.  The chances of Gwenhwyfar placing an order at Starbucks in her own name are slim; she’ll become “Gwen”, and there it goes.  Ffion, Lowri, Carys – these might be reasonably safe for a while, but any name is at risk when used in the real world.

I’ve put off the identification of the names I believe are the most likely to move from “high born” to more commonly found because I know so many lovely children with these names.  With apologies to all my dearest friends and comrades who worked tirelessly to find names that were both lovely and distinctive, here’s the list:

Girls                                                                                         Boys

Ainsley                                                                                    Alexander

Alexandra                                                                                Alistaire

Bianca                                                                                       Ashcroft

Frederica                                                                                  Gage

Gabrielle                                                                                   Garrison

Geneva                                                                                      Graham

Grace                                                                                          Hamilton

Gwyneth                                                                                    Jameson

Isabel (Isabella)                                                                       Julian

Katherine                                                                                 Landon

Lily                                                                                             Mackinley

Mackinley                                                                                Neville

Margaret                                                                                  Quinn

Margot                                                                                       Radford

Olivia                                                                                        Radcliff(e)

Ophelia                                                                                    Raleigh

Rachel                                                                                      Sutherland

Rebecca                                                                                    Talbot

Savannah                                                                                 Valerian

Victoria                                                                                     Walker

There they are, a shining galaxy of uncommon and eminently distinctive names, doomed, if the research is correct, to become just another batch of Toms, Dicks, and Harrys.


One thought on “Every Tom, Dick, and Harry – Naming Kids Today

  1. Peter, I went to El/Hi school with some Toms, Dicks, and Harrys so I appreciate your take on popular names. I have to say that some of our Cate colleagues mentioned that your children’s names were unique because the B for Bailey and the G for Grayson were a way to ID boy from girl. You might want to consider and comment on the HipHop monikers and other ethnic first names. SS


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