The Magazine

What's in a Name?

If it's Rhiannon, quite a lot, actually.

Dec 18, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 14 • By JOE QUEENAN
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In the astoundingly popular best-seller Freakonomics, Steven D. Levitt argues that people with absurd names have trouble landing jobs not because of their names, but because people with ludicrous names tend to come from poor backgrounds, and it is a crummy education that creates the roadblock to success.

This may be true, but it fails to address the repercussions of living in a society where stupid names are fast becoming the norm. It was one thing when frivolous people in Laurel Canyon started naming their progeny Dweezil, Cheyenne, and Brooklyn, but what happens when the epidemic of idiotic nomenclature hits bedrock Middle America?

Not long ago, a friend moved from Princeton, New Jersey, to Boise, Idaho. Here, she enrolled her six-year-old daughter in a ballet class. The roster was dominated by names like Cody, Kelsee, Ciera, Allegra, Colette, Cataline, Sarraye, Maren, Koreen, Oakley, Avery, Sadi, Jade, Kinsey, Leela, Kendall, Ashlee, Michaela, Ayla, Terace, Becca, Tymer, Kieron, Brandi, Kelsey, Taylor, Morgan, Whitney, Brittany, Kaela, Ireland, Amari, and Storm.

While in Boise, my friend took a kick-boxing class with a young woman named Rhiannon. She did not ask how the woman got her name, assuming that it derived from the late-'70s Fleetwood Mac smash hit. She conceded that it was hard to keep a straight face during class because she could not stop visualizing Stevie Nicks enmeshing herself in her bewitching womanly shawls while the instructor's namesake --or even the instructor herself--was taken by, taken by the wind: Sometimes she took to the sky like a bird in flight / Other times she rang like a bell in the night, my friend recalls. She was like a cat in the dark / And then she was the darkness.

Obviously, no one can be held responsible for having the name Rhiannon. True, cynics might argue that a person can be blamed for keeping the name Rhiannon, but in doing so, they unfeelingly ignore the psychic substructure that animates contemporary nomenclature. For most of us grow into the names we are given, and cannot discard them without sacrificing a certain measure of our personality. Lucky Luciano could not have traded in his moniker for Spanky McGettigan. Cher could not suddenly become Madonna; this would only make a bad situation worse. Nor can those hamstrung by unfortunate names toss them overboard without implicitly repudiating their parents, or at least questioning their judgment.

If we assume that Rhiannon's parents were Fleetwood Mac fans, there is every possibility that she has siblings bearing late '70s Easy Listening names like "Sara" and "Tusk." This can be written off as the folly of youth: It seemed like a good idea at the time. But what if her parents, despite the decisive cultural and chronological evidence linking them with Stevie Nicks, captiously insist that they did not name their child Rhiannon because of the band's single, but because of an entirely different Rhiannon? Then they force their child to spend the rest of her life insisting that she was not named after the Fleetwood Mac Rhiannon, but for a beloved progenitor, Granny Rhiannon or Tugboat Rhiannon, or perhaps even a mythical proto-Rhiannon who provided the original inspiration for the song.

This makes the girl with the marquis name seem petulant and affected. It's like saying, "No, my parents didn't name me Vito Corleone after the guy in The Godfather; they named me after the Vito Corleone who invented the mosh pit."

The kick-boxing arts, or what the French refer to as les dons pédicombatiques, are not to be scorned, disparaged, or heaped with contumely. But if it is true that those possessing names like George, James, and Nancy are more likely to ascend to high public office than those named Melchior, Babarina, or Crustacea, we are justified in assuming that certain career options--Archbishop of Canterbury, CEO of Intel--may have closed themselves off to Rhiannon at a very early date.

And here we lock horns with a phenomenon known as the Greenspan Algorithm: the inescapable truth that while the public might allow someone who once worshipped Ayn Rand to set interest rates, it would never let anyone actually named Ayn do it, because people named Ayn sound like they may be Sith Lords. By and large, the American people are loath to tolerate cabinet-level weirdness--unless, as in the case of Condoleezza Rice, one is given a pass because of membership in a free-wheeling ethnic group that makes its own rules.

By contrast, in the case of a white woman named Rhiannon, the American people would be reluctant to accept her ascendancy to chairmanship of the Joint Chiefs of Staff or chief CBS White House correspondent not because of the distressing pop cultural connotations but because the name Rhiannon smacks of the occult and the druidic, both of which are verboten in a Judeo-Christian society where people justifiably fear sorcery at both the state and federal level. Inevitably, it would lead to whispers about the Illuminati, the Freemasons, and the Knights Templar: the whole Da Vinci Code complex. This does not play well in Peoria.

Why should the plight of a victim named Rhiannon concern the rest of us? Partially because we are compassionate human beings and understand that a child named Rhiannon or Brooklyn or Skyler will spend the rest of his life fending off ridicule from thugs named Cheech the Mook. There is also concern that one of our sons could enter into a morganatic marriage with a femme fatale named Rhiannon, vastly increasing the likelihood that our grandchildren will be named Mordred, Banquo, or Xena.

But there is another, far more selfish, reason why we should be concerned about the proliferation of astoundingly stupid names. Suppose a few decades down the road the president of the United States is forced to choose between two candidates for chairmanship of the Federal Reserve. As luck would have it, the woman named, say, Rhiannon Cougar Mellencamp, is far more gifted than her rival. But because the president fears that he will be mocked if he chooses a Fed chairman named Rhiannon, he opts for the safer choice: Brandi or Tiffany.

The nitwit he selects immediately raises interest rates, triggering a housing market collapse and a devastating global depression. All because someone, somewhere, decided to name their child after a Stevie Nicks song. Dreams unwind, love's a state of mind.

Purists may argue that previous generations also had ridiculous names like Elmer, Caleb, and Purvis. But these were real names, not synthetic ones. And the people who named their children Elmer were probably doing their level best under difficult circumstances; they had hogs to feed or a bad case of rickets. What should concern us is that each generation of stupid names encourages the next generation to be even stupider. It was Anson that begot Heath. It was Morgan that begat Kyla. And one day Rhiannon will beget Clytemeghan or Zugwah.

So if you're reading these lines, and you have an unnamed child on the way, I implore you to heed the words of Fleetwood Mac themselves: Don't stop thinking about tomorrow / It'll be better than before.
But not if your kid's named Rhiannon.

Joe Queenan is the author, most recently, of Queenan Country: A Reluctant Anglo phile's Pilgrimage to the Mother Country.