The stability of boys’ names was meant to convey solidity and strength. Girls’ names came to be regarded as something more decorative. In evangelical circles, Biblical names were big, so there were plenty of Rebeccas, Sarahs, and Rachels, but there was also a wide field for something more unusual. Roman Catholics insisted on a saint’s name – my wife Tracy was actually baptised Therese. Paedobaptist traditions in general have been more conservative in naming. Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson has long bemoaned the drive to unique names in the African-American community, attributing it to the breakdown of families and generational continuity. But this also results from the black churches being much less likely to practice infant baptism, a reality that long predates the last few decades of absent fathers.
More recently, parents have taken to giving their daughters some of the less-common boys’ names, or English surnames with a rather aristocratic feel to them, such as Madison, Cameron, and Taylor. But far more common have been older female names, so long out of use that we cannot think of them as girls’ names, but as women’s names: Olivia, Sophia, Abigail, Isabella. Similarly, the new names for boys – Jacob, Alexander, Joshua, Ethan – are recognisable old names. These do not suggest continuity so much as approbation of tradition, which is somewhat different.
Assistant Village Idiot has some interesting points.
In my birth family, most of us had family names first. I had my aunt’s name; then my own. My brother had my father and grandfather’s name; then his own. My little sister had my aunt and my mother’s name.
My youngest son’s middle name is his father’s middle name. It’s his grandfather’s first name. It’s his great-grandfather’s middle name.
My eldest son’s first name is his great-uncle’s, though we did not know that till we had chosen it.
Family names are important in my family. Or names with meaning for my children’s generation.