New York Times film critic A.O. Scott is annoyed by one of the names in the new release Carnage, directed by Roman Polanski and based on Yasmina Reza’s four-character comedy of bad manners, The God of Carnage. The film is set in a “comfortable high-rise apartment” in Brooklyn:
I know these people. Why be coy? I am these people. And while these people might well be the parents of a Zachary and an Ethan, the sister of a Zachary would much more plausibly be a Sophie or an Emma than a Courtney. (Courtney? What is this, Beverly Hills? Reality television? Come on!)
My reaction precisely. How can you presume to comment on cultural mores while demonstrating such a tin ear for naming trends?
It’s not as though the filmmakers didn’t have a say in this matter. Reza wrote the play in French, and the characters’ names were Anglicized when it was performed in the US. (I saw it in Los Angeles earlier this year.) For some reason Polanski changed the women’s names again: Veronica (originally Véronique) became Penelope, and Annette (in both French and English-language versions) became Nancy. Huh? Penelope is a very popular baby name right now, but it’s anachronistic for a character in her mid-30s. And Nancy, I regret to say, would be more appropriate, name-trend-wise, for that character’s mother.
I had similar thoughts when I read a review of Daniel Handler’s new young-adult novel, Why We Broke Up. (Handler has also published under the nom de plume Lemony Snicket.) The first-person narrator is a high school junior named Min, a name that sounds right on trend for a girl born in 1993 or 1994. But the other teenage characters are named Ed, Al, and Joan. Really? There may be a few baby Joanies in the US right now, the offspring of besotted Mad Men viewers, but trust me: in the 16- to 18-year-old demographic there are approximately zero Joans. In fact, “Joan” disappeared from baby-name lists toward the end of the 1980s; it hadn’t been really popular since the 1930s. (Don’t take my word for it: check out the Baby Name Voyager.)
Likewise, a hip high school kid in 2011 would more likely be called Alec or Alejandro than “Al”—Al would be his grandfather or great-grandfather—and a boy born in 1993 would more likely be called Eduardo or even Edison than “Ed.” (Edison, which was very popular in the 1910s, has enjoyed a couple of recent dramatic spikes.)
With so much good research about naming trends at our fingertips—once again, I refer you to Baby Name Wizard—why would a playwright, screenwriter, or novelist make such tone-deaf choices?