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?
Read my January 2007 post about well-chosen character names.
This may be the first time I have ever disagreed with one of your posts.
How very Hollywood it is to suggest that a play, movie or book is wrong if it doesn't use trendy names.
Shall we avoid names like Holden, Rhett, Scarlett, Forrest, Hannibal, Atticus, Sherlock, Queequeg, Rincewind, Westley, Inigo Montoya, Milo Minderbinder, Nero Wolfe?
Was "Pulp Fiction" spoiled by having a Jules and a Butch?
Must we look forward to a literature full of Krystyles and Brandons, Olivias and Ethans?
And let's lose the dogs like Asta and Toto, Snoopy and Rin Tin Tin, Beethoven and Snowy. Better to go with Buddy, Lucky, Molly, Max, and other loaves of white bread.
Give me the memorable names, please, and plenty of them.
Posted by: Tim H | December 20, 2011 at 09:55 AM
My son has a classmate named Allen, which sounds so anachronistic. You're in sixth grade! Who gave you that name?
Granted, most of the kids in his school don't have names that top the Baby Name Voyager standings (it's crazy diverse—Taofeeq, Phuong, Nashiya, Aminat, Syeda, Ngozi, Armina, Sahinub, anyone?) but their names aren't ones that belong to Americans in their 40s, 50s, and 60s.
Posted by: Amy Reynaldo | December 20, 2011 at 10:44 AM
That makes me crazy too, when a character is too old to have such a "new" name.
However, my 21-year-old nephew Alessandro goes by "Al." He has an Italian father and an American mother, was raised in London, and now is a drummer at Berklee, so go figure.
Posted by: Karen | December 20, 2011 at 11:09 AM
@Tim: You're right, and the post is also right. The choice of a name is ideally meant to say something about who that character is. And just as you wouldn't write about a wizard from Discworld and name him "Zachary," you wouldn't write about a Brooklyn yuppie baby and name her "Courtney." It's wrong for the character, not wrong in some general sense.
Or, think of it this way: names are like props and costumes in a movie. You want them to support the scene and the characters, and not be anachronistic. You could argue that naming a character "Jeffrey" is the onomastic equivalent of dressing him like a character from Happy Days: appropriate when it's appropriate, but not for present-day settings.
Posted by: NemaVeze | December 20, 2011 at 12:43 PM
Agree, Nema. In the end it's about whether you want the name to be remembered or invisible. Which is what Fritinancy is all about.
Posted by: Tim H | December 20, 2011 at 12:53 PM
@Tim: In my attempt to be concise I failed to make my point clearly enough. And now @NevaVeze has said pretty much what I planned to say.
I wasn't advocating for "trendy" names--only for names that are appropriate for what the writer is attempting to say. Sometimes a memorable name is indeed anachronistic--the title character in "Forever Amber," Kathleen Winsor's wildly successful novel, set in 1660--comes to mind. But most of the time, a writer chooses a name to express character or make a point about social status, cultural milieu, and so on.
I could accept one teen character named Al OR Ed OR Joan if that name had a plausible story behind it. (Karen's Alessandro-to-Al story is perfect.) But three characters with anachronistic names? I'm skeptical.
By the way, I have the same response when I hear anachronistic dialogue in movies and TV shows. In the final episode of "Boardwalk Empire," which is set in 1921, one of the characters says something like "Bottom line, we're going to do it." "Bottom line" wasn't a popular idiom in the US until the late 1960s. The writer should have done his homework.
Posted by: Nancy Friedman | December 20, 2011 at 12:54 PM
@Tim: Fictional names don't need to be memorable; they need to *fit*: the setting, the era, the character's personality.
Posted by: Nancy Friedman | December 20, 2011 at 12:56 PM
I had no problem with the anachronistic part, but it came across to me as not only avoiding anachronistic names, but also preferring the period's fashionable names.
Surely that's no more of a misread than is seeing me as furious when I am nothing of the sort.
Posted by: Tim H | December 20, 2011 at 05:59 PM
Can't comment on the rest of the names, but MAYBE this is finally the resurgence of the name Nancy that I've been lobbying for, Nancy!
Posted by: Nancy Davis Kho | December 21, 2011 at 06:48 AM
I remember a book where an adopted girl named Lauren (with a brother Rory, which I liked) tracked down her birth family and biological sisters Madison and Shelby. She found that her name was originally Martha, a name I love but that doesn't fit at all! Grr.
Posted by: Awkward Turtle | December 26, 2011 at 09:43 AM