Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Atticus in the News: The Good & Bad

Atticus -- the name, not our almost four-month-old baby -- has been all over the news this month.

The headline on a Today.com article sums up the hubbub: "Atticus is top trending baby name: Can he survive racist portrayal of namesake?"

Two things happened that spurred the article: "Go Set a Watchman," the sequel to Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" was released, portraying character Atticus Finch as a racist. Around the same time as the book's publication, website Nameberry declared Atticus to be the top-searched boy's name during the first half of 2015.

I'm pretty dismissive of the Nameberry "news." Why? Top name searches seem to have little to do with what names parents ultimately choose for their children.

Case in point: Last year, before we found out that we were having a boy, Imogen was on my short-list for a girl name. Lo and behold, Imogen was Nameberry's top-searched girl's name during the first half of 2014, as well as in 2013 (this year it dropped to No. 14). But according to the Social Security Administration, Imogen hasn't been in the top 1,000 girls' names since at least before the year 2000. Will we see a spike in the next couple of years? It's possible, but I highly doubt it will break the top 10 ... or even the top 500.

The Atticus Finch reference is more complicated. Of course, no one wants a name with a bad association. Not too many Adolf's around anymore, eh? I haven't yet read "Watchman" (I'm still on the library waitlist), but by all accounts Atticus Finch in this book is not a man with his feet planted firmly in the footprints of justice, as he was portrayed in "Mockingbird."

At best, that makes Atticus Finch more realistic. An English teacher not far from where I grew up in Northwest Ohio, who also has a son named Atticus, explained this well in a column written for the Washington Post. At worst, strangers will think we named our son after a fictional racist.

The funny part is that our Atticus isn't named after Atticus Finch at all. Paul and I both sincerely like the name independent of any associations. The strength and moral rectitude of Atticus Finch didn't hurt, but it held about equal weight as the background of the only other halfway famous Atticus, a man of ancient Rome and Athens. Paul is a big history geek and liked that the name means "man of Attica." With my writing background, I liked that he was a publisher.

When Paul and I first heard about the release of "Watchman" several weeks before our son's birth, we discussed how that might affect the popularity of the name. But by that time we had firmly settled on the name and didn't even consider changing it. When I heard that actress Jennifer Love Hewitt named her son Atticus in June, I thought that might have a greater impact on the name's popularity than the book.

I have mixed feelings about Atticus in the news. On the one hand, I dislike that the name will have a negative connotation, at least for a while. On the other hand, perhaps the association with the new book will make Atticus an even less common name (despite its use by celebrities) while "Watchman" fades behind the more popular "Mockingbird." Atticus is by no means the most fashionable name in the country, but it has grown in popularity over the last decade, rising from number 937 in 2004 to 370 in 2014, according to the Social Security Administration.

Interesting SSA footnote: "For 2014, the number of births with name Atticus is 846, which represents 0.042 percent of total male births in 2014." Believe it or not, Edith is an even less common name.

But perhaps the most disappointing article I've read recently about the name Atticus is this New York Times one. The featured couple has two kids. One is named Atticus, of course, and the other is named Edith. “We’ve always wanted to have names for our kids that aren’t super-popular,” the father says in the article.

My disappointment: The confirmation that I'm not as unique as I think I am.

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