The Last Shall Be First . . .

September 6, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

In her comment on the previous post, our new colleague Faye noted that “Brits avoid using last names as first names.” But this style has become increasingly popular in the US. Last year the top 250 names included
  • Mason (37)
  • Hunter (57)
  • Carter (80)
  • Tyler (91)
  • Cooper (95)
  • Tanner (149)
  • Sawyer (240)
Twenty years ago, only Tyler made the top 250. It’s also popular in the UK, ranking 27th last year for baby boys.

In the US, it was probably the wealthy who started the last-name ball rolling. Humorist Calvin Trillin says that when he was at Yale in the 1950s, the upper-class WASPs who had attended schools like Andover and Choate tended to have names like Hatcher Thatcher Baxter III. Or Thatcher Baxter Hatcher, Jr. Or . . . but you get the idea.

Over the decades, following the general social class trend in names described by Levitt and Dubner (the Freakonomics guys), Carter, Hunter, and the rest have trickled down through the system.

But why here and not in the UK?

My guess is that British ears, especially upper-class British ears, still hear the working-class overtones in these names. These names, after all, derive from common trades. The upper class, who did not do such common work, so they did not have surnames like Farmer, Miller, or Baker (Baxter, by the way, is a variant – a “bakester”). Thatchers worked, thatching roofs. They did not own land. Hunters hunted, Carters carted, and Tylers tiled.

The upper class were quite merry in olde England and had no need to emigrate. It was the Baxters and Hatchers, not the Forsyths, who came to America to seek their fortunes. Enough of these tradesman descendants were successful in the New World, and the class system was open enough, that their names lost their working class connotations. But they did retain the aura of England, the “AS” in WASP. These were “classy” names, as contrasted with the foreign names of later immigrants.

As Bob Garfield of NPR’s “On the Media” noted in his short-lived stand-up comedy career, only WASPs can get away with this last-name ploy. He envies media people like
Stone Phillips, Anderson Cooper, Shepard Smith . . . . Jews can't do that. Jews can’t use last names as first names. “This is Teitelbaum Moskowitz, and here are tonight’s headlines.”

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