Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Distinction on the Cheap

Glossolalia, that emblem of special piety among members of the American hard right, has marked Thomas Sowell as one of God's Holy Fools.

Sowell has written a deliriously weird article about the cultural implications of children's names. The whole thing's worth reading, if you have any interest at all in verbal pathology. But I'll restrict myself to the highlights:

One of the ways some people seek special distinction today is in the names they give their children. Not only are the names themselves distinctive, these names remain distinctive only in so far as other people do not give their children the same names. So names today have a much faster rate of turnover than in the past.

Back in 17th century Massachusetts, more than half of all girls were named Mary, Elizabeth, or Sarah. Mary remained the most popular girls' name, nationwide, throughout the 18th, 19th and early 20th century. Today it is not even among the top ten.
I have to confess that I've never been bothered by our failure to adhere to the nomenclatural standards of 17th-century Massachusetts. But then, I lack the exquisite sensitivity of Thomas Sowell. My spiritual vision, after all, has been somewhat dimmed by the Cataracts of Common Sense. When it comes to penetrating the veil of everyday reality, I'm no match for a man who has donned the Spectacles of Madness.
What does all this mean?

Maybe it means that we are preoccupied with standing out -- without doing anything that merits our standing out. Maybe we want distinction on the cheap.

Maybe we don't even understand what an achievement is. There was a time when people who were neither rich, nor celebrities, nor outlandish in name or appearance, were nevertheless noticed and well regarded as pillars of their communities because of their personal qualities and character.
Oh, this is fine talk indeed. This is better than the circus.

Sowell is such an astonishing chump that he's actually chosen to invoke 17th-century New England as a golden era for sensible and modest names. The Puritans, of course, saw things a bit differently (as Sowell would recall if he'd bothered to dust off his copy of Charles Bardsley's Curiosities of Puritan Nomenclature (1880).

Eager to stand out in a crowd, and to earn distinction on the cheap, a goodly number of Puritans gave themselves and their children what they called "grace names": examples include Lamentation, God-help, Concurrence, Hate-evil, Sin-deny, Waitstill, and - in one unhappy instance - Preserved Fish.

I realize that by suggesting that this information has some bearing on Sowell's argument, I reveal myself as an elitist of the worst sort, and actually strengthen Sowell's case. The conservative rules of engagement are clear on this point: If a lie is challenged by facts as recherche as these, it becomes a truth for all intents and purposes.

There's also a racial component to this problem, of course:
Blacks and whites used to give their children pretty much the same names. No more. Since the 1970s, racial segregation has returned, this time in names.
A bloody shame, too. If "Seamus" is good enough for the bog Irish, it ought to be more than good enough for the darkies. And what about the Jews? All those names like "Ezra" and "Hirschel"...they're just trying way too hard to be different, don't you think?

I'm sad to report that Sowell's somnambulistic shifts of mood and subject strongly suggest that he abuses laudanum (I'd never accuse a traditionalist like him of being a mere junkie).
Names are indicative of more than race....They are also indicative of values and attitudes in the families from which particular people came. So are other indicators. A lady working in an employment office contacted me a while back because her boss had told her to reject job applicants with gold teeth. She wondered if that was morally right.

I have had no experience hiring people with gold teeth, so I have no idea how reliable that is as an indicator. But, since the employer pays the price of being mistaken, it is his call, not mine.
I love how Sowell maintains such a sober, conversational tone while stumbling so aimlessly down his private Street of Dreams. But no sooner are we dazzled by this gratuitous vision of gold teeth than Sovell drags us back to cold hard reality:
Parents who think they are doing something clever or cute -- or just "making a statement" -- when they name their children might consider what the consequences might be later on. They might also consider giving their child some more solid foundation than a name for achieving something worthwhile in life.
Indeed. What could be more worthwhile for a child - a black child, in particular - than to make a career of cutting marionette capers for the foam-flecked ideologues at Human Events? You might be able to write arguments just as deranged as those of Thomas Sowell - in language just as stilted and incoherent - and you might be able to invent similarly specious "facts" to back them up. But if your name is Amadhou or Domevlo, the ultraconservative media are very likely to pass you by.


Rupert Pupkin said...

Look, I'm pretty much a liberal in most, if not all, areas. So let me offer you a dose of cold hard reality. Parents are free to name their daughter "La-queesh-ah" and their son "Toe-nelle". Likewise, when overworked employers are shifting through a huge stack of job applications, they are free to immediately discard the ones with such grotesque names.

Why? Well, as the book Freakonomics points out, it's quite safe to assume, based on the Law of Averages, that the parents of these applicants were below average in intelligence. Then it's also easy to conclude that their crotchfruit inherited the same substandard intelligence.

So if you want to screw your children's future, go ahead and give them idiotic faux African names.

Believe me, no one will care. In fact the racists are grateful for the tip-off.

You are much too full of yourself to get this. I even suspect that this comment will never see the light of day.

Have a great day.

Phila said...

Interesting comment. I didn't realize that "overworked employers" had an infallible ability to winnow out faux African names from real ones. Because real ones are permissible, aren't they?

Another thing: Does your advice apply only to names reflecting pride in an African heritage? Or do Jews, Scots, Irish, and Eastern Europeans who give their "crotchfruit" out-of-the-ordinary names render them equally "grotesque" to clever and discerning people like yourself?

As for hiding your comment, never fear! Your comment reflects poorly on no one but yourself, and I'm perfectly happy to put it on public display.

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Thersites said...

Rupert Pupkin is a fantastic troll, Phila! Drop him in the bell jar immediately. Wonderful specimen.

I especially like the capitalization of "the Law of Averages." That's a neat detail.

Rupert Pupkin said...

Oooh, I'm a troll! That stings!

This is the standard knee-jerk reply of all online morans when they can't respond to the point being made.

As for the puffed-up snob who runs this pointless blog, if you were indeed a member of the reality-based community, you'd understand that my point is valid. People in HR use all sorts of reasons to screen out applications so that they may winnow down to the "short list" as quickly as possible. Weird names is one of them.

But do go on living in your dream world where you refuse to accept this.

Say "hi" for me to all your aliases here.

Xan said...

Phila, stop being so mean to "rupert pumkin." I'm sure that Pater and Mater Pupkin had nothing in particular against their "crotchfruit" when they burdened him with a name so clearly indicitave of future homosexual tendencies as "rupert." (The lack of capitalization, after all, further establishes that he has accepted his genetic burden/birthright as his own.)

And what was the Rice family thinking when they brought forth the fruit of their crotches and hung something as hideous as "Condoleeza" around its little neck? Poor child was obviously doomed to a life of cleaning motel toilets, assuming a sufficiently Christian-charitably-hearted manager could be found who would take a chance on one of her all-too-clearly-indicated racial background.

roger said...

i don't usually comment just to say right on or offer encouragement and agreement, so i went and read the damn thing--sowell's piece. and i say to you phila, j' accord! and right on. my favorite puffed up snob. right up there with thersites.

Phila said...

People in HR use all sorts of reasons to screen out applications so that they may winnow down to the "short list" as quickly as possible. Weird names is one of them.

That's fine, friend. More power to 'em. I was just asking you if there are any weird names out there that aren't African or African-sounding, in your opinion, and whether it's OK for someone who actually has a weird name for "legitimate" reasons (a legal immigrant, say, or an orthodox Jew) to keep that name.

These seem like pretty simple questions to answer, but maybe you're too distracted by how "puffed up" I am. Let's try again: Is it OK for parents to give their kids real African names? And if not, does the same logic apply to other ethnic groups? Is "Vaclav" a weird name? How about "Zenobia"? Or "Krzysztof"? Or "Fearghal"? Or "Arjuna"? Do tell.

Personally, I think firms that take your approach will miss out on some excellent hiring opportunities, and'll suffer from it in the long term. But that's just my opinion.

I'm sorry this post upset you so much, but that's how it goes on the Internets. Best of luck in your future endeavors, my liberal friend!

Phila said...

And what was the Rice family thinking when they brought forth the fruit of their crotches and hung something as hideous as "Condoleeza" around its little neck?

Beats me! I think they should've named her "Mary." It was a very popular name in 17th-century Massachusetts, which would've opened a lot of doors for her.

Rupert Pupkin said...

Here are a few final points as I shan't be returning to this cold and lonely little vanity blog.

Your aliases are not very convincing as real people. Three reasons for this: They respond way too quickly considering this blog may get a real visitor like myself about once a year. They write in the same effete snotty manner as you do. All they ever say is "Right on! Couldn't agree with you more!" LOL!

Finally, you have obviously confused intelligence with heavy use of the thesaurus your mumsy bought for your 16th birthday.

Good writers don't need to resort to cheap tricks like using big words where simple ones will suffice.

Well, good-bye. Feel honored that an actual person posted here not once but thrice, IIRC.

Phila said...

Your aliases are not very convincing as real people. Three reasons for this: They respond way too quickly considering this blog may get a real visitor like myself about once a year. They write in the same effete snotty manner as you do. All they ever say is "Right on! Couldn't agree with you more!" LOL!

Ya know, since anyone can click on the names of those commenters, and find their profiles and/or blogs, this is really not a very good line of attack. I wonder why you'd choose to make an easily disproven claim like this one, instead of answering my simple, polite question? I'm starting to think you can't answer it, for some reason.

Also, calling people "effete" and "snotty" might be personally satisfying for you, but it doesn't advance your argument. I'm more than happy to grant that I'm the most effete snob who ever lived, and the worst writer, but what does this have to do with the point we're actually discussing? Why can't you stay on topic?

Thersites said...

Phila, I had not previously considered the possibility that I am merely a fictional character of your creation before. But the theory has merit, in my opinion, and would explain a lot.

Be careful, though. See what happened to Trellis? Look out for Pookas, my friend.

roger said...

i am in good company, for an effete alias. if i had a lick of sense i'd be worried that i'm not a real person.

Anonymous said...

Sowell was right on in his article. Th etypical knee jerk response was the mother of this thread.

Oh, and "hard right"?? Yeah, if you say so.

Phila said...

Sowell was right on in his article

Since you say it, it must be true.