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.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.
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.
What does all this mean?Oh, this is fine talk indeed. This is better than the circus.
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.
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 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:
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.
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.