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  • The Name Game: Cultural Modernization & First Names
  • Jessica Gienow-Hecht
The Name Game: Cultural Modernization & First Names. By Jürgen Gerhards ( New Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers, 2005. viii plus 142 pp.).

Which rules and predispositions guide our thinking when we select the first names for our children? In German kindergartens today international and formerly rarely heard names abound: Joaquin and Celine, Cecil and Vivienne, Carlos and Tessa. What happened to Wilhelm and Heinrich, Erna and Berta, and countless other names popular before World War Two? When we name our children, we attach very specific meanings and messages to them, meanings that are framed by personal experience, social conventions, historical cycles, cultural vogues and political Weltanschauungen. Focusing on the case of Germany in the nineteenth and twentieth century (as exemplified in two German towns, Grimma and Gerolstein), Jürgen Gerhards seeks to retrace these predispositions with a particular eye on their sociological implications. While the author rejects the "cultural turn," he employs tools of sociology and scientific-theoretical logic, above all, theories of cultural modernization and cultural sociology as outlined in the work of Emile Durkheim.

Gerhards believes that first names provide a valuable indicator for cultural change during the past two hundred years. In the nineteenth and early century, he argues, religion, nation and the family collectively formed the "traditional ligatures of the creation of meaning and the structuring of behavior" (p. 119). Children often received the names of saints such as Elisabeth or Johann, saints whose fate and behavior was hoped to provide a guiding post for people's offspring. The name of family ancestors likewise served as a pool from which to draw first names in an effort to remember and immortalize parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and godparents.

Germany's secularization and modernization in the late nineteenth century caused a marked change in the politics of naming. Both processes improved people's living standards, lessened their needs for spiritual orientation and, with that, their belief in God-given commandments. The rise of the nation state provided new role models and names influencing the name process: Wilhelm, Friedrich, Günther, Margareth, Gisela and Frieda now became popular names—and Gerhards stresses that due to their alliance with the nation-state, Protestants retreated from Christian names much earlier than Catholics did. [End Page 748]

A major breakthrough in the politics of naming occurred after World War Two when in the face of Germany's surrender and subsequent division family, religion and nationalism vanished as popular reference points. Citing Ralf Dahrendorf, Georg Simmel and Ulrich Beck, Gerhards argues that beginning in 1945, a process of individual emancipation took place, marked by increasing individuation. As a concept attached to modernization, individuation connotes a state in which people share a decreasing amount of characteristics and are willingly seeking to become different from one each others. Such differences may be expressed in architecture, clothes, personal style—and names. It is after World War Two that the notion of a rare and distinctive name emerges as a desirable goal for parents when naming their newborns. In 1894, still 34 names were different. One hundred years later, the number had risen to 81 percent. As a result, Germans increasingly rejected "German" names and opted, instead, for foreign names from the Western sphere, above all from the Romance and Anglo-American regions.

There are two striking observations in this context: first, East German parents seem to have made the same name choices as their counterparts in the West: names like Mandy and Kevin proved to be equally popular on both sides of the Iron Curtain while Slavic names enjoyed no such success: "From the standpoint of first names," Gerhards muses, "the attempt to integrate the German Democratic Republic into the Eastern bloc was a complete failure. East German citizens looked westward for their monikers" (p. 120). Next to the collapse and division of Germany, Gerhards cites the media, music, and the Americanization of European culture as reasons for the transnationalization and expansion of names available to German parents. Not tradition but fashion now became the principal guiding posts for parents who named their offspring. Still, these parents often proved less experimental than one might...


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pp. 748-750
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