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The good old names, from the good old days

What’s in a name?

Oh, nothing much — if you don’t care about a crystal-clear sign of the collapse of our civilization.

I’m looking at a list of “Favorite New Baby Names” on an Internet site. I arrived here by mistake: I typed in b-a-b-, then accidentally hit a y.

I’m comparing the names on the list with the favored names of those Americans who propelled our nation in its ascendancy a hundred years ago.

I’m stunned by what I find.

It’s no wonder our culture is on the brink of disaster. Where there was once stability and a sense of the weight and continuity of history in our common names, now there is mere capriciousness.

Supposedly regular folks are giving their children goofy names.

When “creativity” and whimsy ooze forth from the working class, it is clear ordinary people are no longer laboring hard enough to row the boat.

The traditional upper crust, with their increasingly weak genes, have always had time for baby-naming nonsense, since they have nothing better to do than lounge around the manse in seersucker duds, wondering about the date of next Junior League meeting, having the hired help lick stamps for some environmental group and figuring ways to keep minorities and Jews from becoming members of the country club — witness Muffy, Taffy, Tad, Bitsy, Boyce, Whitney, Skippy and the like.

But, when folks who, in other eras, would be doing the muscle work in a vital industrial society have time to create phonetic phantasms like Beyonce and craft disasters like Devin, we are in deep trouble. Egalitarian poetry bodes ill for all of us.

Why? Because, in a quasi-cabalistic frenzy, I’ve come to the conclusion that names of objects and people, and the letters used to form them, define the essence of the thing named. The letters and name have extraordinary power, and that power guides the destiny of the person.

Take Madonna, for example.

If you tune into one of these favorite new-baby-name Web sites with my theory in mind, you too will be terrified by what you find.

Think about it: Name an infant Abraham and, chances are, you’ve got a pretty dependable and serious guy on your hands (though you might, on occasion, be tempted to off the kid). Name him Skylar and, well…

Can you imagine what America would be today if, a hundred years ago, there had been no Hirams, no Harolds, no Hazels? What awful state would we have reached if the teeth in the gears of the grand machine had been Skyes and Dustins? What kind of Industrial Revolution would have taken place with Afton and Kaylee? Could they have won either World War?

I doubt it.

We have weakened, folks. We’ve lost touch with the names that served us very well for many generations. How is it we’ve traded Merle for Mica, and what are the consequences? Where have all the Myrtles, Ethels and Cliffords gone? Is Roger soon to follow?

How are we going to fare without Winifred, Edna, Minnie, Gladys, absent a Clem or two? What is Earl’s fate, Fred’s and Estelle’s? Is there a graveyard for names? Will a cadre of Madisons, Kaitlyns and Conners bury the old standards, the names that signaled the surge of a brash, acquisitive economy, that heralded the arrival of a world power?

What does the future hold with Cade, Crispin and Wren at the helm? What on earth can a Brad do? Or a Tyler? Or, as in the case of my own precious granddaughter, a Forest? Or my grandson, a Ryder? Where once Melvins, Theodores and Lloyds manned steel mills, led expeditions, planned and fought battles, the Forests, Ryders and Tylers will engage in the burdensome labor of, what, retail sales? Telemarketing? Cappuccino foaming?

There are kids out there named Rain. For crying out loud!

And there’s hardly a Reba in the lot. Orville, Blanche and Violet have been replaced by Nessa, Hobie and Paige.

Young parents are naming their kids after the seasons: Spring, Summer and Autumn. What can we expect from the seasons when they are confronted with international stress? Will they simply change?

Savannahs, Coopers and Cheyennes are supplanting the time-tested monikers from the Old Testament, the comforting names from the Torah.

We’re doomed.

This is not to say I don’t understand the exercise of poetic license when new parents find themselves in an endorphin rich postnatal atmosphere. After all, Kathy and I have a daughter named Aurora Borealis. (Hey, the ’60s bubble up from the unconscious, to this day. Those years are hard to shed!). True to my theory, Aurora has developed a startling, almost extra-terrestrial perspective on life, and is so far out at times it requires the Hubble telescope to find her.

When our youngest was in utero I was again befuddled by the thrill of reproduction and had several great ideas for names. I had no anchor; I was convinced, whether male or female, the child would benefit greatly from the name Waxy. As a backup for a male, I worked overtime to come up with Max Apollo.

For some reason, Kathy was not receptive to the suggestions. We opted for a sweetly sentimental nod to tradition: Ivy.

And, Ivy proves my point: The name establishes the course of the person named. Ivy, as anyone who knows her will confirm, is a shy and retiring personality best suited for work in a convent or as an accountant. She does grow on you, though.

Now, I’m “mature,” some would say stodgy; I’ve lived long enough to give new parents unsolicited advice and to fall prey to a growing number of rootless fears.

As I scan the list of new names, my fear grows and I’m convinced we need to stop this trend in its tracks. We need to turn back the tide of baby name creativity and beat a hasty retreat to proven products.

We can combat the destructive tendency with food.

I suggest creating a diet that reminds consumers of the past. No petit minceur, no fusion, just the old reliable dishes that help thrust our consciousness backward, to a past filled with glorious names — strong names that, if brought back in vogue, are guaranteed to snap our culture back in line.

There are plenty of options: true English pies, for example, savory affairs crammed with thrushes or woodcocks. There’s lutefisk and boiled, moldy roots. Hardtack, anyone?

How about a batch of colcannon? We can invite parents-to-be over for dinner and load them with the heady mix. It’ll straighten out any kinks, untwist any tangled ideas.

And you don’t have to be Irish to eat colcannon; though, of course, for tangled ideas, there’s no place better than the Emerald Isle.

All this classic dish requires is spuds, boiled or steamed to tenderness and peeled. The potatoes are mashed with an enormous amount of butter and a bit of cream, seasoned with a bit of salt and black pepper. A head of cabbage is sliced and the slices sautéed until the cabbage softens. At the same time, a bunch of scallions is sautéed in butter and some chunks of a high-grade ham are added (the amount of meat can vary with taste, but beware of too much — this is not a ham dish, it is a glorification of the tuber). The cabbage, scallions and meat are added to the mashed potatoes and a glob of butter is plopped atop each serving just before it is consumed.

Eat a portion of this ancient, earthy beauty and you’ll name your kids Peter and Mary. Eat it often enough and you’re liable to fancy Samuel, Aaron, Leah and Rebekah. Overdose on it and you’re working with Zimran and Ishbak.

Perhaps there is a limit.

But, a blast of colcannon can do anyone some good, center their thoughts, work against the tendency to get too far ahead of the pack.

I intend to keep it in my dietary repertoire to the bitter end.

I can see myself now, reclining in a splintery lounge chair on the veranda at the nursing home. I’ve just botched a game of Chinese checkers, my diaper needs a change and I’m thinking a ration of colcannon will set me back in the groove, warm me with nostalgic associations.

I make a mental note to ask for some, the next time I see my nurses, Kylie and Aaliyah.

If they ever show up.