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Prime Time | Art Lee: What's in a name? Well ... it depends

A Bemidji area audience was wonderfully entertained a few weeks ago by a well-known Minnesota vocalist named Prudence Johnson who, with her piano accompanist, put on an excellent two-hour show at the high school auditorium, the show titled “Tiptoe Through The Sixties.”

The program was a combination of singing and talking, piano playing and joking, and history too, all done amid an ongoing slide show illustrating events in the 1960s.

There may have been several folks there a bit surprised and perhaps amused and maybe confused by the name of the performer, or as one lady more pronounced than asked her friend: “ Who in the world would have a baby these days and name her Prudence?” The supplied answer was “No one.” That’s likely true — for these days. But at least her full name was pronounceable, unlike that of her excellent piano- playing and singing partner, whose last name was Chouinard. Maybe that’s why his first name was Dan.

Long live the Johnsons

Names are always interesting. And important. Some psychologists maintain that the sweetest sound ever uttered to any person is the sound of one’s own name. Of course some titles are more interesting than others, even when the names seem strange — at best — to many. Folks have fun with people’s names.

Even Prudence Johnson’s common last name can be a topic of amusement, at least to a Norwegian who tells the story of the Swede who was so obsessed with maintaining his last name that he immigrated to America with the intent of fulfilling his dream of never letting his name become extinct. The man’s name was Al Johnson. The degree of Al’s success can be noted today by checking the name Johnson listed in the multi pages of the Minneapolis phone directory. And after all the “s-o-n” Johnsons come the variations thereof, like the “s-e-n” Johnsens and/or Johnstons and then the Johanessons.

Names and naming reflect the times in which a baby is born and names come and go in cycles. Prudence is such a reflection of when she was born, although certainly a name on the final cusp of popularity, born as she was in 1952 in Moose Lake, Minn. Not many other babies named Prudence after that date; but plenty of Prudences before that date. (This writer was in high school in the 1940s and knew a Prudence Toby.)

Names, like some actions, seem to make perfect sense at the time, even if perceived as strange/weird/dumb/goofy later on, or as the man lamented later from his hospital bed after jumping through a plate-glass window to celebrate the end of World War 11: “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

Long live John and Clara

In going “way back,” what were the popular given names “back then”? For Norwegian-Americans, according to the Norwegian-American Historical Society, the ten most popular given names of couples between 1900 and 1925 were (in order):

John and Clara, Arthur and Anna, Oscar and Mabel, Clarence and Myrtle, Carl and Olga, Henry and Pearl, George and Ruth, Melvin and Esther, Robert and Hannah, Elmer and Ida.

How about last names? In a recent update on surnames, NAHA checked their Biographical Files and determined that from the 29,000 last names listed, the following are the most popular Norwegian-American last names (again, in order):

Johnson, Olson, Nelson, Hanson, Peterson, Erickson, Thompson, Berg, Lee, Carlson, Knutson, Hagen, Jacobson, Swenson.

There is little surprise that one has to get to #8 before the “s-o-n” names give way to a “non-s-o-n” handle: Berg. But there is a surprise for many that #9, Lee, is even on that top-10 list. (This scribe, over the years, has been asked to give a number of talks, and it was almost standard to find several folks in every audience who, after reading the name of the speaker or hearing it spoken in the introduction, expected the speaker to be Chinese.)

Long live NOBLE names (?)

The newest trend (alas?) in naming new babies today, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, is to treat the new infant like royalty; hence blueblood titles are now being bestowed on bambinos because ROYAL names are apparently now viewed as “strong.” A new baby needs a pedigree, somehow; just give the kid a royal name as starters.

 Times have certainly changed. Not that long ago Duke used to be a proper name for a dog; Prince was a common moniker for a horse; King was the title for oxen. There was a brief trend, of sorts, for “royal titles” in the 1940’s when tag-titles were regularly ascribed to band leaders: Count Basie, Duke Ellington, King Oliver.

No more. No Viscount Justin Bieber today. No Duchess Brittney Spears. ( Oops, is Lady Gaga a real “lady”?) Whatever, regarding the new baby names, the new “royal” names require getting used to, so let’s speculate; just maybe those newborn Johnson twins might be christened: Al Duke Johnson and his sister Countess Angelina Johnson. Those titles are supposed to make perfect sense for these times.

And now a bigger question: Might “Prudence-times” ever return?