Monday, April 23, 2007

Kelsie Harder: An amazing life in language

Despite what you might think from my rants about Safire, I really like the New York Times. Their political coverage is too conservative (cf. the whole Judith Miller deal), but they run some really good stuff. I'd subscribe for Krugman, Rich, some of the sports stuff and above all Science Times, even though the language stuff there is often junk. (But why always mess up with language?!?!?!?)

One serious strength is the often remarkable obituary section, of all things: You can learn a lot. And no, I don't mean Yeltsin, not even Berto Gonzales (as Bush is said to call him), who is deader than Yeltsin, even if he's still walking around. No, yesterday, they ran an obit for
Kelsie B. Harder, Authority on Proper Names and Their Roots, Dies at 84
Now, I knew that name, but had little idea how much he'd actually done, from working on dictionaries to researching proverbs. Any man who writes a book on The Vocabulary of Hog Killing has got your attention, probably — sounds like it draws on Perrry County, Tennessee, where he was from. I often think that lexicographers and onomastics folks don't get their due among linguists, in part because this is regarded as 'butterfly collecting' by some people. That's a real shame.

But the oddity of the piece is that he …
noted that many baby boomer girls had names like Heather and Tammy, which he said recalled those of Playboy centerfolds.
Can this be right? Those are fine names, and I've known plenty of women with each. Let's even assume that there was a spike in those names among the baby boomer generation. Who in the world would name their baby after a Playboy centerfold? (Oh, honey, at this blessed moment, I say we forget about names familiar in our families and go with "Miss November". Uhhhh, I mean, "Tiffany".) More fundamentally, were these names particularly common among the women who were featured there? Or did they sound like centerfold names back then? How could we establish a clear connection there?

Well, OK, I suppose we could have named one of the girls "Tammy", but it wouldn't be for any centerfolds. (See image above.) "Tammy Verb" … kinda has a ring to it, doesn't it?

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