Stewart’s Last Book – on Names

In the late 1970s, ill with Parkinson’s Disease, George R. Stewart worked valiantly to complete his last book.  The book was a dictionary of the names given to Americans, and, like Names on the Land, it considered those name-givings in an historical context.  The book was entitled American Given Names.

In the book’s “Introduction” Stewart describes several principles of American name-giving:  Names are given soon after birth; those names are considered permanent; names usually are gender-specific; the names chosen by the namers are considered “good” names; there is a huge pool of names from which to choose; names may leave the pool by misuse, and new names may be added by use; although the names may have originally come from many different languages, they are Americanized in spelling and pronunciation.   He follows that with a detailed “Historical Sketch,” nearly 40 pages long, which gives a good context for the types of names bestowed at different American eras, and some reasons for those choices.

The main section of the book is of course the dictionary of names.  Note that these are American given names – not English or any other nations, although many nations and tongues provided the names originally – so these names would be given to children born here.  Each name is defined; its origin and meaning given; and a brief history of its use included. Many of the names will seem dated now – the book is nearly 40 years old, and television and movies have had a profound impact on naming since then. But others are still common:  Robert, Catherine, Donald, Mary, John, and so on.  Since this is a work with an historical viewpoint, many of the names were not in common use even before publication, but Stewart included them as of historic interest.  Of just because he found them interesting.  How many people today are named Mahershalalhashbaz?

Stewart, good scholar that he was, leaves his readers with a quest – to track name changes of the late twentieth century, which seem like so much of that time to break with the past, to see if those new names endure, or if they’re replaced with other names.

The book is a good read, and a resource for scholars, writers, or anyone interested in American names.

 

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The book was published by Oxford in 1978.  Ted (Theodosia) Stewart told us that Stewart was  working while he lay in bed, in pain.  When someone commented that it must  be  hard to watch him do the work, Ted exclaimed, “No!  No one can live with George unless he’s writing!  Thank God he has this book to write!”

Stewart tried to write one more book, a biography of his father-in-law, University of Michigan President Marion LeRoy Burton.  But to read his manuscript is to feel deep sorrow.  He kept starting the book, over and over, but he could not get it beyond an early section.  He died without having made much progress on it.  On the other hand, he had written 28 published books, and a few never published; and even in the pain of his last illness, he wrote this fine book.

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