Where’s Walter? A Fine Name Fades, and That’s a Shame
The list of names American parents assigned to their babies in 2012, recently released by the Social Security Administration, shows the continued surge in popularity of old-fashioned, or at least old-timey sounding names.
Here in the Twin States, that trend seems even more pronounced. Families are raising a generation of young Noahs, Jacobs and Benjamins, Avas, Lillians and Abigails. It’s as if they just hopped off the Mayflower.
The passage of time has not been quite so kind to all names, however. Some of the old names might never come back. I blame pop culture. We’ll probably never see the return to prominence of names like Archie, Barney, Elmer and Albert, thanks to the fictional Messrs. Bunker, Fife, Fudd and Fat. Oh, and Homer and Marge are pretty much out, too.
Not all of these names are a great loss, except for people who carry them already. And except for Homer. I know of one young Upper Valley Virgil, but his fellow epic poet hasn’t fared quite so well, and won’t so long as more children know The Simpsons, a true American epic, better than they know The Iliad and The Odyssey.
The name I mourn the loss of most was once unthinkably great. Starting with Sir Walter Raleigh in the 16th century, nearly any man who did anything notable was named Walter. I exaggerate, but only a little. Then, pop culture undermined its greatness with snark and attitude.
The high-Walter mark occurred in the 19th and 20th centuries. The roster of Walters who contributed to American life is staggering. Walter Camp invented American football, and Walter Chrysler founded the car company that still bears his name. Walter Johnson set the standard for pitching in a long career with the Washington Senators. Maj. Walter Reed helped unlock the secrets of yellow fever and typhoid.
I could go on. There’s the football great Walter Payton, not one, but two Nobelists in chemistry, Walter Gilber (1980) and Walter Kohn (1998), safety-pin inventor Walter Hunt. Walt Disney, Walt Whitman, bluesman Big Walter Horton, Sir Walter Scott (that’s two Sir Walters!).
What about the actors, you say? Oh, well, how about Walter Matthau, Walter Koenig (aka Lt. Chekov), Walter Huston (father of John Huston) and character actor Walter Brennan. The ranks of filmmakers include the aforementioned Mr. Disney, editor Walter Murch, producer Walter Wanger and the great Brazilian director Walter Salles.
More writers? How about Walter Pater, Walter de la Mare, Walter Benjamin, Walter Moseley and Walter Kirn?
Journalists? Just a few legends, in Walters Cronkite, Winchell and Lippman, not to mention Walter Pincus of the Washington Post. There’s no shortage of politicians, none of them presidents, thank goodness. Former Vice President Walter Mondale came the closest. There’s also the former mayor of Rome, Walter Veltroni, and Walter Reuther, a former UAW leader, who said, “There is no greater calling than to serve your fellow men. There is no greater contribution than to help the weak. There is no greater satisfaction than to have done it well.” Could any Tom, Dick or Harry have said that? I think not.
This doesn’t come close to exhausting my list of famous Walters. (Don’t know Walt Kelly, Walter Dellinger, Walt Dropo, Walter O’Malley, Walter Sickert? Look them up.)
These men were merely the standouts, the lighthouses surrounding a veritable sea of Walters. From the 1880s through the 1930s, Walter was one of the 15 most popular boys’ names. In 2008, it was number 393.
I know, I know, who in his right mind maintains a list of famous Walters? The guy who’s trying to persuade his wife to name a son Walter.
It’s a nice strong name, uncommon, and with one of the all-time great one-syllable diminutives — Walt. It means “ruler” in its original German, but also “woodsman,” according to one of the baby-name books we consulted.
I sent my wife the list of Walters, to no avail. She exercised her veto power fair and square. Just as well. When our boy was born, it seemed clear that he wasn’t a Walter.
Or was he? Could a name lead a young man to his mythic destiny?
My wife had a point. In recent years, Walter has become a disposable name as far as the culture is concerned.
In film, Walter has become a signal to the audience that the character who wears it is out of step, weak or shady. Picture Walter Sobchak, John Goodman’s character in The Big Lebowski, for example.
Or the 2004 film The Woodsman, in which Kevin Bacon played a child molester returning to his hometown after 12 years in prison. His character’s name was, yep, Walter.
Then there’s the worst offender, not a movie but a book, and a children’s book at that: Walter the Farting Dog. It’s almost as if the book was intended to dissuade parents from naming their sons Walter.
My theory might be completely bogus, and I hope it is. To test it, I contacted one of the few Walters of my acquaintance, former Dartmouth College professor Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, who’s now at Duke University.
“I do not feel that any particular associations are attached to my name, because there have been a variety of Walters from Sir Walter Raleigh to Walter the Farting Dog (which you told me about),” he wrote in response to my emailed query. “So I do not feel at all burdened or buoyed.”
Maybe the good professor’s approach is the right one. Maybe Walter’s just a name. If so, I hope it comes back, and what better place than Vermont and New Hampshire, where old names still have weight, for that comeback to start.
Alex Hanson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3219.