As regular readers know, Nora’s been involved for several years in the pursuit of a local family’s history, as she attempts to write the fictional implications of early 19th Century Quaker life as played out by the Morison family of Danby, Vermont. And anybody who’s ever done historical research—whether genealogical, cartographic, legal or material—will know how many rabbit holes open beneath your feet, each threatening to swallow you for days at a time.
One important genealogical resource is findagrave.com, from which users can locate photographs of cemetery memorials and a little bit of historical info (leading to many, many offers to sell access to lots more info, hence the .com at the end of the URL). So Nora’s browsing findagrave this morning, looking at the roster of people buried at one of the numerous and tiny cemeteries of Danby. In modern times, we think of cemeteries as giant civic or commercial spaces in which we invest in a plot among tens of thousands of anonymous neighbors, but cemeteries used to be small grounds adjacent to one church or one small-town memorial for the use of that membership. Danby, which reached its peak population of 1,730 in 1810, has at least six of these historical cemeteries, each with a few dozen people or families represented.
Anyway, Nora finds one grave in a tiny Danby cemetery with four infant quadruplets, all dead in their early infancy in 1795 and buried together under one marker. And their names?
Admirable. Wonderful. Remarkable. Strange.
There used to be loads of people named after desirable attitudes; the category is called virtue names. Names like Constance and Hope remain with us as contemporary names, but they’re mostly decontextualized from their literal meanings. But there used to be lots of people, girls most often, with names that proposed the child’s ideal disposition and contribution to the community.
Some, as I say, are familiar. Charity and Chastity. Faith and Grace. But others are mostly lost to a different era. Opportunity. Agreeable. Harmony. Mercy. Prudence. Temperance. Honor. Justice. Verity. Nora’s actually found a boy named Hate-Evil in her searches. My mother’s Averill family way in the wayback had a girl named That Averill, so my great-great-grandma was the original That Girl!
So I say let’s bring That back, so to speak. Let’s have a whole generation of Admirable Parker, and Mercy Bushwick, and Verity Chen. Let’s meet Remarkable Nguyen, Agreeable Robinson, and Temperance Chaudhury. Mighty Peterson and Reliability Santos.
We’ve already got a Strange Childress, though that’s not what it says on my driver’s license.
There’d be an enormous temptation to mess with it, of course: the Stoner family naming their son Whatever Dude Stoner, the Glass family naming a child Break Emergency Glass. And there’d be some folks who chose anti-virtue names, too: Idler, or Wastrel. But on the whole, it’d be nice to help kids be aspirational, right from their birth certificates onward.