About A Name: Tennessee

September 27, 2012 § 8 Comments

(c) Hidden Springs Resort: Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains in the fall.

One name blog I’ve only recently become acquainted with, Histornamia, drew me in yesterday with a post on unique baby names (given to just five baby boys or girls) in the year 1880 in the US. One of the names on the girl’s list was Tennessee.

I remarked on what a nice name it was for a girl, having never considered it before, without knowing we were only hours away from seeing an A-list celebrity baby born with this very unique name.

And of all the celebs who might use it, why wouldn’t it be proud Tennessee native Reese Witherspoon? She had her first son with husband Jim Toth earlier today, calling him Tennessee James. Reese’s complete name inspiration goes without saying, the inspiration obvious and inspired. The Ava-Deacon-Tennessee sibset looks odd, but Ava-Deacon-Tenny is adorable.

Tennyson, another name that boasts the nickname Tenny, has been a bit of a celeb fave this past decade, too. Both names lean a bit to the obscure (which some parents really look for), and while Tennessee will likely bump up with the birth of Witherspoon’s son, it’s hard to say how far it could go.

These days, most fashionable boys names are one or two syllables, often quite short (6 letters or less), and Tennessee disrupts that pattern. But it is a pretty gorgeous name, boy or girl. And I just might prefer it for a girl (but not the female nickname, Nessie)…

Playwright Tennessee Williams (born David Lanier Williams) is probably the most well-known wearer of this name, one of the most accomplished playwrights in English-language theatre. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980. He wrote Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and A Streetcar Named Desire in the 1950s, and won Pulitzer Prizes for them both. Tennessee Ernie Ford (born Ernest Ford) was another popular wearer, a country and western crooner in the 1940s. But they both went by nicknames in honour of their Tennessee roots.

Indeed, the state which this name honours was named for the Appalachian mountain river, the Tennessee, which runs through the state. The river was named for the Cherokee native word for “the bends place,” as in a gathering place at a bend in the river. Eighteenth Century Spanish explorers first found the original native village, then called Tanasqui. Through Spanish, French, and English influence in the region, the name was altered to Tennassee, Tannassy, and finally Tennessee. This word, which emphasized community, was the perfect name for a state in a fledgling new nation, with a long Native American history.

And while the name’s most notable wearers are male, the only time this name ever charted in the US was for girls, and that time in the spotlight lasted just 10 years, from 1880 to 1890. She peaked at 580 in 1884, but maybe she will again soon. The names of the US states, after all (Georgia, Carolina, Arizona, Virginia, Montana), are overwhelmingly female. Dakota and Kansas skew female (at least they do in Canada, where I live) but both can easily claim unisex status. Interestingly, cities tend to be boys names, like Dallas, Austin, Everett, even St. Louis – though that changes all the time; girl names have a tendency of taking over names for boys, as we know! And the place names-as-first names trend is most definitely not just for celebrities anymore, but they always seem to open the door to new choices.

One state name, Jersey (which is a great girl’s name), has always struggled due to New Jersey’s reputation, but Tennessee doesn’t share the same negative bias. Tennessee is the home of American country music. The dark green rolling hills of Tennessee, at the south end of the Appalachian Mountains, are simply breathtaking. That sense of community in Tennessee – still there. I’ve been once and really should go back.

Best case scenario with a name like Tennessee, the boy or girl (works for both, in my opinion) grows up to have a sense of humour over the pick-up line, “Did you say your name was Tennessee? Because you’re the only 10 I see!”

It’s a compliment, right? What do you think of Tennessee?

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§ 8 Responses to About A Name: Tennessee

  • Skizzo says:

    Dakota skews male, sorry. There are a lot more male Dakotas than female

    • Historically that’s true; these days in the US the names are very close to being on par with each other, but in Canada, where I live, Dakota is more popular for females. Sorry for the confusion and thanks – I’ll try to rework the sentence to reflect the clarification!

      • Skizzo says:

        Oh right, I thought you were talking about the US haha. In the US there are about 80,000 male Dakotas, and 20,000 female ones.

        As for Tennessee, I dont really like it for either sex. Although if I had to choose I’d probably say boy, simply because most -ee endings on girls are so trendy and tacky.

      • That’s so true about -ee endings, but I still feel like Tennessee sits on a slightly higher level with it’s place-name association; I just can’t bring myself to lump Tennessee in with Kinslee, Kailee, Baylee, Shawnee (well okay, I would probably lump it with Shawnee since both names are from native languages), but maybe I’m just being overprotective of the name 😉

  • Blue Juniper says:

    I’m intrigued by this name – a bold choice by Reese and Jim.

    Cool that you were commenting on the name so soon before it hit the spotlight 🙂

    • I love when it all comes together like that – happened once before with Clemency. Lou at Mer de Noms suggested it as an alternative to Clementine, and it was the first time I’d really seen or considered the name, a matter of weeks before a British TV presenter picked it for her daughter last year!

  • I like Tennessee, and I like Tennessee James, but as many others have said, Tennessee Toth doesn’t sound right to me.

    It sounds like a meal (“I’ll have a bowl of the Tennessee Toth please”), or like a disease (Your trees have come down with what we arborists call the Tennessee Toth”).

    • I’d like this comment if I could! At the same time, I think first name/surname combos that have the same initial always flow pretty well, though this would be at the less-flowing end of the spectrum, for sure.

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