Unusual Name Update: Yarrow Paisley and Laura Lippman Speak

Recently I mentioned the odd feeling of seeing my family name in print -- in a way not connected to any member of my immediate family. (In her recent novel Life Sentences, Laura Lippman has a protagonist named Cassandra Fallows.) For the record, several updates and augmentations on the general phenomenon of non-standard names:

1) To see where your family ranks in frequency among American names, check out this U.S. Census site: http://www.census.gov/genealogy/www/data/2000surnames/index.html. It tells me that my family name is tied for 67,317th in popularity (the top three are Smith, Johnson, Williams; we're tied with Breakiron, Kammerdiener, and Leitgeb, among others), and that as of the last Census there were 274 of us in the country -- not counting Cassandra. This link was sent by David Strip, who says that his name does not even show up on the list. Only names borne by at least 100 people qualify, and apparently there are fewer Strips than that. More in the same vein here and here.

2) For similar info about Great Britain, this link from the National Trust -- http://www.nationaltrustnames.org.uk/default.aspx, via Greg Morrison -- lets you look up the frequency and geographical distribution of family names in England, Scotland, and Wales from 1881 and 1998. This tells me that my mother's family all came from one part of Scotland, and my father's from one part of England. First, Mackenzies as of 1881:

Brrrr! Then, Fallowses of the same era, mainly in what turns out to be the ancestral soil of Stoke-on-Trent (ah, the romance!) and greater Staffordshire and environs. Overall, the name is still 20 times as common in England as the US:

3) I have received countless "you're breaking my heart!" messages from people with names considerably more unusual than mine. I'll quote just one, from Mr. Yarrow Paisley:

I found your story about encountering your name in the wild very amusing. It reminded me of the time I did a Google search on my name -- "Yarrow Paisley" is absolutely unique, so I rather expect only to find my own footprints on the Internet. But strangely, I found the website of an Albany band who had done a concept album "told by a not very likable fellow named 'yarrow paisley,'" which certainly piqued my curiosity! It slipped from my mind, however, until a couple years later (last year, actually), when I noticed one of my Facebook friends had become a fan of that very band! So I became a fan, too, and asked them about it, and it turned out the songwriter was a classmate of mine in the fifth grade. His name was [XXX] Smith, and I didn't remember him at all! Obviously, my name stuck with him, although he assured me he was just casting about for a name during the creative process, and that I had been quite likable indeed!

4) After the jump, a note from Laura Lippman herself about the origins of her character's name (and some others in her oeuvre).

Laura Lippman writes:

Although I readily cop to using bylines as inspiration for names, I never made a conscious link between you and Cassandra... (Two examples of names I quite deliberately borrowed from journalism: Michael Abramowitz and Adam Moss. I didn't know either gentleman; I just liked the sound of their names. Abramowitz, whose namesake was killed in my first book, did not seem to believe this when we finally did meet.)

If I was thinking of anyone when I concocted Cassandra, it was an old friend, Sally Fellows, but I dedicated a book to her a few years ago. And the word fallible was probably on my mind, as Cassandra turns out to have less than perfect recall. But if I did my job right (always open for debate), she's made admirable progress, as a person and a writer, by the end of the book.

But, yes, it must be odd to see one's name when it's relatively unusual. I always feel that certain names are denied me -- no variation on Laura, at least not for a major character, and no Davids since I married one. I feel odd about using Hurricane David for the work-in-progress, but I need it. And although it's one of Baltimore's quirkier, more interesting neighborhoods, I never mention Lauraville because I fear someone will think it's a self-referential joke.

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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