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Tristan & Helena

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Tristan, age 4, Tristan Da Cunha

People have been naming their kids after islands and countries for almost as long as we’ve been naming islands and countries after people. America was named after Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci, Bolivia after Simon Bolivar, and so on and so on. That place names and people names cross over one another is no great surprise. What is of interest, to me at least, is how a name might get passed back and forth, from person to place and then back to person.

The island Tristan Da Cunha was named after Portuguese explorer Tristão da Cunha who discovered the island in 1506. Five hundred and five years later, I went to Tristan Da Cunha and met a four-year old boy named Tristan, named for the island that he was born on.

A fun anecdote surely, but a trend? Far from it. And yet, five days beyond Tristan, our ship reached the remote isle of St. Helena, named after Saint Helena of Constantinople who lived some seventeen centuries ago. After only a few hours on St. Helena and I run into this island-born schoolgirl, christened Helena.

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Helena, age 10, St. Helena

As a traveler, I was gladdened to meet locals proudly carrying the names of the places they were born. The convergence of geography and naming babies seems so obvious that I wonder why we don’t see more of it.

I do know a young girl in England named India and once I met a woman named Alberta who had never been to Canada. I also have a friend named Chad and a nephew named Jordan, which are both countries, yes, but more of a coincidence. While actor Cuba Gooding, Jr. was only named after his father, Cuba Gooding, Sr. the name derives from the eponymous Caribbean island country. Similarly, actress America Ferrera‘s was named after the country her parents immigrated to from Honduras. As I searched for more on people and places’ shared names, I discovered a world of rather adventurous baby-naming options. The popular website Baby Names even lists China as a girl’s name.

States are popular too: there are plenty of little Carolinas, Dakotas, and Virginias running around today. Tennessee was just a nickname for Tennessee Williams but now it’s a bona fide boy’s name, while California is a definite girl’s name. Meanwhile, cities like Brooklyn, London and Sydney seem to provide endless baby-naming inspiration all across America.

Naming your child for a geographic locale acts as tribute and a souvenir to that place. I like that concept, although I guess the real question is how does the child feel about it? Tristan liked his name, though I’m not sure he understood its significance. Helena likes her name too, and told me that she liked sharing the name of her island.

As I consider all the places I’ve traveled and all the countries that have inspired me, I can remember what they looked like, what it felt like to be there, as well as their names. But in the South Atlantic, I can also remember these two children with their names and how, on the islands of Tristan and St. Helena, I actually met Tristan and Helena.


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