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Jewish World Review Nov. 9, 1999 /28 Mar-Cheshvan 5760

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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Today he would
probably be called Kyle
Kramden -- WHITEHALL, Ohio --- We were driving past the place where Ralph used to work.

"When was the last time you thought about that?" my oldest friend said.

"The place?" I asked.

"Yes," he said.

"Forget about the place," I said. "When was the last Ralph you met?"

This was the other night. He and I have each passed Ralph's old place a million times in our lives, but most of those times were when we were kids, in the 1950s. By then, Ralph himself was probably 50 or 60 years old.

The place is something else now, and Ralph is long gone. Which happens -- places of business change, their proprietors retire and eventually die.

But Ralph itself -- the name, not the person. . . .

Well, Ralph appears to be in a decline from which there may be no coming back.

Ralph was a fine name for American males -- solid, no-nonsense, workmanlike, clear-eyed. There was no name more earnest than Ralph -- except, of course, Ernest.

Ralphs owned groceries, edited national magazines, were famous photographers and heads of local chambers of commerce -- Ralph, the name, was right up there in the middle of the mainstream, as ubiquitous as Main Street.

Yet it seems to have all but disappeared. You run into any baby Ralphs lately? Didn't think so.

Because I apparently don't have anything better to do with my spare time, I got hold of some lists of the most popular names for males -- lists that are usually put together from registrations of baby boys.

In the last several years, the No. 1 most popular name for boys has been Michael. Others currently favorite boy names include Jacob, Matthew, Joshua, Christopher, Brandon, Tyler, Zachary, Ryan, Kevin. . . .

But in the current top 100 names for boys, Ralph is nowhere to be found. Not even bringing up the rear. Ralph just isn't there.

Would you like to know some of the names that are there? That are currently in greater favor than Ralph?

The Kramdens
Dylan. Tristan. Kyle. Adrian. Dakota. Cole. Blake. Dalton.

That's correct -- even Dakota has supplanted Ralph as a favored first name for American males.

I tracked down some similar lists that were compiled generations ago.

In the 1930s and 1940s, or so it seems, Ralph was doing quite well. During both of those decades, according to two of the lists I was able to find, Ralph held steady at No. 26.

(Quick -- if Ralph was No. 26 in the '30s and '40s, what was just above it and just below it? What was most-popular name No. 25 and No. 27?)

So why has this happened -- why has Ralph, a respected and respectable name for so long, flown away into the winds of social history?

I have my own theory.

Television -- which can sell people anything -- has great power in influencing parents when they choose names for their children. There are Vannas who never would have been Vannas had their moms not watched "Wheel of Fortune," and one hesitates even to contemplate all the Felicitys who will soon enough begin enrolling in preschools. And while Michael tops the list of names for current-day boys, Jordan is also a popular first name. Much more so than Ralph.

But television can also persuade people not to imitate it. And my theory is that when "The Honeymooners" became a hit during the early years of television, it was curtains for Ralph. What young American parents-to-be, watching Jackie Gleason's Ralph Kramden character lumbering around that tiny apartment, yelling at Alice and berating Ed Norton, would think: "We really should name our darling new little boy after that loud, angry, round fellow who's screaming about sending someone straight to the moon"?

Evidently not very many. It was during the 1950s that Ralph fell off the list of popular names for males, never to return. Blame it on what you will -- but the answer seems fairly clear: Ralph Kramden blew the whole deal.

(The No. 25 most-popular name for boys in the '30s and '40s: Henry. The No. 27 most popular: Harry. Sort of makes sense, doesn't it? Henry, Ralph and Harry, together. Three great guys.)

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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