May 30, 2011

What's happening to nicknames and twins' names?

The practice of naming your children sure has gone to hell, hasn't it? Girl names like Morgan and Jordan sound like a throwback to the matronly days of Edna and Gladys, while boys have never had dorkier names than Grayson (the other kids at school: "more like GAY-son!") and Jayden (sounds like a porn chick who died on-set of a cocaine overdose).

In poking around the Social Security Administration's list of popular baby names over the years, these patterns that are clear to anyone with eyes to see really jump out. I'll put up something visual later, but here are two disturbing impressions.

First, why is every mother of twins giving them such similar-sounding names? At least I hope it's only the mothers, given how pussy-whipped fathers have been for a couple decades (if they're in on it too, it's another sign of the shamelessness of guys these days who don't stand up for themselves and others). My younger brothers are twins and neither's name resembles the other's, and none of the twins I've known or even known about growing up in real life had alliterative names. I did know a couple of girls whose names were figuratively similar, like Crystal and Jewel, but not so meta-aware as alliteration -- get it, they're twins, so it's only fitting that their first initials should be twins! Yeah, we get it. Browsing Wikipedia's list of famous twins, I don't see much to disconfirm this hunch, except for Millennials. In fact, the only pair of girl twins I've known who had alliterative names were born in 1990.

It's like the kids' names are just part of the overall display that the parents use to show off their taste to their fellow insecure parents. Look, even my twins' names are consonant-coordinated -- jealous? Sure, we all wish our own kids were named Tweedledee and Tweedledum. Jayden and Jordan is just one step away from Faggin and Fogan.

And look at #18 in female twin names -- Heaven and Nevaeh. Girl, ain't I so clever -- it's the same name spelled forwards and backwards! Since Nevaeh is especially popular among black mothers, and since they also have higher rates of bearing twins, they must be over-represented in this trend. Whether you interpret this as a form of Satanic back-masking of the sacred, or as just a nerdy gimmick like giving the Crimson Twins the names Tomax and Xamot, it's a sign of the times that even blacks -- formerly famous for having soul and keepin' it real -- have been pulled under the tide of secularization and geekiness.

The other weird turn that names have taken is the greater difficulty or impossibility of deriving a nickname from them. This typically takes the form of truncation (Mal from Mallory) or using the diminutive suffix "-y" / "-ie" (Nicky from Nick / Nicholas). In looking over the years from 1950 to 2010, it's not hard to see the greater ease of forming nicknames for those born between the mid-1950s and the mid-1980s, and a good deal of given names were already in the informal style -- Larry, Danny, Vicki, Susie, etc.

Once the Millennials are born, though, forget about it. I spent many years tutoring these kids before I began graduate school, and here I've made friends with some of them and interacted with others as a TA. It's no exaggeration to say that hardly any of them go by nicknames. Whether that's a shift toward greater formality in their own minds, or whether their parents chose names that would be particularly difficult to make casual, I don't know. The return to formality among young people is evident all throughout the culture, so I don't dismiss that, but I think the parents shied away from the nicknameable (consciously or not) because they want to impress a higher level of formality on their kids whether they wanted it or not.

I have known girls who shortened Isabella to Izzy, Gabriela to Gabby, and some variant of Madison to Maddy (and then Mad), but that's about it. The boys with older names, I believe, did go by Alex instead of Alexander, Matt instead of Matthew, and so on, but not for the new wave of boys' names. Is Ethan going to be called Ethe, and Hunter Hunty? And what about Makayla, Jordan, and Hannah -- Kay, Jordy, and Han or Hannie sound like a bit of a stretch. The most vivid example is the nickname used by girls with some variant of Rebecca -- it used to be Becky, with the informal suffix. Now it is Becca, which sounds less casual.

With such bizarre trends going on among young people, both from their own preference for greater social distance and from the meddling of their helicopter parents, perhaps it's no wonder that so few songs have had a person's name in the title since a peak in the mid-'80s.


  1. Once upon a time I found research regarding name trends that showed a socioeconomic cycle: Rich/elite don't want common names, so they hit upon a name style du jour - spices/flowers, Old English/Scottish/Irish, "classic", ...whatever hasn't been in cycle in a while. Enough of the elites pick up the trend for it to become well-known and slowly the trickle-down occurs. Lower status folk want to name their children these cool names to make them seem more important. The names become too common and mainstream and are eventually dropped by the elite. Rinse, repeat.

    If you want to track down the genesis of stupid names, look to the elite forerunners of those names.

  2. The fact that couples don't name their sons after fathers, grandfathers, uncles, and other family members as they once did and that they don't name females after maternal relatives, particularly as middle names as they once did, reflects the much looser or non-existent bonds to one's nuclear and extended family.

    My niece and nephew just had a new beautiful baby boy whom they named Braden. I call it and names like it a "soap opera name."

    People tell themselves they are trying to lend their children individuality by not naming them after family members, but I think it reflects that most Americans really don't feel strong familial ties beyond their mother or father.

  3. There's no trickle-down. Stanley Lieberson's book A Matter of Taste tests that idea and finds that a name surges and drops out of popularity at the same time in both lower and upper classes, for a name that is shared between both in the first place.

    If the staying-ahead-of-the-rubes theory were correct, the name would have to drop out of the upper class awhile before it dropped out of the lower class.

    Unless I'm mis-remembering, these were data on individuals or households of varying income levels, whereas that story passed along in Freakonomics was looking at the level of zip codes or something larger than households.

    Another way to see the absence of trickle-down or imitating-the-uppers is to see what names are popular among lower class people. Remember when every trailer park girl was named Amber Lee, Bessie Sue, or Lurlene? Those were not hand-me-downs from the blue-bloods.

    Also blacks do not imitate white names, in fact they've been giving their kids more uniquely black names since sometime in the '60s.

    Lower-class people occupy a totally different niche from upper-class people, so the lowers see no immediate reason why they should ape the ways of the uppers.

  4. Ah, I couldn't remember what I saw pre-Freakonomics, but that was what reinforced the concept. Freakonomics actually uses "A Matter of Taste" as a footnote reference.

    I disagree with you. It's not a direct copy-cat, "I want what they have" effect, but a subtle subconscious one. Does the effect account for all names and all naming trends? No.

    Movies and TV have been proven to not significantly drive names, BUT, they do have an effect. I personally know of two male babies, born to lower income families, given Greek names after the movie "300" came out, one of which was Leonidas. Extreme examples, but I don't think you can dismiss influences off-hand as you do.

    What are the odds of variations of Catherine/Kate seeing a surge this year? And for that very reason, what is the likelihood that those names are stricken from the elite rosters for a while?

  5. In Portugal, low-class families choose the name of their children from Brazilian soap operas, not from their high- and middle-class neighbours (however, it is possible that the middle-class imitates the names of high-class).

  6. My son is named a family name that has been in our family for generations as a first name or middle name. At least six men share it on both sides. His middle name is his father's first name, a traditional and popular name of kings of France and England. My other son is named for a great uncle and his middle name is another uncle's first name and the family name of a great grandmother.

    My son says his first son will be named after his own great great grandfather.

    My in-laws' daughters are named after female relatives in a similar fashion.

    I feel sorry for kids with these tacky new innovations as names. They are more like dog names. I feel bad saying that but they are so undignified.

  7. "I feel sorry for kids with these tacky new innovations as names. They are more like dog names. I feel bad saying that but they are so undignified."

    Just think when Millennials start becoming Presidents, and how silly they will sound to posterity.

    President Levi Washington

    President Caleb Jefferson

    President Payson Lincoln

    Maybe by then there will be enough of a backlash that they will feel pressured to adapt a stage name like non-Anglo European-Americans used to.


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