Fashions wildly wax and wane in clothing, cars and home furnishings … but, somehow, when it comes to your own name, it gets personal.
“Nancy” was once among the leaders of the Mid-Century Modern pack, back when naming female infants entailed a snappy syllable or two usually ending in “y.”
On a whim, I googled its rank among popular baby names of the current decade. It peaked at No. 7 back in the early 1950s. Today. it comes in 526th … curious in itself because, in fact, I haven’t met a Nancy still in Pampers for at least 30 years. (Of course, some may be backsliding a bit, but that Depends.)
My friend Jackie (No. 730) and I were musing about our near-extinct signatures over coffee a couple of weeks ago. The subject at hand: What will graduation sound like in 2025 when our granddaughters prance across the stage to pick up their diplomas?
One thing we know for sure. Marys, Lindas, Karens, Tammys, Carols, Donnas, Cindys, Barbaras, Jeans and Judys will be in desperately short supply.
Time will tell what our upcoming first grandchild will be christened, but I do know what the kids flatly refuse to call her … this, even though their little one will have the near-unique distinction of not one, but two, grandmothers named Nancy Jo. Wouldn’t that make a lovely name for the little tyke: Nancy Nancy Jo Jo?
No, no, no.
Naming a little one is always a balance between pretty, practical and popular. There was a day — exactly 100 years ago — when Rose, Helen, Dorothy and Margaret had that special stylish ring, along with Alice, Florence and Ruth. By the 1930s, it was Betty, Barbara and Shirley who’d risen up the list. Linda, Barbara, Patricia and Sandra had their day in the late 1940s.
One perennial held tight to the top of the first-name hit parade from the first tabulations by the U.S. Census Data Center in the 1880s through the end of the 1950s — Mary. It was the top choice for little girls, often paired with Ann or Beth or Jo, until it started to lose its grip.
Then trendier names took over: Lisa in the 1960s, Jennifer in the ’70s, Jessica in the ’80s and ’90s, Emily in the first decade of the 21st century, and Isabella in the 2010s. In 2014, the most recent year for which data are available, Mary was way down at No. 121.
Naming girl babies — and, to a far lesser extent, newborn boys — seems like the most private and personal matter to new parents. They face the competing forces of the urge to be original, even unique — and the sure knowledge that their choice will shape their little one’s future. Yet great waves of popularity surround the christenings of each generation, tacitly deciding what’s in, what’s out and what’s destined to become the butt of the next generation’s stand-up comedy.
The name that’s so adorable on that little bundle of joy could seem far different when it’s tossed into the hat by a candidate for president. Pick a handle that looks good in the headlines.
By today’s standards, at least, the winning compromise would seem to be a monicker that comes in a range of sizes — in our day, C(K)athy and C(K)atherine, Debby and Deborah, Peggy and Margaret, Betsy and Elizabeth.
One- or two-syllable girly names like mine now carry a distinctly Mid-Century Modern flavor. Much like starburst wall clocks, pole lamps with aqua and orange shades and stereo consoles with built-in speakers, names like Nancy, Linda and Diane are steeped in the spirit of the times — saddle shoes, bobby sox and cat’s-eye glasses with little rhinestones in the corners; hula hoops, Tiny Tears dolls and Mr. Potato Head.
There were definite pleasures that came with running with the juvenile herd. It was easy to find imprinted pencils and little license plates in dime stores and souvenir shops. The teacher never mispronounced your name on the first day of school. No one snickered on principle when it came over the intercom system.
When it came to guessing middle names, you could win more often or not by hazarding Ann, Kay, Lee or Jo.
As we grew older, other advantages appeared. Mid-Mod names fit into the boxes on all kinds of forms. Completing entry blanks for drawings was fast and easy. It’s still much quicker to sign your checks — and remember, we’re the generation clings to writing them instead of going with debit cards.
But something else was happening as the years piled on. We ourselves filled up the rolls with modern little Jennifers, Heathers and Samanthas. Then they grew into adults who associate names like ours with crabby old ladies … choosing to share the crotchety next-door neighbors of our youth upon our innocent grandchildren.
Emma. Ava. Isabelle. Those were the elderly women (ancient crones, probably about as old as I am today) who shooed children away from their gardens and gave out stale licorice and lemon drops on Halloween. That they were married to equally aged coots named John, William, James and Robert doesn’t seem to have made the same impression on parents of little boys, who’ve stayed more loyal to classic names as years go by.
But the crocheted-doily, Vicks Vap-o-Rub aura surrounding Sophia, Abigail, Olivia, Stella — the members of Grandma Alma’s ladies aid group — has clearly dissipated. Yesterday’s cantankerous ancient is today’s cute little sweetie.
We of the Mid-Mod school of baby-girl names are not extinct yet — not by a long shot. There are more than twice as many Marys as living American women named anything else, about 4 million nationwide. They’re followed by Patricia and Linda (1.6 million each); Barbara, Elizabeth and Jennifer (1.4 million); Maria, Susan, Margaret, Elizabeth and Lisa; and — yay! — Nancy.
A million Nancys are said to be still standing … only two of whom are related to our own pending grandbaby. The name persists at No. 12 among the entire population of American women. Not too shabby for a Mid-Mod relic — even if our median age is about 60.
(If you’d like to find out more about your own name, go to names.mongabay.com. All data are from the U.S. Census Data Center.)