At the start of each semester, without fail, at least two people in my classes—usually perky little blonde girls born circa 1987—announce themselves as “Reagan.” Although the roster gives away the spelling, and thus origin, of their names, I’ll often ask, “Shakespeare or Ronald?” The looks of befuddlement are priceless, but the one or two students who snicker are, I immediately know, my confidantes.
It’s no surprise that names are subject to the whimsical tides of history. It’s also no surprise that tons of children are named after presidents. The United States is teeming with Franklins, Abrahams, Woodrows, Dwights, and, although the feisty Arizonian never made it to the top, Barrys. Today it’s quite possible to meet miniature Madisons, Hamiltons, and Kennedys anywhere upwardly mobile white children congregate. Tyler, I’ve learned, is big in Texas.
Vice Presidents have fared less well in the name game. The Albens, Herberts, Adlais, and Spiros of the world remain few and far between, as do—most interesting of all—the Dicks. Richard Nixon and Richard Cheney—both vice presidents and both Dicks—have tag-teamed this once common moniker out of existence. Proof of sorts comes from babynamewizard.com, developed by writer and software developer Laura Wattenberg, author of The Baby Name Wizard. It’s a site that promises parents “you’ll never feel stuck for a name.” In the 1930s, according to Wattenberg’s stats, Dick was one of the most popular names in the country. Today it’s tough to find an honest Dick. Think about it: When’s the last time you’ve met a young Dick? Exactly. All the Dicks are over 70 or dead.
Birth is harsh—and thus naming shouldn’t be. But that’s not how it works any more. The newborn exits a warm chute into a blast of fluorescent lighting and cold air. The nurses whisk him off to a hard examining table and wipe the goop from his orifices. After hosing him down into a respectable looking creature, they wrap him up like a Chipotle burrito and usher him to proud parents who, cuddling the babe, weep and coo and promise him the world. And then, perhaps inspired by Wattenberg’s assurance that her book “will guide you to more and more ideas that fit your personal taste and style,” they inflict upon their beloved the greatest pain of the entire ordeal.
They name him.
I should confess that the phenomenon of naming a child with an odd first name marks a sociological trend that contradicts my personal experience. I’m James. My father is James. My grandfather was James. His father was James. Even his father was James. And it’s not as if I hail from royalty. To the contrary, I owe my existence to humble people who believed that individualism—if it was even worth achieving—should be achieved without the unfair boost of a distinguished (or befuddling) first name. When I was born in 1968, “James” was the fourth most popular name in the nation. In 1868, it was #3. And that’s pretty much why I’m James.
The time-honored anonymity of James—or for that matter John, Mary, Ann, Carol, Chris, Robert, David, Jane, etc.—has clearly fallen out of favor. Listen carefully to what parents are calling their kids on playgrounds, at birthday parties, in schools, at doctors’ offices, and in the bulk-food aisle at the Whole Foods in Austin, Texas, and you’ll understand that a profound cultural transformation is underway.
Reflecting Wattenberg’s conviction that “your perfect name is out there,” parents pull names out of the ether. While I’m nothing more than an armchair sociologist, these names are not perfect, but rather designed to fulfill fantastical aspirations and do things that names were never intended to do—like force a kid into a quirky identity before he even escapes the delivery room. All of which leads me to ponder the larger question I’ve been thinking about, one Wattenberg never ponders:
Where have all the Dicks gone?
The most obvious motivation behind current naming trends is clearly aspirational. Parents whose families lack even a whiff of aristocracy or privilege assume the appearance of aristocracy and privilege by naming their child something like Connor—#38 in 2004 according to babynamewizard.com—or Hudson (#328) or Braxton (#219) or Hunter (#54) or Carter (#87) or Quincy (#469) or Logan (#27) or Braeden (#324). Given this impulse to find a name that “fits your style” it stands to reason that nobody aspires to be a simple Dick. Dick is so, like, stylistically challenged.
But there’s also something sort of rebellious about this decision. It’s a way for America’s bourgeoisie to diffuse one of the few weapons that the American aristocracy—always a precarious class—still holds in its arsenal: first names as last names. If you can’t be of the aristocracy, throw a wrench into the system by stealing an aristocratic-sounding name and just pretending—or so the twisted logic goes.
If you take this route, though, there’s the possibility that little Connor or Hudson or Carter or Braxton or Morgan will share a name with a neighborhood mutt. This possibility was made real for me recently when a young mother looking at a poster board of puppy pictures at the kennel remarked to her husband, who was fiddling with their toddler, “Honey look, this bloodhound’s name is also Hudson!” How’s that for style?
The child of true aristocracy is bred to rise stoically above this canine association. He’s usually protected from it, in fact, by going off to Choate or Hotchkiss or Andover, where he will have no problem encountering classmates legitimately named after Mayflower settlers. But the child whose parents are regular old folks will never escape the suspicion that mom and dad should have probably gotten a grip on their false pretensions and, in the end, just made the kid a Dick.
A more powerful factor driving naming trends is the quest to stamp the child at birth with the prophetic imprimatur of CREATIVITY. The most obvious example of this fad is when parents name their child after an artist of some distant and slightly romantic distinction. “Carson” (#101) and “Harper” (#889)—as in McCullers and Lee—have thus experienced an uptick in the last few years, as has—interestingly enough among white girls—the name “Zora” (85). “Emma” (#2), “Emily” (#1!), “Hannah” (#5), and “Evelyn” (#83)—lily-white names all—fall squarely into the “literary” category. And while the exact literary reference can be admittedly vague, they basically evoke images of refined women sitting in the quiet countryside, hillsides spread before them, reading British novels—which is pretty damn literary.
An odd variation on the “creative kid” theme has been to name children after hip, creative, or even exotic places. “Austin” (#35) has recently hit the charts with a bang, as has Brooklyn, which is no longer only a borough where scruffy artists unable to afford Manhattan relocate, but also the 101st most popular name of 2004. “Madison” is up there at an impressive #3—although I may be giving too much credit to the Wisconsin college town and not enough to Madison Avenue, or the dwarfish fourth president of the United States who was purported to have the personality of a damp haystack. As for the exotic monikers, there’s “Asia” (#247), “Sydney” (#27), and “India” (#497), places I’ve never been to and, I suppose, all the more reason to make people named after them intriguing. Closely related to the literary trends/cool cities/exotic places names are the names that derive from musicians and movie stars. Hence, Aiden (#40 for girls), Alexis (#103), Jett (#606), and Carly (#177) each remind us that it’s perhaps high time for a few Janes to join the resurgence of Dicks.
Then there are parents who take a common name and give it a unique twist, again, I suppose, to ensure lifelong CREATIVE distinction for their offspring. Perhaps recognizing the zeitgeist, mom and dad won’t tolerate a “Madison,” who, after all, is at #3, so they tweak it to get “Madisyn” (#406). No way will they allow another “Kennedy” (#115) to enter the world, and so the poor, unsuspecting infant girl becomes “Kennedi.” “Connor” has gotten to be so passé, but not “Konner” (#739). “Ashley” seems like a sweet name, but it’s so 1980s (#4, in fact, in 1980). Buy hey, take out the “e” and you have “Ashly” (#842) or, if that doesn’t grab you, there’s always “Ashlyn” (#131), which would be especially awesome if she hangs out with “Brooklyn” and “Caitlyn.” The same goes for “Lauren” (#19 in 1980), a common 1980s name made less common with “Lauryn.” (#389). “Britney” is at #350, but “Brittany”—which admittedly overlaps with the “exotic places” category—weighs in at #240. Jordan might be riding a wave of popularity right now at #43, but Jordyn, at #186, is bound to catch up with her before you can say “What the hell is going on here?”
“My friends took all the good names!” explains one of Wattenberg’s fans. Oh no she didn’t, Wattenberg reminds us, so long as you’re willing to drop a “y” add an “I” and get creative with an “e.”
Needless to say, this is all pretty harmless stuff. Nevertheless, a more dangerous sub-culture of the new naming game is starting to take shape. It’s the effort to make a kid so unique in name, so distinctive in character, that no other parent, no matter how drunk and stoned, could possibly have conceived the option. Be forewarned that these names I’m about to mention are real. They do not appear in babynamewizard.com, and if they ever do I’m certain the parents will have the kid’s name changed and the copycats charged with patent infringement. One more armchair sociologist observation: The force behind this insidious trend has become stronger now than ever because the traditional markers of social rebellion—tattoos, piercing, dyed hair, whatever—have gone mainstream. So now we’ve gone and gotten the damn kids involved.
And what better way to rage against the machine and reveal to the world that you are a REBEL, and that your kid is a HUGE REBEL that will undoubtedly QUESTION AUTHORITY than cursing a screaming, innocent newborn with names like these doozies: Jagger, Rocker, Mazzi, Spiral, Mirackle, and Boxcar?
As a lowly James, I can only pause, sigh, and wonder, yet again, where have all the Dicks gone?
According to babynamewizard.com—which has, I’m a bit ashamed to say, occupied countless hours of my time—there hasn’t been a genuine Dick in this country since 1970. Given the Mazzis and Boomers and Spirals and Brooklyns and Chases and whatevers that swing from the local monkey bars and grope for gummy bears in the bulk food aisle, I think we’d all be well served if a few thousand Dicks showed up and put an end to this madness. Jesus Christ, at this point I’d even take a Reagan or two without letting out a guffaw.
Jesus, by the way, is #35.
Contributing writer James E. McWilliams has two young children, Owen (#66) and Cecile (#261—in 1890!) They all live in Austin.