The Generational Switcheroo

Apr 17th 2014

At a recent event I attended, a speaker talked about a father and son who were in attendance. He had met them numerous times, yet in his remarks he couldn't keep their names straight. Every time he mentioned the father he called him by the son's name, and vice versa. No matter how often he was corrected, he just couldn't get them right.

I listened with sympathy. I've been caught in the same trap, and I'll bet you have, too. The well-meaning speaker had fallen victim to the Generational Switcheroo.

Here's how it works. You meet a woman, age 40, and her daughter, age 10. They both have popular, familiar names; let's call them Emma and Melissa. The problem is that the mom is Emma and the daughter is Melissa. It's an age-band switcheroo: each bears a typical name of the other's generation.

Take a look at the distribution of American Melissas and Emmas born over the past half-century:

That demographic profile translates into mental models. Melissa has become a mom name, very common in the 25-50 age band, whereas most of the Emmas you meet are still in school. So when you meet a Melissa-and-Emma pair, your mind tries to fit them into the expected slots. Mistakes and embarrassment follow.

Back when I studied neuropsychology, we would look at the brain's "mistakes" (e.g. specific cognitive deficits caused by injury) to shed light on normal functioning. Thinking in that way, what might these generational switcheroos tell us about how we usually think about names?

Perhaps a mismatch with the mental demographic always makes a name harder to remember. Most often, though, the effect isn't strong enough to trip us up. If we meet a younger Melissa or older Emma as an individual, we just just take an extra moment to remember the name and pay little attention. But when a parent-child pair is a perfect generational swap the expectation effect is doubled, and it has an easy outlet.

Or to put it another way, perhaps we all carry little NameVoyager graphs in our head, and use them to help us fit new names into our knowledge of the world. I know I do, but I always thought that was a personal quirk; an occupational hazard. Seeing switcheroos in action, I supect I might be in good company.


p.s. Dont forget to enter the Baby Name Pool by Tuesday, April 22!


April 17, 2014 3:00 PM

I've touched on this subject before so I won't say much more, but one tip I'd like to reiterate is if you're a parent-to-be with a name that is more common for kids than your own generation then you might want to think twice about bestowing a name that was popular when you were growing up on a child of the same sex (or either sex if the name in question is unisex). In other words, if you're an expectant mom named Sophia you might want to avoid Stephanie for your daugher, just like if you already have a boy named Sasha you might want to avoid naming a girl Sawyer if you want people to be straight on who's who. (Although many NEs like the idea of having an ahead-of-the-curve name, this is one of the disadvantages with having such a name.) Of course this isn't an absolute reason not to use a name you like, but just something that you might want to know the ramifications of doing.

On the other hand, if you're the other way around with your name's generational placement (the one that many NEs aren't a fan of - having a name more common for your parents' generation than yours; since I'm going with an "S" theme I'll use Susan as the example) you have somewhat of an advantage when it comes to choosing a name that makes a "natural" sounding family. If you go with (for example) Stephanie it may make your household sound a bit retro, or if you go with the other example of Sophia it may sound like a generation was skipped, but either way wouldn't spin people's minds like a mom-Sophia/daughter-Stephanie duo would.

April 18, 2014 2:02 PM

One similar situation I remember came a few years back, when I introduced a new coworker to the team. The team had a huge problem understanding what the coworker's name was, and kept asking for it again and again, and had trouble wrapping their heads around the name.

The coworker's name? Caitlin.

Eventually, it took me telling the mostly-Boomer team, "You're just not used to meeting an adult named Caitlin," and they understood the name no problem from there. 

I did not add, "What, did you honestly think your kids would stay children forever?"

April 19, 2014 8:21 PM

This happens to me and my mother all the time! I'm in my twenties and my mom is 30 years older than I am. I am constantly called by her name (Lauren) by people who know both of us.

April 20, 2014 10:29 PM

At my son's dance class, there is a woman named Charlotte with a daughter named Stephanie. It trips me up every time! They are Asian, and from the mother's accent, I can tell she wasn't born here, so maybe the names didn't sound generational to her when she chose them.

April 21, 2014 2:14 PM


We are good friends with a couple. The woman is Blake and her husband is Taylor.... it can be so confusing. They always get mail to Mr. and Mrs. Blake, etc. and no one can ever remember. 

Oddly enough, I'm sure when they were named the intention was that unisex or androgenous names would help them to be memorable. Although in pairs it has the complete opposite affect and is the butt of a lot of jokes.

I also know a mother with daughters named Morgan and Jordan. I can't keep the two separate in my mind as both girls have unisex names and are categorized somehow in my mind as the same exact name. I am really good with names, but I always have to think twice before those. 

I agree with others that these issues shouldn't keep you from choosing the name but I would hate not to know the effects before choosing anyways. 

April 21, 2014 9:53 PM

A similar thing happened to me when I was talking with my husband about 2 people in a romantic relationship named Izzy and Damian.  It was an especially confusing conversation because Damian had just announced that his new name was Damian and he was no longer a girl.  He looked a LOT like a girl.  And Izzy was a guy, even though I associate that name with a girl's name, like short for Isabel.  So I'm looking at this picture of the two people and talking about them and I kept forgetting who was the guy and who was the girl.  Or girl-guy.  Strange world we live in. 

April 21, 2014 10:03 PM

I met a baby named Stephanie at a library storytime recently.  I don't remember the mom's name.  I remember the baby's name no problem because I thought, "Stephanie for a baby?"  It stuck out to me as unusual so I remember it.  Maybe I didn't get confused because I didn't bother to remember the mom's name lol.

April 22, 2014 5:22 PM

This is likely to happen to me. Little girls named Charly (sometimes a nn, sometime not) are everywhere, and my favorite names peaked in the '60s (Patrick and Moira are two I love). So it will probably be a bit like my reaction to a fellow teacher named Shauna, who was all of 2 years older than me.

April 22, 2014 11:53 PM

My husband, in his 50s, is named Calin; our 12-year-old son is named George. They definitely trigger the generational switcheroo problem. 

April 23, 2014 9:49 AM

I've probably done this to our daughter. Her name peaked in popularity in the five-ten years or so before I was born, and my name is trendy now. Neither of our names were horribly unpopular when either of us were born, but they probably do seem time-stamped to each other's generation.

April 23, 2014 10:27 AM

When I heard about the show "Up All Night" a couple of years ago, I couldn't get past the fact that Christina Applegate (who is 42) plays a woman named Reagan who has a baby daughter named Amy. Definitely a generational switcheroo there.

April 23, 2014 2:24 PM

Well what do you know... I pulled a name switcheroo!  My name is Arielle (age 35) and my daughter (age 4) is Sylvia.  Huh.  Interesting.

April 24, 2014 9:48 PM

This is why I feel that "timeless" names, like those listed in Laura's book are probably the best choices, even if they're aren't the most creative or "special." The idea that my child to sould be "dated" sociallt, either too young or old, by his or her name is unpleasant. There are a lot of social consquences that come with the "generational switcheroo" like not being taken seriously, or being deemed pretentious just by your name. But I see nothing wrong with using names that stray away from generational trends, in fact I often find it refreshing to hear of children with "older" names, whether contemporary or traditional, and adults with "newer" names. There are always going to be social problems regardless of the parents' choice of name, and if this is your only one, you're golden. And isn't it a statement in and of itself - that a name is, at the end of the day, just a name and YOU give your name character - when parents choose to do this? I like this message.

April 29, 2014 10:31 PM

This happens to me with a mom named Emily and daughter Elizabeth.  I still pause everytime I have to address either of them to make sure I've got it straight, and I've known them 10+ years!

We have it in our family too.  My husband has a currently-trendy name and my son is George.  Whenever we're in a situation that people see their names, they always assume that my husband is George and my son has the trendy name.  MIL was ahead of her time and we are maybe behind.  

Interestingly, those who had the most negative reaction to our son's name (this was before the new prince!)  were not people our age, but those of my grandparents age -- probably because it had been overrused when they were young.  By the time we were kids, George was already fading.

August 11, 2016 2:00 PM

I am 25 and my name is Caitlin.  I actually went to high school with several Caitlins. It was very popular in the late 80s early 90s. Its become popular for younger kids being spelled with the Lyn on the end of it. 

August 11, 2016 2:03 PM

I also have a Jocelyn and a Rowyn. So people confuse me and Jocelyn all the time.  Lol 

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