5 Names that Mattered in 2016
Each year, names make their mark as signs of their times. These five names were woven into the essence of 2016.
#5: Simone. This was a big year for a classic name. At the Rio Olympics, swimmer Simone Manuel took gold in the 100-meter freestyle, becoming the first African-American woman to medal in an individual swimming event. Her Team USA teammate, gymnast Simone Biles, earned 4 gold medals including the individual all-around and was widely hailed as the greatest female gymnast in history.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
Just a few months earlier, a biographical film on seminal jazz musician and civil rights activist Nina Simone hit theaters. While the film was poorly received, it succeeded at shining a fresh spotlight on Ms. Simone and her legacy. Put it all together and the year established the name Simone as an emblem of African-American women with boundless talent, strength and determination.
Image: Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons
#4: Little Marco. 2016 was a big year for taunting nicknames, which burst from the schoolyard to the national political stage. Candidate Donald Trump broke that barrier frequently and enthusiastically, tossing barbed names at his opponents. The moniker "Little Marco" for Marco Rubio, in particular, was a clinic in name-based insults.
Parents often worry that a baby name has "teasing potential" based on iffy initials or rhyming words. But any good schoolyard bully knows that the taunts that stick -- and sting -- are more about the target than the name. They probe for weak points. Rubio was a baby-faced senator, the youngest and shortest man on the debate stage, with a tendency to repeat canned lines when under pressure. The "Little Marco" label cast him as a ineffectual fledgling, and that image proved hard to shake.
Image: Jon Durr/Getty Images
#3: Harambe. In May, a 3-year-old boy fell into a gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo. Zoo officials made a controversial decision to shoot and kill the gorilla, named Harambe, to protect the boy. (The name comes from harambee, which is Swahili for "all pull together" and is the national motto of Kenya.) The killing sparked widespread outrage, and then the outrage itself sparked a furor about how comparatively little the public reacted to violent deaths of African-American humans.
Then, because it was 2016, the tragedy became a meme. The internet started treating Harambe as a kind of all-purpose cult hero to stick into any situation for a cheap laugh. Some observers voiced concern that the jokes about an African gorilla with a memorably African name had racist undertones. Then white supremacists got on board and turned the undertones into the main message, using Harambe as a platform to demean African-Americans. At that point social media figures who had earlier sparked the Harambe craze tried to denounce it, but you can't put a viral genie back in its bottle.
Image via frankieleon/Flickr
#2: Brexit. "United Kingdom European Union membership referendum" is such a mouthful. Why not just "British Exit" -- or better yet, Brexit?
The contraction was a piece of literal political reductionism that rendered a huge decision with complex, far-reaching consequences deceptively simple. It also represented a high-water mark for portmanteau names in the arena of serious news. Celebrity couples have routinely been tagged with mashups like Brangelina since the early 2000s. Now major geopolitical events qualify for the same treatment, but upon the dissolution rather than creation of a union.
#1: Becky. Beyoncé's song "Sorry," a kiss-off anthem to an unfaithful man, featured the most talked-about lyric of the year:
He only want me when I'm not there
He better call Becky with the good hair
"Good hair," in this context, doesn't just mean "having a good hair day." It's understood from longtime African-American usage to mean straight hair, and it evokes generations of biased beauty standards and the lengths black women have gone to to meet them. Similarly, the name Becky here doesn't just mean "a woman named Rebecca." Its an established archetype/stereotype: a term for a generic young white woman.
A Becky is generally depicted with a blinkered worldview. In Sir Mix-a-Lot's 1992 rap "Baby Got Back," a female voice with an exaggerated white Valley drawl talked cattily about a black woman's body:
Oh, my, God Becky, look at her butt
It is so big, she looks like
One of those rap guys' girlfriends.
A Becky is also portrayed as being generous with sexual favors. A 2010 rap song called "Becky" linked the name to one type of sexual favor in particular. (No line from that song is printable here).
"Sorry" briefly fueled a frenzy of speculation on the identity of Beyoncé's Becky, but songwriter Diana Gordon insisted that it wasn't about any specific individual. Some read the line as a more general commentary on society's white-leaning beauty ideals and the toll they take, even on a woman as famously beautiful as Beyoncé.
Others suggested that the use of the name Becky constituted a racial slur. White rapper Iggy Azalea tweeted "dont ever call me a becky" and objected to "generalizing ANY race by calling them one sterotypical name for said race." Still others hear the line as a defiant statement of self-acceptance: If you don't value me as I am then you can just go find somebody else, I'm going to be me. The debate showcases how much cultural information names convey -- and means headaches for any real woman named Becky.