Say Goodbye to the All-American Nice Guy Names

Jul 6th 2016


Do you know any men called Mike, Jim, Tom or Dave? Sorry, that's a silly question. Of course you do. Those are bedrock All-American guy names, and literally millions of U.S. men answer to them. So let's try this instead: do you know any toddlers named Mike, Jim, Tom or Dave? I'm guessing not, because the All-American nicknames are disappearing.

The dramatic nickname decline actually started in the 1970s. Previously, short nicknames had been routine choices as given names, but that style fell out of favor in a hurry:

The graph shows familiar one-syllable nicknames with nickname style. (That is to say, names that are typically perceived as short versions of a longer name.) For a name-by-name view, here are all of the examples that ranked among America's top 200 boys' names in in 1940, 1960, 1980 and today:

Yes, that's an empty column for the most recent year's stats. As stark as these charts are, though, they don't convey the full scope of the disappearing-nickname phenomenon. The 1970s decline phased out nicknames as given names. A second 21st-century wave is now eliminating nicknames as nicknames.

Most of America's millions of Mikes and Jims actually have Michael and James printed on their drivers' licenses. Even in the 1960s nickname boom years there were 13 Michaels born for every Mike. If All-American guy nicknames were only disappearing as full given names, the effect on everyday name culture wouldn't be so great. Their disappearance as everyday nicknames is what's truly transforming the sound of our times.

This is an effect I can't easily graph. No hard statistics track whether kindergartners introduce themselves as Tom or Thomas. But I see the phenomenon in action every day, and it's huge. To get a rough idea of the magnitude, I polled friends with children asking how many Michaels their kids knew, and how many of them went by Mike or Mikey. The responses from parents across the country suggest that only one Michael in ten now calls himself Mike. In my own childhood, the Mike rate approached 100%.

For a visual version of this anecdotal evidence, try running a Google image search on the phrase "Michael is a big brother." You should see a lineup of preschool boys and little babies. Then try "Mike is a big brother." That search turns out to be a nearly baby-free jumble.

So let's accept that Mike and friends are disappearing from the name scene. Does it matter? Most name styles do come and go; just ask any Elmer or Bertha, or even Todd or Tina. This particular style of nicknames, though, has occupied a unique niche in American society for the better part of a century. They're the names people trust.

Politicians and salesmen have learned to bank on their sturdy, friendly, relatable appeal, the naming equivalent of a handshake and a smile. The appeal extends to the personal realm too, even providing a boost in online dating. The nice-guy nicknames are the names that draw people in and make them feel comfortable. And parents are totally abandoning them.

It may be that as tastes change, a new generation of names will come to symbolize friendly reliability. Perhaps Wyatt, Jeremiah, Jaxon and Mateo will be the 21st Century's handshake and a smile. Perhaps, but I doubt it. Nicknames, which greet the whole world like old friends, have built-in approachability. And just as importantly, part of what Mike and friends symbolize is consensus and common ground. Those qualities are notably lacking in today's naming patterns.

Back in 1960, Michael and David ranked among the top 5 names in every single state in the Union. In fact, they were #1 and #2 in more than half of states, a cross-section including such diverse locales as Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine and New Mexico. They were hits without cultural borders, appealing across racial, ethnic and class lines. When you hear of an American man named Michael or David, you assume absolutely nothing about his background. Consider this sampling of American Michaels and Davids born within 5 years of 1960:

Writer Michael Chabon
Businessman Michael Dell
Director David Fincher
Comedian David Alan Grier
Politician Mike Huckabee
Musician Michael Jackson
Athlete Michael Jordan
Designer Michael Kors
Writer David Sedaris

In the 1990s, Gatorade built a hugely successful advertising campaign around Michael Jordan with the slogan "Be Like Mike." The like/Mike rhyme was the hook, but the slogan worked in part because of the name itself. Mike was universal, relatable, achievable. It was as welcoming as Jordan's famous smile.

No 21st-century name approaches Michael and David's 20th-century reach. Today, Elijah is the #1 name in Oklahoma but ranks #42 in Massachusetts. Benjamin is #1 in Massachusetts but #38 in Hawaii. When New York City released baby name statistics broken down by race, the top 10 lists for black and white boys didn't share a single name in common. All of those Mikes, Jims, Toms and Daves now look like relics of the days when all of America watched the same three tv networks. The common ground—and the unassuming friendliness—they represented will be hard for any modern name to match.

Comments

1
July 7, 2016 9:31 AM

They are still around, it's just a different set of them:

Ben

Max

Jack

Jake

Sam

2
July 7, 2016 10:46 AM

I'd also like to point out that the number of "nickname names" on the SSA list may be artificially high, given the circumstances one often obtained a Social Security number back then. Many from that generation obtained their number at the time they got their first official job (they weren't required for parents to claim their kids on taxes until the late 1980s). Some may have put the nickname they go by on a daily basis instead of their birth-certificate name, and at that time "matching documents" was not as strictly enforced as it is now.

This is one of numerous artifacts on the older lists (since c. 1990s when numbers became routinely assigned at birth such "false" entries are much less common, except for "placeholder" names when a name is still undecided when the number is applied for).

3
July 7, 2016 11:54 AM

I'm not 100% convinced that the lack of children being called "Mike" and "Jim" and "Tom" translates to an avoidance of these names by those children when they become adults.  After all, it is currently the parents who are insisting on "Michael" and "James" and "Thomas."  I think parents of my generation (I'm 31) associate "Mike" and "Tom" and "Jim" with adults of our parents' and grandparents' generation, and they thus don't "sound right" on a baby.  But they remain in the public consciousness.  I strongly suspect a young Michael, James, or Thomas will be tempted, at some point in his life, to go by Mike, Jim, or Tom in a social or business setting.  Especially as time moves on, and a 23 year old James's Grandpa Jim dies, and James decides he wants to honor/ be like Grandpa Jim, etc.

It may not happen, names and trends are somewhat unpredictable, but I wouldn't be surprised if some of these nicknames are generally taken up by adults with the requisite given name.

4
July 7, 2016 6:57 PM

I'm curious whether you actually tested your google images search idea? When I type in "Michael is a big brother" I see a bunch of middle aged men pictures as well, mostly Big Brother contestants.

5
July 8, 2016 8:32 PM

I keep looking at the huge peaks and valleys on the chart. Looks like the spike is about late 1950s thru early 1970s as far as actual nickname style names (Mike, Jim, et al.)

Being someone born in the middle of that period, I do get it, having known many Toms, Tommys, Mikes, etc. Like today we know of "just Jack" or "just Max" as PP suggested.

I see that the graph starts at 1915. Being possibly a little unique in that even though I'm a little older than many people looking at this blog, I am not really old. But, I am closer in my family tree than others my age. In other words, I was born to older parents who had older parents, so ALL of my grandparents were born in the 19th century.

I preface all the above in order to make a point.

I remember people who knew each other all or most of their lives who referred to each other as "Mr. Smith and Mrs. Jones."

Both my grandmothers knew each other very well and called each other and referred to each other as "Mrs. Smith and Mrs. Jones." - actual pronunciation Miz.

If friendly people were trying to sell something to someone, the dialogue would be something like, "Hello, Mr. Smith, Stanley Jones here. Would you like to test drive that vehicle?" "Yes, Mr. Jones, thank you."

So Stanley Jones may have been called Stan or Stanny to his family and very close friends, but Mr. Jones to acquantances either known forever or in a business circumstance. So the "friendly" "Hi, I'm Stan" didn't apply several years ago. Things were just more formal.

Then again, when a person was a "Thomas" but someone shortened it to "Tommy" back in the day, usually the person or the parents didin't freak out.

Then things started to change.

I have a family member not too much younger than myself whose parents insisted that he was "Benjamin" and not "Ben." And no one, including my 19th century grandparents had a problem with it. Then it seemed to be just the usual thing.

It may be true that online dating sites and other circumstances that short nns may be more popular, but are you saying that it is a name like Mike or Jack? I wouldn't take a date online, but I think Mike would be weird for me - no offense to that name - have many in my family.

Now that I've said all this, I wonder about the girls. Back in the day a Rosa might instantly get called Rosie. Reading questions on this site, many people love a female name that have a "formal" name with nn appeal. Do you have a chart or statistics on women?

 

6
July 9, 2016 3:13 PM

I was born toward the end of WWII, and I am still displeased when random people I don't know presume to call me by my first name.  Just no.  I taught at university for thirty years and I never called a student anything but honorific plus surname, and I would not tolerate a student calling me by my first name, even a mature graduate student.  Never mind nicknames.  I know my grad students called me by my nickname (and some modifiers) behind my back, but to my face, no.  

7
July 10, 2016 10:23 AM

"By CamillaJuly 7, 2016 9:31 AM

They are still around, it's just a different set of them:

Ben

Max

Jack

Jake

Sam"

Camilla, I really don't believe that the stats bear out the "changing of the guard" theory. Those nicknames may be the most popular today, but they don't come close to past generations.

For instance, Jake is the current #1 nickname by far. But even if you assume that 100% of Jacobs answer to Jake, which is not nearly the case, it's only one-fifth as popular as Mike and Dave both were -- and far behind Tom, Jim, Bill, etc. etc as well. (And you may be surprised to hear that Ben/Benjamin was actually far more common in 1960 than it is today!)

8
September 6, 2016 4:51 PM

My son was born in 1984 and named David Jeffrey.  He is called David by family members but all his friends call him Dave.  I was not fond of the nn Dave but I've gotten used to it.  To me, the name David is not a name that has fallen out of popularity.  My grandson, born in 2012, was named James but at the last second my daughter changed it to Ezekiel James.  I wish his name was James but it was not to be. He's called Zeke.  Hence my name here.

9
September 15, 2016 11:13 PM

Its interesting the confusion between given name and nickname usage. I would Never call a kid Liam over william on the basis he might end up liking bill and could easily adopt liam. A name like william or james is just classier in print and it gives you options. That said i would never go by something likes james or william in person with so many great relatable likeable strong nick names out there espesically on James, Jim, Jay, Jake (especially with jacob etymology connection), Jack are all right there and way more likely to be your buddy. If Jim is too common in one area just pick again.

 

On a side note, I've read the post on naming sweet spots by generation. Just wondering if there are any other long term trends that would help pick names my childs generation is more likely to prefer?