Say Goodbye to the All-American Nice Guy Names
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.