The Mysterious Persistence of Little Johnny

Nov 25th 2010

The current Thanksgiving cover of the New Yorker magazine shows a turkey divided into sections for the many attendees of a holiday dinner. The center is labeled big and bold for the nuclear family:


Now, when was the last time you met a family with kids named Tommy and Sue?

This isn't a simple case of retro style. The rest of the turkey, after all, is allocated to the likes of "Nazi-Biker Grandma" and "Mono-Syllabic Estonian Exchange Student." Rather, it's an example of a distinctive faux-name species: the Mid-Century Normative Child (MCNC).

These generic symbols of American childhood are all around us. They're almost always diminutives, which makes sense to signal youth. But they're not today's nicknames; there are no little Maddies or Jakes. More curiously, they're not the names of 10 or 20 or even 40 years ago, either. And as the years roll by, they don't change.

I remember the generic use of "Little Johnny" sounding old-fashioned back in my 1970s childhood. All these years later, Johnny still rules the roost along side the New Yorker's Tommy and Sue, as well as Jimmy (a generic child I spotted in a recent Dear Abby column). All of those names had their heydays in the mid 1940s. The most up-to-date name on the standard MCNC list is Timmy, which peaked in the late '50s.

It's as if we locate the essence of childhood itself in that narrow historical period. There's some logic to that. The early bound is set by the end of WWII, and the first generation of American kids fully protected by child labor laws. The end is the last cohort to experience childhood before the creeping cynicism of the Vietnam era. We signal "little kids" with names historically pinned to innocence and carefree prosperity.

Logical, perhaps, but to me a little defeatist. We're still raising kids, after all, and they can still -- on a good day -- give all of us jaded grownups glimpses of the world's magic and possibilities. So here's to little Maddie and Jake, and all they represent.

2010 Name of the Year: Call for Nominations

Nov 17th 2010

Every December, honors one name that shaped -- and was shaped by -- the year that's been.

The Baby Name Wizard Name of the Year isn't necessarily the most popular baby name. It's a name that changed during the course of the year and points to more changes around us. It's a one-name time capsule, reminding us of how names are woven into the fabric of society, connecting to and reflecting everything that goes on in our culture.

Past honorees have come from Hollywood, politics and literature. They have included names of individuals real (Barack, Taylor), fictional (Renesmee), and conceptual (Joe, in the year of Joe Six-Pack and Joe the Plumber). What they all had in common was zeitgeist...and your nominations.

This is a group effort. The criteria for the Name of the Year selection include:

- A dramatic change in the name's usage or social meaning

- A reflection of a broader cultural theme, or influence on broader style trends

- In the case of current events, "naminess" -- how essential the name is to the story

- Your votes. The NOTY is always selected from reader nominations. The number of nominations counts in the decision, and compelling arguments in support of your candidate count most of all.

Please post your nominations in comments here, and feel free to second others' suggestions. Then look for the official Name of the Year announcement in December!

Backwards Baby Names: The Master List

Nov 11th 2010

It isn't just Nevaeh anymore.

Wordplay names, especially reversed spellings, are on the rise with namers of all styles. Aidan and Nadia, for instance, is a top-10 pairing for male/female twins. Semaj, created from James, is a top-1000 name for boys...and in the top 2000 for girls, too.

But like month and season names, this style is self-limiting. Not many names sound as good backwards as they do forwards. To spare you sleepless nights mulling over non-starters like Dennis, Lana and Star, I've combed through 4000 names (the top 2000 for boys and girls) to find the plausible backwards name pairs. All names in the left column rank in the top 2000; I eliminated pairs like Alaya and Ayala that are too close to consider using in the same family.

Adair / Riada
Adela / Aleda
Adiel / Leida
Aidan / Nadia
Ajani / Inaja
Alani / Inala
Alec / Cela
Alex / Xela
Alexi / Ixela
Ali / Ila
Allen / Nella
Ameer / Reema
Amin / Nima
Amir / Rima
Amirah / Harima
Anali / Ilana
Ani / Ina
Arden / Nedra
Ares / Sera
Ari / Ira
Aric / Cira
Ariel / Leira
Ariyah / Hayira
Aven / Neva
Avi / Iva
Axel / Lexa
Ayah / Haya
Aydan / Nadya
Flor / Rolf
Halie / Eilah
Hayes / Seyah
Iman / Nami
Issac / Cassi
Ivan / Navi
Kavon / Novak
Lina / Anil
Mac / Cam
Mara / Aram
Miah / Haim
Mika / Akim
Mikah / Hakim
Miles / Selim
Naima / Amian
Nala / Alan
Nate / Etan
Naya / Ayan
Noa / Aon
Noel / Leon
Nola / Alon
Nova / Avon
Nya / Ayn
Om / Mo
Semaj / James
Siri / Iris
Zaid / Diaz