The 2008 Name Of The Year

Dec 7th 2008

As the year draws to a close we survey the naming landscape and assess what has changed, and what it means -- about names, and about our culture.  One message came through loud and clear in this year's reader nominations: 2008 was all about politics.  The presidential election dominated the nomination lineup, as it dominated headlines and emotions all year long.  (The name Barack would have been a no-brainer choice for Name of the Year, had it not been the 2007 selection.)  But there were still many naming stories, as you'll see in our honorees...

Second runner up: Cullen
Our token non-political name makes the grade with a double-hit on two of the year's biggest cultural events.  At the Beijing Olympics swimmer Cullen Jones was part of the record-setting U.S. 4x100 Freestyle Relay relay team, and made headlines as one of the first African-American swimming stars.  In movie theaters, Edward Cullen was an undead heartthrob.  As the teen-vampire sensation Twilight moved from book to screen, countless more adolescent girls added the name Cullen to their future-baby list.  In January, Cullen was barely on the radar as a baby name; from now on it's a player.

First runner up: Track, Bristol, Willow, Piper and Trig
When Sarah Palin became the Republican vice presidential nominee, her children's names became a sensation.  Much of the country was fascinated, puzzled, even horrified.  Yet in places like Alaska and Utah those names aren't so weird at all, and places like Alaska and Utah are often leading indicators of name trends to come.  The Palin kids performed a cultural service, making broad swaths of Americans take their first look at the naming revolution that is sweeping our country.  If you still think of Jill and Tracy as popular names, it's time for a wake up call.  Neither name ranks in the top 1000 for girls, while Essence, Karma, Shyann, Chasity and Armani all do.

And yet, the official 2008 Name of the Year is:


That's Average Joe, Joe Blow, a good Joe, say it ain't so Joe...or rather "Amtrak Joe" Biden, Joe Six-Pack and Joe the Plumber.

The use of Joe to refer to the American everyman peaked in the 1920s-50s.  The idiomatic use had been dying out in recent years, and when it did pop up the connotation had shifted toward the derisive. The "good Joe" of the '40s, that responsible, hardworking fellow, had morphed into the soft, ineffectual Joe Schmo and Joe Six-Pack.  Instead of standing for an anybody, Joe had become a nobody.

Not any more.  After the 2008 presidential campaign, Joe has reclaimed its position as the proud baby-name symbol of the American masses.  Even Joe Six-Pack has been elevated from couch potato status to icon, as if we measure our national character in 12-ounce servings.

It wouldn't have worked with just any name.  Take the case of Joe the Plumber, who became the working-man mascot of the Republican campaign.  Imagine, if you will, "Braedyn the Plumber" or "Dakotah the Plumber."  Not quite the same punch, eh?  The name Joe struck a special chord in part because of its history of standing for the everyman, but also because it hearkened back to an earlier America: the America that actually named its sons Joe.

The popularity of the name Joseph peaked in 1911.  That year, America's top 10 boys' names were:

1. John
2. William
3. James
4. George
5. Robert
6. Joseph
7. Charles
8. Frank
9. Edward
10. Thomas

That's a veritable honor roll of "ordinary guy" names.  In 1911, they accounted for 21% of boys born. Last year?  4%.  Even as Joe returns to its throne as the esteemed everyman, that everyman (as measured by baby names) is getting harder and harder to find.

What's more, the supposed Average Joes themselves -- the small-town blue-collar and farming families celebrated in the campaign as "real America" -- are abandoning the ordinary names the fastest.  Check out the name Joseph in the NameMapper.  It's still a top-5 name in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey, but it's out of the top 35 in rural Iowa, Montana and Vermont. 

The real political symbolism of the name Joe was not merely ordinariness, but commonality.  Joe represented a shared vision of normality, of a wholesome, small-town America as the nation's cultural baseline.  A nation of Joes is easier to wrap your mind around than a nation of Braedyns, Dakotahs, Shyanns, Armanis...and Baracks.  But if baby names speak truth, that common Joe is largely a romantic illusion.  It's worth contemplating that the self-styled "small-town hockey mom" candidate who celebrated Joe Six-Pack and Joe the Plumber gave her own kids names like Track and Bristol. 

So whither Joe the Baby Name?  Ironically, the repeated celebration of Joe's ordinariness makes it seem a little more special.  It's no longer just one of the crowd of Bobs and Bills, but more of a tough, fun-loving everybloke.  That could give Joe a boost among the neo-traditionalists who go for names like Jack and Max (and who may be inclined toward Joes like Biden and Lieberman more than Six-Pack).  But in much of the country, Joe is now stronger as a symbol than a name.  Braedyn the Plumber's day is nigh.

With best wishes for the naming year to come,


The Advanced Name Finder Advances

Dec 3rd 2008

If you've looked up names in Namipedia, you've probably noticed a feature called "Advanced Search."  If you tried it, you could be excused for thinking "err...what's so Advanced?"  Take heart!  Today the Namipedia Advanced Name Finder takes some big steps toward living up to its name.

The Name Finder now features "Style Preferences" that let you narrow down your search results based on some fundamental qualities of the names.  For instance, you can request--or reject--nicknames, biblical names, or word/place names.  You can specify that you want a traditional name, or a contemporary name, or strikingly unusual name sure to spark comments.

Best of all, you can combine those stylistic requirements with other features of the name, such as letters, length and popularity.  Only in Namipedia can you say "I want a four-syllable name ending in -a that's traditional but uncommon."  Or "show me some surnames & placenames that contain the letter string MAR, because I somehow have to name this kid after Grandpa Marvin."

I hope you'll have fun playing with the Name Finder.  Like everything in Namipedia, it's still a growing pup; it will keep changing and adding new, powerful features over time.

Try the new Advanced Baby Name Finder!


Giving Thanks

Nov 26th 2008

This week, Americans celebrate Thanksgiving.  It's a lovely holiday, an occasion to gather together in appreciation and give thanks for the bounty with which we are blessed.  This seems a natural time to consider baby names rooted in the concept of gratitude.  Here's a sampling:

Bongani (Zulu, male, "give thanks")
Shakir (Arabic, male, "grateful")
Shukura (Kiswahili, female, "grateful")
Tatenda (Shona, male/female, "thank you")
Tendai (Shona, female, "be thankful")

No, I didn't intentionally avoid names of European origin.  Oddly enough, European naming tradition -- which directly celebrates many other virtues -- offers little in the way of gratitude.

Some names may seem to suggest thanks.  Grace, for instance, shares deep etymological roots with the word gratitude.  The two concepts make contemporary links in some languages whenever you give thanks (gracias, grazie), and in English when you say grace before meals.  But other powerful connotations, especially elegance and God's love, dominate the name's meaning. 

Similarly, divine gifts are celebrated in a plethora of names: Bogdan, Donato, Dorothy, Jonathan, Matthew, Theodore, Zebadiah.  The focus, though, is on the child himself as God's gift to the family.  That's a loving expression of parental gratitude, but different from a celebration of the fundamental virtue of thankfulness.

For more direct expressions of gratitude in English names, you have to look back in time.  The Puritans were known to use Thankful as a name along with Obedience, Humility and their ilk in centuries past.  And you'll occasionally -- very occasionally -- find a namesake of Saint Deogratias.

Or you could just stick with Grace.  Your daughter might be especially thankful if you did.