Is nothing sacred? 2016 was the year that answered the question with a resounding "Nope." Boundaries were crossed, news was faked, the solemn was mocked, the unutterable was spoken (then shared and re-shared). Around the world, "what-if" scenarios were replaced by "what now?"
We might not have realized it at the time, but we had a little preview of what was to come back in March, in the form of a name:
In case you missed it -- or in case the frantic pace of the year's news wiped it from your memory -- here's the story.
In March, the British Government's Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) prepared to start construction on a major new research vessel. The £200 millon ship was expected to transform critical research efforts in polar regions. The NERC saw the moment as an opportunity to raise awareness of the vessel and of their important overall mission, and they came up with a publicity idea. They invited the public to suggest names for the ship via social media, and to vote on them using the hashtag #NameOurShip.
One man jokingly nominated the name Boaty McBoatface. The suggestion went viral, and that name was the runaway winner of the popular vote.
The NERC was not amused. They announced that the vessel would bear the more respectful name RRS Sir David Attenborough, and consigned the name Boaty to one of the ship's small remotely operated submarines. The internet wasn't happy about the grownups stepping in and breaking up its fun. A short-lived online campaign called for Sir David Attenborough himself to change his name to Sir Boaty McBoatface. The whole process made the polar research vessel the most talked-about ship in the world.
In Britain, the affair led to some serious soul-searching. Scientists were even summoned to Parliament to discuss the ramifications of the naming fiasco. The viral vote was called a shameful trivialization by some, while others hailed it as a public relations coup that attracted vast attention to the research enterprise. Similarly, some were outraged that the NERC quashed democracy by overruling the public's choice of name, while others saw the Boaty prank itself as a perversion of the democratic process.
Perhaps, in fact, it was all of the above. As The Atlantic wrote, "(I)s the Boaty McBoatface Affair really a perversion of democracy? What if it's actually a manifestation of how democracy tends to work in practice?"
The crowd doesn't always show wisdom. It's swayed by self-interest, by bias, by laziness, by novelty, by the allure of shiny objects. The crowd will choose immediate gratification over long-term benefits, just as individuals do.
BabyNameWizard.com reader jwanders nominated Boaty McBoatface as Name of the Year with this in mind, describing the name as an emblem of "a large number of people making a choice without enough consideration of the consequences." Reader PJ expanded on the theme:
"Be careful what you ask for, crowd sourcing, what is and is not a 'legitimate' process or name, an underdog that's not taken seriously for good reasons that surprisingly wins, and the element of ridiculous absurdidity that becomes part of public discourse. Sounds like a name to represent 2016 to me."
In the months since the boat dust-up, other public naming initiatives have carefully limited the crowd's control over the final selection. When Canada chose a national bird last month, they balanced an online vote with expert advice. An official defended the decision to avoid a pure popularity contest, explaining "That's how you end up with Boaty McBoatface." Boaty had become the official symbol of public naming peril. (Baby-naming parents might also take it as a caveat about asking the anonymous internet to vote on Baby McBabyface's name.)
The boat-naming campaign was hardly the first social media vote to be hijacked for humor. When a 2012 Walmart promotion promised a live performance by the rapper Pitbull at whichever of their stores received the most Facebook "likes," a viral campaign exiled the star to the most remote Walmart possible, in Kodiak Alaska. The whims of crowdsourcing even predate the Internet. A 1970s Bronx elementary student vote on the name of their new school explains why P.S. 160 is called Walt Disney Elementary.
What's notable in this case is the growing willingness to be outrageous even about serious topics. There's a current of nihilism flowing beneath the humor, perhaps the same current that leads dissatisfied voters to say "to heck with it, let's just blow it all up."
Even viral nihilism needs a hook, though. In this case that hook was a catchy and cleverly formed name. Boaty McBoatface! The pairing of a familiar human name template with absurdly juvenile vocabulary makes for an instant classic. The name also functions as a snowclone, an adaptable meme form that can be endlessly recycled with different content. The homages came quickly. In May, Google released an open-source natural language parser under the name Parsey McParseface. And it got weirder.
In September, many news outlets reported on a new baby gorilla born at China's Jinhua Zoo. The zoo reportedly announced the birth on social media and invited the public to vote on the gorilla's name. The winning name, by a landslide, was Harambe McHarambeface -- boaty-fying the ubiquitous name of the dead gorilla Harambe.
Then those news outlets had to retract the gorilla story. It had been a hoax, spread via an elaborate and convincing fake news site.
If that's not 2016 in a nutshell, and in a name, I don't know what is.
Wishing you a safe and sane 2017,
Read More: 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.
This rising trend aims for double impact, in meaning and sound. Unlike traditional names, word names take their punch from their meanings. The upfront meaning is what makes Maverick so different from Frederick, and Destiny from Stephanie. A sharp single syllable amplifies the style. The effect is bold and confident, but not heavy. What's more, the word origin makes these names familiar and easy to pronounce, while they still sound new and fresh as names. That's proving to be an irresistible combination.
The 40 names below have all risen sharply in popularity over the past decade. Many have also taken off as middle names, where they make an eye-catching alternative to classic choices like Rose and James. The gender labels reflect current usage; in the case of unisex names, the more common gender is listed first.
Rising New One-Syllable Word Names
Bless (M, F)
Bliss (F, M)
Blue (M, F)
Cove (M, F)
Dream (F, M)
Lux (F, M)
Lynx (M, F)
Pax (M, F)
Reign (F, M)
Rogue (F, M)
Scout (F, M)
Teal (F, M)
Trust (M, F)
Truth (M, F)
Wren (F, M)
Read More: 41 Cool Word Names Nobody's Using