Pop quiz: nicknames

Nov 12th 2005

Two girls in my daughter's class share the same name, so the teachers use their last initials to distinguish them. That's hardly a news flash, I know. It's the same in classes across the country. But a bit ironic in this case because of the name: Elizabeth.

Once upon a time, England was so thick with Elizabeths that elaborate means were needed to tell them all apart. As a result, the name boasts an unparalleled collection of nicknames. Bess, Beth, Betsy, Betty, Eliza, Elsie, Libby, Lise, Liz, Lizbeth...there's an Elizabeth to fit any mood. Yet in this nickname-averse age, we stick with the full version and resort to last initials.

The traditional nicknames aren't all dying out, though. You'll still meet many a young Eliza or Lizbeth, but chances are it's her full given name. A Tessa, similarly, is unlikely to be Theresa nowadays, and a Jack is seldom John. In fact, we've gotten so comfortable with many nicknames that they've become untethered from their origins. It's been going on for generations--just look at the thousands of Minnies of the 1800s, worlds removed from staid Wilhelmina. (And Minnie's friend Mickey was probably never called Michael.) So a little quiz for you: what full name was the traditional source of...


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Answers (you didn't peek ahead, did you?)

Buffy: Elizabeth, naturally
Colin: Nicholas (also adopted as a form of the Gaelic Cailean)
Dolly: Dorothy
Jenny: Jane or Jean (long before Jennifer)
Maisie: Margaret (via the Scottish Mairead)
Nancy: Anne (and earlier, Annis/Agnes)
Nell: Helen or Eleanor
Polly: Mary (via Molly)
Sally: Sarah

Slow and steady

Nov 3rd 2005

Last week, I talked about "date-stamped" names that rise and fall seemingly overnight. The opposites of these are the timeless classics, names that remain trend-proof across generations. Katherine and Joseph, for instance, have been steadily popular through most of American history. When you hear those names, you have no clue whether the person is aged 1 or 100.

What about names that are steady, but not popular? Can you achieve the same timelessness with a name that's uncommon, or even surprising?

In fact, some of the most trend-proof names have flown steadily under the radar. Looking at the past 125 years of American baby names, I identified 450 names which ranked among the top 1000 for boys or girls in every decade. (A steadily unheard-of name isn't really timeless, but simply rare.) Then I looked for the most trend-proof names, regardless of overall level of usage. (My criterion for trend resistance, in case you're interested, is range/mean.) As it turns out, the #1 most timeless name in America is not Katherine or Joseph, or Elizabeth or James. It's one you'd probably never think of:


With its current popularity rank of #771, Antonia is a regular on my lists of underused names. Its grace and dignity stand up well to current favorites like Caroline and Sophia. And it is absolutely rock-solid timeless.

Antonia is a bit of an exception, though. Girls' names have always been most subject to fashion swings, and the uncommon-but-timeless roster is dominated by boys. Some of the notables:



There's some pretty good variety in that list, but if a single theme emerges it's an air of formality. From the smoothly urbane (Noel) to the classical (Claudia) to the aggressively sophisticated (Sterling), this is by and large a group that takes itself seriously. Formal fashions are more resistant to change than casual styles. A tuxedo is still a tuxedo, actresses dressing for the Academy Awards still try to look like Grace Kelly. And Katherine is still elegant, reliable Katherine...even as Kathi disappears from view.

Date stamps

Oct 28th 2005

The 1982 movie Blade Runner featured a dark view of the future, with an urban landscape overwhelmed by advertising. The hallmark of the year 2019 was to be vast, omniprescent plugs for the likes of Pan Am airlines and the Bell telephone system. As it turned out, of course, neither company survived the 20th century.

Of all the cultural attitudes that define an era, one of the quickest to fall out of date is its vision of the future. Commonplace things we take for granted can disappear, while fantastical ideas become commonplace. (Right now I'm sitting in a cafe, typing on the powerful little computer I carry in my shoulder bag, beaming this message through the air so that it can be published instantly to the computers of people around the world as I sip my coffee. Not as cool as replicants, maybe, but pretty close.)

Selecting a new, contemporary-sounding name is stating your vision of the fashion future. It's a risky business, staying ahead of the curve. What sounds most new today can end up sounding most old in a few generations time. Take the young boys named Google and ESPN...will they sound like Pan Am a decade from now?

Rapid obsolesence most often hits names that pop up overnight in response to a cultural moment. Consider Farrah:

Farrah was a pure creation of the 1976-77 television season, when Farrah Fawcett made a splash on "Charlie's Angels." As soon as she left the show, the name plummeted. A modest rebound hit in the late '80s following Fawcett's comeback in more "serious" fare like Extremities...and the coming of age of all the young girls who idolized her a decade before. Yet overall, the impression this name gives is of a date stamp reading "Best if Born Before 1/1/78."

An example from another era, Hoover:

Hoover vacuum cleaners were already a household name when Herbert Hoover ran for president in 1928, but that didn't stop American parents from bestowing the name on their newborn sons. (Herbert had nothing to do with vacuums himself, that company was the work of one W.H. Hoover.)

The cultural associations of names like Hoover and Farrah help freeze them in time. While Farrah is a snapshot image of feathered hair and polyester, Hoover brings up a more poignant picture of the start of the Great Depression. That image is reiforced by another icon of the era, Herbert's namesake Hoover Dam on the Colorado River. The dam was built between 1931 and 1935. By 1933 Roosevelt was in office and tried to erase Hoover's name from the project, just as political change erased the name from America's nurseries.

There's something quite touching about these date-stamped names. They're living memorials to the time when a baby entered the world. In fact, many parents surely intend them as such -- the Neils born after Neil Armstrong's moon walk, the Dougs and McArthurs of the World War II years. So a date stamp isn't necessarily a cause for alarm...just don't expect to be able to lie about your age.