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 nickanmes 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.
Surnames as first names used to be the hallmark of preppy style. Brothers named Easton and Brantley conjured up school days at Exeter, sailing at Newport, and corner offices on Wall Street. Then a funny thing happened to the preps: they were invaded by cowboys.
Thanks in part to country music stars like Easton Corbin and Brantley Gilbert, surname style has started to shift from "prep school boy" to "good ol' boy." The new preppy cowboy style is one of the hottest name categories in America. But where do you turn if you want to capture that old-school prep school feeling?
Image via Shutterstock.com/ Tetiana Kovbasovska
The names below still hold onto the breezy, buttoned-down self-assurance of classic prep-school style. They range from popular (Carter) to rare (Collier), and from iconic preppy (Brooks) to quirky (Fielding). For the purest old-school approach, though, also try searching your own family tree. Celebration of family lineage is how preppy style came to be.
CLASSIC PREPPY SURNAMES
There’s a trend I’m seeing all over the place - after years of multisyllabic names like Alexander and Isabella topping the charts, many parents are moving back towards short-and-sweet baby names. Favorites Luke, Jack, and Zoe have energy and vigor without 10+ letters or 4+ syllables weighing them down. If this trend speaks to you, check out some uncommon finds below!
Bea. With classic Beatrice rising through the ranks, perhaps it’s time to try the nickname without the icing! Bea just buzzes with spirit and tenacity, blending the sounds of gardens with those of historical records - Bea ranked in the top 1000 briefly in the early 1900’s. It can honor just about any familial B name, from Bill to Barbara to Brittany, but Bea showcases a personality all its own.
Cas. This uber-trendy beginning shows up all over the top 1000 - Cash, Cassius, Castiel, Cassidy, Cassandra - and ranks fairly well in Belgium and the Netherlands. Let’s cut the extra syllables and keep it simple! Cas and Cass belonged to the boys in the 1880’s, but the girls claimed it during the twentieth century. Now that the twenty-first century is upon us, it’s time to take it back! Cas fits in with Kai and Cole, exuding friendliness with a vintage attitude.
Davi. Quintessential David has never left the top 35 in US history. Perhaps it’s time to drop a letter and add a dose of vivacity! The Portuguese variation, Davi, is currently #2 in Brazil and #56 in Portugal; you may have heard the name already, futebol fans! Pronounced “Dah-vee”, it’s a great, rarely-used alternative to names like Levi or Daniel. Because of the Latin-language trend sweeping the nation - looking at you, Olivia and Diego - I predict that Davi will soar in the coming years. But no matter its popularity, Davi will always maintain its dynamic individuality!
Dex. One letter from popular Dax, but with an entirely new personality! Dex is, obviously, a diminutive of the darling and retro Dexter. Though it means “dyer”, Dexter does sound like the words dexterous and dexterity, which is probably how it became so cool. But what does the short form Dex have to offer? A catchy sound, a visual and auditory x-factor, and rare usage - only 26 Dex’s were born last year - to say the least. Looking for something with history, but not a name that’s stuck in the past? Try Dex!
Fife. A few weeks ago, this column explored musical names for girls. Fife, though unisex, fits right in! While it’s often recognized as a musical instrument, Fife is also an uncommon Scottish last name. The name originally comes from the Kingdom of Fife in Scotland, referenced in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. If the name is well-rooted in the Renaissance, then, why look at it for future trends? With names like Finn and Piper in the top 300, Fife continues current trends to an extreme, combining the peculiar word, the surname factor, and the musical element into one concise name selection!
Joie. While this name has three distinct pronunciations in the US - “Jwah”, “Joy”, and “Joey” - the former is the original French for “joy”. Many have heard the phrase “joie de vivre”, meaning “joy of life”. Whichever you choose, Joie has a high-spirited European feel, an elegance adorned with amity. While the girls have kept Joie feminine, it has also been used for boys over the years. Its short sound but positive vibe makes Joie perfect for your own little phenomenon.
Poe. Just as Luke and Leia have found their way onto the top 500, so shall the fantastic Poe! Until last year, most of us were only familiar with Poe as a last name, usually honoring the American author. But in 2015, nine boys were named Poe, almost doubling the numbers from the year prior. With two more Star Wars installments on the way, it’s only a matter of time before the name grows astro-nomically (I apologize). As for its other merits: Poe is melodic, literary, and bolder than its size would indicate. The one drawback that many are aware of - there is, in fact, a Teletubby named Po.
Vienne. Vivienne Jolie-Pitt’s name inspired many parents after her birth in 2008; the name leapt from obscurity onto the top 1000, beginning its rise at #532. Now that Vivienne and Vivian have made their presence known, let’s look at a new contender: Vienne. It’s either a short short of Vivienne or the French spelling of the Austrian city, Vienna (believed to mean “white fort”). Vienne is dramatic and provocative, a disyllabic powerhouse. Its French aura and feminine strength make it a daring choice.
Yara. A figure from Brazilian mythology, Yara is a type of water nymph known for beauty and magical powers. This mermaid-like maiden has inspired many in Brazil to name their daughters after her - not a bad power at that! In Arabic, the name Yara means “precious ruby”, and is associated with a number of Egyptian and Lebanese celebrities. Yara is pretty but unexpected, friendly but substantial. Like the other Brazilian name on this list, Davi, it’s been rising over the past few years and could jump into the top 1000 based solely on its cross-cultural assets. But Yara is more than the sum of its many positive traits!
Ziva. An upbeat, passionate name, Ziva was introduced to the US through the character of Ziva David on NCIS. It means “radiant” or “bright”, qualities that definitely shine through its form. Ziva is also one spelling of the second month in the Jewish calendar - a unique heritage choice! Both masculine and feminine forms of the name are used in Israel, as well as variants Ziv or Sivan. Since the name is so rare in the US, Ziva would take some explaining - but this lovely choice is more than worth the effort!