The Names of the Nameless: Move Over, John Doe and John Q. Public

Jun 19th 2014

What do you call a nobody -- or an anybody? In American English, we have plenty of answers. You'll hear nameless males referred to as:

John Doe
John Smith
John Q. Public
Joe Schmo
Little Johnny

All are anonymous, yet none are synonymous. There are many ways to be nameless.

John Doe is most often a specific individual whose identity is either unknown (as in the case of a body found at an accident scene) or concealed (as in the case of confidential legal proceedings). Relatives: Jane Doe, Richard Roe.

John Smith is a flexible generic individual, often encountered in hypothetical situations or as a placeholder to indicate where a name should go. Relatives: Jane Smith.

John Q. Public is a representative member of American society. As the the typical man on the street, he is a probabilistic mix of social strata and frequently encountered in policy discussions. Relatives: Jane Q. Public, John Q. Taxpayer.

Joe Schmo is the put-upon American everyman; the hard-working, hard-luck side of John Q. Public. Relatives: Joe Blow, Joe Sixpack, Average Joe, Every Tom, Dick and Harry. Notably, he has no direct female counterpart.

Little Johnny is a representative American child, presumed to be part of a representative American nuclear family. Relatives: Little Timmy, Little Susie, and the rest of the Mid-Century Normative Child gang.

Then there are more specialized anybodies. "The Joneses" are hypothetical friends and neighbors who set community standards. "Alan Smithee" was, for decades, the anonymous director of any film disowned by its creator. You can even make a case for Spartacus as a name of anonymity via solidarity (or at the very least, a good Starbucks prank).

Even these placeholder names only hint at the possibilities. It seems to me we could use a generic name for telemarketers. Or maybe more than one; "Cassie Cause" is a different sort from "Mickey Mortgage."

What's more, the translation of John to Jane doesn't seem a satisfactory representation of generic women. Couldn't we put some more femininity in our anonymity? And as American names become more diverse, all these Johns and Joes become more retro than everyman. Surely it's time for a generic name for the non-generically-named generation.

What kinds of nameless individuals do you think we need, and what would you un-name them?

The 12 Least Wacky Celebrity Baby Names of the Decade!

Jun 11th 2014

You will totally believe what these dozen a-listers named their kids! Maybe something isn't in the water out in Hollywood?

Benjamin Brady (Tom Brady and Gisele Bündchen, born 2009)

Charlotte Prinze (Freddie Prinze, Jr. and Sarah Michelle Gellar, born 2009)

Faith Urban (Keith Urban and Nicole Kidman, born 2010)

Henry Moder (Julia Roberts and Daniel Moder, born 2007)

Helen De Niro (Robert De Niro and Grace Hightower, born 2011)

Isabella Damon (Matt Damon and Luciana Bozán Barroso, born 2006)

Louis Bullock (Sandra Bullock, born 2010)

Michael Wahlberg (Mark Wahlberg and Rhea Durham, born 2006)

Noah Green (Megan Fox and Brian Austin Green, born 2012)

Samuel Affleck (Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner, born 2012)

Thomas Black (Jack Black and Tanya Haden, Born 2008)

William Parker (Mary-Louise Parker and Billy Crudup, born 2004)

Just thought I'd give some equal time to the less talked-about celebrity children, and a bit of reassurance to all of us living in creative-naming communities during a creativing-naming age:

Baby naming isn't a competitive sport. Creative or classic, the perfect name is simply the name you love.

The Girl Hurricane Effect: Can the Wrong Name Cost Lives?

Jun 4th 2014

I've talked in the past about the effect of hurricanes on baby names. But what about the effect of baby names on hurricanes?

The question isn't as silly as it sounds. A study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concludes that storms given female names turn out deadlier on average than male-named hurricanes, presumably because they prompt different levels of preparedness. "Girl hurricanes" just don't sound as scary.

Not everyone is convinced by this finding (for analysis, see, e.g., CNN, LiveScience, NPR). Critics have pointed out that the effect wasn't found for hurricanes overall, only when the researchers drilled down to the small subset of highly damaging storms. Moreover, they included storms from the pre-1978 era when only girls' names were used. That could make a significant difference, because weather prediction has improved since then, reducing death tolls. And given the number of variables involved with storms, the idea that the name could move the needle simply strikes many as implausible.

In the study's defense, the researchers didn't even count the super-deadly female-named hurricanes Katrina and Audrey in their sample, because they would have skewed the results all on their own. The research team was also canny about names, going beyond just "male" and "female" to look more closely at the signals each name sends.

Accompanying lab studies that asked subjects to predict the severity of storms based on descriptions came up with a name-based threat ranking. While male-named hurricanes were judged more threatening overall, the #1 most serious-sounding storm name was Bertha, a name associated with great size and power since the Big Bertha artillery of WWI. The least-threatening storm name was Dolly, a sweet, down-home diminutive associated with country music and children's toys.

As for plausibility, the finding seems perfectly reasonable to me. Of course people respond to names. That's why we put so much care into the naming of everything, except hurricanes.

People take two kinds of messages from names: information and emotional impressions. The informative side is particularly explicit in the realm of product names. You might never have heard of the product Somnapure, for instance, but you won't be surprised to hear that it's a "natural sleep aid." Personal names, too, send a wealth of informative signals about an individual's sex, age, and cultural background. The name of a hurricane, in contrast, is pre-determined and uninformative.

An uninformative name, though, can still influence our impressions and behavior. A utilitarian 1970s brick apartment complex near me is called "Pheasant Ridge." That name tells you absolutely nothing about the place, as is apparent to anybody considering renting there. Customers can see the development's features, and the total irrelevance of pheasants, with their own two eyes. And yet...don't you think it would be harder to rent the exact same units under a name like "Brick Apartment Block C"?

How could giving a culturally loaded label to a phenomenon which tens of millions of people have to react to not produce any effect? Given the scale at which hurricanes operate, even a subtle shift in the response of a small percentage of people could have serious repurcussions. Frankly, calling a category 5 hurricane "Dolly" seems like a foolhardy underestimation of the power of names.

From a public-policy perspective, what's a better path? Identifying the names that sound scariest to the public could play to social and linguistic prejudices. (Imagine the derogatory effect if you ended up with a list of Arabic and Russian names.) Classic villain names could be effectively menacing, but they're a limited pool with repetitive sounds.

Using surnames instead of given names could take age and sex out of the equation. Non-human storm names, already used in some parts of the world, go even further, but introduce their own confounds. A Hurricane Vulture sounds scarier than a Hurricane Chickadee. Still, solving the naming dilemma now should be a lot easier than rescuing people who fail evacuate in the face of future gently named storms.