Fear of Jennifer

Feb 14th 2006

When parents talk about wanting an unusual name for their baby, the phrase you hear most often is: "I don't want her to be one of three Jennifers in her class." The name Jennifer has become a symbol of over-popularity, the emblem of a conformist age. It's the name that today's parents are all running away from. The anti-Jen sentiment has even been memorialized in a baby name guide, "Beyond Jennifer and Jason." As one Jennifer explained in a comment to this blog:

"I think a big part of the current search for unique names comes from a backlash against our parents. We grew up in a world where our classrooms were filled with Jennifers and Stephanies and Amys..."

It might be time we cut our parents some slack. (On names, anyway. Other lingering resentments you may harbor are beyond my jurisdiction.) Every generation has its popular names...were Jennifer and friends really such a conformist crowd?

Compare the accused to some of the trendy names of the 1910s:

Not only did Dorothy and her posse achieve the same level of popularity, but they sustained it longer -- doubling the number of Dorothys you'd actually meet on the street. And Dorothy wasn't even a #1 name. You know that huge peak Jennifer reached in the '70s? Mary reached far greater heights of popularity, decade after decade. It's not only the 1910s, eitcher. Toss Jennifer in with the top names of the 1950s, and it's just one of the crowd:

What's more, Jennifer wasn't truly the #1 name in America during its own reign. It was surpassed every single year by the boy's name Michael -- which kept up that pace for more than 40 years. Think hard about the number of Mikes you've ever heard of vs. the number of Jens, and its probably no contest.

So why do we pick on Jennifer? Perhaps because it rose and fell so quickly, leaving that date-stamped quality. (Michael is still the #2 boy's name, while Jennifer is at #38 for girls and falling fast.) Or maybe because it was the last of its breed -- the true across-the-board hit. Today's top names are only a fraction as popular as Jen and Mike were back in the '70s. But that doesn't necessarily mean the parents of the '70s were lockstep conformists...it's the parents of the 2000s who are lockstep individualists.


By Abby (not verified)
February 15, 2006 1:00 AM

You're right. I suppose they're ingrained in our memory because of the last-name initials attached to their name.

But many, many more girls I grew up with were named Lynn or Renee - middle names, that is - than there were ever Jennifers in my class. Those two seem to be like the Elizabeth of today. So many babies have Elizabeth as their middle name. I guess it just flows well.

By Eleanor (not verified)
February 15, 2006 2:09 AM

Lockstep individualists? I don't know about that. While there are many more names out there now, how many of us have shied away from a name that we love just because it didn't 'fit' with our other childrens' names, or some sense of style and status?

A collegue recently made a snide remark about another collegue who named her son Caiden. And I'll admit my three-year-old daughter Anne would have been a Sophie, but Sophie was too popular...I'm guilty as charged, just thought that I'd point out that it's a vanity of our generation that we think of ourselves as *the* individualists, with some sort of monopoly on originality. We aren't, and we don't.

By Psyche (not verified)
February 15, 2006 12:26 PM

It bugs the living daylights out of me when people on message boards say they like unusual names (unusual being made-up or kree8ivleigh spelt, most of the time) and not 'common ones like Susan, Jennifer and Jane'. Honestly, how many little Jennifers, Susans and Janes do these people know? They're not nearly as popular as Madison (and its multiple spellings) nowadays!

By anonymous (not verified)
February 15, 2006 2:09 PM

When our little girls are grown up and expecting babies of their own, they will be saying, "I don't want her to be one of three Emmas in her class! How about....Mary?"

By Elizabeth (not verified)
February 15, 2006 2:10 PM

I was one of five Elizabeth Anns in my 8th grade class but it never bothered me (I was born in 1968). Being raised Catholic, I never thought of Mary as a particularly common name because it always seemed to be paired with something else: Mary Ellen, Mary Ann, Mary Beth, etc.

By Catherine (not verified)
February 15, 2006 2:52 PM

I have to say that I think the idea that we are more individualists than our parents is totally overblown. Previous generations also wanted to be individuals - they gave names that were "fresh" like Jennifer - not the names of their generation. I bet a lot of those parents ended up saying "I had no idea it would become so popular!". People now are giving "fresh" names like Aiden or Caden or Ava or Mia, and they will be the ones that end up having 2 or more in the class.

The only difference I see is a bit more tolerance for the truly "weird" names(although other people still do make fun of those behind the parents backs, so maybe that's always been true too). Maybe also the rise and fall is a bit faster than in the 60s/70s.

By Anonymous (not verified)
February 15, 2006 2:55 PM

But it is also true that people who grew up with unusual names usually name their kids traditional names like Micheal or Katherine in a backlash against their parents.

By Melanie (not verified)
February 15, 2006 3:19 PM

Many of the names I like (for girls) are the traditional/classic names, Elizabeth, Hannah, Abigail, Grace. I admit that it bothers me that many of these names have become so trendy today, probaby because I don't care for the Aiden, Mia, and last-names-as-first-names type names which the classics are being popularized with today. I have shied away from naming my daughters Hannah and Abigail because of their overwhelming popularity today, but I do have an Elizabeth (nn Lizzie) which seems to defy the age pigeonholes. I am also pg, and if this baby is a girl, we plan to name her Grace, a name that seems to be used (atleast around here) more commonly as a middle name, or altleast less commonly as a first name than Hannah and Abigail. I'm not after the total individualistic names (too out-there for me), but not one every other child has either. JMHO

By A 1975 Stephanie (not verified)
February 15, 2006 5:31 PM

I agree the relatively sudden fear of "popular" names like Jennifer, is b/c these names "spiked" and thus left the names with the feel of a passe fad.
Also, when the name fads of old blew through, I think there was a higher rate of nickname usage. I think several of us have older relatives and aquaintences who are completely and solely called by their nicknames, with no trace of their "popular" given name left. There may have been 6 Elizabeths in a class, but chances are they were a Liz, a Lizzie, a Bess, a Betty, a Beth and a Liza. The "Jen-s" didn't become Jens, Jennys, Jans, Janes, Jifs, etc, they stayed Jens or maybe Jenny, with an initial.
I think this is definitely why, as a Stephanie, I find myself drawn to "timeless" names, like Katherine.

As a side note, I almost always see Katherine used as the example the current "timeless name" of choice. Certainly Anne and Mary are even more timeless, yet I rarely hear them used. Perhps Katherine isn't as "timeless" as I think!

By Jess (not verified)
February 15, 2006 6:55 PM

Ethel, Gertrude, Edna, Mildred, Florence, all the Jennifer, Susan and Amys of their day. If you go beyond biblical names and the classics like Anne and Katherine, parents are always going to try and find something fresh and new. And I'm sure Ava and Madison will just as fusty to their grandkids and Enid or Virginia do today.

By Heather (not verified)
February 15, 2006 7:49 PM

Well, I'm a Heather (if there was ever a flash in the pan name!) and I have a sister (older) named Jennifer. My mom's a comformist, I guess!

I never really felt the popularity of Heather too badly and it never bothered me. I really don't understand being super-reactionary about "popular" or "common" names. I know people want their children to be "special," but you can be a unique person with the most common name in the world. The reason for the Zappa Syndrome (give the kids a crazy name and they'll BE crazy!) elludes me.

By Kim (not verified)
February 15, 2006 7:56 PM

Compare Jennifer to Linda. The ascent, popularity, and descent are almost identical. (And Linda has even fewer nicknames than Jennifer.) So why aren't the Lindas out there complaining?

By Lisa (not verified)
February 15, 2006 8:43 PM

My parents gave me the name Lisa when it was the most popular girl's name, and I've always resented it. There were always 3-4 other Lisas in my classes at school, which was annoying, but that's not my main complaint. There were also multiple Marys, Elizabeths and Sarahs, but they were luckier than I because their names were timeless. I hate my name because it is so datestamped. It is a mid-1960's cliche.

When I chose names for my own children, I took great care to choose names that are timeless, names that wouldn't seem out of place on an 80-year-old or a 40-year-old or a 20-year-old or an infant.

My parents originally planned to name me Elizabeth, but decided Lisa sounded more modern. I would have been happier as an Elizabeth, and I remember that when people tell me that my name choices aren't modern and hip enough. The hip and modern Bradens, Madisons and Kaylees of today will be the fusty old Delberts, Mildreds and Mamies of the future.

By Elizabeth (not verified)
February 16, 2006 3:09 AM

I disagree that parents today aren't more individualistic in their naming choices than before. Laura's Name Wizard proves it. Just look at the numbers on the right side of the graphs: popular names today are bestowed less frequently on children today than ever before (at least in America since the 1880s). That's why the graphs show a downward trend overall.

Perhaps parents one hundred years ago felt it necessary to name their children after beloved family members or saints. Immigrant families may have felt the need to blend in and therefore gave their children classic "American" names.

Question: Is this still the case? Do immigrants today choose to show their heritage in their children's names more or less frequently today than they did in the past? What do you all think?

By Camilla (not verified)
February 16, 2006 10:19 PM

"Lockstep individualists" is just a euphemism for conformists, it seems. If you are in lockstep, aren't you conforming?

To the anonymous poster who wrote: "But it is also true that people who grew up with unusual names usually name their kids traditional names like Micheal or Katherine in a backlash against their parents." - I would love to see your source for this statement!

By Nic (not verified)
February 16, 2006 11:07 PM

I think Camilla's right: "lockstep individualists" is meant to be tongue-in-cheek.

By Christina (not verified)
February 17, 2006 1:52 AM

To Camilla:
I believe that the "backlash against their parents" statement is true--well, at least from my own personal experience.

My dad's name is Duff, and my mom grew up a Billie, amid all the Debbies, Lisas, and Robins that swarmed the 60's. So, she named me Christina and my sister Gabrielle because she "wanted us to have normal names, unlike what she got stuck with."

By Jennie (not verified)
February 17, 2006 3:07 AM

"Do immigrants today choose to show their heritage in their children's names more or less frequently today than they did in the past? What do you all think?"

I'm an immigrant to the USA. I'm originally from England & moved here 4 years ago. I did a lot of research online, looking for an old fashioned British name for my British-American daughter. Nothing caught my fancy though. I also looked at the current Top 100 names in the UK. My favourite from that list was Maisie, but my American husband didn't like it.

We ended up calling our daughter Rose, which I don't think is particularly British. Though it does conjure up the phrase "English Rose".

By Jennie (not verified)
February 17, 2006 3:09 AM

Oh & I should comment on my own name. My full name is Jennie - not Jennifer. I was born in 1980 in the UK. I knew about 5 other Jennifers in school, but I never felt that my name was too popular. Maybe because I'm Jennie, not Jennifer. Or perhaps the name wasn't as big of a hit in the UK, as in the USA?

By Valerie (not verified)
February 17, 2006 5:05 PM

My mother was from England, and definitely wanted to name me something British when I came along in California in 1962. She named me Valerie Rose, which I hated as a kid, but I like it now- particularly Rose. So I was interested in Jennie naming her daughter Rose. Of course, it's pretty subjective as to whether my name is in fact British. I'm sure there are plenty of Valeries and Roses in the US. So much comes down to association.
Some of the 'flower' names feel British to me- Lily, Daisy, Poppy... and Violet, which I'm very alarmed to see on the rise, as I was hoping to use it if I have a daughter. Perhaps moe unusual flower names will start being used... I once read a book where the protagonist was named Lavender- not too keen on that...any other ideas?

By Elizabeth (not verified)
February 17, 2006 5:39 PM

There's always Pansy, but that unfortunately has negative associations. Marigold could be shortened to Maggie (as could Magnolia). Camelia, Heather, and Hyacinth are other possibilities.

By stacia (not verified)
February 18, 2006 4:07 PM

I read a book with a woman named Tulpen, German for tulip. I know it isn't as musical or feminine as other flower names, but it has stuck with me for years and I've always liked it.

Also, as a Stacia born in the late 60s, I've always enjoyed having an unusual name that wasn't too weird, being close to "stacie". I never met another one until I was an adult. Now I actually work with two other stacias--and I share a phone with one of them. So apparently, grade school is not the only place to run into clusters of other people who have the same name.

By Lisa's great-grandaughter (not verified)
February 20, 2006 1:22 AM

To the Lisa who commented above - My great-grandmother emigrated from Sweden in 1908, and soon after changed her name from Lisa to Alice in an attempt to assimilate. If only she knew!

By k (not verified)
February 20, 2006 5:21 PM

What amuses me about the Jennifer comment is that the worst time growing up when my class had multiple kids with the same name, it was my name. Karen. There were four of us in a class of 28. (All of us born in 1972, if you were looking for that peak.) Most Jennifers in a class in school, from kindergarten to college was only two, never matching our "Karen achievement."

By JT (not verified)
February 21, 2006 3:35 PM

All of this reminds me what the late, great Erma Bombeck observed: " I envision a day, when nursing homes will be full of little old ladies named Heather."

By Liz (not verified)
February 21, 2006 6:53 PM

Laura, Have you ever looked at the Olympics to see if they have helped propel names into stardom? Will 2006 see lots of little Bodes, Sashas, or Renas?

By Anne (not verified)
February 21, 2006 7:41 PM

I was born in 1975, my elementary schools were PACKED with Jennifers. Honestly, it did seem to bother them. Each one had some variation on the name (Jennifer, Jenn, Jen, Jenny, Jennie, Jenni) as a way of trying to squeeze a unique identifier out of an otherwise exceedingly ubiquitous name.

One of my good friends, Jennifer, has always disliked being one of many with the same name. She just named her daughter Olivia. I guess she didn't realize that trends change, and that naming her Jennifer would probably have been a more unique choice at this point.

P.S. Am I the only one who immediately thinks of the Color Purple when they hear the name Olivia? Sorry, but the name is ruined for me. Too creepy.

By Sarah (not verified)
February 22, 2006 4:32 AM

I think we are tending toward more name variety nowadays, in an effort to be unique. And I like that. It fits our culture of individuality. Sure, there will still be plenty of Emmas and Haydens, But not as many as there were Jennifers and Jasons.

The only thing is, I wish we would make better use of "real" names that are hardly used (like Gwen), instead of making up names and spellings (like Hayleigh).

By Valerie (not verified)
February 22, 2006 5:10 AM

I totally agree- there are so many wonderful names that date back centuries- they have a pedrigree, unlike Nevaeh and D'Andra. Have any of you come across the "Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names"? That's the name book I grew up with (unfortunately now out of print) and it lists the first written instance of a name, all kinds of variants, and the equivalent names in different languages (e.g. John, Johann, Jean, Juan, Ivan...). I used to have a copy but it fell apart, alas. A great source for interesting and unusual names.

By Elly (not verified)
February 22, 2006 3:38 PM

To Valerie: Oxford has a Dictionary of First Names, still in print! I found a copy in the reference section of a bookshop (next to the quotations dictionary, not the baby name books section). Er, I have a copy of the Baby Name Wizard, too :-)

By Valerie (not verified)
February 22, 2006 5:04 PM

Thanks so much, Elly- you made my day... and thanks so much Laura, for such a wonderful blog. Very inspiring!

By Laurie (not verified)
February 23, 2006 4:11 PM

I was born in 1970, and the name to rival Jennifer in our school was Kristin/Kristen. Then I went to college and became best friends with a Kristin. It seems that name follows me wherever I go! It's a nice name that is seldom heard now.

By Laurie (not verified)
February 23, 2006 4:15 PM

I agreee with Sarah, that I prefer people make better use of existing names, rather than start making them up. But just to point out, that ironically, Gwen, short for Gwenevere, is the original for of Jennifer.

By Jennie (not verified)
February 23, 2006 9:54 PM

Valerie, interesting to read your comments. I noticed Poppy being on the British name lists. My husband sees it more as a variation on Pop / Father / Grandfather and didn't like it. We both liked Lily, but it's rising up the charts too fast for my liking. I like Violet too...as do more and more people, as you've noticed.

By Jennie W. (not verified)
February 24, 2006 3:11 PM

I'm another Jennie, not Jennifer. I was actually named for my great aunt Jennie who was born in the 1880's. To me Jennie is the worst of both worlds. It sounds common--everyone assumes my name is Jennifer. There were dozens of other Jennys and Jennifers in my school. (I was born in 1971). But because of the weird spelling I didn't get any of the perks of a common name: personalized pencils or bike license plates. Plus. I still have to spell it out. My middle name is Hildegard (family name!) which I considered using for a while. It's an ugly, ugly name, but at least it's unusual.

By Corrine (not verified)
February 24, 2006 5:56 PM

I'd have to disagree also that people with unusual names tend to veer towards conformity to backlash their parents. My name is not common by any means, and I hope that I can give my children - when I have them - the same sense of uniqueness and individuality that my parents unwittingly gave me.

By Stitchwitch_D (not verified)
February 25, 2006 6:52 AM

It seems like when people comment on baby name boards that they don't want their child to be one of 3 Jennifers in her class, the names they are considering are either already very popular (Madison), suddenly spiking in popularity and sure to sound dated 10 years from now (Neveah) or something completely off-the-wall.

Do parents not realize that there are real names that aren't incredibly popular or a current flash-in-the-pan trend? There's so many beatiful names that are under-used, and while everyone has heard of them, it'd still be very unlikely for there to be another child with that name in their school.

By Nicole (not verified)
February 26, 2006 2:59 PM

Stitchwitch_D, name five of those names for boys and for girls.

It's nearly impossible to avoid the zeitgeist. I was born in 1969, and my parents' short list included Esme and Zooey (Salinger fans), Lisa and Nicole. They thought all four were equally unusual -- they knew no small children at all. The names simply appealled to them -- and, it turns out, to thousands of other parents.

In fact, for years my mother has claimed I'm named Nicole Alexandra because she was reading "Nicholas and Alexandra," about the Russian rulers.

By Elly (not verified)
February 26, 2006 10:44 PM

To Nicole, I'm not Switchwitch_D, but I'll take a stab at your challenge (assuming you live in N. America):

Girls: Anne, Jane, Ellen, Frances
Boys (tougher): Frederick, Ross, Arthur, Graham.

Fit the criteria?

By Elly (not verified)
February 26, 2006 10:44 PM

To Nicole, I'm not Switchwitch_D, but I'll take a stab at your challenge (assuming you live in N. America):

Girls: Anne, Jane, Ellen, Frances
Boys (tougher): Frederick, Ross, Arthur, Graham.

Fit the criteria?

By Jessica Smith (not verified)
February 28, 2006 12:57 AM

Sometimes, trying to pick a less common name backfires. My parents named me Jessica in the 70's. During all my school years, I only met 3 other Jessicas, but 10 years after I was born, it was the most popular girls name in the country. There may not be a lot of Jessicas my age, but I run into Jessicas in their early 20's all the time.

By Jennifer (not verified)
February 28, 2006 2:03 AM

To Nicole: Renee, Antoinette, Gretchen, Gina, Marie, Christina, Edward, Steven, Gregory, Peter, Scott, Oscar, Elliot, Richard, Adam

Laura, I'm flattered that you quoted me in your article. Thank you!

It is interesting how each generation latches onto a sound or a series of sounds. It amazes me to no end to see the baby name boards chock full of parents wanting something "unique," yet their list consists of Madison, Hailey, Gracelyn, Ava and Peyton - all hallmarks of the latest trends. Many think that respelling the name into oblivion makes it unique. Sad, really, that the kid will be saddled with some atrocity that no one can spell yet is as common as dirt. An example from my church is a 6yo named Mykhailia. How hard can it be to name a child and avoid the trendiest sounds? If it ends in -son or -lyn, if it is a 2 syllable name ending in N, or worse, the first syllable has an AY sound in it, or if it sounds very similar to anything in the top 10, find something else. I'd say more but I've used up all my space.

By Heather (not verified)
February 28, 2006 3:05 PM

I am one of the many Heathers of 1970 - I hated my name for a long time because no one else I knew had it (really, can you think of any Heathers (Locklear and Thomas aside) that are in their 40s?) and I wanted a name like Linda or Susan. Yet, when my husband and I were deciding on names for our two sons, we wanted names that were not too popular, but not too weird. My older son is Aidan Ross (Ross is my maiden name) and now I have had to suffer through the suggestions that I named him after "Sex and the City" and "Friends." He is still the only Aidan in his preschool class, but I know he will be one of many later. My younger son is Sawyer John (John is a family name). My husband and I knew a Sawyer and really like the name. Two weeks after he was born "Sawyer" debuted as a character on "Lost." Can more Sawyers be far behind? TV can really be a pain!

By Elizabeth (not verified)
February 28, 2006 10:08 PM

It's so fascinating that most of the posts on this column reflect the essential truth of Laura's point: parents today think there's something wrong with being one of the crowd. Before I had my daughter (now 3), I searched for a popular name because I didn't want her to stand out. But by the time my son was born (17 months), I had read enough baby name literature that I thought there was something wrong with deliberately choosing a popular name. Amazing what two years can do! (My children's names are Sarah and Peter.)

By Kathryn (not verified)
March 10, 2006 2:58 PM

What's up with the crazy names that are popping up? Why would anyone name their child Apple, Storm or Coco? Sounds more like pet names to me. I'm from Montreal and one couple wanted to name their child Spatule (french for spatula, as in the cooking utensil) but the Quebec government didn't approve of that name. Think about how great a child's name will sound when she stands up in an important work meeting as a professional 30 years later and introduces herself as Coco.

My name is Kathryn. My middle name is Elizabeth. I was born in the 80's and I'm glad my parents didn't name my Candy Apple.

By Lori (not verified)
March 13, 2006 7:30 PM

My parents tended to pick popular names of the times, it seemed. Jeffrey, Wendy, Lori, David, Lisa, Eric and Nathan. It's funny-- my mom once mentioned that she had no idea that the names they picked were so common. :)

I was always one of about 3 Lori's in my elementary school classrooms... Kind of a pain, really, and one of the main reasons I deliberately chose non-traditional names for my daughters.

My daughters are Chandra, Mikayla, Kira and Alaina. I lost the battle of spelling of Mikayla with my ex-husband (I wanted the traditional spelling of Michaela-- he wanted it phonetic.) So far, all my girls love their names (my oldest is almost 16). So hopefully they'll keep loving their unusual, but not *too* unusual-- names. :)

By Jennifer (not verified)
March 16, 2006 1:13 PM

I was born a Jennifer in 1972 - one of many! When I was 16 I went on a teen tour to Israel. Out of 30 girls, there were 6 Jennifers. We had to think of ways to differentiate ourselves by name. And as all Jennifers know, some of us are Jen, some are Jenn, some are Jenny, some are Jennie, and these are NOT interchangeable! Can get a bit confusing! Needless to say, my husband Michael and I are finding uncommon names for our children!

By emilie (not verified)
March 21, 2006 4:16 PM

Continuing the thread, my suitemates in college were: Jen, Jenny, Jennifer, Heather & Angela. The Jen*s were not interchangeable on their names. They would only answer to the specific derivation. It was a trip when someone called for one of them and didn't stick to the "rule"!

I have always had the opposite viewpoint - as a 1970 Emilie, I was always the ONLY one...all through grade & high school, college, and even now ...my namesakes are likely to be many many years younger. It always amuses me that Emily became so popular after I spent years wishing I could blend in and be a Michelle or a Jennifer.

It was my grandmother's name, so I finally learned to accept and even love it and now I hear it everywhere! I do still get comments on the spelling, which is just the French variation, but it seems eveyone just sticks with the Y spelling.

By chy (not verified)
March 27, 2006 1:14 AM

2,2-Bis(hydroxymethyl) propionic acid
Pelargonic Acid
2,2-Dimethylbutyric acid

By Diamond (not verified)
March 28, 2006 12:51 AM