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.

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