The Mysterious Persistence of Little Johnny

Nov 25th 2010

The current Thanksgiving cover of the New Yorker magazine shows a turkey divided into sections for the many attendees of a holiday dinner. The center is labeled big and bold for the nuclear family:


Now, when was the last time you met a family with kids named Tommy and Sue?

This isn't a simple case of retro style. The rest of the turkey, after all, is allocated to the likes of "Nazi-Biker Grandma" and "Mono-Syllabic Estonian Exchange Student." Rather, it's an example of a distinctive faux-name species: the Mid-Century Normative Child (MCNC).

These generic symbols of American childhood are all around us. They're almost always diminutives, which makes sense to signal youth. But they're not today's nicknames; there are no little Maddies or Jakes. More curiously, they're not the names of 10 or 20 or even 40 years ago, either. And as the years roll by, they don't change.

I remember the generic use of "Little Johnny" sounding old-fashioned back in my 1970s childhood. All these years later, Johnny still rules the roost along side the New Yorker's Tommy and Sue, as well as Jimmy (a generic child I spotted in a recent Dear Abby column). All of those names had their heydays in the mid 1940s. The most up-to-date name on the standard MCNC list is Timmy, which peaked in the late '50s.

It's as if we locate the essence of childhood itself in that narrow historical period. There's some logic to that. The early bound is set by the end of WWII, and the first generation of American kids fully protected by child labor laws. The end is the last cohort to experience childhood before the creeping cynicism of the Vietnam era. We signal "little kids" with names historically pinned to innocence and carefree prosperity.

Logical, perhaps, but to me a little defeatist. We're still raising kids, after all, and they can still -- on a good day -- give all of us jaded grownups glimpses of the world's magic and possibilities. So here's to little Maddie and Jake, and all they represent.


By Little Sol (not verified)
November 25, 2010 11:04 AM

"Bobby" is another one you hear a lot. Same time period?

By EVie
November 25, 2010 11:12 AM

Very insightful post, Laura. I especially like the idea that our vision of an idyllic childhood is tied to the first generation of children protected by child labor laws. I think another relevant consideration might be that the 1950s are also the era that many people look back on as the golden age of the nuclear family in America—Mom at home in the kitchen, Dad a steadily employed company man, kids that could ride their bikes in the streets without worry, etc. (Not necessarily my ideal, but many people's). So those names not only represent the ideal American childhood, but the ideal happy American family.

As it happens, my dad and his next-closest sister, born in the latter half of the 1940s, were Tommy and Suzy, later Tom and Sue (for Thomas and Susan). They were two out of nine with similarly traditional names. I will probably name my first son after him. Although Thomas has fallen from its post-war peak at #8, it's nowhere near obscurity—in 2009 it was #57 (though accelerating in its decline).

By SaraJ (not verified)
November 25, 2010 11:12 AM

Yes, thank you! I always assumed it was because it's Baby Boomers making these references, and they've forgotten that Johnny and Sue are no longer universal names. (Hm, I guess I'm showing my generational colors by that swipe at Baby Boomers. Sorry.)

-- SJ

By Jennie NLI (not verified)
November 25, 2010 11:26 AM

Happy Thanksgiving NEs!

November 25, 2010 11:56 AM

Yes, ditto the Thanksgiving thoughts.

Laura, maybe this is why I love 70/80's type names so much. Brian and Jessica and names like them encompass my childhood/growing up years. When I think of nuclear families much like EVie described above, I tend to put myself into that time period. I will also add Chrissy (girl) and Stevie (boy) to the group of diminuatives.

November 25, 2010 12:05 PM

What amazes me always with these names is the difference between boys and girls. Nobody bats an eye when you name your son Thomas or John. Susan today is a mark of an earlier era.

These were the names my husband and I strove for in naming our kids. Familiar, spell-able, masculine and not exceedingly common on today's playground. We picked Timothy and Mark.

Nicknames are part of the key here: we did not want a "Timmy" (we got one anyhow!), we wanted Tim or Timothy. Likewise, Thomas today is likely to remain Thomas to his buddies. Daniel is likely to be Daniel. John is much more likely to be Jack than Johnny. Likewise James tends to be James or Jamie, not Jimmy.

November 25, 2010 1:01 PM

I was born in 1944 (so not quite a Boomer) and grew up in the 'golden' 50s. I do realize that they were far from golden for some groups of Americans, most notably the African-Americans, but for little girl me, they were golden and still remain in my mind "how things should be" despite the many changes, some of them very welcome, others not so much, since.

As far as normative children's names, when I was in school, the grade school readers featured the iconic Dick and Jane and their competitors Alice and Jerry. At the time, those names seemed a bit old-fashioned to me, especially Jerry. Amongst my cohort, the Richards (of whom there were plenty) were already more likely to be Rich than Dick, and Alice and Jane, while not unheard of, were swamped by the Susies and Lindas and Barbs and Debbies and Judys.

November 25, 2010 1:45 PM

What an interesting post. Almost everyone associates names with other things (places, times) even if they don't analyse it like NEs.

Megan W: My theory about why John would be slightly more expected than Susan is that older girl names are "boring" (until they become quirky) but older boy names are classic. Name sexism?

By Wandering Angela (not verified)
November 25, 2010 3:07 PM

I have to agree that to me it seems likely that the age of the person making the reference determines which names are picked. To me (born in the late 70s) classic childhood names would be more like Jenny, Mike, Chris, Amy, etc... in other words, the names that were popular in my generation and also have an element of youth to them. (I know lots of Sarahs my age, but somehow that doesn't have the same girlish vibe as Amy).

November 25, 2010 3:42 PM

I had to laugh when I read this because my brother's name is Tommy (well, Thomas, but he was Tommy for most of his childhood) and he was born in the late '80s. No Sue's in my family though.

November 25, 2010 4:47 PM

I know it's probably been in America for ages now, but we've just started getting The Middle aired here in the UK. The daughter in it (fictional for those who haven't seen it) is the odd one out in the sibset - her name is Sue. The parents named their eldest, Axl (as in Guns N' Roses), then the girl Sue, then the youngest Brick as they wanted a quirky name in the hope it would make him cool. I think it's fascinating that a family that would pick Axl and Brick for their sons would pick Sue for their daughter.

My husband is a big fan of Susan and always mentions it when we discuss names. I am coming round to the names of this 1940/1950s era as they are starting to sound much fresher than the Lily/Emma/Eleanors I'm hearing all the time. Oh, and a girl I work with had a son last year and called him Johnnie. Ahead of the times, we all know in twenty years time all the babies will be called Judith, Ken, Dennis, Bruce and Deborah!

November 25, 2010 8:35 PM

Speaking of what kids will be called in years to come, here are the local stats through October.
Top boy names:
Aiden (12)
It's interesting that they all have the "AY" sound and 4 of them end in -en.

Top girls names:
4 of those have an L sound in them.

Out of 860 boy names, 57.33 of them were NOT unique.
Out of 802 girl names, 41.65% of them were NOT unique.

There were several names that were very unique. I won't list all of them but some notable names given so far for the year-
Apollo(1); Kate(1); Edward(1); Aoife(1); Finnegan(1); William(9); Catherine(1); Katherine(1); Piper(1); Bristol(0); Bethenny(0); Willow(0)

November 25, 2010 8:55 PM

Like so much else these days, I think Little Johnny and Little Susie, the classic Mid-Century Normative Children, are really calculated marketing tools. In this case, aimed squarely at the Baby Boomer demographic (or even their parents, the seniors who gave their own mid-century kids those names). They exude nostalgia for a kinder, simpler, more virtuous time, usually tied in to a commercial or socio-political message. Little Susie would love this wholesome baby doll... thanks Grandma! Little Johnny can't play outside because of the violent drug gangs... what is this world coming to?

I've noticed that commercials and articles aimed at real modern parents never choose to call their fictional children Johnny, Bobby, Susie and Betty anymore. Marketing is too sophisticated for that - TV commercial children now all seem to be Aidan, Emma, Owen, Lily etc. And when they start marketing 1980's childhood nostalgia to us Generation X-ers, I'm sure it'll be Little Jenny/Becky/Amy and Little Danny/Robbie/Mike.

By Yet Another Guest (not verified)
November 25, 2010 9:33 PM

I know a little Jimmy and he is two. His brother is Finn. I found it refreshing that they went with Jimmy and not Jamie as a nn.

I also know a little boy named Skipper. He is four(ish) (I don't know his birth date). It surprised me at first, as that name sounds so 1950s, but it suits him and nice to see a name that's not precious yet original.

By Eo (not verified)
November 25, 2010 9:54 PM

I've noticed when the minister at the church we attend tells gently funny stories in his sermon involving children, they're very much of the "little Susie/Johnny" variety. Even though the kids in the junior chorus that Banks sings with run much more to an "Oks@n@/D@kot@/N@thani3l/Gr@c3/Tr3k "name-stream"...

I find it charming and sweetly retro. Actually, Johnny for me is utterly timeless and jaunty.

Oddly enough, I was reflecting on Susan the other day-- as a Baby Boomer I encountered it constantly in my little friends and so it had no special charm for me.

But its history over the centuries holds interest. Five hundred years ago, it was the sort of name given to servants, I suppose, as opposed to fine ladies, which gives it a sturdy appeal. And it has the attractive austerity of the Puritans-- one of the early ships that brought Londoners to the New World in 1635 was the "Susan and Ellyn". You can find accounts of this voyage in very old records.

And not "Susannah", as one might expect, but plain, lovely Susan. I like them both, but would not use "Sue" as a nickname. Rather, the very old "Sukey"/"Sukie" is my favorite. And "Sudey" is great also...

Thank you, Laura for another insightful and reverie-inducing column- and happy Thanksgiving to other celebrants...

November 25, 2010 11:45 PM

Since Thanksgiving is a football day, here is a football naming story.

Given my 25 years in New Orleans, I am a Saints fan, but not as much of one as the young mom in the story,

Hope everyone in the US had a great Thanksgiving Day!

By arwhyn (not verified)
November 26, 2010 5:54 AM

I haven't been to this blog in ages, so I've probably missed it... but whatever happened to the "new" book? I know Laura had updated it and it was supposed to be out in April 09, but you can't get it anywhere and now it's not even listed on Amazon anymore. I'd be grateful if someone could update me!

-Thomas is actually one of the most popular boys' names in the UK (I believe it's somewhere in the top 10) so I know quite a few little Tommys. I agree though that Susan feels a lot more dated - perhaps because parents still choose more classic, traditional names for boys whereas they like to experiment more with a girl's name?

November 26, 2010 11:35 AM

For whatever reason, the publisher issued the new book under the same ISBN number as the old book and so on Amazon in teh promotional materials, it looks just like the old book...

This page shows what the new edition looks like (note the additinal red "bubble" on the cover)

That is the version that is availabel at my local book store...I don't think the 2005 edition is available new anywhere anymore.

By guesty (not verified)
November 26, 2010 3:35 PM

This is funny because my father is a "Jimmy" and my father-in-law is a "Johnny". They were both kids in the mid-1940s. The generic name I use is "Bob" or "Bobby". I even know one in real life who is 5 years old!

November 26, 2010 9:47 PM

As I did my Black Friday windowing shopping via the internet this year, I was rather surprised by the christmas advertisement on the holiday decor section of the walmart website. The stockings were embroidered with the names...


I must say, I am rather impressed with the trendy feel of the names. Not to say the names are the hottest ones out there, but they definitely feel modern. I suspect they might be the names of the children of the employees who created the ad.

November 27, 2010 12:32 AM

Two of my cousins' kids are called Tommy, actually. Maybe it's because I live in Britain; I gather Jack and Olivia aren't as poplar in the US either.

By ajg (not verified)
November 27, 2010 2:19 AM

Actually, Olivia is insanely popular here. I hear that Jack is pretty popular too, but I don't know any myself.
My oldest is named Thomas, but he's never been called Tommy! We actually considered Susan for my daughter, to honor a family member, but I couldn't go through with it because Thomas and Susan did seem to be such a cliche! :)

By arwhyn (not verified)
November 27, 2010 7:03 AM

@JB - Thanks for the reply. However, when I look on Amazon only the old (2005) issue is available to buy; the new book (2009) can only be bought as a Kindle edition. But maybe this is a UK problem?

November 27, 2010 10:43 AM

That's funny, because I grew up in the late 70s and 80s and I had a crush on a Bobby and a Jimmy in Junior High. That would have been around the time of "Tears for Fears", "The Cure", and "The Smiths". I guess those two guys were a little retro.

November 27, 2010 10:55 AM

I'm in Canada, and Thomas is quite popular here: #19 for boys in 2009 (though it was #1 in mainly French-speaking Quebec, which I'm sure skews the national stats a little). I know a couple of young Thomases, but - like ajg's son, and the Tank Engine - they seem to be called "Thomas" all the time, not Tommy. I guess the nickname sounds too dated for modern parents. Another one I've noticed is James - everone seems to call their sons "James" now, where they would have been Jamie a generation ago, or Jimmy two generations ago in the MCNC heyday.

All this makes me wonder if we're not headed for a big mid-century retro nickname comeback for boys in a few years. Retro nicknames certainly seem to be back in a big way in the UK. Billy, Bobby and Charlie are sounding fresh and spunky again...

November 27, 2010 3:05 PM

I think the lack of nicknames is the main difference. As people have said, today's Thomas and James go by their full names. I think families who use those names are more likely to use Caroline or Charlotte or Emma for a girl- perhaps because they don't have nicknames.

November 27, 2010 4:11 PM

PJ: Caroline and Charlotte certainly can lend easily to a nickname - for the latter Charlie comes off the top of my head. Can't think of any for Emma though (which falls in a category I've heard termed "prime names"; that comes from in math where a prime number is one that cannot be factored beyond 1 and itself, and then applying the "prime" term to names that don't have obvious nicknames).

November 27, 2010 5:19 PM

@arwhyn i am pretty sure the 2005 edition does not exist anymore but bc the publisher didn't update the information like the isbn number it still displays as the 2005 edition... very confusing. Maybe Laura can weigh in?

November 27, 2010 6:11 PM

KellyXY-I love the term "prime names". I think of Emma as the perfect example. Maybe Laura could do a column on that someday.

November 27, 2010 6:45 PM

Re prime names, surely I am not the only one who has seen The Wizard of Oz. Auntie Em? She could be an Emily, but just as easily she could be an Emma or an Emmeline.

By Jillc (not verified)
November 27, 2010 9:27 PM

Eo, I totally agree with you -- LOVE Susannah nn Sukey. It was a serious contender (for me anyway!) for baby #3 (who turned out to be an Albert).

By Eo (not verified)
November 27, 2010 9:31 PM

You do have a point, Miriam. And "Emmy" was also used for all the "Em-" names as well. It's a rare old name that has NOT weathered the centuries with an encrustation of accumulated nicknames.

I've often heard "Adam" used as an example of a nickname-less or "irreducible" name as well. Yet, "Adkin" (among other diminutives) was a popular endearment in use centuries ago for Adam. Wow, what a great topic for a book aimed at NE's-- a compendium of nicknames used over time for all names, plus lots of juicy details about the evolution of even formal names from their earliest forms to those used today.

I guess it's the very new, or recently coined names which haven't had a chance yet to be "nicknamed"-- but it's only a matter of time, no doubt...

By Eo (not verified)
November 27, 2010 9:33 PM

Jillc-- "Albert" is equally wonderful-- great choice!

November 27, 2010 11:03 PM

I also love Susannah and it's still in the running for me. I equally love the nicknames Sukie and Zannah :)

Friends with Emmas and Emilys use their full names although I must say I'm tempted by the occaisonal 'Em' for Emma. I know a 3 year old Thomas and he was always the full Thomas until recently, he now gets Tom-tom a lot. Thomas is top 10 here so there are quite a few of them running around. James is generally in the top 10 too.

By Beth the original (not verified)
November 27, 2010 11:57 PM

My favorite measure of naming zeitgeist is the Pottery Barn Kids catalogue. You know you've chosen an "oh dear, we thought it was uniquely classic" name when it appears on a monogrammed stocking from them. And yes, my own daughter's name appeared some time ago.

I always think it's funny when names transition, as they inevitably do, into mom names. So to me, Linda, Barbara, Pam, Debby, and Susan are mom names. But of course they're not -- it's Heather, Amy, Kathy, Beth, and Michelle who are the moms now.

November 28, 2010 11:53 AM

This is completely off topic, but I was reading about the Bates family, who have 18 kids. Anyway, I was on their website reading up on the kids' names (what else?).

The boys are mostly surname-y (Lawson, Warden, Judson) and Biblical (Nathan, Isaiah) while girls are nicknames-as-full-names (Katie, Josie, Tori) and a bit boyish (Erin, Carlin, Michaela). Pretty heavy on -ee and -en endings all round.

One name that really caught my eye was Addallee. The spelling made me a bit twitchy until I read their reasoning: "There are duplicates of each letter in her name to remind her that God gave her a 2nd chance at her birth." That's a sweet story.

By EVie
November 28, 2010 1:30 PM

Building on Eo's point about Adkin—any name can be nicknamed using the medieval style, because back then they did it by adding syllables to the end of names (like -kin, -cock, -ot, -in, -el, -y) as well as by shortening them. So besides Adkin, other medieval nicknames for Adam were Adcock, Addey and Adenot, and a common nickname for Emma was Emmot. Sometimes there were even double diminutives, like Hick-el-in (a diminutive of Hick, which was itself a nickname for Richard), or Kid-en-ot, a nickname for Christopher via the nickname Kid. A lot of these medieval nicknames have survived as surnames (some familiar ones: Jenkins (John), Hopkins (Robert), Eliot (Elias), Bartlet (Bartholomew), Marriott (Mary), Wilcox (William)).

I always find it so fascinating that today when we want to make a name sound more formal, we add the same syllables that our medieval forebears would have used to make it *less* formal (eg Trent/Trenton, Colt/Colton).

By Allison Margaret (not verified)
November 28, 2010 2:34 PM

I wonder if the reason we still use Johnny, Bobby, Susie, etc. for the generic child is that these names seem so ubiquitous, but now belong to relatively few actual children. As common names have become less common over the last century, it somehow seems wrong to call the generic child Aidan or Jacob, Emily or Emma. Although there are tens of thousands of Aidans and Emilys, the names make us think of specific children we know. Emma and Jacob aren't the every-child, they're your niece and the neighbor kid. But John is your dad, your spouse's uncle, two college professors, a couple of men at church, the owner of the carpet store with the obnoxious commercials... and they were all once Little Johnny. Most people probably know many more baby boomer-plus Johns, Bobs, and Sues, and the names have grown up with them into the every-name.

November 28, 2010 4:37 PM

Just finished reading Dennis Lehane's latest mystery, Moonlight Mile, and, lo and behold, there is a passage of interest to us NEs. The two detectives are discussing the name of a newborn baby girl, Claire, with the 16 year old who named her:

"You like it?"
"I do. It's not trendy."
"I hate that, right? Kids named Perceval or Colleton."
"Or remember the Irish phase?"....
"All the kids named Devereaux and Fiona."
"I know a couple....Named their kid Bono."
"No, they didn't."
"No, they didn't." (p. 217)

BTW the novel is set in the immediate present in the Boston area.

November 28, 2010 6:36 PM

Allison Margaret: What you said reminds me of a blog post on here a few weeks ago about how Laura mentioned the decline in how many babies are given a top name. Fifty years ago the percentage was much higher (and had remained roughly the same for the several decades before that), but since then the name pool is now much more diverse. Today's popular names probably just aren't ubiquitous enough to sound like an "every child" unlike the "MCNC" ones.

By Jane 6 (not verified)
November 28, 2010 11:44 PM

Speaking of Pottery Barn catalogues, there is a kind of hilarious blog I've seen called Catalogue Living, which is inhabited by a fictional couple named Gary and Elaine who have passive-aggressive fights about their meticulously arranged furniture and ridiculous stacks of odd accessories.
Gary and Elaine seem like good names for the people who might actually live in Pottery Barn houses.

November 29, 2010 1:46 AM

Miriam-that's amusing. Claire seems like a modern Mary type of name to me. Almost anyone can (and does) use it.It matches many types of styles.

Your mention of mystery bbooks along with Jane6's mention of Pottery Barn, for some reason made me think of spy type names. We often get hooked on talking about girl names on here so why not discuss boys for a bit. the names I would put in the "spy" category (meaning a character in a book/movie who was a spy) would be names such as:
Max i.e. Maxwell Smart

I don't have association with many of them that come to mind right now. I will update if I think of any. Are there others that you all can think of? By the way, I wouldn't include James as in Bond because I feel like James is a more far-reaching name.

And Jane6-what about the name Janice? To me that seems along the same style lines and time period as when/where Elaine might. I am pronouncing it like Jan-iss not like Jah-niece which sounds more African American or Spanish or something.

November 29, 2010 1:37 PM

The first name that comes to mind as a spy name to me is Austin, as in Austin Powers! haha =]

November 29, 2010 11:38 PM

The Pottery Barn catalog comment is hilarious because it happened to me..I picked future DD Lucy's name years ago (due in April 2011)...and to my chagrin, there's her name. Engraved. On a stocking.

And yes, I thought, "oh dear, we thought it was uniquely classic. ROTFL.

By Eustace (again) (not verified)
November 30, 2010 2:58 AM

Laura, this is brilliant -- even though i married into a family who named their children (born in the 70s) Billy and Susie. Bill has a sense of having been raised in an almost absurdly normal throwback-to-the-50s kind of family and that's a large part of why.

By Moncler4u (not verified)
November 30, 2010 2:58 AM

remember the generic use of "Little Johnny"

By Eo (not verified)
November 30, 2010 9:49 AM

Wow, zoerhenne, that's an interesting challenge. I think I'm remembering more real-life spies than fictional ones though:

Let's see there's Mata Hari. Wasn't she a spy in World War I for the Germans? She has the perfect "exotic" espionage name.

I vaguely call to mind two famous English spies, Kim Philby (Kim was his nickname, don't know the real one) and Guy Burgess-- they were Cold War figures. Those are crisp, British names but they don't scream "spy".

Because of Alger Hiss, I might very well think of "Alger" as a spy name, although "Horatio Alger" pulls it in more of a positive direction.

When I think of Aline, Countess of Romanones (sp?), I immediately think "spy", mainly because of her books about her fantastic exploits, "The Spy Wore Red", etc. She was an American model who married a Spanish aristocrat and spied for our side in World War II. "Aline" would have a sort of slinky, Art Deco vibe for me anyway.

Aldrich Ames is of more recent vintage, (1980's, Nineties?) and he has certainly managed to besmirch his own rather nice name...

I think Mata Hari has the best spy name.

Off topic-- I just discovered that Edmund Spenser's first wife was named "Machabyas Childe"! I love quirky Elizabethan names and spellings, but Machabyas is completely new to me and can't find anything on it. Almost sounds more like a man's name. Have any of you NE's encountered it before?

By another Laura nli (not verified)
November 30, 2010 10:46 AM

Speaking of names spotted in catalogues. I saw a kids chair with Medea embroidered on it. Seriously?

November 30, 2010 11:23 AM

Medea?! Wow. That's bold.

My husband is Tom and his sister is Sue, so I got a kick out of this post. I do think that American culture has enshrined the 1950s as being an idyllic time. We see this in a lot of political rhetoric (in my mind "family values" used in a political sense = 1950s middle class white WASP nuclear family) as well as in our advertisements, films, TV shows, etc. Using names as a signal of this cultural nostalgia is brilliant--spot on, Laura!

In uncertain times (and truly, what era hasn't had its share of economic, global, and political unrest?), we do yearn for simpler times that seem to have been more caring, warm, and generous. The fact that this era can be conjured merely by the use of the names Tommy and Sue demonstrates how potent a signal names send.

November 30, 2010 12:57 PM

Mata Hari was the "exotic dancer" (i.e., stripper) name of a woman whose birth name was Margaretha Geertruida, nn Grietje, so she must have thought Mata Hari was, um, exotic too. The most famous woman spy of the American Civil War was Belle Boyd, rather a nifty name, who spied for the Confederacy.