The Mysterious Persistence of Little Johnny
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:
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.