The Decline of Debbie

Jun 14th 2011

This week's sensation on YouTube has been "eHarmony Video Bio," a supposed entry in the online dating arena. (In reality, it's is a parody by comedian Cara Hartmann.) In the video, we meet a woman who really loves cats. Like, really a lot. It's a funny piece, but here at Baby Name Wizard headquarters, the big story is the video's opening line:

"Hello, my name is Debbie..."

Type "DEB" into the NameVoyager and you'll see that Deborah in all its forms was a mid-century phenomenon. For much of U.S. history it was just another semi-obscure biblical name. Then in the 1940s the name started to catch fire, fueled by the sunny nickname Debbie.

By 1948 Deborah ranked #30 among girls' names in America, and Debbie ranked #267. That was the year when 16-year-old Mary Frances Reynolds won a talent contest and a contract with Warner Brothers films. The studio changed her name to Debbie, a cheery choice for the contemporary girl next door. Young Debbie Reynolds was a smash, and both rode and drove the name's image as the 1950s All-American girl.

As that '50s generation grew up, the name Debbie held on to its perennially sunny, girlish demeanor. The early '60s brought "Little Debbie Snack Cakes," treats named for the bakers' young granddaughter, which helped cement that impression. The 1970s porn film Debbie Does Dallas played off the name's image for its title character, a sweet cheerleader-next-door who does some [*gasp*] not so sweet things. In the '80s, teen singer Debbie Gibson became the youngest person to write, produce and perform a #1 song. Even the phrase Debbie Downer took its punch from the contrast of sunny name and gloomy outlook.

And now, YouTube gives us the 2011 Debbie. Like the earlier porn film, Hartmann's video takes advantage of the name's chipper sound. But there's a key difference: back then, Debbie was a generationally realistic name.

The Debbie who "did Dallas" would have been born around 1959, when the names Debbie and Deborah both ranked in America's top 20. The woman in the eHarmony video looks more the age of an Ashley or Amber. Even if her parents did name her old-fashioned Deborah, a woman that age would be more likely to go by the full Deborah or the no-nonsense Deb.

The "my name is Debbie" intro, then, is our first subtle sign that this woman is a wee bit out of step. Her wholesomeness is a little unwholesome; she's  not quite living in 2011 grownup reality.

To all of you Debbies out there, I apologize for this knife to the heart of your totally blameless name. The good news is that Debbie does still sound friendly and likeable on a real person. And hey, there's always Deb and Deborah.

Comments

1
By MeganMarie (not verified)
June 14, 2011 10:57 AM

The Disney Channel's Life on Deck has a character, Bailey,played by Debby Ryan who must be about 19. I have always thought that is such a strange name for her age, especially in an industry where so many take stage names.

2
June 14, 2011 10:59 AM

My niece is Deborah called Debbie. SHe was born in 2009, so she's one of very few, I'd imagine. My SIL seems to like outdated names as her other daughter is Jessica, born in 2008. We call Debbie everything from "Little Debbie" to "Snackcake" to "Swiss Cake Roll".

3
By Leahbfc (not verified)
June 14, 2011 11:11 AM

The thought of being able to nickname a fat roly poly baby "snackcake" is making me want to have another baby and name her debbie. :)

4
By hyz
June 14, 2011 11:13 AM

I agree that the name sounds strange in theory on a person of this age, but I actually seem to have a fair number of acquaintances around this age named Deborah. Several of the 20-30 something Deborahs I know are Jewish, and that might help account for it, but at least 2 are not. The name still ranked between about 100 and 200 on the SSA list during the years these women would've been born, so I guess it isn't that surprising. I admit, though, I don't think I ever heard of any of them going by Debbie.

5
By alr (not verified)
June 14, 2011 12:00 PM

So here's a question, what's today's equivalent?

6
By Coll
June 14, 2011 12:07 PM

I also know several Debbie's in their late 20s/early 30s. Most of them, like hyz's acquaintances, are Jewish--so perhaps the Biblical derivation was still compelling to some new parents in the 1980s. Can't say I've heard of any baby Debbies today, though (and Debbie does sound more like an "aunt" name to me: to go with my and my husband's vintage mid-century aunts Barbara and Judy).

Today's Debbie: Why not Ellie? It's similarly cheerful and sported by enough little girls to qualify as "girl next door."

7
June 14, 2011 12:29 PM

My kindergarten, second grade, third grade, and fifth grade teachers were all named Debbie. Most of the non-Debbies were Sharons.

8
By hyz
June 14, 2011 12:53 PM

ha! If I'm not mistaken, my kindergarten, 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade teachers were also all named either Sharon or Debbie! Hmm, or there might have been a Diane in there, too....

I like Ellie as a suggestion for a modern equivalent, although I don't actually know any Ellies. The name/nn I see more often is Bella, which I think also works.

9
June 14, 2011 1:32 PM

Well I know we need to stick on topic and talk about names but just as an aside that video was ridiculous. However, I apparently have no sense of humor according to some.

Now, back on outdated names. I particularly like the names Shannon, and Jessica but do not often find many with that name. The teachers of my children have names like Shelly, Lori, Jennifer, Janelle, Jessica, Kelly, Aimee, Crystal and Joanne. Very common names for the time but not so common now. I think the modern equivalent, something that an 18-20 yo would be named that we wouldn't think twice about but would NEVER name a current baby would be --Stephanie, Courtney, Lindsay, or maybe Brittney. Other names that are 40ish that you never hear now--Susan, Linda, Cindy, and Karen.

My teachers were things like Helen, James, Glen, Mae, and Ursula ;)

10
June 14, 2011 2:33 PM

I have a friend with a two-year-old daughter named Deborah (sometimes called Deb, but never Debbie). A lot of people assume Deborah was named after a relative or that she's Jewish, but neither is the case. My friend just likes the name Deborah and thought it would stand out among today's trendy names.

11
By dlb (not verified)
June 14, 2011 2:44 PM

I'm a 31 year old Debbie. Debra is my full name but I have always gone by Debbie. My parents were in their 40s when I was born so I guess that accounts for them using an older generation name. My older siblings also have names that were popular in the 50s and 60s.

12
By Lucy in England (not verified)
June 14, 2011 3:39 PM

Wow - my mum, Deborah, known as Debby (not Debbie) is sixty today. What are the chances of her name featuring on today's blog?

Given that the name Deborah means 'bee', perhaps 'Melissa' is an alternative today? I have a friend whose daughter is Daisy B3e.

13
By Anon. (not verified)
June 14, 2011 3:41 PM

I adore the name Debbie/Deborah! I too have always seen it as a sunny, sweet, happy name. I would totally consider it in my top 5 for a daughter if that weren't my hubby's stepmother's name! His mother would be devastated!

14
By DebbieS. (not verified)
June 14, 2011 3:42 PM

@dlb

I'm a 28-year old Deborah that's always gone by Debbie. Yes, I get the occasional snack cake joke, and the occasional "Does Dallas" joke, but I never mind. I grew up with Ashleys and Brittanys and never knew another Debbie my age, so it was kind of unique. It's also helped me out in the business world, as when people read my resume they always assume I'm older than I am and take me a bit more seriously. The one downside -- there are a million real estate agents named Debbie!

Proud to be: *Debbie*

By the way, at one point I tried to go by Deborah to sound more "professional" but it never stuck. People just see me as a Debbie.

15
By DeborahFC (not verified)
June 14, 2011 3:59 PM

I'm a 44 year old Deborah who went by Debi as a kid. I hated "Deborah" and for the life of me I can't remember why. Later on I thought Debi/Debbie/Debby were okay for little kids and decided Deborah wasn't so bad, so I switched to Deborah at 21 with a job change in the same company and have been so ever since.

I went to school, junior and senior high, with several Deborahs (and all it's variations) and have met a few others throughout the years. But all of them have been within a few years of my own age. It would be very odd to meet a much younger Deborah.

16
June 14, 2011 4:13 PM

I can think of only one Debbie I went to school with (b. 1979). I remember there was a Debra (not Debbie) too. I like Ellie as a current day Debbie. And I think it's adorable that Deborah means bee!

17
By Amy3
June 14, 2011 4:18 PM

All the Deborahs/Debras I know are in their late 30s and older. I'd find it slightly strange to meet a younger Debbie and I agree another name for the video Debbie would make more sense to me (in terms of trends).

I love Ellie as a current-day Debbie. I know all manner of Ellas and Ellies. Ellie is a great match for Debbie.

18
June 14, 2011 6:01 PM

When I first watched that video, I was also surprised that her name was Debbie! As soon as she introduced herself, I thought "She's too young to be a Debbie!" and wondered if it was a real video.

19
June 14, 2011 6:17 PM

I know a 15 yr old Deborah, her family calls her Debbie, but she mainly goes by the full Deborah.

20
By Eustace (again) (not verified)
June 14, 2011 6:45 PM

My middle name is Deborah which is right on target for my generation (born early 70s) but it was a family name. In my experience it is a common name for Jewish parents who wanted an identifying-but-still-secular name (as opposed to the Hebrew Devorah).

More specifically, I've long suspected, based on anecdotal evidence, that it's a younger-sister name, not a first-child name. The male equivalent seems to be Andrew. What do you all (and Laura) think of this?

Now, since I'm back in the commenting saddle, I'd really appreciate your feedback on a related name dilemma of my own. We are expecting our third. Both of our other children have names that are
a) vaguely Jewish (though much less so than I always expected for my children)
b) shared exactly by ancestors on both father and mother's side. This is something I love and am proud of, and it also matters to us that we use the same name, not a variant or a first letter.

However, there's only one male name left that fits the second criterion above, belonging to one of my relatives and one of my husband's. It's a name I like a great deal EXCEPT that there seems to be one in every single family I know. At work, among the children of colleagues. At toddler groups. At school. At synagogue. It's S@muel.

My husband's suggestion is to insist on the full name but I think with so many around it will backfire and sound pretentious. I know that today's "Deborah" goes by "Deborah" and our oldest has a similar name that we don't shorten, but to go around saying "this is S@muel, not S@m," sounds pushy. My oldest also has a name that is typically top-20, but in fact I know almost no children who have it.

I think the Name Lady and readers would typically advise me to go with the name because I like it and it feels right, but honestly, every time I consider it my heart sinks a little because it's just so ubiquitous. And no, it can't be a middle name.

Finally, we've lived in three extremely different parts of the English-speaking word since starting our family. This name has been popular in all three of them. What to do?

Thanks, all of you. I've been fretting about this for years, far longer than I've been pregnant!

21
By Eustace (again) (not verified)
June 14, 2011 7:08 PM

Also, yes, Ellie is the new Debbie!

22
By BornThatWay (not verified)
June 14, 2011 8:37 PM

alr -- I would say for late 20s, early 30s, an equivalent is Jenny.

Also, as other posters have mentioned, I do know a Debby my age (30). I've always wondered about her name being a bit out of step with the rest of ours, but it's not too out of step. Also, she's Jewish, so maybe that has something to do with it?

Anyhow, I watched the video and didn't immediately think the name was odd. It's only as an afterthought that it's strange. As in, if they were trying to trick me, I guess they could have done a better job, but they tricked me for 1/3 of the video anyhow . . . so maybe the name didn't matter so much.

23
By ErinsFoodFiles (not verified)
June 14, 2011 9:08 PM

I always thought it was weird the character named "Deb", as Dexter's sister on the Showtime series Dexter. She was probably born late 70's early 80's.

24
By SandraIsMyName (not verified)
June 14, 2011 9:18 PM

I was so confused reading this post and these comments.

I had no idea that Debbie was an older-sounding name. To me, it sounds quite normal; not exactly top-10 trendy, but I would have thought at least top 100. I am a 27-year-old female. When I was a teenager, I would sometimes name characters in my stories "Debbie" or "Deborah", because that seemed like a pretty, normal name, without seeming *too* common (like "Jennifer" would have been).

So I would assume that, most babies these days would be named something like Debbie, because:

(1) I'm the same age as most child-bearing women, so my name preferences are pretty much what babies are actually being named these days
(2) Debbie has the right sound style. Ending "-y" sound, like Emily, Lily, Chloe, etc. And Deborah has the ending "-a" sound that's super popular now, and it's sort of classical, old-fashioned sounding. I understand that the "it sounds like my aunt's name" thing would kill it, but I don't actually know any real-life middle-aged women named Debbie/Deborah/Debra/etc.

Am I crazy?

Also, for you guys for whom it sounds old, is it specifically "Debbie"/"Debby" that we're talking about, or does Deborah sound old too?

25
By Charly (not verified)
June 14, 2011 9:35 PM

I had a close friend in college, born circa 1987, named Debra.

My equivalents would be Jeannie for '70s girls, '80s would be Jessie, and Lily for today.

26
June 14, 2011 9:38 PM

SandraIsMyName, I don't think that you're crazy. I think that it has a lot to do with who surrounds you growing up. I know girls named Debbie who are my age (30) and it never occurred to me that it was a dated name. Actually, even after reading this post, it still doesn't. (And Eustace, the two I know are both oldest children.) Similarly, I never felt like my name was "old" since I went to school with two girls named Karen and didn't meet anyone a generation older named Karen until a few years ago.

On the other hand, names like Susan, Angela, and Linda all felt very out-dated to me since, growing up I only knew people of an older generation with those names. When I met people my age with those names (after branching out of the community where I grew up), it took me a little while to adjust my perspective on who has those names.

27
June 14, 2011 9:40 PM

Eustace: When you say Deborah/Debbie and Andrew don't sound like first child names, do you mean they are not usually parents' first choice? Or they match well with a lot of other names? As for Samuel and using the full name, I think there are ways to request that without sounding snotty. I guess it helps if others are polite about it and ask your preference though...

SandraIsMyName: I guess the aunt aspect overrides the trendy sounds. Maybe the br is a problem. Are there currently popular girls' names with br? I think we had talked about consonant blends previously... also, to me, Deborah sounds old too. I think I prefer Deb/Debbie... I think Deborah is very Biblical and the "h" is especially old-fashioned (in contrast to Debra). Deborah is so serious, whereas Deb/Debbie are cuter.

28
June 15, 2011 2:15 AM

@Eustace -- how about Samson? It's definitely Jewish, but doesn't strike me as overly so (I could be wrong -- I don't know much about the religious Jewish community). It sounds like it should be popular but it isn't (#868 in 2010). It's easy to pronounce, and sounds a bit like Samuel.

29
By DeborahC (not verified)
June 15, 2011 4:32 AM

I'm a 35 yo Deborah, eldest child, born in Australia. Family has always called me Debbi, but christened the more formal Deborah in case I needed a serious name. Started going by Deborah from University onwards. Have never felt like a Debbie - way too cutesy. As a child I was in a netball team where 5 of the 7 members were Debbie, but we were all born in other regions so it wasn't a local phenomenon.

I've always felt my name was super old-fashioned though, and clients do tend to expect someone older to turn up.

My parents were young when they had me - they were born early 50s - so not sure why it appealed. Other contenders were Karen (more on trend) and Bridget (would be cool now, but would've been hard work as a kid)!

30
June 15, 2011 9:50 AM

Sandraismyname-I think Debbie has a few similar sounds of today but Deborah and also Barbara are a bit outdated though not of the same time period.

Karyn-Definitely should have included Angela on my list!

Eustace-I was going to recommend Samson also. It shouldn't be a big deal to go with Samuel though. I do not know of that many directly near me (central PA-USA).

Also, regarding the Andrew/Deborah thing being not a first-born name. I think this is because they are softer names. Are there stronger names that are always heard as being the oldest child's name? Christopher, Michael, Steven? I can't think of any girls names that do this.

31
By mk (not verified)
June 15, 2011 12:34 PM

Debbie/Deborah doesn't sound odd to me, nor does Angela. Neither of them seem to belong to a particular era. Maybe because I know many Jewish and Italian families, and both are used frequently enough that you end up with Debbies and Angelas of different ages. So they seem more culture specific than era specific to me.

On the other hand, names like Barbara, Judy, Carol, and Linda do seem a bit outdated, though I do know a four year old named Linda.

32
By EVie
June 15, 2011 5:24 PM

I do in fact have an Aunt Debbie, and have known many middle-aged Debbies (and several of them have been admin assistants at various jobs that I've had, so I tend to think of it as a secretary-name, along with Lori). So the name is firmly middle-aged to me. The one Deborah my own age that I can bring to mind is Orthodox Jewish. She was always called Deborah, never Debbie.

Re: the real stats on Deborah/Debra/Debbie - Deborah is the only one even in the top 1000, and that is in the 700s. But they were still on the charts in the 1980s (Deborah: 189, Debra: 259, Debbie: 573), so it makes sense that there would be at least a few 20/30-somethings called Debbie running around. The stats do support the idea that it is a middle-aged name, though. Take a look at the Name Voyager—the spike of Deb- names in the 1950s is enormous, over 200 times the frequency of usage now.

33
June 15, 2011 6:29 PM

@Erinsfoodfiles - I also find the Deb character in Dexter to be a bit out of step with the other names!

Most of the Deb/Deborah/Debbies I've known have been at least 10 years older than me. I don't think I"ve come across any my age.

I do however have friends names Linda, Karin/Karen and Angela and I'm in my early 30's. While their names seem a little incongruent for my generation I guess I'm used to it now so it doesn't seem at all odd to me :)

34
By Alli (not verified)
June 15, 2011 7:00 PM

I'm in my early 20s and Deborah/Debra/Debbie sounds completely dated to me. I hear it as a "mom" name, or maybe a little older than my and my friends' moms. It's not a name that appeals to me at all.

I've never met anyone my age named Debbie, but I recently started working with a girl named Cheryl, which surprised me.

35
June 15, 2011 8:36 PM

I thought some of you might be interested in this article, "On Abandoning 'Americanized' Names," written by a Persian-American: http://dcentric.wamu.org/2011/06/on-abandoning-americanized-names/

36
By Elodie (not verified)
June 16, 2011 4:18 AM

I was wondering if you guys could tell me what you think of the name Irene. My husband and I are due with a girl in July and we like the name Irene Frances with Irene pronounced eye-reen. Frances is my grandma's name. We like the Irene lacks any obvious nicknames and was popular in the same time period that Frances was. Irene has always been one of my favorite names and I think it sounds very elegant. But everyone else seems to hate Irene. They think it's ugly and dowdy. Are we missing something here? I don't want her to grow up hating her name. Thanks!

37
By Eustace (sometimes) (not verified)
June 16, 2011 8:22 AM

@RobynT

What I meant was that Deborah and Andrew always seem to be the names of second girls and boys in a family, not eldest. No way to know what that means, really, about how their parents made decisions, but I'd be curious to know if my anecdotal evidence stacks up with others.

@Moonlady

Thanks! It's a nice name because it's easy, well known, but rare, and I hadn't thought of it. I forgot to mention there's also an Emil to honor (sounds like Samuel) - makes Samson trickier. BUT it's a lot better than Samwise, which might be my DH's choice!!

38
June 16, 2011 9:08 AM

Elodie,
I love the name Irene. It's tied with Colleen for my favorite of the -een names.

As someone born in the late 60s, I know a lot of Debbies. Only one goes by Deborah--the rest are Debbies, Debis, Debs, and Debbys. I still like the name, but it does seem dated to me in a way that other names of the day don't.

39
June 16, 2011 9:33 AM

Elodie-I like the way Irene Frances sounds. However, it does sound dated to me. I would use it if the family connection meant a lot to me though. I also like the -een names myself (Irene, Darlene, Colleen, Christine, Aileen, Eileen) but I'm sure I would get looks too.

40
By rayden (not verified)
June 16, 2011 10:53 AM

It is indeed a problem with this kind of people. I have my causin like that and i don't like that!
I see that are lot's of people with the same problem!

41
June 20, 2011 2:22 PM

Eustace - The two Andrews I know are both oldest sons. Also relevant to you, one of the Andrews has a younger brother named Samuel. He's the only Samuel/Sam I know, so the name doesn't feel at all ubiquitous to me despite its SSA ranking.

42
By hyz
June 16, 2011 2:01 PM

Elodie, I don't think you're missing anything exactly--it's a matter of taste, so some people will like it while others will not. I happen to be one of those that finds it a bit dowdy, which I attribute to both the dated "een" ending and a rather dowdy girl by that name I knew as a child. It sounds like a baby boomer or older name to me (or a Greek person--the young Irene I knew was Greek). I don't know if it would make any particular impression on young kids of today, though, or if your daughter would grow up feeling her name was dated/dowdy. As we've discussed here before, the baby boomer names could start coming back in 15 or 20 years, and then your daughter will have a cool/hip/youthful name. If you feel strongly about it, and you've always loved it, I say go for it. There's nothing inherently bad about the name at all--it's a classic--and it will surely grow on people once it's attached to a cute little girl.

Oh, and I should add that I've also known Irenas and Irinas (ee-RAY-na and ee-REE-na), and those don't seem dowdy at all to me--the continental pronunciation plus the -a ending really help it for me--but I don't imagine those appeal to you as much.

43
By Kern (not verified)
June 16, 2011 1:47 PM

My mother-in-law (mid '60s) is named Debbie and maybe that contributes to my association of it as an older name. Her sisters are Carrie and Christine.

Elodie, I love the name Irene and it does not seem fusty to me. I have a friend my age (mid' 30s) named that, maybe that's why. I do associate it with that song "Good Night Irene", but maybe not a lot of folks know it.

44
By Alli (not verified)
June 16, 2011 3:21 PM

Elodie-
I think Irene's a very pretty name. It will be uncommon in kids your daughter's age, but it's not too unusual sounding. I say go for it.

45
By Lucy in England (not verified)
June 16, 2011 5:22 PM

Not only is my mother, Debby, an oldest child, so is my father, Andrew.

46
By Laura V (not verified)
June 16, 2011 10:48 PM

I'm in my early 30s, and know several Debbies my age or younger. None of them are Jewish (I do know several Jewish Debbies, but they all happen to be older than I am). Certainly it's not as popular a name as others were in their birth years, but it's not so unusual that it makes me think twice about it. (I also know several Barbaras in their mid 20s to early 30s, and never found that strange, either. Then again, 2 of my sisters, born in the 1980s, have names that peaked in the 30s and 40s, so what do I know.)

47
By Yet Another Guest (not verified)
June 16, 2011 10:57 PM

I don't think I've ever met a Debbie! I know a Deb and have met other Debs, but I can't think of a Debbie. I'm in my mid-thirties, so you'd think I would have. Weird.

@Elodie - Irene Frances is a lovely combination. Your daughter will most likely be the only Irene in her school, which would be great. As some previous posters mentioned, the -een/ene sound isn't popular now, but I think that's a good thing for your daughter. It's not like it's an unusual name that no one would know. If you love it, use it.

48
By Rhodolady (not verified)
June 16, 2011 11:32 PM

Know one Deborah (mid 50s) who will answer to that of Deb or Debby - with a "y", but dislikes, dare I say, hates Debbie with "ie". She is a very visual person so likely doesn't like the way it looks on paper, and has a flourishing signature. I guess I understand that. My name is Marjorie and always wished it was with a "y"!

Posters often state preferences of one or another spelling of a name, even when the pronunciation is the same. Is it one form that is more attractive to them printed or the act of writing it?

49
By Cheltz (not verified)
June 17, 2011 1:19 AM

@Elodie - DEFINITELY name your daughter Irene! The naysayers will grow to love it when attached to a cute little girl. This has happened to each of my children, and your daughter's contemporaries will have no preconceived notions about the name. Plus, I personally just think it's a GREAT name!

50
By Guest
June 17, 2011 2:16 AM

Speaking of nicknames, I just found out that I'm pregnant with baby #3. I would like to name her Louisa and call her Lulu as a nickname but while my husband is okay with Louisa, he refuses to have a daughter of ours go by "Lulu" saying it sounds like either a dog's name or a stripper's name. He said we should call her by her full name or call her Lou if we insist on a nn.

We already have a daughter named Celia who we often call Cici so for me, Louisa/Lulu fall among the same lines but my husband disagrees saying Lulu is already established as a dog's name.

WDYT?