"Call Me Caitlyn": Naming a New Self

Jun 2nd 2015

How central are our names to our identities? The cover of the upcoming issue of Vanity Fair magazine offers a clue. The athlete and reality tv personality formerly known as Bruce Jenner introduces her new female identity to the world with three simple words, "Call Me Caitlyn."

A name change can represent a profound turning point for a transgender person. Choosing that name is every bit as complicated as choosing a baby name, but the considerations can be different. Many people look for names that echo the sound of their old names. That can help create continuity for others, and for themselves; we're all deeply conditioned to respond to our own names. Some in transition opt for an androgynous name to facilitate a gradual shift or non-binary identification. Others prefer a strongly gendered name to leave no doubt about their new identity. As with baby names, each name sends rich messages.

The message sent by Caitlyn is on most levels disarmingly ordinary. It's not a flashy celebrity name, but a girl-next-door name. Cheerful, popular, and mainstream, Caitlyn is one of the most well-liked names of its generation. That's not so surprising for a transgender name choice. An "ordinary" name is a natural approach if you want to fit in, rather than stand out. The kicker is the generation part.

Bruce Jenner was born in 1949, at the popularity peak of the name Bruce. The name Caitlyn peaked in 1998, making the typical Caitlyn a 17-year-old high school junior. The name didn't even show up for the first time until decades after Jenner was born. To put it simply, you will not meet anyone else of her age named Caitlyn.

For some background, Caitlyn is one of many variations on the Irish Gaelic name Caitlín. The Irish name is pronounced koit-HLEEN or kotch-LEEN, and its anglicized version is the old favorite Kathleen. But some English-speaking parents who saw Caitlín written down pronounced it as if it were English, and ended up with "KAYT-lin." That led to new spellings like Katelynn. Together, the many spellings became a big part of baby name style from the 1980s-2000s, and inspired similar names like Kaylin.

What would a comparable name from Jenner's own generation look like? As it happens, the #1 best statistical match for the historical popularity of Bruce is...Kathleen.

Try taking a look at the Vanity Fair photos and picturing the woman you see as a Kathleen. The people I've asked all say that the name seems like a natural fit. It's possible, in fact, that the outside world would have had an easier time adjusting to the generationally typical name Kathleen Jenner. But Caitlyn Jenner is how she saw herself.

The gender transition process is sometimes described as making your outer self match your inner self. The name Caitlyn would seem to match an inner self much younger than Jenner's years. If she's chasing youth, of course, she's hardly alone. How many 60-something Hollywood celebrities eagerly embrace aging? More broadly, it's unrealistic to expect anyone to use 1949 fashion sense to choose a 2015 name. We name ourselves as we dress ourselves, based on the style of the here and now.

If anything, the name Caitlyn suggests a generational limbo, a frozen point in time. It isn't native to Caitlyn Jenner's generation, but neither is it quite of this fashion moment. Jenner has said that she first took steps to become a woman back in the 1980s. I wouldn't be surprised if she considered the name Caitlyn back then, when it was a fresh new hit, and has been living with it privately ever since. If so, it's a both a fitting and poignant choice: the seven-letter embodiment of a decades-long dream to be fresh and new, and to be the girl who Bruce never got to be.



June 3, 2015 8:54 AM

A notoriously common name for trans men - largely regardless of age - is Aidan (or Ayden, or Jayden, or...) - a name(-family) which, as you've written, is a very new, very popular trend. It's basically a running joke in the community. Case in point - the guy who's campaigning for a spot on the cover of Men's Health - http://time.com/3827293/trans-man-mens-health-cover/


I've always wanted to see a really well done survey of naming trends and the logic applied among trans people, but considering we can't get good data on the community at all, it'll probably have to wait.

By Amy3
June 3, 2015 3:15 PM

Laura, this is a very thoughtful, gracious exploration of the choice of Caitlyn. I appreciate particularly seeing something in the name blogosphere that didn't skewer her decision to select a name that doesn't match those from her birth generation. As you rightly point out, this isn't the same as a parent naming a new baby in 1949. It's an adult selecting a name for herself that reflects who she truly is. I'd guess many of us, given the chance to rename ourselves, wouldn't select another name popular in the year of our birth.

June 4, 2015 11:17 AM

Gracious and brilliant, Laura. Thank you.

My impression of the name Caitlyn (in whatever spelling) is skewed by the fact that both bearers of this name that I know are under the age of 5, so it really did seem to me that Bruce's new identity belonged to an infant, not a grandparent.

I wonder what the response would've been if she'd gone with a more generationally-appropriate name like Kathleen or Cathy, or a timeless choice like Catherine. (I'd vote for that last option.)

June 4, 2015 12:52 PM

I'll guess that if the chosen name had been something like Margaret Elizabeth Jenner, there would have been essentially no name buzz, and the emphasis in the press/gossip rags would have been almost exclusively on more instrusive topics like medical/surgical history, sexual preference, and other such things which are nobody's business.  Just as well the buzz is about the name choice.  Of course, that's only my guess.

By JayF
June 5, 2015 1:50 PM

Thanks for the article! I was wondering if maybe he heard the name when his own children were being born but it wasn't chosen. It fits the sound of his children and step-children's names. So, it could be possible that he fell in love with it when he was looking at names for his kids and somehow that stuck with him so that he loved the name and thought how he would like to be named Caitlyn if he was a girl... Which is what many of us do when we name our children. We pick names that we would like if it were us.

So, while Kathleen is the appropriate generational variant, Bruce calling himself, now herself, Caitlyn sets him (now her) apart as much as his transition to a woman from a man sets her apart from the average person.