27 Jennifers and Other Name Tales

Jennifers 1978

I’m sure many of you have seen the brilliant GIF infographic from Jezebel last week outlining the US’ most popular names for girls by state from 1960-2012.  I had a few main takeaways, the most obvious of which was: “Woah, so many Jennifers!”  I mean I grew up, went to school with, and have since befriended quite a few Jennifers thus far.  But talk about an absolute generational takeover of a first name for nearly 15 years!  Jennifer dominated to the degree that I suspect very few of us born in the 60s, 70s, or early 80s would ever consider naming our own daughters Jennifer.  It was just too popular.  And in this day and age, we’d never dream of giving our own children such a prevalent name.  (Absolutely no offense to those of you named Jennifer as I’m sure you get exactly what I’m talking about!)

Just for fun, here’s the catchy Mike Doughty song that describes the phenomenon of the name Jennifer:

Other realizations from the infographic included the surprising popularity of Lisa (1962-1969) and even the brief regional popularity of my own name (Angela) in the Deep South (Carolinas, Tennessee, Mississippi, etc.) in the early 70s.

But I guess what mainly struck me was how very “Gen-X-ish” certain names sounded, particularly girls’ names like Lisa, Jennifer, and Michelle.  You won’t find many people in their late 50s or 60s named Jennifer or Lisa.  And it’s equally rare to find anyone under the age of 30 to be named Jennifer either.  It’s because by the early 80s and 90s, Gen-Y sounding names like Jessica and Ashley emerged to finally eclipse the mighty Jennifers.

And just yesterday, the kind folks at Jezebel have followed up with a similar time-lapse infographic for boys’ names.

1978 Michael

Although the list of top boys names in the US by state is interesting, it’s admittedly less fascinating than the list of girls’ names.  For example, three names (David, Michael, Jacob) have shared the top spot since 1960.  Furthermore, it’s clear that boys’ names don’t fall in and out of fashion quite as dramatically as girls’ names in the US.  For example: “Mary, Susan, and Linda, the three most popular girls’ names in 1960, are now ranked 123rd, 839th, and 639th, while David, Michael, and James, the three most popular names for boys in 1960, are now 19th, eighth, and 14th.”

Simply put, popular boys’ names have more staying power relative to girls’ names.  Case and point: I personally know of many more youngish—let’s say under age 30—Michaels than I do Jennifers.  And I even have friends who’ve named their recently born sons, Michael.  But I can’t name a single person who recently named their baby daughter, Jennifer.

So why do girls’ names have less long-term staying power?  Why do we take more risks in naming girls?  And in contrast, why do we seem to cling to more traditional or “safer” boys names in the US?  Is it because we think that guys tend not to like being stuck with a unique name, but girls prefer to stand out in a crowd?  You have to admit that over time, while the list of most popular boy names in the US has changed, the changes don’t seem to be as dramatic as the list of most popular girl names.  In a way, names are admittedly like fashion, where trends in womenswear might change dramatically from season to season, while menswear isn’t nearly as dynamic.

This is the SSA’s list of most popular baby names in the US.  You can also easily search the database by decade.  If you look up the most popular boys names from the 70s, 80s, 90s, and even the 2000s, you’ll still find quite a bit of overlap, especially in terms of the most popular top-20 names (Michael hangs tough at the #2 spot, even into the 2000s!)  But you’ll notice that the list of girls name changes much more dramatically, with top-ranked names quickly falling out of fashion.

As a Gen-Xer born in the mid 70s, I grew up with my share of Jennifers and Michaels.  There were so many of them, everywhere!  Jens, Jennys, Jennifers, Mikes, Michaels, Mikeys… And many of them were required to use the first initials of their last names in class.  It was a bit much and I kind of felt bad for them for having such a popular and common first name.  But to be honest, I’m not sure if I’d rather have an extremely popular name, or a name that’s totally unique-and-potentially-weird-sounding.

Which brings me to a topic that I had always noticed living as an expat in Hong Kong: the prevalence of unusual English names of Hong Kong people relative to other English speaking countries.  So what is the fascination with weird or unusual English names in HK?  Yes, Hong Kong is a Chinese city (well, Special Administrative Region, if you want to be technical,) but the official languages are English as well as Chinese.

While I was living there, I was struck by the prevalence of 19th century English names among some male friends and colleagues or acquaintances (ex: Dickson, Edmund, Basil, Nigel, etc,) as well as 19th century French/English names among female friends and colleagues (ex: Agnes, Frances, Gwyneth.)  And these are people who were in their mid 20s to mid 30s, so not exactly grandparent-aged folks.  I know of very few American peers with these same historical names, but in Hong Kong, they are relatively common.  So when I came across this article last year from The Atlantic, I knew I was on to something.  Hong Kongers actually have quite the fascination for unusual or totally made-up English first names.

The article goes on to explain that the practice of taking on English names in Hong Kong comes about much more organically.  “In the early 1980s, before the government started promoting Chinese as the language of instruction, 90 percent of secondary schools taught in English.  Some Hong Kongers are given the names by their parents at birth or by their teachers at school. Some devise them themselves.”  And this practice goes back to colonial times, where taking on an English name was often seen as prestigious and a mark of sophistication to show common interaction with foreign businesses.

But then there was the prevalence of seemingly made-up names like Milk or Fruit (both of whom I’ve personally met before.)  And the article goes on to explain that as for the unconventional names, they initially arose in part due to an ‘incomplete knowledge’ of the English language.  Februar might have been a misspelling or the result of someone over-generalizing the use of the names of the months like April, May or June.

But over time, people seemed to have stopped questioning whether such variations are real names and have simply accepted them.  And in a way, they’re asserting their own unique Hong Kong identity.  English is no longer a symbol of British influence, but has become an integral part of the Hong Kong people’s identity.

For an interesting list of Hong Kong names, check out the HKSAR Blog for the HKSAR Name of the Day.  And for more thoughts and other blogs that reference the phenomenon of interesting English names in Hong Kong, check out AMWF Couple, and Big White Guy.

Whether you have a phobia of having too popular a name, or fear the opposite of having a name that’s too unusual or fabricated, the only healthy option seems to be to embrace what you’ve got.  It’s a part of your identity.  Or you could always use your middle name (if you’ve got one,) especially if you want to sound like an NPR reporter!

Happy Friday!