Why you should care
Because names are just as mortal as the people they tag.
Gary Lohr wears faded Levi jeans, with a T-shirt tucked into his waistband and a cellphone latched to his belt. He sometimes wears a cowboy hat, can build almost anything with his bare hands and drinks full-bodied Coors — never the light crap. While Lohr’s a 59-year-old from Scottsdale, Arizona, who installs satellites onto RVs, he might as well be a figment of my imagination, because he’s exactly what I picture a Gary to look like: middle-aged, and a little rough around the edges.
But a squishy, waddling baby called Gary? That’s borderline Benjamin Button creepy. “When I was younger I thought it was kind of weird,” Gary says. “But I learned to grow into it.”
For better or worse, names — be they of people, places or things — often conjure up certain associations. Some do so because they share company with a famous face: Brenda, at least for one generation, will always be synonymous with the Brenda Walsh who captured the hearts of ’90s teenagers the world over in 90210, while Richard will forever be tied to a presidential scandal for another, older gen. Other names evoke a generation of a bygone era — sorry, but it’s hard to separate Mildred from the 75+ crowd.
But whatever the reason, society sometimes decides certain monikers no longer belong in the sentence, “Well, isn’t so-and-so the most adorable thing I’ve ever seen?” And, just like that, a once-popular name can fade into oblivion. Spend some time playing with the Social Security database and, with a few exceptions, you’ll find many of the names that were most popular from the 1920s through the ’70s are increasingly rare these days. Harold, for one, was ranked No. 12 in 1920. Today that’s down to 893. Meanwhile, Jeffrey has slid from nine in 1966 to 256, and Judith — the fourth top name in 1944 — is now sitting at 996th most popular. Don’t forget poor Lisa. One of the top names through the ’60s, it’s now ranked all the way down at 773.
The name you pick for your kid will unleash a lifetime of unintended consequences. No pressure, though.
Certain names do tend to come and go in cycles, says Jennifer Moss, the founder of BabyNames.com. They may take a few generations to come back into vogue, though. Lillian, for instance, was the 10th most given name in 1900, later dipped, then bounced back to the 26th spot in 2013. Indeed, not many would pick a name that recalls images of their parents — or grandparents, for that matter. But, as Moss notes, “once the perception dates out, the names can become popular again.” For millennials, Gary is reminiscent of dad and Truman of grandpa. Deborah, meanwhile, evokes images of a mom — much like Dorothy does of a grandma. But maybe they’ll come back … someday.
Of course, not every name can be resuscitated. So while a serial killer called Charles isn’t necessarily going to doom that name, famously unsavory folks who go by something quite unique may end up in the moniker mortuary. For those who are cruel enough to name a child Ebenezer or Adolf, you might as well chop off a finger while you’re at it.
Research has shown time and again that first names cast a shadow throughout life, regardless of race and gender, both of which prompt all other sorts of discriminations. It even turns out that teenagers with unpopular labels are more likely to become little lawbreakers — because, in part, their peers treat them differently and it’s harder for them to make friends. (There’s a study on that, conveniently titled Adolescents With Unpopular Names More Prone To Committing Crime.) Bottom line: The name you pick for your kid will unleash a lifetime of unintended consequences. No pressure, though.
Oh, and don’t forget how the name rolls off the tongue — that also matters. Some letters and sounds are just more soothing than others, which could impact how a kid gets treated as they get older. A study from the 1920s that was redone in the ’40s showed that people associate round shapes with the world “maluba” and jagged objects with “takete.” Names induce certain sentiments in the same way. “What does a name remind us of, and is it appealing — does it glide off the tongue? Those are the biggest drivers in name choice,” says Adam Alter, a marketing professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business who has studied the perception of names.
In the Internet era, when entire websites are dedicated solely to baby names, there are more than ever to choose from. But it turns out they also get sent to the incinerator faster than ever. It used to be a handle could hang on for 10 to 15 years; now, Moss says, it’s four — max. People want a name that’s in step with the times but not too trendy, so as soon as it reaches the top 10 it begins its descent into obscurity. There’s also little of this naming your child after yourself nonsense, which has sped up the pressure to be irreverent all that much more.
In other words, Gary, don’t take it personally. As Alter says, “Nothing is popular forever.”