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Nickname Names: Johnny be gone

October 2, 2016 nicknamer

By Nick Turner

There’s no record of a single newborn named Dick in the United States last year.

In fact, there hasn’t been a baby Dick recorded in the U.S. during the past decade. (It last popped up in the Social Security Administration databanks in 2005.)

This is no shock. The name Dick was a casualty of modern slang and its association with a disgraced president. But Dick‘s disappearance is part of a broader trend: Americans have shifted away from many once-common nicknames.

Parents still use the name John, but they dislike Johnny or Johnnie. Robert remains common, but hardly anyone calls their babies Bob or Robbie. And while many girls will be named Elizabeth this year, very few will go by Beth or Betsy.

Fifty years ago, in contrast, a thousand U.S. boys were named Bob. (Yes, I mean plain-old “B-O-B” was printed on their birth certificates.) Thousands of kids were christened Willie in 1965, and thousands more were called Becky and Kathy.

Go back a hundred years, and you’ll find that far more babies were named Zack than Zachary. Jennifer didn’t exist, but Jenny did. And Jeff was much more common than Jeffrey.

Today things are different. We live in an era where the name on your kid’s birth certificate has to be dignified — and ideally, several syllables.

Americans might still use nicknames after they take their children home from the hospital, but they certainly aren’t going to put “Chuck” or “Timmy” in government documents. They’re far more likely to go with Charles and Timothy. (Compare the situation to 1965, when nearly 600 babies were officially named Chuck, and more than 1,000 got called Timmy.)

In this respect, modern Americans are different than their counterparts in the U.K. (where names like Alfie, Bobby and Ronnie still rank in the Top 100). Some celebrities also aren’t afraid to embrace unadorned names. In 2009, Charlie Sheen named one of his sons Bob and there have been a few celebrity Charlies—both boy and girl.

But most parents aren’t so bold. Abigail sums up the current environment pretty well. It’s a Top 10 name, verrry stately and three syllables. It was used 17 times more often last year than the more modest Abby. Fifty years ago, Abby was the more popular name. And a hundred years ago, Abbie was the top variant.

I’ve seen this evolution affect my own name, Nicholas/Nick. In 1915, Nicholas was used about two times as often as the humble Nick. In 2015, Nicholas was used 41 times as often.

We’ve already discussed the fate of Dick, but the other Richard variants have faded as well. In 1965, Rich and Richie were used more than 150 times apiece. (The name Dick went to 100 babies that year.) Last year, Rich was used just 18 times, while Richie accounted for 68.

Generally, longer names are faring better. A hundred years ago, John was utterly dominant and Jonathan was quite rare. Today, Jonathan is closing in on John, and Jackson is more popular than both of them — something previous generations couldn’t have fathomed.

That brings us to Jack‘s strange metamorphosis. It began as a John nickname, but gradually lost that association. However, instead of using Jack by itself, many more parents are opting for Jackson. (Again, longer seems to be better.)

Likewise, Lizzie has fallen into disuse. But the thee-syllable Eliza is much more popular now than in 1965 or 1915.

Will Americans ever return to the happy-go-lucky nicknames of yore? It’s hard to tell, but parents seem to like the flexibility they get from longer names. (Using Elizabeth gives you access to dozens of nicknames. That’s not the case if you put Beth on the birth certificate.)

Still, it’s hard not to be nostalgic for an era when everyone seemed to take themselves (and their babies) less seriously — a time when you really could be called Tom, Dick or Harry.

About the author

Nick

Nick Turner is a writer and editor living in New York City (by way of San Francisco). He and his wife have successfully named three kids. Follow him on Twitter at @SFNick.

View all of Nick's articles

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