Nickname Names: Johnny be gone
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.
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.
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.)
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.)
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on October 3rd, 2016 at 7:14 am
I’d like to point out that it looks like you’ve fallen into the trap of assuming that the SSA list has always been a list of names given at birth. While that is largely true for the current and recent past lists, historically things were different:
1. The Social Security Act was enacted in 1935, so all the lists from before that point are entirely retrospectively constructed.
2. Even so, until the IRS started requiring SSNs to claim dependents in the late 1980s many did not get a number right after birth as is usually the case now (it was common not to get your number until you got your first job).
How does this tie into the nickname issue? Given what I said above, and how back in the day they weren’t so stringent about making sure everything matched up like they are now, many (especially teenagers applying for their number at the timetable in #2) would end up putting down the nickname they’ve almost always gone by rather than the full name given at birth. Thus for your analysis some of those nickname-name rankings may be artificially high.
(This change of when it was typical to get your SSN, and who needed a number, also lead to some other artifacts on the list such as the obviously imbalanced sex ratios common on the earliest lists.)
on October 3rd, 2016 at 7:15 am
I mean *led* to some other artifacts.
on October 3rd, 2016 at 9:10 am
I’ve seen people ask about using nicknames as first names online, particularly on yahoo answers. And I have found that Americans in particular seem absolutely revolted by the mere notion of a boy being Teddy instead of Theodore. In fact, I’ve seen quite a few Americans claim that nicknames as first names are ‘gay’ (for boys), ‘unprofessional’, ‘likely to cause a job application to be rejected’, ‘going to cause masculinity issues’ (for boys), and will ultimately result in an unhappy person because ‘no grown man or woman could possibly enjoy being a Bobbie or Jenny’. Which confuses me.
I live in the UK where nicknames as first names are common place, so I have trouble understanding why Americans seem so opposed them, and sometimes even offended by them, especially when the likes of Georgie and Katie were all the range in America only a short time ago. So what I want to know is – what changed? Why were nicknames a style that was okay then, but not now? Furthermore, why the hypocracy? Why do Americans like Riley and Maisie, but see Freddie and Dolly as ridiculous?
on October 3rd, 2016 at 9:33 am
I’m Abby. My daughter is Betsy. We are not Abigail or Elizabeth. Some of my favorites on my list are very U.K. inspired names, like Archie and Edie. I love nickname-names!
What I think this article is describing is the trend to use the longer form of a name *if one exists*, in order to give their children choices about what they’re called. If Freddie grows up and feels like his name is childish, parents want to have the option for him to reinvent himself as Fred or Frederick. That said, I don’t necessarily think that the SSA list shows that Amercian’s prefer longer/more syllable names than shorter names. I do think short-and-sweet names are popular here. Noah, Liam, Ava and Mia are all in our top ten.
Regarding AldabellaxWulfe’s comment above: I would say that the subset of people who are naming their kids Riley and Brylee etc., are a different type of people than those that feel like “I can’t give my child a nickname as a name”. But I do see where you’re seeing this hypocrisy, and I agree it seems to not make sense. (And btw I think Dolly is lovely!)
on October 4th, 2016 at 3:47 am
While British, I am with the Americans on this issue. I adore nicknames, but I do not believe in making them the official given name. This isn’t because I don’t think they can stand on their own professionally, or because I see them as effeminate, but simply because I believe very strongly that a name’s roots are still relevant today, and thus names that evolved as hypocorisms will always be hypocorisms as long as the way they were formed is still used in today’s language. Hypocorisms (from Greek hypokorizesthai, “to use child talk”), evolved in an affectionate context, and I find that it detracts from their value as terms of endearment when they are also used as a name in other contexts. Just as I wouldn’t want somebody who I do not know to call me “dearest” without meaning anything by it, neither would I want them to use a diminutive name for me that originally carried that connotation.
Obviously, it’s a matter of choice. If Thomas nn Tommy chooses to go by Tommy professionally, then that’s up to him, but when I pet name my children, I will want the diminutive to also act as a term of endearment, which it won’t if it is the only name the child uses in other areas of their life.
on October 4th, 2016 at 1:29 pm
Some people are so quick claim to cry “hypocrisy!” about every single thing. In this case, I don’t really see how being willing to use Riley but not Jenny is hypocritical, but simply a symptom of changing attitudes and trends. Riley isn’t a nickname for anything, nor is Brylee or Brinley or Harley. They are simply a different style of name.
on December 11th, 2016 at 6:21 am
The name jonny still exist as nickname. But rather not used by many people. http://www.suggestbabynames.com/meaning_of_english_boyname_currier.html
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