TV’s Out-of-Synch Name Syndrome
The names are popular picks for parents in the 21st century, which is why you’re much more likely to encounter a toddler Owen than one who’s middle-aged.
Rhimes is particularly fond of choosing character names that skew young (other examples: Asher, Oliver, Rowan and Abigail), but she’s by no means alone. Much of Hollywood suffers from Unrealistic Naming Syndrome (UNS), a condition that compels screenwriters to slap the name Sophia on a 40-year-old woman.
The new police procedural CSI: Cyber drew criticism for its implausible plotlines — e.g., hackers using baby monitors to kidnap infants. But the name of its main character may be the least credible part. The show would have us believe that an FBI agent played by the 46-year-old Patricia Arquette could be called Avery Ryan.
Sorry, no. Avery was a boys’ name until the 1990s. It’s now more popular for girls, but that’s a recent phenomenon. In other words, forget about hackers stealing babies — PATRICIA ARQUETTE STOLE A BABY‘S NAME.
Until now, the most egregious case of UNS was Samantha on Sex and the City. That character was played by Kim Cattrall, who was born in 1956. But almost no one was called Samantha before the show Bewitched came out in 1964. So Cattrall was nearly a decade too old to have that name. (Next time someone asks you if you’re the Carrie or Samantha of your group of friends, keep in mind that Samantha herself couldn’t have been a Samantha.)
Why do screenwriters pick wrong-age names for their characters? I think they’re looking for monikers that feel fresh and sophisticated. Face it: Jennifer, Amy and Lisa don’t feel fresh or sophisticated — even if they’re more probable for an adult character. Sophia, Isabella and Olivia have a lot more pizzazz.
Writers probably go through the same naming cycles as parents in terms of what’s hot and what’s not. But they’re putting their choices on adults, not babies.
Jennifer was the most popular name in America for 15 years. Television should be rife with characters named that. And yet, there are relatively few. (A notable exception: Sleepy Hollow has a Jenny, who’s played by a 31-year-old actress. Kudos, guys.)
Sometimes characters have names that are too old for them.
That’s the case with The Big Bang Theory, where several characters have outdated names — perhaps because the screenwriters wanted to signal dorkiness.
Let’s compare the names of the actors on the show with the statistical age of their character names (i.e., if you had that name in real life, what age would you most likely be?).
Another example of an outdated character name is Sue, the teenage sister from The Middle. Sue is socially awkward and seems to fail at everything, but has a good attitude. The name Sue seems to fit that personality, even if there’s no way a teen would be called that these days. (The last time it ranked in the top 1,000, Mary Lou Retton was still swinging on the uneven bars.)
In some cases, writers can’t be blamed for tone-deaf names. The current Odd Couple reboot on CBS features two men in their mid-40s playing Oscar and Felix. When Neil Simon‘s original play premiered in 1965, those names wouldn’t stand out. Today, they’re more unusual — though both have showed some signs of recovery in recent years. If you meet a real Felix, he’s probably either quite young or very old…or possibly British.
The Simpsons is another collection of highly improbable names. And it gets less plausible by the year (the downside of a show where the characters stay the same age for more than two decades).
Matt Groening, the creator of The Simpsons, named the characters after the members of his own family. So even when the show started in 1989, the names were out of date.
Bart (Bartholomew) is supposed to be 10. But the name Bart peaked in 1959, and very few people named Bartholomew are still alive. (There’s a famous scene from the show where Bart laments that he can’t find a miniature license plate with his name on it, despite there being one imprinted with “Bort.”)
In the end, there’s only one fail-proof way to ensure that a character’s name is true-to-life: use the same first name as the actor.
She was born in 1979, the year the name Mindy last peaked in the United States.
You don’t get much more realistic than that.
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on March 19th, 2015 at 11:41 pm
However, I’d much rather hear some ancient sounding names (Howard, Sheldon, Leonard, just my cup of tea!) or very fresh sounding names (today’s two year olds) rather than the boring names of my generation (Lisa, Amy, Melissa, Debbie, etc.)
on March 20th, 2015 at 12:34 am
I’m surprised at Samantha Jones having the wrong name. I thought Samantha would’ve been popular at the time of her birth but turns out it was at the very bottom of the Top 1000. But leave it to Samantha to be cutting edge even at birth hahaha.
on March 20th, 2015 at 8:18 am
Interesting points. I definitely notice it with adult characters having names like Avery.
On the other hand, “statistical” age doesn’t mean the names stopped being used. Yes, Homer is extremely unlikely, but even though the “statistical age” of Margaret is 104, it has consistently been used since then. It was in the top 20 until 1951 and has never been out of the top 200, so it’s not unlikely to know a young Maggie at any age; it’s just less common than a baby Ashley in 1989 or a baby Sophia in 2015.
on March 20th, 2015 at 8:19 am
Even if names weren’t popular during the character’s birth year, not everyone has a popular name. Many popular names have been around for years, they just got trendy recently. Now I would be really if say, there was a Nevaeh or Bryleigh that was an adult. Maybe it would matter to me if I was a name nerd. 🙂
Very creative blog idea, however.
on March 20th, 2015 at 8:44 am
I agree with you on the cases where the character would have a near-zero probability of having the name IRL (e.g. Sex and the City’s Samantha, or a female Madison born anytime before Splash came out in 1984).
With many of your other examples it’s not so much an individual character with an outlier name, but rather a group of characters being named either what’s trendy now or the names popular when the creators were growing up. Remember that not everyone has a name that peaked around their birthyear, so naming all characters like that can push the name realism effect too much the other way. I think a show that got it close to right is Mad Men; there are outliers like Jennifer and Megan, but most of the main characters as a group (e.g. Betty, Joan, Peggy, Don(ald), Pete(r), and Roger) have names you’d expect in a 1960s workplace.
In a case like Reagan/Amy on Up All Night, the main issue with a parent/child-name-probability-inversion is likely confusion. (To give a real-life example, on another forum I frequently visit one of the members is a baby boomer who goes by Jen or Jenny most of the time – her legal first name is Jane but usually doesn’t go by that. However she named her daughter Linda, and she’s commented that people often confuse their names.) Or to put it another way I’d say that such a character set would be like having a male Ashley and a female Ryan together – having a boy with a name used mostly on girls and vice-versa in the same setting would likewise be confusing.
With animated shows it’s often not intended to be realistic anyway so I don’t care as much as long as the names are plausible (with your Bob’s Burgers example since although the children have “older” names they aren’t all associated with one particular time period so I don’t see any issues there, however both of the parents’ names – Bob and Linda – would’ve been more likely a generation ago than now, but still not a naming failure IMO). And with stories intended to be timeless the author shouldn’t give all the characters names with peaks at any one time period (including what would be on-target at the time of the story’s creation) IMO (but likewise shouldn’t go with any non-plausible names either).
I think a better way to gauge the realism of a character name is to look at the name’s popularity in both absolute and relative terms, and consider both factors together. As long as the name is reasonably likely for the person’s age in absolute terms I’d give the character individually a pass (now as I said if a group all have similar less likely names it may be different); e.g. that 2011-born Amy in Up All Night – Amy was #2 in the 1970s but has ranked in the #100s for the past several years, so that character’s name would be as likely as say a Skylar or Eleanor (names that ranked similar to Amy in 2011) born in the same year (like I said when paired with a mom who has a more modern name that creates the other aforementioned issues though). An example going the other way would be for example a 30-year-old Henry (hot for young boys, but in the 1980s had a ranking similar to what the Amy example above has now) – alone that would be okay IMO, but if Henry had peers in the story named Charlotte and Oliver for example I’d rank that with your examples of the writers trying to sound modern/hip/trendy. Now in the cases where the name is Top 10 at one point and well below the Top 1,000 at the character’s point of birth, like the Madison and Samantha examples, I’d give the character an anachronism flag while I probably wouldn’t with a similarly obscure-at-the-time-of-birth name that never cracked onto the main lists.
on March 20th, 2015 at 9:07 am
I thought of another way my thoughts can be applicable: For those looking to rename themselves for whatever reason. As an example I’ve worked with several transgender people and the above advice on character names largely applies to them choosing a new name as well (in fact for those who want to post on a name forum for advice but don’t want to “out” themselves on a public board is to post asking for a character name of someone who’s the gender they’re transitioning to with the same age, ethnicity, etc. as themselves). The main difference is because the person has gender issues to begin with is with unisex name suggestions (which can cut both ways, depending on whether their goal is to live in a more-or-less androgynous matter or blend in with their target gender – in the former case unisex names are great but in the latter a non-gender-specific name can make it harder to “pass” especially for transwomen who are more likely to have unchangeable male characteristics like a deepened voice or male bone structures*). *For transmen the big physical obstacle is unsatisfactory ways to create realistic male genitalia, but since most people shouldn’t see that they usually pass better to the general public.
on March 20th, 2015 at 9:55 am
Great article! I’ve noticed some of these inconsistencies myself (and annoyed my non-namenerd husband by complaining about them) especially on Shonda Rhimes’ shows and the Reagan/Amy inversion on Up All Night.
on March 20th, 2015 at 9:59 am
Kind of unrelated, but the former vice mayor of San Jose, Calif., was a woman named Madison Nguyen — born in 1975. She immigrated from Vietnam as a child and chose her first name (inspired in part by Splash).
So…definitely an out-of-sync Madison, but I like the idea that she made the Splash association voluntarily.
on March 20th, 2015 at 10:05 am
Also, I checked and there’s never been ANY character named Nevaeh (or Bryleigh) in any TV show or movie tracked by IMDB. Maybe it’s only a matter of time, but I think writers generally prefer names that are easy to say and spell.
on March 20th, 2015 at 10:28 am
I love The Middle, and adore all the names of the Heck kids: Axl, Sue, and Brick. Axl and Brick are so out there, and Sue is so not. For a show about a family that is just barely holding it together at any given moment, the randomness of the kids’ names is perfect. Also, Sue’s legal middle name is also Sue – a glitch on her birth certificate that her parents never got around to fixing. There was a whole episode about Sue trying to choose a new middle name for herself – she wanted to pick Lily, but found out that Sue means “lily,” so essentially her name would still be Sue Sue. Honestly, if you’re not watching this show already, you should; it’s consistently hilarious!
on March 20th, 2015 at 12:26 pm
ugh…I always think this as well. drives me crazy!
on March 20th, 2015 at 3:05 pm
The media has become such an integral part of everything about American culture and society that, in my opinion, “they” want to be the taste-makers as well as reflect who/what is out there in the real world. All these “new,” contemporary names that have been cropping up in the last 30 years or so need to be legitimized in some way, so why not put them on TV in the form of “legitimate” people, i.e. adults? I feel like this is their thinking. It doesn’t bother me, but it is fascinating.
on March 20th, 2015 at 7:19 pm
I’ve notice this when re-watching ’90s TV shows I enjoyed back then. I agree that animative TV series are some of the biggest offenders. I always thought it was because they didn’t want the audience to be offended by some of the characters, i.e. if your name is Laura, and there is a character on a TV show you watch or other people watch with an more offensive character named Laura, you might feel personally attacked. By picking names very few people have that are watching the show and by picking names that are familiar but outdated, it sort of eliminates this phenomenon.
One of my favorite TV shows for younger people, Hey Arnold!, which was a Nick show from the late ’90s to ~2004, has a cast full of interesting names, including:
Arnold – peaked in 1919 at #89
Helga – peaked in 1907 at #778
Gerald – peaked between 1935-1940 at #19
Olga – peaked in 1916 at #126
Sid – peaked in 1905 at #734
Harold – peaked between 1912-1920 at #12
Eugene – peaked between 1927-1929 at #20
Rhonda – peaked in 1965 at #37
Sheena – peaked in 1984 at #80
Another children’s TV show that has these sorts of names is Arthur, whose cast of crew includes Arthur, Dora Winifred, Francine, Shelley (boy), Sue Ellen, George, Fern, Prunella, Marina, Molly, & Rubella. I think it’s cool and interesting when names are used as anachronisms.
on March 20th, 2015 at 10:46 pm
Addison (female) on Grey’s Anatomy
Reid (female) on Grey’s Anatomy
Skyler (female) on Breaking Bad
Those women should really be boys.
on March 21st, 2015 at 12:52 pm
This post brings up some very good points! I remember being skeptical when Private Practice premiered a number of years ago and revealed a character named Violet. Puh-lease.
That being said, I’m a mid-twenty-year-old Olivia… I think according to this article I shouldn’t exist!
on March 21st, 2015 at 7:26 pm
I forgot which show it was, but they had an adult Finn in it. Which is so unrealistic! The oldest Finn I know in real life is 19 years old and BOY was that name rare when he was born!
on March 22nd, 2015 at 11:11 pm
I agree- sometimes the names are reflective of the characters’ personalities- like Sue from The Middle…
on March 23rd, 2015 at 4:20 pm
As far as Jennifer goes, there’s Jennifer Jareau (JJ) on Criminal Minds, and she’s about 40, so she hits the age mark well too.
Otherwise, really interesting article.
on March 27th, 2015 at 12:59 pm
I know a Maggie who is about 14 or 15. The name is not outdated in anyway. In fact I sort of like the name and how uncommon it is today.
on March 27th, 2015 at 1:13 pm
vintageluvs is right about the whole Arthur thing there are other names on the show that are unusual in this day and age such as: Buster, Muffy, Alan (Brain), Chip, Carl, Bud, Walter (Deer), & Ladonna. It also has more common names with characters like: Jenna, James, Timmy, Tommy, Emily, Kate, & Catherine.
on March 29th, 2015 at 4:51 pm
I definitely don’t think this is an issue on animated shows, where a)the characters stay the same age for several decades (as was mentioned) and b)it would be pretty boring to see more popular names such as Jennifer, Amy, or Olivia. If Phineas and Ferb were named Justin and Kyle (both popular in the 90s) the show wouldn’t have the same effect.
on April 6th, 2015 at 9:52 pm
Samantha Jones from “Sex and the City” was not named Samantha by her parents – she chose her own name as an adult.
It makes perfect sense the age-fearing Samantha would choose a name that made her seem younger (and most women who change their names change it to something that sounds more youthful anyway).
on April 22nd, 2015 at 4:01 pm
Another example for you: when I first watched Breaking Bad, it never made sense to me that Walt’s wife was called Skyler, I’ve never known anyone over the age of 10 with that name.
on April 25th, 2015 at 2:24 pm
British soap, Hollyoaks, is *really* bad at naming their characters. In the past 10 years or so most of the babies born on the show are named after their parents or recently deceased family members. Twins Francesca and Jack are named after their grandparents. Twins Anthony and Deedee are named after their parents (Tony and Diane). Tony had a daughter, who died of SIDS, called Antonia Grace (known as Grace). There was a baby called Max, after his biological father. Hollyoaks also has a lot of out of place names like Leela who is in her late 20s so was born in the mid 1980s. Leela’s sister is Teagan, born in the early 1990s.
Coronation street has a Simon who was born c. 2003. Bethany Britney was born to 13 year old Sarah Louise in 2001, and just a few weeks ago, 13 year old Fay had a baby girl called Miley.
Eastenders has 6 month old twins called Robert and Ernie (Bert and Ernie). The twins have an older brother called Tommy who is 4 years old.
Relating to the post, the Bob’s Burgers character names have always annoyed me. The Simpsons’ names haven’t bothered that much (Rod & Todd annoy me!). That could be down to the fact that I was born in 1988 so The Simpsons have been on TV, basically, my whole life. So, to me, they are normal names, even if Homer and Bart are odd.
on October 18th, 2016 at 5:37 pm
I think there are some cultural differences between the names in the US and the UK too though (shockingly, I’m sure we all know this). Because I know several Olivias in their mid-20s, I don’t think it was particularly out of the loop here. The same with a few other names e.g. I know three guys named Simon (aged 22, 28 and 59) but also if I had a son now Simon is really high on my list and I don’t think anyone would bat an eyelid at my choice.
The main issue I have with British TV names is that a lot of names are very… American. Yes, I know a little boy named Harley and a little girl named Skylar, but most of the kids I know have distinctly ‘British’ names e.g. Alfie, Lotta, Astrid, Vivienne, Alma, Poppy, Millie. So I get a bit frustrated when there’s a guy on a TV show who’s meant to be 22ish and is called Jesse. I’ve never met anyone of any age in Britain called Jesse.
on October 18th, 2016 at 7:41 pm
This entire article makes no sense. I know a man who is 66 who is named Owen. And then there is Sophia Loren, who is a tad older than ten. How about Olivia de Haviland who is 100. Penelope just became trendy a few years ago but people have been naming their daughters Penny and Penelope for hundreds of years.
My point is that anyone can have any name at any time. Just because someone has a name that wasn’t trendy for their age group but was either trendy before or decades later doesn’t mean that it was implausible let alone impossible.
How about Hillary Clinton. Hillary was a male name when her mother named her. Are you going to tell me that she doesn’t exist.
Just because the character on CSI Cyber is named Avery and it was not a trendy name for her generation means absolutely nothing. And by the way, good for her. She DIDN’T have a trendy name. It was FRESH!!!! It was STYLISH!!!!
on June 3rd, 2017 at 3:53 pm
I definitely notice this! However, my problem is less with names like Samantha, which were on their way up and therefore could just mean her parents were on the cutting edge of the trend bubble, or that she was just named for a Samuel. However…AVERY sticks out like a massively sore thumb. She should be a Carol, Ann, Marsha, Patricia, Laura, or Christina. She could even be a Shannon, Kelly, Jodi, or Lindsey. And it’s not just that Avery is typically a man’s name…it’s that it just didn’t fit the times at all. I think Murphy Brown (another one that sticks out, though that was kind of the point in her case) naming her son Avery in the early 90s was the first time it really made the name radar.
Regarding Grey’s Anatomy, there are definitely some names that stick out: Addison, Ellis I, Arizona, Calliope/Callie, and Reid, for example, but Meredith, Cristina, Miranda, Maggie, April, Derek, Mark, Lexie, Alex, Richard, Amelia/Amy, Erica, Charles, George, Ben, Nathan, Stephanie, and the children Sophia, Harriet, Ellis II, Bailey, Zola, and Tucker all feel on point. Owen and Isobel are outliers for their ages, but not unheard of at all. Addison, Ellis I, Reid, Preston, and Jackson were all likely given family names or otherwise upwardly mobile names, and the only ones that I think feel out of place like CSI Cyber’s Avery are Addison and Ellis.
Also, I think pop culture definitely influences names, as evidenced by the multitudes of Ashleys (80s Young and the Restless), Kaylas (80s Days of Our Lives), Brooks (90s Bold and the Beautiful), and Lauras (70s/80s General Hospital). I was really surprised we didn’t end up with a lot of little Mabels after Mad About You, but BOY did Emma get a boost from Friends, and Legally Blonde definitely put Elle on the map! And now I can’t stand all the adult characters named Emma and Elle. They should be Emily or Ellen!
on June 7th, 2017 at 2:52 am
This is a great article, and character names that don’t match the era or/and age of the characters, are so annoying. I don’t mind hearing some comparatively dated and old-fashioned names, as long as it isn’t overdone. It can be refreshing, and actually does reflect reality. Some people do have names that are old-fashioned, and stand out somewhat. Too modern is more of a problem, for sure. I write modern contemporary fiction, and use a lot of classic names, but also enjoy the chance to use dated and old-fashioned names. I effectively am using trendy names, when I add a Tina or Tracy to the mix. In 1983, they were trendy names – taking into account that, unless the characters are newborns, they were not born in the 1980s.
on June 7th, 2017 at 2:53 am
Sorry, I meant, I write modern historical fiction.
on June 7th, 2017 at 3:03 am
I just read a few other comments. Our UK soaps are bad at naming the next generations, for sure. They get named after parents, in many cases where they just would not. Watch retro Coronation Street, 80s or earlier, though, on You Tube. They use just about every vintage female name that we are now reviving for their female characters. Awesome resource. ?
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