14 August 2007

No More Tom, Dick, and Harry

Last week I quoted from Joelle Anthony's article on recurring motifs from recent YA novels, including her warning that authors should beware of "showing their age by naming characters with names they grew up with (i.e., Debbie, Lisa, Kimberly, Alice, Linda, etc.)."

I decided to test that by using NamePlayground.com to look up the most popular American boys' names of 1965--i.e., the names I think of as defining normal. They are:

1. Michael
2. John
3. David
4. James
5. Robert
6. William
7. Mark
8. Richard
9. Thomas
10. Jeffrey
And a more normal, almost boring bunch of guys I could hardly imagine.

In contrast, here are the most popular American boys' names of 1997--i.e., what will seem perfectly normal to a twelve-year-old reader in 2009.
1. Michael
2. Jacob
3. Matthew
4. Christopher
5. Joshua
6. Nicholas
7. Brandon
8. Andrew
9. Austin
10. Tyler
Michael keeps his perch on the top of the stack, but every other name from 1965--including my own--had fallen out of favor. (They hadn't fall far, though: they were all still in the top 100.)

Instead, the parents of 1997 were choosing some names that weren't even in the top 300 when I was born: Jacob, Joshua, Brandon, Austin, and Tyler. So to me some of those names feel so unusual as to carry faint connotations that would be appropriate for some characters but not others. But to today's ten-year-olds they're just like Tom, Dick, and Harry. (Tom and Dick, at least.)

Here's another telling statistic that I calculated from NamePlayground's data: in 1965, 29% of American boys had one of the top ten names on the first list above. In 1997, only 17% of American baby boys received a name from that year's top ten. In other words, regardless of what specific names are most popular, parents are now choosing a wider variety of names for their boys than before, apparently seeking more individuality.

And for today? Nicholas, Brandon, Austin, and Tyler have slipped off the top ten to the I Love the 90s circuit, and William is back--along with Ethan, Daniel, and (bada bing!) Anthony.


SamRiddleburger said...

I have a character named "Neveah," a name so hip, so cool, so trendy that in a couple of years no one will even recognize it as a name and they'll throw down my book in frustration.

I'm glad you published this warning. It's really made me think more about the naming of minor characters. Main characters, of course, must have names that isolate them and brand them as weirdos, like Lyle Herzog or Toby Tuckliver.

J. L. Bell said...

"Neveah" has had such a meteoric rise in popularity that it's even attracted press attention.

I suspect its popularity will fade, but those girls born in 2004-07 will still be around, spelling it out to each new teacher. Eventually they'll be teenagers, and Neveahs will have their rightful place in YA literature.

But for stories set now, I suspect a teenager named Neveah would be quite an anomaly.

pussreboots said...

In five years when my son is ten, I expect to see lots of Ethans and Isaacs as characters. I know more Ethans and Isaacs in the 5 and under set than I can count.