Names, like household objects, don’t have the same kind of durability that they used to. According to the Social Security Administration, Mary was the most popular name in America for six decades, from the 1890s to the 1950s. John owned the spot for three decades, and then shared the top two with Robert for a while. A quarter of all kids born during the 1950s were given a name in the top ten.
By contrast, only three of the top-ten boys’ names in the aughts made it into the top-ten list a decade later (Jacob, William, and Michael). Among girls’ names, only half made it into the new decade (Emily, Abigail, Emma, Madison, and Olivia). There’s a ton of name churn now — new names coming in, old names dropping out of use. Names that were rising fastest in popularity in 2021 apparently included Loyal, Ozzy, Emberlynn, and Raya. These are names meant to define one’s individuality rather than blend into the crowd. Originality is the point.
The world of momfluencers, which I’ve been studying for the past few years, is full of interesting baby names. There are names with martial undertone happening (Major and Cannon come to mind), and place names have been huge for a while (Bronx and Brooklyn, of course, but also London, Capri, and Adelaide). Then there are the ones with the extra letters, like Everleigh and Henleigh.
There’s also a lot of baby-name ridicule. The influencer McKinli Hatch (herself in possession of an indelible name) achieved viral fame by posting lists of names she was considering for her kids, which included the likes of Nayvie, Maylee, and McKarty. Onlookers howled with glee about her baby names being “basic.” (Her children are named Laikynn, Tatum, Madden, and Titan.)
McKinli’s infamy was largely thanks to an entire pop-culture subgenre dedicated to making fun of made-up baby names. On Facebook, there are many groups dedicated to this. Among the most popular is That Name Is a Tragedeigh (and its offshoot, That Name Is a Tragedeigh 2.0). I joined both groups a few months ago at the suggestion of my friend Anna. One of the first things I noticed was the rule against making fun of “cultural” names — a slippery concept, given that all names are cultural, but one that I take to mean “names that are not white Anglo-Saxon.” Despite the rule, which is enforced by the admins, people make fun of “cultural names” all the time without meaning to. “What kind of name is Roisin?!” a person might post, followed by a flurry of comments chastising them for ignorance about Irish names. This bit of unintended comedy is the best thing about the group.
Recent names deemed tragic by the groups are Kymburleigh, Jexson, Hindryx, Kourttlyn, Crystaleanor, and Racelynn. These are obviously unusual names. But what’s less obvious to me is exactly why they piss people off — why they seem like absurd acts of hubris on the part of the parents.
Why do we mock the names we mock?
For decades, social psychologists have researched the links between given names and life experiences. In the ’70s, research on stereotyping was fashionable, and numerous studies looked at the impact of negative stereotypes associated with first names. In Germany, the term Kevinism refers to the negative bias against people named Kevin (and Chantal, which is, according to Germans, its femme counterpart in basicness). Kevins are also maligned in France.
Names represent an act of possibly futile branding on the part of parents. I named my son Jesse partly because it sounded like the kind of name a fun guy would have. I suppose I wanted to give him a little boost in the fun-guy department, with that name. (Maybe it worked — he is a fun guy!) I named my other son Orion for similar, but slightly more Vermont-oriented reasons. (There are a lot of kids in Vermont named Orion. Meanwhile, in Canada, where we actually reside, most people assume he’s named O’Ryan. That name is not on-brand for us!)
But based on the comments in the Tragedeigh groups, it’s clear that the act of “making up” names for kids is a breach of some sense of decency, in particular for a lot of white people. Of course, “cultural” names are very often “made up” — Dominican parents are renowned for their baby-naming creativity, and jokes about unusual Black names have long since stopped being funny. So why is it fair game to make fun of white parents’ made-up names? Maybe it’s just the arc of the moral universe bending toward justice. It’s racism that makes it harder to get a job interview with a name that sounds nonwhite, and it was racism that made it “funny” to make fun of Black names. Black and brown kids have endured decades of bullying about their names: Maybe now it’s the white kids’ turn. Fair enough, but I suspect that it comes down to something else: class anxiety and status policing among white people.
Know your place, Baileigh
Status is a way that people help make sense of their social worlds. It’s not just a social construct, it’s a way that people try to figure out what’s going on around them. When deciding how to approach a stranger, we look for clues in their dress, their manner. These clues help us decide how we want to behave. (I found Cecilia Ridgeway’s book Status helpful in understanding this concept.) So status isn’t just going to evaporate when the revolution comes: We will always have a use for it, for muddling our way through our hectic social worlds.
Class is, of course, a major way that status is experienced and communicated. And class, over the last few decades, has become less stable, less guaranteed — for everyone, including white people, for a change. It’s harder today for kids to mobilize upward relative to their parents. It’s easier to end up mobilizing downward. Those of us with a bit of class security and status guard it jealously. We fear its evaporation. We suspect that, contrary to what we might have previously assumed, nothing is promised to us.
I suspect that it’s this anxiety that fuels the gleeful vitriol against the name Kymburleigh. Perhaps the “tragedy” is that parents would give their child a name that sounds “poor” or “silly,” without realizing it — “You gave your kid a name that many people would recognize as low status, and you don’t even know it.”
It’s always interesting to observe the circumstances under which otherwise perfectly nice people give themselves permission to be mean. In this case, I think the group is united by what they perceive as obliviousness to status on the part of parents who give their kids “made-up” names. How can they not know how stupid these names are, right?? Calling out this obliviousness gives them purpose as a community.
This resonates with me, a person who was socialized to be nice (and tries to be!!!) but is also deathly terrified of being perceived as oblivious. That’s my hell. Whatever’s going on, I’m determined to indicate that I “get it” — I feel like my life depends on it, unfortunately. I bet a lot of these groups’ members feel the same way sometimes. In fact, their rules about what names are and aren’t okay to make fun of sort their members into an even more precise tier of those who fully “get” the rules of engagement and those who only kinda do.
People in these groups are securing their place among those who are aware of how status is assigned, by identifying examples of people who maybe don’t (or, just as likely, who are well aware of how status works and thumb their nose at it). By categorizing some names as “tragic,” these groups are also reinforcing social norms around what kinds of names are associated with poverty. Let’s face it: You’re not going to find a lot of Kymburleighs in Harvard Yard.
Or … are you? Neoliberal economies are chaotic, and McKinli Hatch is probably a pretty rich lady now, thanks to her social-media success. For influencers, children’s names become extensions of their mothers’ brands — modern or traditional, zany outfits or floral prints. The women who choose Madysyn over Madison are not dumb to status and class. They’re just chasing a different iteration of it.
I wonder if part of what animates the hatred for made-up white-person names is that they represent a totally plausible effort on the part of parents to help their kids “stand out,” and that even with names as “tragic” as Racelynn, fame and/or fortune aren’t necessarily out of the question. Money isn’t just for Sarahs and Johns anymore.
Trad names versus made-up names: Is there really any difference?
A few weeks ago, I read an article in People magazine about how the Hanson brothers (you know the ones — Isaac, Taylor, and Zac, from the ’90s) are all grown up now and have, among them, 15 kids. The only real information the article contained, as far as I could glean, was the kids’ names. They are, in no particular order: Shepherd, Abraham, Quincy, Junia, Lucille, Everett, Monroe, Odette, Ezra, River, Viggo, Indiana, Penelope, Wilhelmina, and Maybellene.
If I were to characterize the brand personality of the Hanson brothers’ kids’ names, I’d call it vintage hippie Christian — that Kinfolk mag flavor of tasteful discernment mixed with a somewhat uncritical preference for the homespun and old-timey. I think of these names, and that careful Kinfolk aesthetic, as a deliberate move by a certain kind of white person to distance themselves from the Baileigh/Jayden school of names. But I suspect that Wilhelminas and Baileighs are tightly adjacent sociologically: They likely come from families of a certain degree of faith and “traditional” value orientation. But while Wilhelmina brings to mind a traditional way of life, Baileigh is a name that embraces the “right now.” This is really just a matter of a difference in taste: a trip to the farmers’ market or a trip to Target.
I still wonder, though, what it is about the extra vowels in particular that makes people so mad. Maybe this is an area best explored by someone with a name like that, and I’ll have to wait a few decades until Henleigh Someone-or-other becomes a renowned researcher and finally explains it all to us.