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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, December 26, 2006

What's in a name? Lots, such as whether you're a boomer

By Linell Smith
Baltimore Sun

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Careful, your name might reveal more about you than you realize. If you're a Linda or a Larry, for instance, it's a good bet you're older than 40 and probably closer to 60.

The popular names of the 1940s and 1950s are aging along with the baby boomers who own them. From 1946 to 1964, the most fashionable girls' names were Mary, Linda and Lisa. Top names for boys were James, Robert and Michael, according to records at the Social Security Administration.

These names have become, well, dated. Last year's most popular baby names were Emily and Jacob. Other names in the top 10: Christopher, Ethan, Joshua, Andrew, Olivia, Madison, Isabella and Ashley.

Linda, Mary, Bob and Jim have graduated to popular names for grandparents. So have Pat, Carol, Sue, Ron, Jerry and Wally.

The newest generation of names implies that boomer names are not only older but also what cultural anthropologist Robbie ("officially a Robert") Blinkoff calls "vanilla and middle-of-the-road."

Girls' names used to be just girls' names. Today a lot of children possess "either/or" names such as Taylor, Alex and Sydney, says Susan Bartolini, a Baltimore school nurse who's proud to bear one of the most popular boomer names.

"We were named solid names," says Bartolini, 59. "A lot of us were named for saints which meant we were supposed to live up to something rather than being named after movie and TV stars."

Is she suggesting there's something of a generational name clash?

"I hate names like Misty, names that could be cats," she says. "What really bothers me is misspellings: Tiffany with a 'ph.' Sean's a lovely name, but it's spelled every which way. Why give your child a name with a misspelling? I don't get it."

'YUPPIE' NAMES

Larry McGlinchey, a chocolatier, has trouble with the Tylers and Taylors.

"They give me the creeps," he says. "They sound yuppie and gentrified. I like over-the-back-fence names for people. Noah and Madison? Give me a break. I feel like I'd have to dress up and give them a gift when I meet them."

McGlinchey, 54, grew up in southwest Philadelphia, where kids whose names ended in a consonant, like Jim, were given an "ee" sound, while kids whose names ended in an "ee" sound were stripped of it.

"So Frank was Frankie," he says. "Since I was Larry, I became Larr. But only people my age or older call me that now."

To Ailene Staples, 28, who works as a writers' assistant on HBO's "The Wire," names like Larry suggest men who tend to think of themselves as younger than she and her friends do. But every so often she bumps into an anachronism.

"I have a friend named Bob in his mid-20s," she says. "There's something incongruous about a Bob that age because you always have this image of an older, middle-aged man."

What about Gary, Sandy, Joan and Pat?

"You're naming my managers and bosses," Staples says. "The connotation is that people with those types of names tend to be more conservative. The names themselves feel kind of dated and dull. Obviously, that's an unfair generalization, but I think the association is there whether you realize it or not."

Ailene was born Eileen but changed the spelling of her name in middle school because she thought it seemed more feminine. Daughter to a Jean and a Phil, both born in the 1950s, she has a half-brother named Tristan, a name also used for females.

"I like the idea of ambiguously gendered, neutral names," she says. "I like things a little farther off the beaten path."

TRYING TO BE 'UNEEK'

Since the 1970s, picking unusual names has been a trend in black communities, especially when it comes to girls. Because parents seek the opposite of trendy names, sometimes creating new names by blending sounds from various family names, they do not appear in the most popular lists.

In a study of baby names in California during the past 30 years, researchers Steven Levitt and Roland Fryer found that the typical baby girl born in a black neighborhood in 1980 was given a name that was 20 times more common among blacks than whites.

"Today, more than 40 percent of black girls born in California in a given year receive a name that not one of the roughly 100,000 baby white girls received that year," Levitt writes with Stephen Dubner in "Freakonomics."

"Even more remarkably, nearly 30 percent of the black girls are given a name that is unique among every baby, white or black, born that year in California."

(There were also 228 babies named Unique during the 1990s alone and one each of Uneek, Uneque and Uneqqee; virtually all of them were black.)

Mary Maslow, 51, of Reisterstown, Md., hasn't gotten many questions about her name. However, she made sure to choose less common names for her children.

"Our first was Crystal Dawn because she was our 'clear beginning,' " says Maslow, a personal trainer. "Our second was Jed Ian, and because we're 'Star Wars' fans, we called him Jedi. Our third child is Iris Gem. Iris is my favorite flower, and Gem was an empath on an early episode of 'Star Trek.' Our fourth is Luke Dalton. Luke is that 'Star Wars' connection again, and Dalton was a bouncer played by Patrick Swayze in a movie called 'Road House.'"

Nanci Wohl says she started spelling her name with an 'i' to set her apart from other Nancys in elementary school.

Wohl, 55, an assistant to the director at a health club, has two siblings Ronnie and Valerie whose names brand them as boomers. Her youngest sister Margeaux, also a boomer, started off life as Margo.

In 1951, when Wohl was born, Nancy was the seventh-most popular name for girls. Last year, it was 318th.

Perhaps more surprising is what has happened to Mary.

For most of the 1950s, it was the most popular girls' name in the country. In 2005, it didn't even make the top 50.

Its spot went to ambiguously gendered Mackenzie.