Monday, January 17, 2011

Naming Trends and StagNancy

Have you noticed that all the cutest babies lately carry old man/old lady names? Every time I ooh and ahh at a tiny cherub bundled up in bunting, I'm caught short when the picture caption or the parent informs me that the child shares a name with someone I remember from my grandpa's golf quartet or who was a cousin of my grandmother's back in the Old Country. Noah. Emma. Abigail. Jack. Henry. Everything old is new again, I guess.

Except for one name. Nancy. Seriously, have you met a person named Nancy who is younger than 35? It's as if a tidal wave of naming nostalgia has swept through but managed to leave the name Nancy standing high and dry.

The name used to be a nickname for Anne, but came into its own in the 1800s as a given first name. According to data from the Social Security administration, Nancy raced to a peak in the 1930s and 1940s, at one point the seventh most popular girl's name in the country. It clung there through the end of the 1960s before plummeting to its current rank - not even cracking the top 200 most popular names for the last decade.

I didn't actually need to go to the Social Security website to guess when the name was most popular. Have you been to a gathering of women older than 35 where there isn't a quorum of Nancys? Put it this way: when I was in college, I didn't just have a roommate who was also named Nancy. Her last name even started with the same letter as mine. So when people called us, our other two roommates would have to say "Which Nancy do you want?" To which some callers would say "Nancy D." To which our roommates would say, "Which Nancy D. do you want?" It was a primitive version of "Using your touchtone keypad, please spell out the name of the person you'd like to reach." 

There was another Nancy in college, a close friend who came from my hometown, and that invited a whole different set of tags. We couldn't both be Rochester Nancy, so inevitably my petite friend became Little Nancy and I became Big Nancy. How much did that grate on two young women who were sensitive about their height and weight respectively? Well, why don't you ask our classmates Little Shira and Big Shira?

There  was a period in second grade in the throes of a Wizard of Oz obsession when I wanted to change my name to Dorothy, so that everyone could call me Dotty Davis. (I didn't realize that they probably already did.) Then there was the stint when I lived in Germany just after the Reagan administration. "Nancy" doesn't have a German equivalent, so with every new German acquaintance I went through the same ritual: "My name is Nancy."  "Naahncy?" "Nancy." "ACH! Like Frau Reagan!"

Other than those minor quibbles, I've always felt like it's a good, serviceable name, given to durable women who aren't cowed at every setback. Nancy Pelosi, Nancy Kerrigan, Nancy Bird Walton, and, say what you will about Nancy Spungen, but she was no shrinking violet. As for fictional Nancy's who get the job done, I believe Nancy Drew wins the crown. I recently went to a Tweetup of Bay Area folks who use Twitter to great advantage, and half the ladies in the room trading tips on how to use the technology to promote their businesses were named Nancy. 

We are the note-takers, the committee organizers, the volunteer solicitors and the project planners. (I can't see Spungen taking notes, but there's always an exception to the rule.) A Dana does my hair, but a Nancy does my taxes. 

I once had a fortune teller give me a reading and the first thing she said to me was, "But you don't call yourself Nancy." I thought, oh, GREAT, this is promising to be accurate. Then she clarified. "When you are talking to yourself, or when you are signing letters to your close friends, you call yourself Nan." Which is true, and made her prediction that I will someday write a book that will change the course of world events seem much more likely. 

Now, Nan. That's a cute little name, conjuring up images of English milkmaids and stolen kisses in the parlor and girls in white petticoats. It's clearly old fashioned. And it's been out of style just long enough for you new parents to seem daring and trendy. Can't you just picture a little red-faced moppet peeking out from her stroller as her parents talk about "Baby Nan"?

I know Nancy Sinatra left a Mid Century Modern sheen on the name, but even that era is fifty years behind us. So let's push "Nan" back up the ranks, to at least #187 on the charts. It's nothing a capable committee of Nancy's couldn't achieve with their eyes shut and one hand tied behind their backs.


  1. About 15 years ago I met a 10-year-old girl named Nancy at the national spelling bee in D.C. I chatted briefly with her mother and mentioned how unusual it was to meet a young Nancy. "Oh, that's just her nickname," said Mom. "Her grandmother can't pronounce her real name." And what is her real name, I asked with barely muted curiosity. "Annunciata," the mother replied.

    Oh. Well. Then.

    Personally, I never liked being called Nan, a name I associated with that insipid Bobbsey Twin. However, I have a proprietary fondness toward Nancy the cartoon character, especially after I discovered the artist Joe Brainard (1942-1994) and his wonderfully warped Nancy works. Here's an excellent essay about Brainard:

  2. I suppose the nickname "Nun" would have really come back to bite her...and of course her real name wasn't Nancy. Who would name a modern child that? Sigh.

    Pretty sure I need to buy the Nancy book by Brainard. Thanks for the tip, Nancy.

  3. Big Nancy? Oh dear...

    Still, better Nancy than JENNIFER.

  4. Nancy, I hear you. Diane seems to have gone out of style over the past few decades as well. I've been teaching for 25 years and we've never had a Diane go through our school. Sad to say--no Nancy's as far as I know either. I guess that just makes us more original?! :)

  5. Hey - I LOVED Nan Bobbsey. She was always sensible, clear-headed and able to keep Freddie and Flossie in line. Sounds like the Nan I know.

  6. If trends keep on the way they're going, we should have a bunch of Nancys and Wendys toddling around when we're in our 90's.

    A friend of mine just named her baby son "Doug," and I just can't say that with a straight face when talking to an infant.

  7. As a no-"h" Sara with southern ancestors, I was called Sally Ann for years, then took back Sara as I approached the 4-0 and wanted to sound "serious." There are at least 6 Nancys at our church, ranging in age from this Nancy to 80-something - all unique and wonderful!


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