Everyone and their mother forwarded me this news story because I’m in the business of naming. I’ve been studying personal names full time for nine years so trust me when I say, I’ve seen it all. Abcde didn’t even make me flinch.
In case you're one of the few who didn't catch this story. Abcde and her parents pre-boarded a Southwest plane (Abcde has epilepsy) and the gate agent, finding the name amusing, posted a picture of her boarding pass onto social media. This simple act set off a media fire storm. Tens of thousands of people chimed in with their opinions. Most of which were negative.
I look at over 30,000 names everyday. Abcde is a product of a trend. Plain and simple. The name Abcde shines a spotlight on a growing population needing to stand out, in this case, desperately, unabashedly and unapologetically.
Up until the mid-20th century (c. 1950), there were only about 6,000 female personal names in circulation in the United States. By 1980, that number doubled to 12,154. Today, in the early 21st century, there are a whopping 20,000+ different female names in circulation! Twenty thousand. From Ibukunoluwa to Orquidea, to Psalm, Symphanie, Tomorrow and Vanilla. Yup, all there keeping Abcde company.
Even more compelling, 95% of the baby girls born in 1950 were given names from the Top 1000 list of most popular female names – in other words, there was a high concentration of traditional name-giving. Only 5% of the female baby population born in 1950 would bear a non-mainstream moniker.
A mere two to three generations later, by 2016, more than 25% of female babies were given unconventional names, many of which are intentionally non-standard spellings (e.g., Kaylee: Cailey, Caleigh, Caylee, Kailee, Kailey, Kaleigh, Kayleigh, Kayley, Kaylie, etc.).
This is an astonishing number. It only took a couple of generations (30 years) to completely disrupt what had been standard naming conventions among English speakers since the Middle Ages (1000 years)! Anne, Catherine, Elizabeth and Mary are rolling over in their graves.
The first big movement in creative naming occurred during the Civil Rights movement when African-Americans reclaimed this fundamental expressive right, asserting their unique identities after centuries of oppression (in the days of slavery, parents were not allowed to name their own children. Think about that for a minute). Naming conventions among Blacks took a distinct U-turn away from the western Judeo-Christian “white” naming traditions.
But I wondered... what’s the driving force behind this puzzling trend for the rest of Americans?
There have been scores of studies on the subject. The fact of the matter is that strange names aren’t racially influenced (in this case, Abcde’s parents are white); rather, it has more to do with income and education. One study concluded: “Mothers who are better educated and live in wealthier neighborhoods tend to favor more popular [traditional] names for their children, while less educated, poorer mothers are more likely to choose unconventional names or fabricate [them altogether].”
Abcde’s mom has been accused of being everything between a narcissist (in need of “publicde”) and a bad parent (the smartphone auto-corrects “Abcde” to “abuse”). According to statistics, however, she’s more likely to be a high-school drop-out behind on her rent. Had she been born to a Yale graduate living in Greenwich, Connecticut, it’s more likely her name would be Abigail rather than Abcde. And by Abigail, I don’t mean Abbygyle.
Wealth disparity and income inequality have hit levels in America not seen since the 1920s. People in our society are increasingly marginalized, pushed into the lower strata of “barely middle class” or subsisting at minimum levels of income needed for basic survival. When a society sends a message that you don’t matter, what do you do? You take the few things you can control and raise your hand. Abcde is a metaphoric hand-raiser born from an obsessive need to stand out in a society that says, in effect, we can’t hear you.
Abcde was heard. Perhaps in a way her mother hadn't quite intended.
One thing that perplexed me was not how Abcde’s mom seemed sincerely shocked by the vitriolic backlash that came her way, but rather by how shocked people were by her shock. What did she expect?!? was the general sentiment. I’ll tell you what she expected. That people wouldn’t make fun of a little girl, her daughter. Like every other mother, she loves that child and wants the best for her. Wouldn’t you be shocked if tens-of-thousands of people were making fun of your child (albeit indirectly)? Even for people who agree that Abcde is an ill-advised name, it’s not our place to publicly judge.
Trust me, I’m no saint. I’ve had my eye-rolly moments like anyone else. But I tend to keep my opinions to myself and try not to attach judgments without understanding the facts. I have come to appreciate that every name begins with a little, defenseless person who – at the age of 18 – can legally un-do what their well-meaning parents did in the first place. In the meantime, Abcde, like anyone else, has a Name Story. And one that I happen to think is pretty darn cool.