I have a troubled relationship with my first name.
Mostly I’ve got better things to worry about, which is why I have never bothered to address my botheration in any real way. But like a lot of people with an overcommon first name, I find Jennifer less than satisfying.
Like many women named Jennifer, in public I will often not respond when I hear someone calling my name. There are so many Jennifers in the world that I’m rarely the one they’re looking for.
Jennifer often seems like less of a name than a brand, a generic generational signifier indicating, at least for the American branch of the Jennifer family, that I am an 80s survivor somewhere between 30 and 40 years old. In America there are few elderly women, few middle-aged women, and few baby girls with my name.
Just by knowing my first name, you pretty much know how old I am. And I don’t mind my age being known, but I don’t care to carry a name that’s a sort of time-stamp, or (much worse) to know that I will always be associated somehow with the hair metal and stonewashed jeans of the 1980s, when the bulk of the Jennifers enjoyed our teen years.
Jennifer ruled the 70s, with hundreds of thousands of newborn girls unknowingly labeled with a name that would brand them all as being born sometime during the administration of Nixon or Ford. In 1971 Jennifer took the top spot as the most popular name in the country for newborn girls, a position it would hold for twelve more years.
There were five of us in my kindergarten class. In college I never took a chemistry class that didn’t have another Jennifer in it. In 2002 there was a Canadian art show involving eight artists, all of whom are named Jennifer.
According to namestatistics.com, there are about 1.2 million women in America named Jennifer. There are three times as many Jennifers in America as there are people in Alaska. There are more American Jennifers than there are people in the entire state of Hawaii (we outnumber them; I smell a takeover).
What spoiled the name Jennifer in this country was that Jennifer was name-fad. A passing fashion. Not a lasting trend, like the names Elizabeth or Karen are here. It was a burst bubble that brands almost all of us Jennifers as children of the 70s who came of age in the 80s and now find ourselves in our thirties.
I was surprised to learn recently that names like Linda and Dorothy had in years past actually been even more popular than my name, and seen their popularity last even longer. But those names never exploded and declined like Jennifer did because they saw long-term popularity rather than a dizzying 1970s crash and burn.
There are lots of Marys, but there are lots of Marys of every age, from babies to grandmothers. There are lots of Jennifers, but we are almost all in our 30s. We’ll all age together, all go through the passages of life together, a little nation of women. The Jennifer Nation.
Direct from the Social Security Administration website, here’s how the name’s popularity has fallen over the years:
Running through the strata of American generations is a Burgess Shale of Jennifers, all saddled with a name that ensures that yes, we have indeed all seen Sixteen Candles. Yes, and St. Elmo’s Fire, too. Yes, we know who Molly Ringwald is, and we do indeed remember Strawberry Shortcake and the Smurfs.
Of course, there’s a little we of Jennifer Nation can do to combat the tyranny of the brand. Nicknames are a great option.
I tend to self-identify more as Jen than Jennifer. I introduce myself as Jennifer and like to be called Jennifer by those whom I do not know well, but close friends and family call me Jen almost exclusively.
I answer to both but prefer Jen (however, please note that those who skip the Jennifer Period and go directly to calling me Jen get a few points knocked off). I like to be called Jen only after the introductory period has passed, and cringe inside when friends introduce me to strangers as Jen, although I am slowly learning not to.
I think of Jen as a name for friends and insiders, a name that one needs to be initiated into. Don’t jump the moat, please. (That said, all regular readers of this blog should call me what you please; you are all well beyond any need to call me Jennifer anymore.)
Jen I like. Jen (or ren, “humaneness”) is a key concept of my favorite philosopher, Confucius. It’s also the name of a famous Chinese physicist. It’s short and sporty. I’d be far less complacent about being Jennifer if I wasn’t able to be Jen as well.
And heaven knows there are worse names, and worse names to have than one associated (however transiently) with youth and beauty.
I have a dear friend who, bless her, is named Randee. Randi or Randie might have been better in my opinion; I find the two e’s her parents slapped on somehow vulgar and contrived, the baby-naming equivalent of calling your ice cream parlor Ye Olde Ice Cream Shoppe.
My friend reports that her father served in England in WWII, so he had to have known how ridiculous his own daughter would sound someday when traveling in the U.K. under the local equivalent of being named Hornee: Hi there, I’m Horny and I’d like to book a room for two, please.
In high school I had a friend who was actually named John Smith, that name so generic it used to appear as the dummy name on print ads for credit cards. And let’s not forget those other most nondescript American names, Michael, James, Christopher and David, which simply disappear into the name-landscape, signifying nothing but, perhaps, staid and uncreative parents.
I have friends named Jessica and Heather, making us, when we get together, the ultimate triumvirate of 1980s nameholders. Maybe we need to check if we have superpowers when united, and can make our enemies do the Superbowl Shuffle just by looking at them, or convert ordinary matter into Care Bears.
When we three get together we confuse which of us has what name, for it seems that Stephanie, Jessica, Heather, Jennifer and Michelle are really just all parts of what may actually be one big single 80s name. All the same thing, really, fitting into the same compartment of the brain. When we’re together not even we know what our names really are, and I have accidentally called Heather Jessica even though she and Jessica are nothing alike.
But I’d rather be Jennifer than a lot of names. My parents didn’t name me anything outlandish, selfish, obnoxious or hard to live up to (like a woman I knew named Venus, who actually carries it off). I don’t fault my parents for failing to avoid a trend. In 1969, people didn’t have access to data the way we do now.
My parents couldn’t see into the future; I was named in 1969, pretty early in the run. I think they probably only knew that they were giving me a beautiful name. And I think Jennifer was so popular because it is such a beautiful name. Feminine but not twee. Feathery somehow.
Maybe its own beauty killed it.
And I’m living proof that Jennifers can be more than popular blonde cheerleaders or leggy actresses. They can also float down the river with their soggy copies of The Economist, be hardcore information junkies, love ping pong, shave their legs infrequently, dream of becoming documentary screenwriters.
I am at peace with my name. For after all, to paraphrase Salman Rushdie: I am Jennifer Saylor.