Jennifers of America, Unite

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:

jennifer_rank.gif

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.

13 responses to “Jennifers of America, Unite

  1. One of my favorite book titles is “Jennifer Fever.” It’s an examination of male menopause (the sub-title being: “Older Men, Younger Women”). I imagine it’s as inane and unreadable as all books of that ilk, and were it not for my years of working in book stores (new and used) I might never have noticed the book — it tends to get shelved in those sections I never browse (honestly, man).

    I’m glad to see you stand firm and embrace your name. It’s a nice name. It suits you. And I agree — people must earn the right to call others by a nick name or truncated version of the name.

  2. I hate the name “Hannah.” I have always hated the name “Hannah.” When people used to call me Hannah, I wanted to hurt them, and sometimes did. I was the only Hannah in my school and one of two Hannahs in an entire university.
    I tell people that I hate the name “Hannah” and it is as if clockwork ticks in and makes every single person say the SAME THING: “But Hannah’s such a BEAUTIFUL name!” Well, I don’t think so, it is fusty, old, feminine, and Puritanical to me.

    Then came 1988 and movie star Tom Selleck’s offspring. He named his daughter Hannah. Slowly at first and then in a torrent, people (that is, upper middle class white Americans) started naming their daughters Hannah. By 1998-1999, it was one of the most popular names for baby girls in the country. By 2000, I think it actually WAS the most popular girl name.

    Then, for some reason (the Age of Terror?) Hannah tanked. It lost popularity precipitously. They’re naming their girls something else now, like “Sophia” or “Ella.”
    We are thus left with what is now a raft of seven and eight-year old perky little white girls all named Hannah. I see them at my workplace all the time. Their mothers call to them “Hannah!” and I turn around, thinking someone is calling me. But it’s the little blonde kid in the pink Crocs near the shopping cart.

    I finally made the move to make people stop calling me Hannah. I chose the name “Pyracantha” which is a spiny plant with brilliant orange berries. I don’t care if it sounds like I am taking a dumb-ass hippie name in my middle age when I should be resigned to serious Hannah-ness. Call me Pyracantha. Call me Pyra. I am fiery, orange, and spiny.

    Therefore I heartily support your quest to transcend Jennifer-ness. Maybe you should take a pseudonym. On the Internet, you can be anyone. And the cyber-reality and “real” reality are getting closer together all the time.

  3. Pyracantha,

    I am all for people choosing their own names, especially when they’re unhappy with the one fate handed them. I mean really, a name is so important that it seems very sad that our culture forces us to be named permanently at birth, personalities yet unformed, by people who may or may not name us generously or well.

    That said, I must agree that Hannah is a beautiful name. But clearly you don’t think it suits you, and from what I know of you, I agree with that as well. I don’t think you are a dumbass hippie — clearly you are just correcting an old mistake.

    One of my friends renamed herself completely. My own Rowan was born Kathryn and called Kat for nearly 30 years. Then she disappeared for a year to a yoga retreat and came back as Rowan. It was a hard transition, but now I think of her as Rowan, not Kat. It suits her beautifully, and she has made the name hers.

    I choose instead to embrace Jennifer. As conflicted as I am about it, I can’t yet envision myself as anything else.

    And now I know what to call you when you visit! PYRACANTHA it is!

  4. I have the opposite issue: an unusual first name: Wilson (an instance of a last name used as a first name). I’m okay with Wilson, but I shorten it to Wil 99% of the time. Growing up, I was Willie to my family and Will (two l’s) at school (and boy do I cringe when my older brother occasionally still introduces me to someone new as Willie – even if it does have a certain Southern hick panache). But what’s equally, if not more annoying, is when someone I barely know decides to lengthen my name from Wil to William. Ugh.

  5. There’s similarly a plethora of Kevins. I got called Kevin when it was still a rare name, and only ever found in families of Irish extraction. I didn’t know more than 2 other Kevins growing up – coincidentally both of them were loopy.

    At some point in the late 70s the name exploded in popularity on an international scale – there are even French and Japanese Kevins. :-) So I tell folks that I’m the original Kevin – that all others have “Made in Taiwan” written down the spine. :-)

    You can, BTW, tell the difference between the Kevin of Irish extraction and, for example, English Kevins. The English pronounce it as spelt, with a hard V and the last syllable rhyming with tin. OTOH, the Irish pronounce the V as if crossed with a soft F and the last syllable is more like -un, so it becomes “Kef-vun”, which is how it has always been pronounced in the family And just to complicate matters, in Gaelic, it is pronounced “Kwiveen”, the spelling of which (Caomhin) seems rather overcomplicated. :-)

    I will put up with “Kev” from some people as affectionate – it seems a bit grating from others. The distinction is a bit like you and ‘Jen’. Then again, some past girlfriends have never shortened it, preferring “Kevin”, whether pronounced in the English or Irish manner. OTOH “Kevie” is something up with which I will not put! :-)

    BTW, Jennifer is the Anglicised version of Gwenhyfar, the Welsh name that is otherwise rendered, by way of medieval French-derived spelling, as Guinevere. The Irish equivalent of Gwenhyfar is Findabhair.

  6. Reading your take on the name Jennifer was like reading my own thoughts. I too suffered from Jennifer-itis. In school there were many, no matter what grade or school I was in, all the way through college. In Girl Scouts, we had a small troop, only 6 or 7 active girls. Three of us were Jennifer and one was Guinevere. We called her Genny but the rest of us got more severe nicknames. One Jennifer’s last name was Salmon so we call her Fish and my initials were JAW so I became Jaws (another reference to the 70s and the most popular film the year I was born). Just lovely, no matter how fun they thought it was, it was never fun for me to share a name with an oversized shark. But forced into having to make a distinction between the Jennifers, the name stuck. Also, in high school, my close friends shortened my name to J, apparently bogged down by the length and overusage of my name.

    As I’ve gotten older, I’ve resigned to the name and I actually do think it’s very pretty. I do know many Jennifers at work (e-mails are fun…To Jennifer, From Jennifer – more confusing to those copied than to us) but thankfully there are no others in my department so I can stick with Jennifer and there is no confusion. The woman who sits next to me works with a Jennifer on a specific project but only over the phone so I’m constantly wondering if she’s talking to me or about me. Most people don’t have to worry about that and I could chalk it up to a weird coincidence but I can’t, I’ve lived too long with the name to think anything other than…”there’s another one!”

    I actually would rather be called by my full name than having it shortened to Jen but I answer to either. For the most part, it is mainly my family who call me Jennifer. I also hate being introduced as Jen but what I hate more is anyone who tries to call me Jenny. It was cute when I was 12, when I played around with the spelling (Jenny, Jennie, Jenni) in an attempt to make myself somewhat unique but if someone calls me that now, I feel like I’m five.

    The kicker is that I married a Michael. Maybe it was destiny. I just wish is was about 15 years ago because we could have gotten a good deal on all those mocked up “Jennifer & Michael” keychains, etc. But that’s not even the biggest kicker, our last name is DeChristopher. Other than the “De”, we are a walking 1975 baby name book. We contemplated having both of us change our last name when we got married, a way of claiming our uniqueness but in the end, we are who we are, and whether we like it or not, our names are part of us.

  7. “we are who we are, and whether we like it or not, our names are part of us”

    Now I’m the one feeling like I am reading my own thoughts! From Jennifer to Jennifer, thank you for possibly my favorite comment, ever.

  8. Another (reluctant?) Jennifer here. I wrote an essay back in my undergrad days about my name issues, and how perhaps its generic-ness has prompted me to distinguish myself in other ways–weird hair, perfect grades, taking a pretty unique career path. My brother is Christopher (unimaginative parents!), so he used his last name as an identifier, which meant that wasn’t “mine” either. My partner is David (which is more like “Mary” for boys). Maybe we flock together?

    In my sophomore history class of 30 people (roughly half girls), there were six Jennifers. The teacher solved the problem by putting each one of us in a different row in the class, then referred to us as “Jennifer X,” depending on which row number we were in. I was Jennifer 6.

    Nowadays, I go by Jenn, usually, but on anything published, I use my full name, which sound better, or more professional, maybe, with my mono-syllabic last name. People who don’t know me call me “Jennifer.” Only people who changed my diapers as a baby are allowed to call me “Jenny” anymore.

    Though I’m a Jenn, I sometimes introduce myself as “Jennifer” because I had too many instances of being misheard: “Oh, JAN, nice to meet you!” “No, sorry, Jenn. Like Jennifer.” Strange that I would be so protective of a name I’m so ambivalent about, but being called “Jan” was like having water tossed in my face. Who is Jan? Not me. I’m Jennifer. I guess.

  9. I think we’re protective of our names, for while we might not like them, they’re still us.

    I’m a Jen rather than a Jenn, and I grit my teeth when friends send emails to “Jenn.” This happens even with people who have known and loved me a long time!

    I know the “I’m Jennifer. I guess.” feeling. I’ll always be ambivalent about it, but at this point, at 38, it’s who I am.

    Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment.

  10. (another) Jennifer

    I love this blog. I ran across it looking for a Jennifer club. There used to be a club you could join online called the “Jennifer of the Americas” club. Apparently, I have nothing better to do at midnight than google such stupid things! Another Jennifer blogged that she hates being called Jenny. I hate that as well! It was horrible when I was young and my cousins (all older than me) called me Jenny-Penny-Poo! Arggh…that is dreadful! For that reason, I have always hated nicknames. When it came to naming my children, I was sure to choose names that could not be shortened! My children’s names are what they are called by everyone, all the time, so there is never a question of their “real” names. Thanks, Jennifer Saylor for your insight into all that is “THE JENNIFERS!”

  11. Dear Another Jennifer,

    I remember the Jennifers of America.

    Thanks for your kind words.

    PS: I saw a Jennifer friend today at the grocery store and she walked by said “Hello Jennifer” to me and I said “Hello Jennifer” to her and we had a Jennifer laugh. :0)

  12. I loved this posting…

    I’m working on a photography / oral history exhibit starring only Jennifers. If you or anyone you know is interested in participating in The Jennifer Project, please email me: coolchickphoto@me.com. Take a look at the blog and post all things Jennifer related: http://thejenniferproject.blogspot.com.

    Hope to hear from you!

    Jennifer Freakin’ K.

  13. I just came across this blog post today and loved it! Several quotes from here will be my facebook status updates over the next several days!! LOL. And I loved everyone’s comments too. I joined the Jennifers of America club many years ago (10-15-ish??), although I assume it’s now defunct. But I still have the jensofam t-shirt and I’m wearing it today!

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