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What is Your Pick for the Name of the Year?

November 17, 2020 namerology 35 Comments

What is Your Pick for the Name of the Year?

November 17, 2020 Namerology 35 Comments
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What name is a time capsule of this year? What is the 2020 Name of the Year?

Every year, we ask the name-savvy public to weigh in on the Name of the Year. This year it may seem a tall order, asking a single name to capture such a momentous and turbulent time as 2020. Yet as always, names have been an integral part of the stories we’ve all lived through.

Please take a moment to think back over the names that have shaped, and been shaped by, this year: the names that emerged, and the names that evolved; the names we chose, and the names we rejected; the names we used, and the way that we used them. The NOTY doesn’t have to be a baby name per se. Past honorees have included brand names like Siri and viral phenomena like Boaty McBoatface. But a human-style name or nickname should be the focal point.

Please share your nominees and thoughts about them and second others’ nominations here. (Or on Twitter: @NamerologyTalk).

Some criteria to consider as you ponder:

  • How central is the name to the story?
  • How has the name changed or emerged in 2020?
  • How does the name story connect to broader trends, in names or in the world?

Let the name talk begin!


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  • Elizabeth November 18, 2020 at 1:52 am

    Ooh, NOTY! And what a hideous year it has been. For starters, of course, there’s COVID-19, or Covid (apparently today is Covid’s first birthday), a nickname for a virus. We could also make an excellent course for Floyd or Breonna, as exemplars of the #saytheirname campaign. I think Floyd is a better choice than George because it’s more distinctive. There’s also all the hurricanes with Greek letters for names: the name is definitely part of the story. Will the names Eta and Iota be retired? What happens the next time we have a year with more than 21 named storms? And Kamala is another name that I think meets the criteria for NOTY.

  • Amy3 November 18, 2020 at 9:55 pm

    I’m compelled to second COVID-19.

    The name is absolutely central to the story, so much so that people talk about “covid times”. Emerging in 2020 is a no-brainer for this one. And finally, it connects to trends as a demonstration of the shift in disease naming away from either geographical names (e.g., Ebola) or names associated with researchers (e.g., Alzheimer’s).

  • MeganW November 19, 2020 at 1:58 am

    I been waiting of NOTY to nominate Covid-19. In my household we say things like “we can’t do x anymore” and my kids respond “because Covid”.

    I also wonder about #saytheirnames itself as NOTY. It has been a passionate movement, and “Breonna” conjures up BLM in one name.

    It’s hard not to nominate a political name, as our divided country seems focused on Politics. But neither Trump nor Biden (or Donald or Joe) is “new” or “fresh” enough to be NOTY. Kamala, maybe. AOC possibly. But these seem like runners up to me.

    • Kimberly November 20, 2020 at 3:12 am

      Second the nominations for Breonna and Kamala.

  • LauraWattenberg
    LauraWattenberg November 19, 2020 at 2:25 am

    For those nominating COVID, can you talk me into it being a *name* of the year, as opposed to a word of the year? I’m not sure we use it in name-like ways. But please convince me otherwise!

    Also, a Twitter user has nominated Kamala with an eye toward the seemingly deliberate mispronunciations and what they signify.

    • Amy3 November 19, 2020 at 5:00 pm

      Ah, name versus word, it’s a fair point. While I do still think the shift in disease naming to these sort of bizarre acronyms is notable (and is name-y), the idea of Kamala, particularly with respect to pronouncing names correctly and the association of that with systemic racism has me changing my vote.

    • Jamie November 21, 2020 at 5:08 am

      COVID may not be a name, but I have seen it personified as “Miss Rona.”
      (My vote for NOTY still goes to Kamala though, for the combination of historical significance and specifically namey significance.)

  • Penguinmom November 19, 2020 at 2:37 am

    I’m not sure Covid quite qualifies as a ‘human style name or nickname’ – though it has been used as a baby name this year.

    There is definitely a lot of ‘naminess’ with respect to Covid-19 – from this meme from relatively early in the pandemic to the politicization of the name (e.g. calling it the ‘Chinese Virus’).

  • Erica November 19, 2020 at 5:09 am

    I’ve been giving this some thought (so sorry for the lengthy post), and I’m really looking forward to the other nominations and to reading the analysis you provide on what turns out to be your ultimate selection, Laura.
    While I think that George Floyd and Breonna Taylor are the two names that stand out the most from news stories this year, I wonder how much those specific names contribute to shaping the story–I think each has an influence (as each of our lives are shaped by our name and our society’s relationship with our name), but not one I see rising to NOTY status.
    For example, does the distinctive “o” in Breonna’s name contribute to the growing awareness of her murder in a way that another “a” there wouldn’t–perhaps it generated faster recognition of her and her story?
    Does the fact that George Floyd’s name is two single-syllable names that are both also widely recognizable first names contribute to its use as a rallying cry (that it’s easy for the growing numbers of white people who suddenly sat up to take notice of white supremacist violence to say, in a way that Ahmaud Arbery or Philando Castile was not)? I think the answer to both of those questions may be yes, but while I think their killings at the hands of police and the civil uprisings that they provoked are certainly among the most important news stories of the year, I second (or third) the nomination of Kamala for NOTY.
    Kamala’s name has been central to the way her presidential run and VP selection and campaigning were covered. From providing a mnemonic on how to say her name (which, to be fair, Buttigieg also did), to having her name purposely dispronounced ( on a regular basis by her political opponents as a racist dogwhistle, The racist and sexist microaggressions and more overt attacks on Kamala’s name and humanity make it clear how names reflect the intersectional identities and accompanying forms of systemic oppression women and BIPOC face.
    In a way, I can see Kamala’s name as NOTY being an indirect way of honoring the SayHerName movement (not to supersede any of those names and their identities, but to represent another dimension of how to honor those women). After all, the calls to “SayHerName” are about insisting that the rest of us stop to recognize and affirm the humanity of Black women killed by police violence so that they are not rendered invisible due to society’s devaluing of Black and brown women. And while these names should absolutely continue to be said and their lives memorialized, I think about what circumstances their parents had in mind when naming them these names. What were the situations in which they wanted the names said? I imagine Breonna Taylor’s mother chose that name, wanting it to be a little distinctive but still recognizable to many people, something that would set her daughter apart throughout her life but help her feel secure too. Of course we can’t guarantee safety for our children, but that’s every parent’s dream.. It was a choice made with Breonna’s whole life in mind. Maybe her mom, like so many other parents, considered how the name would serve her daughter in different roles–different ages, different careers,…maybe even president.
    Every name should hold an entire world of potential, but as so many of your excellent posts and so much research reveals, names and the people they belong to are not treated equitably in our country. Some identities and names have an easier road to the White House. We’ve had plenty of Georges, but we’ve never had a Breonna, nor a Kamala. But now we will. And as Kamala Harris shared in her speech, she may be the first, but she won’t be the last. Seeing her in the White House, and seeing her name will do so much, but the rest of us have a lot we need to do to contribute by saying her name, and committing to saying every name, with our best intentions, effort, and respect–in death, but first in life.

    • Quiara
      Quiara November 22, 2020 at 6:15 am

      I’m very ANTI Kamala for NOTY 2020, and this post illustrates the two reasons why very nicely.

      First, re: “Kamala” breaking boundaries for what kind of names we consider “presidential” – is it really breaking any boundaries “Barack” didn’t a decade ago, when Laura chose it as her 2007 NOTY? Same question re: willful misinterpretation of her name – is this a new phenomenon, or is it merely a second round of “Barack HUSSEIN Obama”-type fearmongering? Which isn’t to discount the glass ceiling VP-elect Harris has broken, but as a name, I can’t help but feel deja vu. Which isn’t a surprise, as so much of the rhetoric surrounding her seems to echo the buzz surrounding Obama 12 years ago – both from the Biden camp, which staked a campaign on reuniting the Obama rainbow coalition, and from Trumpworld, which has relished the chance to do an “all-female reboot” (so to speak) of birtherism.

      Second, the broader connection between Kamala Harris and Breonna Taylor you’re making is very poetic, but it kind of misses the point. The BLM activists that got Breonna Taylor trending in 2020 got “Kamala is a cop” trending back in 2019; Harris’ presidential hopes were sunk in large part by a successful campaign to paint her term as California AG as one of draconian crackdowns on African-Americans. For these activists, she’s not a victim of institutional racism; she’s the perpetrator.

  • Sabrina November 20, 2020 at 2:45 am

    My vote is for Kamala. The deliberate mispronunciations are a big part of the story, but seeing a Black and Asian woman with a clearly South Asian name ascend is a story in itself; it reminds me of when Keisha Lance Bottoms was elected mayor of Atlanta in ’18, and “a mayor named Keisha” became a shorthand for younger Black women taking power. And remember that Kamala is also Ms. Marvel’s name–she’s the first Muslim hero to headline a comic book. It’s a name with serious boundary-breaking energy.

    And no offense to the other nominees, but NOTY should be, y’know, a name!

  • Beth November 21, 2020 at 8:44 pm

    I’m nominating Jemima. It’s a name that embodies a racial stereotype in the U.S. And this year, the Black Lives Matter movement and the protests over police violence towards blacks prompted the company that makes the syrup to stop using it.

  • Quiara
    Quiara November 22, 2020 at 6:59 am

    I’m thirding Breonna.
    Breonna Taylor was inescapable this year – she made the covers of O Magazine and Vanity Fair, popped up during not one, but two Emmys acceptance speeches, got plenty of airtime during the presidential debates… the media, mainstream and niche alike, were hypersaturated with her name. #saytheirnames was a runaway success, beyond our wildest dreams. We hit peak Breonna.
    And nothing came of it. Forget police reform on the national level, even – the men who killed her have yet to face consequences for her murder.
    We talk a lot about the importance of naming here, how what we call things shapes our present and guides our future. But – and forgive me if this is overly nihilistic – do we ever really acknowledge how futile the act of naming really is? In 2020, moreso than ever before, naming became the act of wishful thinking. Sometimes that wishful thinking is well-intentioned (I’m thinking of a hopeful term like “BIPOC,” which I sincerely doubt actually shifted anyone’s focus towards the particulars of African-Americans’ or indigenous peoples’ suffering), and sometimes that wishful thinking is deadly (the decision to rebrand a global pandemic that will likely kill millions across the world as “just a flu”). But wishful thinking is just that – a wish. And wishes are not the same as actions.

    Truthfully, #saytheirnames is not doing anything new. The names of those targeted or jailed or killed for the color of their skin have swirled in and out of public consciousness long before Twitter was a gleam in Jack Dorsey’s eye. But no number of T-shirts bearing his name will get Leonard Peltier out of jail; no ritual invocation can resurrect Emmett Till. And thus Breonna Taylor, in my admittedly cynical opinion, is 2020’s name of the year, as a magnificent display not of names’ power, but of their impotence. The act of naming has kept Breonna Taylor in our thoughts – but as 2020 has proven, “thoughts and prayers” are just not enough.

    • Erica November 22, 2020 at 7:56 pm

      Your points about impotence of names and nihilism ring true, and I agree that disillusionment is much more 2020.
      This argument is compelling and convincing (I also hadn’t thought about the deja vu-ness of the name Kamala compared to the reception of Barack). Thank you.

  • KM November 22, 2020 at 3:43 pm

    Fauci, while a surname, is certainly one that is in refutably linked to this time in history. What other time has the Director of the CDC been a household name?

  • Alison November 22, 2020 at 3:45 pm

    Another vote for Breonna

    • Nicky November 22, 2020 at 8:23 pm

      I actually know a girl named Corona who had to shut down her Facebook for a short time due to all the memes she was being flooded with. I think Corona or possibly Covid would absolutely summarize this year; but not quite perfectly.

      As I read the other comments, I began to think Kamala was a great choice. But a fair point was made that although she continues many discussions in naming, I think it’s the same topics that were brought up with Barack. So I don’t think Kamala is quite perfectly either.

      There are many good suggestions, but I would also suggest Liberty. This has been a name that (I believe) has been on a slight rise in recent years and it also has been a central focus of many of this year’s issues and conversations. Also, I can’t help but think of ‘Lady Liberty’ and all that the statue symbolizes in being American, and how America has been trying to redefine itself.

      I would also suggest Silver, as this has been a year of silver linings for many people, and with Stirling and Goldie seeing use, why not Silver?

      Personally I feel the best NOTY nominee would be Riot. The name was already on the rise for boys and girls, and it recently broke into the top 1000. With all the riots this past year, and I think the personal riots we all feel (if that makes sense?) I think it’s a name that embodies this year. I can imagine maybe ten years down the road, if a meet a child named Riot I would know exactly which year they were born…

  • Brenna November 22, 2020 at 11:07 pm

    I’m surprised no one has mentioned Ruth. RBG’s legacy is so important and I suspect that this year, in the wake of her passing, we’ll hear about a lot more baby Ruth’s named in her honor.

    That said, I’d absolutely support the choice of Breonna or Kamala.

    I suppose Rona/Corona is about as timely as it gets, but it bums me out to think that NOTY is one that may never (or at least rarely) be used again in at least a generation.

  • reggie November 29, 2020 at 6:34 pm

    Is there a list of old NOTYs? Has Karen been done? Because I definitely heard that name a LOT this year.

  • Penguinmom November 30, 2020 at 11:42 pm

    … I kind of hate it, but I feel like Covidiot should probably be mentioned here, too. The portmanteau phenomenon which has been popular for probably at least a decade; the name-calling and polarization that have been increasing for years; and, new for this year, the fact that even medical health is polarized (vaccines have been on the road to that for several years, but it’s pretty much exploded this year).

  • lucubratrix December 1, 2020 at 10:32 am

    Rationale for COVID-19 as my name nomination follows!

    The novel coronavirus was named SARS-CoV-2, owing to its closest relationship to the SARS-CoV that made an independent bat species jump in 2003 and caused Sudden Acute Respiratory Distress. That’s extremely logical and unexciting from a name perspective, although I can geek out about coronavirus species hops for a long time (I used to use them as a teaching example for phylogenetics).
    What was far more curious to me was the decision to call the disease COVID-19, and the WHO’s move to avoid calling the virus by its scientific name but instead “the virus responsible for COVID-19”, which is frankly pretty convaluted and circular. This was very much a political decision to avoid any overt reference to the previous SARS, to try to avoid panic particularly in countries that had been previously affected by SARS-the-first. That’s corroborated by this press release:

    Where I think it gets interesting is that February was maybe not a particularly great time to set people at ease and avoid panic: a dose of taking the virus seriously earlier might have led to a very different public health response, particularly in the US. I think COVID-19 ended up giving people a sense of distance, both “oh, it’s from last year” and a sense of “this is not as big a deal as SARS or MERS (the other coronavirus species hop from camels in 2012)”. The power of giving something a new name, especially one that echoes human name elements, is pretty major.

  • lucubratrix December 1, 2020 at 10:36 am

    And, like any other naming decision undertaken by groups, it got argued about:

  • lucubratrix December 1, 2020 at 10:40 am

    And, lastly, a piece describing some of the name announcement chaos when different parties make different announcements at the same time.

  • lucubratrix December 1, 2020 at 10:47 am

    Oh dear, did my comment get eaten?
    My rationale for COVID-19 being NOTY hinges on the fact that the naming was very controversial in the scientific and public health communities.
    SARS-CoV-2 was chosen as the official virus name because calling something a novel coronavirus can’t be continued indefinitely. It was discussed and argued about a bit but ultimately accepted.

    What’s more interesting was the WHO decision to call the disease COVID-19, and ALSO to specifically refer to the virus as “the virus responsible for COVID-19” or “COVID-19 virus” which is redundant and tautological (because it is saying “coronavirus disease virus”, repeating the acronym like “atm machine” only enshrined in formal communications).

    This was specifically a political decision to avoid causing panic with comparisons to 2003’s SARS, especially in Asian countries that had been hard hit by SARS-the-first. I thought at the time that this was a really concerted downplay attempt and I think that even more so with the benefit of hindsight: it’s an illustration of how much names matter.

    (Also interesting was the decision to call the 2012 Coronavirus species hop from camels, rather than bats, MERS for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, and the virus MERS-COV. The decision to name it that apparently pertained to the middle east being too broad a region to cause discrimination against, which I would rigorously disagree with.)

  • lucubratrix December 1, 2020 at 10:50 am

    From the WHO press release: “First of all, we now have a name for the disease: COVID-19. I’ll spell it: C-O-V-I-D hyphen one nine – COVID-19.

    Under agreed guidelines between WHO, the World Organisation for Animal Health and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, we had to find a name that did not refer to a geographical location, an animal, an individual or group of people, and which is also pronounceable and related to the disease.

    Having a name matters to prevent the use of other names that can be inaccurate or stigmatizing. It also gives us a standard format to use for any future coronavirus outbreaks.”

  • Elizabeth December 1, 2020 at 6:51 pm

    That’s fascinating, lucubratrix! Do you think that the WHO might reconsider, now that it appears clear that downplaying the threat of the virus led to an excess of deaths? This reminds me a bit of the phenomenon of female hurricane names leading to more deaths than male ones. Perhaps giving the virus a less-scary sounding name actually contributed to its spread. SARS 2.0 = Scary ass recurring shitstorm?

  • LauraP December 4, 2020 at 5:58 am

    Can there seriously be another contender besides Breonna? Can anyone even think “Breonna” without the accompanying thought being “say her name?”

  • holey
    holey December 7, 2020 at 3:15 am

    For me, Kamala is the clear choice because of the discussions surrounding its pronunciation and because of its statement about heritage.

    SNL has had a couple of skits referencing the pronunciation issue. Maya Rudolph, in character as Harris, sang a little ditty beginning with, “My name is Kamala\it rhymes with Pamela.” In a different sketch, the character corrects “Biden” on the pronunciation of her name, and he responds, “I want you to know that I will never…get that right.”

    Beyond confusion, though, at least one Trump convention speaker intentionally mispronounced her name throughout his speech. Trump has even taken it to the point of using the issue to attack her: “If you mispronounce her name, she gets reaaaally angry.” In his case, at least, I’m confident he intended to evoke a certain negative stereotype.

    And of course, the name itself, having been chosen by her Indian-American mother, reminds us of her status as a second-generation immigrant and her biracial heritage.

    I think this is different from Obama’s case for a few reasons. I actually don’t recall people mispronouncing his name or making a big deal about the pronunciation, although they certainly liked to emphasize its “foreignness.” His name wasn’t used to portray him as “angry.” Also, as with Hillary, Kamala has come to be referred to commonly by her first name (in this case, presumably because it’s a lot more distinctive than “Harris.”)

    From MeganW, I liked the additional mention of AOC. AOC even made a comment recently about how, basically, she only wants her supporters to refer to her by that nickname (in the context of Trump calling her AOC). She had this to say:

    “I wonder if Republicans understand how much they advertise their disrespect of women in debates when they consistently call women members of Congress by nicknames or first names while using titles & last names when referring to men of = stature. Women notice. It conveys a lot.

    “…AOC is a name given to me by community & the people. Y’all can call me AOC. Government colleagues referring to each other in a public or professional context (aka who don’t know me like that) should refer to their peers as ‘Congresswoman, ‘Representative,’ etc. Basic respect 101.”

    My only argument against the choice of AOC is that it’s maybe more last year’s news.

    A runner-up for me would be “ACB.” Some people got pretty annoyed when others tried to make “ACB” happen for Amy Coney Barrett, looking at it as a co-option of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s nickname by someone who seems to hold very different values.

  • Elea December 9, 2020 at 8:56 am

    I’ve been wracking my brains for a nominee for this. All the names I could think of (Kamala, Breonna, Floyd) feel very political and others (Covid) are more words than names.

    Then yesterday, Margaret Keenan became the first person in the world to receive an approved Covid vaccine. So, even though it is right at the end of 2020, my nominee is for Margaret for the Name of the Year for the following reasons:

    * The news of a vaccine finally gives hope for a brighter new year. It sums up everything that Covid has caused over 2020, representing the struggles of front line workers and medical staff. After a horrible year, finally there is light at the end of the tunnel.

    * Margaret Keenan herself is 91, an age group which has been most affected and under siege from the virus this year — sometimes overlooked and isolated at homes and in care homes, separated from their loved ones and visitors. And of course, most of the Covid deaths have been elderly people. When Margaret was born, it was the #1 name for girls in England. (It was #1 in 1924, 1934 and 1944) and was top 5 in US, so it truly represents a whole generation of people in this higher age bracket that have been most affected by Covid.

    • Laura P. December 10, 2020 at 4:38 am

      And did you hear the name of the second person who received the vaccine? Legit William Shakespeare. The Brit press called it “The Taming of the Flu.” (Btw, I have a daughter named Margaret; called Daisy, so I am down with that name.) And God bless Margaret Keenan. 🙂

  • Quiara
    Quiara December 11, 2020 at 6:20 am

    My dark horse pick is something I think would have dominated the NOTY nominations if you’d asked us six months ago. If you’re looking for a name that isn’t obviously related to COVID, but has pressing relevance to our current moment, I cannot think of a better choice than X AE A-12 Musk. If I may quote myself from the old Namerology forum:

    “This is the truly fascinating thing about X AE A-12: it being unpronounceable is sort of the point.

    Elon Musk and Grimes came into each other’s orbit because they both made the same pun on Twitter involving [Francisco] Goya and an insane techno-dystopian reboot of Pascal’s wager – in other words, they are extremely online people. They both owe their popularity in no small part to social media fandom and media coverage emphasizing their weirdness. Why would a couple obsessed with flouting norms name their kid, e.g., Julian?

    But they also are not an outlier. Back when she started her career, Grimes was associated with the “witch house” genre, which wasn’t rooted in shared musical stylings so much as a spooky aesthetic and (this is the important part) deliberately unpronounceable track listings. (Sample band names: oOoOO; ✝✝✝, SLEEP ∞ OVER.) X AE A-12 fits perfectly into that. The particular letter X is also pretty interesting, because it’s used a lot in neologisms like “Latinx” or the pronoun “xem” – all of which originated on the internet, are meant for mass use, and have no obvious pronunciation.”

    What makes X AE A-12 more than a funny meme is the visceral discomfort it invoked in so many people. There’s this pervasive sense that in naming his firstborn like a WiFi router, Musk violated some fundamental norm of how parents are supposed to relate to their young children, and replaced this childhood ritual with an inhuman simulacrum … which mirrors the anxiety my friends with kids are having now with online schooling, but also w/r/t Zoom fatigue more broadly. Musk being a tech billionaire also plays into this, because a tension that’s been simmering since 2016 or so but is currently exploding into the mainstream is the sense that tech companies have been eroding the foundation of our society/humanity, and the struggles he’s had in California civil court to break this unspoken rule of parenthood have their parallels in his business dealings as well.

    But we’ll see how this plays out. X AE A-12 may not be the name of the year – but depending how COVID reshapes society even in a post-vaccine world, it could very well be the name of the decade.

    • holey
      holey December 13, 2020 at 7:50 pm

      Holy cow, that was THIS year? Thank you for reminding us!

  • Elizabeth December 11, 2020 at 2:02 pm

    Well stated, Quiara. You’re right: had the NOTY nominations begun six months ago, many of us would have advocated for X Æ A-12. But this year has been so intense and the news cycle so brief (in particulars; the overarching theme of the news has been quite monotonous!), that most of us had forgotten about this name.
    One small correction: this baby is not Musk’s firstborn, although he is his first with Grimes. Musk’s older children are named Nevada Alexander (who died at ten weeks of age in 2002), Griffin and Xavier (twins), Kai, Saxon, and Damian (triplets). Apparently Musk and Grimes have changed the spelling of their baby’s name to X Æ A-xii, ostensibly because California law will not allow numerals on the birth certificate, although Grimes tweeted that she prefers it because of the Roman numerals.

  • Nicwoo December 17, 2020 at 7:19 am

    You know, I came in with an idea but read all the comments. They’d each crossed my mind for sure except X AE. But now I think I’m ready to say too: Breonna. The say his/her name campaign puts into every name what we can only hope for, something good. Acknowledgement. Heart. Hopes. It really points and what we think a name can say back to us. Whether it’s effective or not, isn’t about the results (lack luster in this case for justice or change) but more what we say, feel, and do when we hear it. Universal story.

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