The symbolic power of names was front and center in 2020. Physicians and politicians wrangled with the implications of different names for the virus that brought society to its knees. Brands with “nostalgic” slave names like Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben were finally retired. And throughout, a rallying cry reminded us that names are a critical vehicle for respect, memory, and shared humanity: #SayHerName. In that spirit, the 2020 Name of the Year is Breonna.
The Death of Breonna Taylor
Breonna Taylor, a 26-year old African-American emergency room technician, was shot and killed in her own home by Louisville, Kentucky police early in the year. The police officers had a “no-knock warrant” and forced entry into Taylor’s apartment in the middle of the night, seeking evidence against a man who actually lived elsewhere.
Taylor was killed on March 13, yet national attention didn’t focus on the case until months later after video captured the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. The nationwide protests that followed shined a spotlight on police violence, and on the fact that the Louisville officers had apparently faced no repercussions for shooting an innocent woman to death in her own home. Taylor’s cause was taken up as an emblem of the critical problems of biased and violent policing, and the relative invisibility of female victims. The rallying cry was “Say Her Name.”
Say Her Name
The #SayHerName campaign began as an initiative of the African American Policy Forum in 2014. The goal was to raise awareness of the vulnerability of Black women and girls to police brutality. In the years since, the phrase, as a protest refrain and social media hashtag, has often been adapted to “Say His Name” or “Say Their Names.” But the quest for justice for Breonna Taylor brought the focus back to Black women, and Taylor in particular. Across America, people began to say—and write, and wear—her name.
Breonna Taylor became the first person other than Oprah Winfrey to appear on the cover of Winfrey’s O magazine. Actress Regina King accepted an Emmy award wearing a Breonna Taylor “Say Her Name” t-shirt. The WNBA added the name to players’ jerseys. Enterprising Etsy and EBay sellers offered Breonna Taylor hats, stickers, t-shirts, and the ultimate 2020 accessory, face masks. The name Breonna itself became a statement of protest. In the words of Namerology reader MeganW, “‘Breonna’ conjures up BLM [Black Lives Matter] in one name.”
The Name Itself
Could it have been any name? The question may feel inappropriate, even callous, given that we are talking about a young woman whose life was cut short. Yet names are part of our culture and influence cultural responses to events, and this name in particular has resonated deeply. It is familiar, but too fresh to be boring; the spelling distinctive, but not notably unconventional. When you think about the name Breonna, you can feel the act of naming coming through.
If you look up the origin of Breonna in a name dictionary you’ll find it listed as a variant of Briana/Brianna, which in turn is usually described as a feminine form of the Irish name Brian. In practice, though, the name is modern and American. Very modern and American. Over half a million Americans have been named some spelling of Brianna, and the vast majority of them are still under age 30.
In its full spectrum of variants, Brianna is one of the defining names of a generation. The spelling Breonna is the seventh most common among the name’s 80+ different recorded spellings. In 1993, when Breonna Taylor was born, it ranked #776 among all US girls’ names. Its “eon” element has been particularly popular with African-American parents in names like Keon and Deonte, making Breonna both a broadly relatable and distinctly African-American young everywoman name.
Reader Erica writes, “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…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.”
Breonna brings the image of youth, optimism and potential to life in a personal way. It forges connection.
A Dividing Line
Millions of Americans experienced that connection, and the name Breonna became a cause and a symbol. But the experience wasn’t universal. That fact was driven home in November when Missouri Congresswoman-Elect Cori Bush, who is African-American, wore a “Breonna Taylor” face mask to a congressional orientation session. Some of her Republican colleagues, not recognizing the name, assumed it was Bush’s own and called her Breonna.
Such a total disconnect from the name, and the movement, that loomed so large for so many is itself a symbol of 2020. It was a year that saw Americans burrow ever deeper into separate ideological echo chambers, to the point where it seemed as if we no longer shared a common reality. “Breonna” became a kind of shibboleth: a test of whether the essence of the Black Lives Matter movement penetrated your media bubble, or your consciousness.
If the message doesn’t cross ideological boundaries, does saying the name matter? The men who actually shot Breonna Taylor have faced no charges. Namerology reader Quiara even suggested that Breonna was a suitable 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.”
Yet the city of Louisville did ban no-knock warrants that allow police to burst into a home unannounced, with an ordinance called “Breonna’s Law.” Other cities have followed suit. It’s far from the kind of comprehensive reform that protesters have sought, but it is still a meaningful change. And the action came not after the tragically ill-conceived raid that killed Breonna Taylor, but after the protests that said her name.
The longer-term impact on our institutions and attitudes remains to be seen. In 2020, though, the name Breonna galvanized millions. The sheer humanity of the name made the problems it symbolized a little harder to ignore. And when you see the name Breonna in the future, it is sure to jolt you back to that extraordinary and tumultuous year when the streets teemed with socially distanced, face-masked fury.
Many thanks to the insightful Namerology reader community for their thoughts on this singular year in names. Read more in our wrap-up of 5 Names that Mattered in 2020.