The pace of news was set to double-time in 2020, and name news was no exception. Names made headlines as they were chosen, abandoned, celebrated, mocked, debated and redefined. These five names made their mark on a year like no other.
The many names given to the virus that paralyzed the globe speak volumes.
The China virus
In the beginning, the naming focus was about avoidance: what not to say or imply. Since 2015, World Health Organization guidelines have called for generic descriptive names, “to minimize unnecessary negative impact of disease names on trade, travel, tourism or animal welfare, and avoid causing offence to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups.” That meant scrubbing any reference to Wuhan, the city where the disease was first identified.
Then came the decision to avoid reference to the respiratory disease SARS, to avert the panic that disease could spark. The pivot to “COVID-19” was an act of naming as public health policy. That choice, to name in a way that played down risk, can be debated in hindsight. If a link to SARS had convinced people to start wearing face masks early on, could lives (and economies) have been saved?
Next came naming as blaming. Some politicians, such as President Trump, flouted international convention and pointedly used names like “the China virus” or the race-baiting “Kung Flu.” These names cast China as a villain in the pandemic and diverted attention from the US response to the crisis.
Along the way, COVID became part of the way we live and the way we talk. We told anecdotes, noting that they took place “pre-COVID.” We talked about activities we missed and annoying rituals we performed “because COVID.” And the more we settled into this please-let-it-not-be-the-new-normal lifestyle, the more we adopted casual nicknames like Miss Rona. She’s a houseguest we never invited who just won’t leave.
(special thanks to reader lucubratrix)
It took mass protests and a nationwide focus on racial bias to finally put an end to the Aunt Jemima brand name. The pancake brand was established 131 years ago, built from day one on a fantasy of slavery. The name Aunt Jemima itself was taken from a song popular at blackface minstrel shows. Both the Aunt title and the uncommon biblical name were evocative of slave plantation practices, and the name was personified in the form of a smiling “mammy” figure, happily dishing out pancakes.
While the brand dropped its egregious mammy logo in 1989, it couldn’t shake the essence of its name. The phrase Aunt Jemima was widely recognized as a racial slur. Just as tellingly, the biblical baby name Jemima remained virtually unheard of in the United States, even as every similar name soared in popularity. In 2020, brand owner Quaker acknowledged this reality and announced it was retiring the Aunt Jemima name. Other brands built on racially insensitive imagery, such as Uncle Ben’s rice, followed suit. [Read the full story of Aunt Jemima.]
Karen was Namerology’s 2019 Name of the Year, but it didn’t sit still in 2020. A year ago, Karen was a mocking name for middle-aged white women with entitled attitudes who were rude to service workers and always wanted to speak to the manager. This year, the fast-morphing insult came to refer instead to white women who called the police on their Black neighbors without reason—taking the place of alliterative nicknames like “BBQ Becky.”
And the target kept moving. Next up, a Karen became a woman who refused to wear a face mask. Or a woman who told others to wear masks. It got to the point that people were flinging the Karen label at just about any behavior they found antisocial or objectionable. As I wrote in June:
“Karen is no longer a descriptor of a specific type of behavior or person. It’s a signal to us, the audience, indicating how we’re supposed to respond to a person: with scorn and derision. It’s a stage direction for the age of social media, telling us all to play our parts.”
X Æ A-12
America loves to mock celebrity baby names. Any unconventional name is met with voracious glee by a public eager to make jokes or just shake their heads at the spectacle. But when entrepreneur Elon Musk and singer Grimes announced the birth of a son named X Æ A-12, something shifted. Jokes were still made but the mood was more uneasy than gleeful, with an undercurrent of genuine offense. This name, it seemed, had crossed a line.
In a very practical sense, the name did cross important lines. For one thing, it was illegal. In California, where the baby was born, legal names are limited to the letters of the English alphabet. (The parents ultimately had to submit a revised version of the name built from permitted symbols.)
For another, it was unpronounceable. That was presumably an aesthetic choice; Grimes had previously released songs with titles like “≈Ω≈Ω≈Ω≈Ω≈Ω≈Ω≈Ω≈Ω≈”. But a baby name is not a song title. The choice of an unpronounceable name was perceived not only as a burden to the child—a common criticism of highly unorthodox names—but a kind of kiss-off to society at large. These billionaires appeared to be setting themselves so apart from the rest of us that we weren’t even allowed to pronounce their son’s name.
And finally, the name just didn’t look human. As Namerology reader Quiara wrote:
“There’s this pervasive sense that in naming [his son] 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 with Zoom fatigue more broadly. Musk being a tech billionaire also plays into this…the sense that tech companies have been eroding the foundation of our society/humanity.
“X Æ 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.”
Vice President-elect Kamala Harris made history with her election in November. Her name made history as well. Kamala is the first female name and the first Indian name in national office, and a harbinger of the diverse naming generations that will follow. Supporters and foes alike took note. The name Kamala became a lightning rod when political opponents tried to score points by deliberately mispronouncing it to suggest that the relatively simple and traditional name was somehow outrageous.
This isn’t the first time that politicians have tried to weaponize a candidate’s non-European name. In the 2008 presidential election, some opponents made a point of emphasizing Barack Obama’s middle name Hussein, to conjure images of Saddam Hussein and stoke fears of Islamic terrorism. The deliberate refusal to use a person’s correct name, though, is a less specific and more generally dehumanizing attack. In its extreme version it can take the form of forced renaming, a UN-recognized human rights abuse. In subtler versions, favored by middle-school bullies and politicians alike, it’s a taunt designed to diminish a person’s value, to suggest they’re not even worthy of the basic respect of a name.
Yet even as some tried to use the name Kamala to belittle, others took up the name as an emblem of strength. Harris’s own campaign signs featured her first name, whereas many candidates use only their surnames. And then there were the superpowers.
As it happens, Kamala is also the name of the comic book hero “Ms. Marvel.” Pakistani-American teenager Kamala Khan can size-shift, shape-shift, heal herself at a superhuman speed, and sell a lot of comics. Marvel is building big plans around her, with a live-action TV series scheduled for 2021 and high-profile film roles to come. With one Kamala at the White House and another fighting supervillains on the screen, the name should prove hard to belittle in the years ahead.
…and please read about Namerology’s 2020 Name of the Year, Breonna