One of America’s most familiar names is gone—and it’s not alone.
As long as there have been baby name statistics, there have been Bobs. That’s Bob as in Bob Marley and Bob Dylan; Bob Woodward and Bob Dole; Bob the Builder and Bob Ross. Bob as in “Bob’s your uncle” and “yessiree Bob.” The name has been so steady and ubiquitous it’s practically synonymous with “guy.”
And now it’s gone.
Last year, for the first time in name-stats history going back to 1880, the name Bob dropped off the list. Not just off the top-1000 list of most popular names. Bob vanished from the stats altogether.
It takes only five babies for a name to register in America’s annual name statistics, a bar so low that 31,537 different names qualified in 2021. Mellow, Debonair and Howl made the list. Demon, Lucifer and Hades made the list. Six different spellings of Heiress made the list. Bob is nowhere to be seen.
Yes, Bob is a nickname, so in theory it may live on in the form of newborn Roberts. But not very many of them. To start with, Robert itself hit an all-time low last year, down 96% from its peak. What’s more, a young Robert today is most likely to be called by his full name. If a nickname is used it’s typically Rob, or in some parts of the country Robby or Bobby. The bluntly cheerful Bob has become a relic.
Bob wasn’t the only name to vanish completely for the first time last year. More than a dozen names that had appeared in the stats for at least a century made their farewells.
In some cases, the century of steady use is more of a surprise than the departure. Names like Conrado, Kennard and Evaristo have always been extremely rare. Pernell’s only brief heyday was back when actor Pernell Roberts starred in Bonanza. And would you have guessed that the Dorothy variant Dorthy had such a long run?
Other departures, though, were top-1000 staples of past eras. Annetta and Webster were modestly popular for decades. The girls’ nicknames Terry and Vickie were bona fide hits in the 1950s. And the biggest past hit of them all: Carole. In multiple spellings, Carole was one of the defining names of a whole generation…the same generation as Bob.
Once upon a time, those two names were so common that they were chosen to represent ordinariness in the 1969 “free love” satire Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. At my own real-life wedding a generation later, there was a flurry of confusion over two different couples in attendance named Bob and Carole. To the children of 2021, though, the two names will be anything but ordinary.
The name Carole may just need some time to come around again. For Bob, there’s an extra hurdle to overcome. Bob isn’t merely a name tied to another time. It’s part of a broader movement away from a whole realm of blunt nicknames.
The Great Nickname Drought
One-syllable nicknames are the traditional heart of American male naming. Politicians use them to present an image of an friendly, ordinary, All-American guy, like Robert “Bob” Dole or Raphael “Ted” Cruz. The nicknames’ symbolic power is such that scam telemarketers from overseas introduce themselves with fake names like Bill and Jim.
Today they’re a dying breed. Formal names are often taken straight, and when parents do turn to nicknames they prefer longer choices. If you meet a young William, James and Theodore, don’t expect to call them Bill, Jim and Ted. Liam, Jamie and Theo are safer bets.
Good old Bob is about as far as you can get from long and fluid. So we’d best settle in for a long Bobless spell to come.
In this context it surprises me that Jack seems to be somewhat popular as a given name among children.
My young brother (12) is named Robert and mom absolutely tried to set him on the Bobby-to-Bob pipeline. The problem was that nobody would call him Bobby and she wouldn’t enforce it. I was the only person who called him Bobby, for years, because she caved immediately. Now he’s Robbie/Rob, even though it is an “already taken” name in the family that will end up with him being called “little Rob” or similar all his life.
I think it’s sad what happens to old fashioned name like Bob, Steve, Chuck, Will etc. Even my own name is quite rare nowadays at least in its current construction, as you would be much more likely to see Thomas or Tom than Tommy. But maybe it’s better to slowly fade into obscurity than to suffer the fate of names like Dick (which was once so popular that it is still included in the phrase “every Tom, Dick and Harry”) or Karen in recent times.