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What is the Generic American Year?

October 5, 2023 laurawattenberg 5 Comments

What is the Generic American Year?

October 5, 2023 LauraWattenberg 5 Comments

The America of “Little Timmy” is still a cultural baseline. When was that America?

Calendar designed to look like an American flag, with question marks for the year

We still refer to the generic American child as “Little Timmy.” The faceless American everywoman is still “Linda” or “Susan.” Even as baby-name fashion leaves those names in the dust, we continue to place the archetypical American in their era…which was when, exactly? What year is the base year of our theoretical America?

The Not-So-Typical Typical American

The generic names we use in jokes and postulations represent a conceptual American midpoint. We know they don’t match our 21st-century reality, but still regard them as a standard.

For instance, a whole genre of one-liners is built on telling an archetypical secretary, “Susan, hold all my calls.” Not only is the name Susan out of step today, but so is the whole mental model of an office as a place where a secretary takes a businessman’s calls. Yet our cultural terrain remains centered there, like an interactive map that defaults to the country’s geographical center in Kansas.

When exactly is this chronological center of America? Our generic name choices may point us to it.

I identified 19 names that are frequently used as stand-ins for the average American man, woman or child, from “Little Timmy” to “Jeff in Accounting.” Their histories vary, but a popularity graph suggests a mid-20th-century epicenter. (I’ve treated nicknames as given names to capture shifts in nickname preferences. For instance, in 1900 a William was likely to be called Willie; in 1940, Bill.)

Historical popularity chart of 19 names including Debbie, Susie, Timmy, Susan, Linda, Joe and Bob, with popularity centered in the middle of the 20th Century

Calculating the years each name peaked in popularity, the median year—the chronological center, the most generic American year—is:

1948.

Try to picture 1948 in America. You may find yourself focusing on what it was not. Post-World War II, but pre-1950s. After the swing era, but before rock ‘n’ roll. A time in-between.

The popular music of the year has largely vanished from memory. Ten years earlier, the top of the charts featured Benny Goodman and Ella Fitzgerald. Ten years later, it was Elvis Presley and the Everly Brothers. But the top hits of 1948 were mostly mild crooning, like Margaret Whiting’s “A Tree in the Meadow,” or novelty numbers, like Kay Kyser’s “Woody Woodpecker.” Styles that don’t even figure in most summaries of American popular music history.

The films of 1948 were more memorable, yet they also speak to an art form in transition. The top films were a mix of black-and-white and glowing Technicolor. That balance even applied to the year’s #1 and #2 movies, despite their similarly colorful titles: The Red Shoes and Red River.

In fashion, 1948 was also a transition year. Christian Dior had just introduced his “new look” that shifted the silhouette of women’s clothing. The fitted, boxy-shouldered look of the ‘40s was poised to give way to the wasp waist and full skirt that would eventually dominate the ‘50s.

1948, the in-between year, stands like a gateway: a world that we picture in black and white on one side, and color on the other. It’s like the moment of stasis as a curve changes direction. That feels fitting for the moment that our consensus imagination has pinned in place as the American midpoint, even as it disappears ever further into the past.

LauraWattenberg
LauraWattenberg

Namerology founder and "Baby Name Wizard" author Laura Wattenberg is a globally recognized name expert, known for her scientific approach to understanding name trends and culture.

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5 Comments

  • Penguinmom October 6, 2023 at 6:34 am

    Interesting!

    Could you go into the nicknames vs given names a bit more? I see Susan, Sue, and Susie separate, but also 3 Tommys.

    Is the really peaky royal blue line Linda? I looked at the NameGrapher graph for Linda, and it looks like it peaked at 19,000 per million births. Actually, I just realized, the article probably uses a different dataset than the NameGrapher. Given that it’s every 4 years, I’d assume it’s Census data, rather than the decade-averaged(?) data of the NameGrapher. Which would mean that Linda really peaked between 1948 and 1952… an even more “trendy” name than the NameGrapher implies… though between 1940 and 1960, it’s still more popular than any of the other names listed here, so perhaps “trendy” isn’t quite the right word. And yet it was the #2 name to Mary, which, while not quite as popular as it was in the 1880s, was still #1 until the 1960s when it was unseated by … (I know I’m on a tangent here) Lisa? And maybe it’s just my generation (early millenial), but my main associations with the name Lisa are Lisa Frank and Lisa Simpson. I don’t think I’ve personally known a Lisa. And yet in its time it was as popular as Jessica (though interestingly not as popular as Jennifer). I’m really curious now how Lisa came to be so popular.

    On the other hand, it’s interesting that the “average” Joe is so steady on the chart.

  • Maddy November 24, 2023 at 12:31 pm

    It’s good to remember these names peaked in 1948 (on average) for newborns. But we usually use the names to reference an older kid or adult. So we may picture little Timmy in the 1950s or Jim in accounting in the 90s.

    You’d think the names will have to shift as Boomers are pretty old now. I wonder when/if the typical names will get more multicultural (or maybe “unicultural,” ie could be used in multiple cultures).

  • holey
    holey November 24, 2023 at 4:34 pm

    Behind the Name has a visualization of the top 100 names in the U.S. based on various criteria that you can select. One of them is how “strange” the name was rated by Behind the Name users.

    https://www.behindthename.com/top/visual/united-states/m/rating-strange?zoom=1

    I think this gives another look at what era of names we use for a subconscious standard. Way fewer popular midcentury names are rated as “strange” compared to names that were popular in earlier or later decades.

    Interestingly, the window of normalcy for girls’ names comes a bit later than the one for boys’ names.

    • holey
      holey November 24, 2023 at 5:31 pm

      Obviously the ratings are kind of an odd sample, since (for example) Steven is rated as very strange…

    • Kelly
      Kelly November 25, 2023 at 5:09 pm

      Those ratings are based on users’ opinions (and not objective criteria), and one is probably more likely to give a “Boring” rating to names that are overused in one’s personal circle than ones which are popular on babies/children now or were most popular long enough ago to be considered vintage. Likewise, the later apparent peak of “conformity” with girl names probably comes from the stronger fashion ups and downs compared to boy names (making more girl names popular ~2-3 generations ago seem fresher than boy names with then-similar rankings).

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