What’s in a Name Transcript

Megan Figueroa: Hi, and welcome to the Vocal Fries podcast, the podcast about linguistic discrimination.

Carrie Gillon: I’m Carrie Gillon.

Megan Figueroa: I’m Megan Figueroa. Carrie, Arizona went viral with a running javelina.

Carrie Gillon: Which everyone keeps calling “pigs.”

Megan Figueroa: I’m like, “Have you not read the book Don’t Call Me a Pig? C’mon.”

Carrie Gillon: No, nobody knows outside of Arizona what a javelina is. It does kind of look like a pig although, when it’s running, it looks way less like a pig than normal.

Megan Figueroa: Right? Because pigs don’t run that fast, do they?

Carrie Gillon: Oh, they probably do. Well, at least the smaller ones probably do. I was shocked though when I saw that javelina boot it like that. I was like, how? How? Because I’ve only ever seen them amble at most.

Megan Figueroa: I’ve been semi-chased by a javelina. It wasn’t going that fast. Because I was taking my trash out and boy, do they love the smell of trash. [Laughter] But, yeah, no, I’ve mostly seen them with their little babies and they’re following along, just ambling along very cute-like. If you haven’t seen it, go to the Twitter account “javelina running to.” You can see the javelina running to all sorts of hilarious, perfectly matched songs. Like “Born to Run” by Bruce Springsteen or “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman. It’s beautiful.

Carrie Gillon: My favorite is “Going the Distance” by Cake. It’s also the first one that I saw, so I’m a little biased.

Megan Figueroa: Well, for some reason, that song is so funny to me just by itself and I don’t know why.

Carrie Gillon: He sounds so unconcerned like he doesn’t give a shit while he’s singing. Yeah.

Megan Figueroa: Okay. Maybe that’s what it is. That is perfect.

Carrie Gillon: I was a nice little bit of light-heartedness. It felt like 2015 when we had both the dress and the escaped llamas. It was a wild, wild day. That javelina running was not quite the same but it felt a little bit more like, “Oh, I remember the good old times and the before times.”

Megan Figueroa: Yes.

Carrie Gillon: When the internet was not just people yelling at each other about their favorite candidate and about how every other candidate sucks.

Megan Figueroa: I know. Well, now I’m like, “Javelina 2020” – “Running javelina 2020.” [Laughter]

Carrie Gillon: Frankly, couldn’t possibly do a worse job than what’s happening right now.

Megan Figueroa: It’s true. Speaking of our fucked-up government, we did a bonus episode, which you can get to by being a Patreon supporter, about this new change in social security disability benefits. They changed a language requirement.

Carrie Gillon: It’s definitely a good bonus to access.

Megan Figueroa: I mean, it’s just a rage bonus which, you know, I would say about 80% of them are rage bonuses. [Laughter]

Carrie Gillon: Yeah.

Megan Figueroa: Maybe we could all stop being assholes and we wouldn’t have to rage bonus.

Carrie Gillon: Well, I mean, yes. It seems like it’s unlikely that the government’s ever gonna stop being this level of asshole, at least anytime soon.

Megan Figueroa: On a light-hearted note, I re-watched Knives Out, the movie, and I just truly the first time – because I mean, one of my favorite things is just old, haunted looking mansion houses and a Clue-type vibe. So, I was just enthralled by all of that and somehow missed some of the language stuff, but the character that Toni Collette plays, they make her very much sound like a very stereotypical valley girl. There’s no evidence to prove that she spends any time there.

Carrie Gillon: No, I mean, valley girl is not about being from the Valley anymore. It hasn’t been for a long time.

Megan Figueroa: I guess I’m still – I mean, I spend most of my time toward the west coast that I was surprised – because it’s supposed to be Massachusetts, but it’s on-brand valley girl, and I’m like, “She sounds like no one around her.”

Carrie Gillon: Well, we don’t know where she came from, right?

Megan Figueroa: That’s true. That’s true. Okay. Well, and they do make her into basically a Gwyneth Paltrow kind of a Goop brand.

Carrie Gillon: Exactly. I was gonna say she’s very Goop-y.

Megan Figueroa: I mean, that is really calling on that kinda vibe or that, at least, stereotype of the wellness – like they show her meditating in this very – yeah. She definitely has this vibe. I mean, it’s not unfair to say that LA is kind of an epicentre for that kind of stuff.

Carrie Gillon: Oh, no. It 100% is, but again, it doesn’t even really matter. She might not be from there at all. She might just be adopting that because that’s her identity, right?

Megan Figueroa: Her brand. I mean, it’s literally her brand at whatever company she has.

Carrie Gillon: She’s really good in that movie.

Megan Figueroa: She’s so good!

Carrie Gillon: I mean, she’s always amazing because she’s just amazing, but there’s just something really entertaining about that character like the languidity with which she speaks and the ridiculousness of most of the things that come out of her mouth.

Megan Figueroa: Oh, she embodies that character. It’s amazing. You see her in like – I mean, the last thing I saw her in was a serious role and I’m like – it was just like, the range! Speaking of range, I am enthralled by Daniel Craig’s character. I was the first time, but he does that thing where it’s kinda like – well, fuck Kevin Spacey – but the Kevin Spacey “House of Cards.”

Carrie Gillon: Yeah. He’s Frank Underwood sort of except that a detective and probably actually a better person. Yeah. He’s definitely adopting this Charleston-ish accent that no one speaks anymore. It’s a really old school variety.

Megan Figueroa: I just, I dunno if anyone ever asked the director or anyone if that was on purpose, but I feel like it had to have been. I feel like thought was put into making him seem like this old school kind of dude.

Carrie Gillon: I assume it was on purpose. I haven’t heard anyone ask Rian Johnson about that choice because I’ve heard him talk about “Knives Out.” Daniel Craig’s character putting on this accent really – just putting it on really strong because he wants people not to take him seriously because he’s kind of Columbo-ing.

Megan Figueroa: Columbo-ing! Wow. [Laughter]

Carrie Gillon: Right? That’s the kind of character he feels like. He feels like he’s bumbling but he’s not. He knows exactly what he’s doing the whole time. Spoiler alert.

Megan Figueroa: Right.

Carrie Gillon: I dunno. It could’ve been a choice that the character even made.

Megan Figueroa: Well, to be fair, when he kinda reveals at the end that he knew what he was doing the whole time, I was like, “You’re fucking shitting me because you seemed like you didn’t know what you were doing.” Absolutely. It’s a really fucking fun movie.

Carrie Gillon: Oh my god, it is so fun! I was just grinning watching that movie because I enjoy murder mysteries. I always have. I grew up on them. But there was just something so fun about this one because it kind of turns everything up on its head.

Megan Figueroa: All of the references were very up to date. You’re like, “This movie is obviously made in 2019.”

Carrie Gillon: Yes. Yes.

Megan Figueroa: Anyway, lots of fun language stuff. Today’s episode’s fun.

Carrie Gillon: Yeah!

Megan Figueroa: We wanna gift our listeners with things that aren’t always very, very sad.

Carrie Gillon: I mean, there’s obviously a little bit of sadness associated with names, so we do talk a little bit about the dark side of names. But, for the most part, it’s more fun stuff like why you can tell what era someone’s born by their name.

Megan Figueroa: People should let us know on Twitter or wherever about their names or their name stories. That’d be really fun.

Carrie Gillon: On Anchor, you can record a voicemail for us if you wish. Let’s maybe do it. Let’s do a show where people call in. You can talk about your name or whatever – anything you find interesting. But I think names are fun.

Megan Figueroa: Well, names – I mean, like talking about it in the episode – everyone has a story about their name – probably a million. If you wanna share that with us, that would be great. How do you get to that, Carrie?

Carrie Gillon: You can add a message at anchor.fm/the-vocal-fries

Megan Figueroa: Yes, leave us a voicemail. Enjoy this episode!


Megan Figueroa: Today, we are joined by Dr. Laurel MacKenzie who is an assistant professor at NYU who studies the variability inherent in language. She’s interested in linguistic choices we make and how and why we make them. The goal of her research is to better understand the patterns that underlie variation and change in language. We have her here today to talk about names.

Laurel MacKenzie: Yep.

Megan Figueroa: Thank you so much for being here!

Laurel MacKenzie: You’re welcome. Thank you for having me. My pleasure.

Megan Figueroa: I say “here” as if we’re all in the same space, but it’s really just the same virtual space.

Laurel MacKenzie: We’re in the same cyber space.

Megan Figueroa: Exactly. [Laughter]

Carrie Gillon: Cyber.

Laurel MacKenzie: I know! Good word, right? Let’s bring it back.

Carrie Gillon: We wanted to talk to you about names. I believe it was Daniel Currie Hall who wanted us to talk about names.

Laurel MacKenzie: So, this was a request?

Carrie Gillon: This was a request, yeah. We didn’t know who to turn to, and I think Lisa Davidson told us to talk to you.

Laurel MacKenzie: I can tell you a little bit about why and how I’m interested in names. Well, I don’t know if there’s a reason for why I’m interested in it, but I have always sort of – well, yeah. As someone with a name that you can’t find on keychains and mugs, I guess I was always aware of names growing up. I think it might actually have been Bill Labov, who was my PhD thesis advisor, who introduced me to the academic literature on names. Bill had grown very interested in questions about how innovations in language catch on and progress and propagate through a community. He found a line of research by the sociologist Stanley Lieberson about how innovations and fashion catch on and propagate through a community. Lieberson particularly investigated this with respect to names. The anecdote that Lieberson told was that he named his daughter “Rebecca,” thinking, “Oh, that’s a nice, interesting, unusual name.” Then, Rebecca got to kindergarten and was “Rebecca L.” because there were three other “Rebecca”s in the class. Labov had the exact same experience, also naming his daughter “Rebecca” at around the same time as Lieberson. Labov was really struck by this and told this anecdote a few times. The question it raised for him was, what’s going on? Why do so many people pick the same name at the same time but not at other times? What is it about certain names that are trendy, temporarily, but not at other times? How do people who don’t talk to each other about “What are you naming your kid? What are you naming your kid?” nonetheless pick the same names? Labov saw an analogue in that the way names go in and out of style, in and out of fashion, to the way sound changes in language and changes in language more generally go in and out of style and in and out of fashion.

Carrie Gillon: Brilliant.

Megan Figueroa: That is so brilliant. The way some people’s brains work is so fascinating to me.

Laurel MacKenzie: That’s Bill’s brain. Bill is like the galaxy brain on the galaxy brain meme. [Laughter] you never would’ve put that together. That clued me into the fact that there’s an academic literature on names. At around the same time, when I was in grad school – so like mid-2000s, 2006 – 2008 or so – there was this blog that came into being, “The Baby Name Wizard.” The author, Laura Wattenberg, was a social scientist – a quantitative social scientist – and she had downloaded all the social security data on names given to babies in the United States going back to the 1880s. She had put it into a searchable database with graphs, so you could search for a name like “Brian” and see the rate at which “Brian” was given to babies from 1880 up to the present day. You could see trends go in and out of fashion. You could search for just the beginning of names. You could see all the BR names – “Brian,” “Brady,” “Brianna,” “Britney” – which are very 80s/90s era-sounding names. That was really fun. I enjoyed playing around with that. Then, it all came together my final year of my PhD program when I was on the job market. I applied for a job at the University of Manchester where I was asked to propose three new courses at each level of the undergrad curriculum. Anyone listening to this who might wanna go on the academic job market one day, be prepared that this is the kinda thing that people might ask you about. I was like, “Oh, that’s kinda fun. It’s a little exercise in teaching creativity.” The hardest part for me was figuring out what to teach first year undergraduates because it had to be something new that was not on the course curriculum already – so it couldn’t just be Introduction to Phonetics, Introduction to Sociolinguistics – but also it had to be appropriate for students who didn’t have much background in linguistics. I kind of mulled over this for a long time, and it came to me one day as I was brushing my teeth, “What about the linguistics of names?” I like names. You can talk about how names go in and out of fashion, but you can also talk about things like the phonology of nickname formation or the morphology of naming in cultures that have interesting morphological systems. You can talk about gender and naming. You can talk about sound symbolism and naming – the way that researchers have found that certain product names might sound more rich and creamy, or more crunchy, based on the sounds that they have in them. The more I thought, the more I was like, “You know, you could fill a one-semester undergraduate course on the linguistics of names.” I proposed that, and I ended up getting the job. In my offer letter, they said, “Next semester, you will be teaching Linguistics of Names,” and I was like, “Oh, god!” This had to go from a 30-second “You could do this” to a genuine one-semester course in a very short amount of time. I had to really put my money where my mouth was and read all this literature on the linguistics of names. But there is a fair amount of it out there. I taught that course for three semesters at Manchester. I was very popular among the undergrads. It was a lot of fun to teach. I put it all together in that article for the “Teaching Linguistics” section of Language on the hopes that it might help other people.

Megan Figueroa: Do you still teach it at NYU?

Laurel MacKenzie: Haven’t taught it here at NYU, no. I would like to bring it back one of these days. I think it would make a good freshman seminar. That’s the kind of level it’s appropriate for.

Megan Figueroa: The reason why it’s so good that we’re talking to you about names and the reason why this is such a successful class, I’m guessing, is because we all care so deeply about our own names. Either we really hated it growing up or whatever, we just have lots and lots of big feelings about our names. I can imagine you as a little girl going by the mugs and seeing “Lauren” and being like, “Ugh! There’s ‘Lauren,’ and there’s where ‘Laurel’ should be.” I did the same thing where I was like – at a certain period “Megan” was being spelled with H a lot. My name, “Megan,” M-E-G-A-N, would be missing but they’d still have the H ones and I’m like, “It’s not the same thing. I can’t just buy that mug.”

Laurel MacKenzie: Scribble it out.

Carrie Gillon: Cross out the H.

Megan Figueroa: Yeah, exactly. [Laughter]

Laurel MacKenzie: There was a viral tweet a while ago, something like, “Every name has a natural enemy” or “a natural nemesis” or something. It was by a guy named Josh, and he was like, “Mine is ‘John’” or something, “What’s yours?” It was really fun to see all the racks of responses that it accumulated.

Megan Figueroa: Carrie’s would be just “Carrie” spelled the other way, right?

Carrie Gillon: No. Mine is “Karen” because it gets misheard as “Karen” a lot. Pretty recently I went to a Starbucks, and she asked for my name, and I said, “Carrie,” and she misheard it as “Karen,” and I was like, “That’s fine because who cares,” right? She was like, “Oh, I got it wrong.” Then, she put down “Anna.” And I was like, “What?” [Laughter]

Megan Figueroa: You mentioned the “Brady/Britney/Brian” sounding very 80s, is there actually literature – were you able to track that that the /bʁə/ sound was very popular at that time?

Laurel MacKenzie: You can actually go look up the Baby Name Voyager, which is –

Megan Figueroa: That was the Wizard?

Laurel MacKenzie: Yeah. That’s that website I was telling you about. It’s still there. The Baby Name Wizard was, I think, the name of the website and the Voyager is the search engine, basically, where you search through all the data.

Carrie Gillon: My impression is “Brian” is at least somewhat older because I know older “Brian”s – but “Britney,” for sure, I don’t remember hearing any “Brittney’s until the 80s.

Laurel MacKenzie: So, I just typed it in, and the peak is definitely right at the 1990s. The most popular names that are showing up are “Brandon,” “Bradly,” “Britney,” “Brianna,” “Brian,” spelled a couple different ways – “Bryan” with a Y, “Brian” with an I – “Brooke” is in here, “Bruce.” There’s others but there was a big peak.

Carrie Gillon: “Bruce”? My uncle’s name is Bruce.

Laurel MacKenzie: Yeah, “Bruce,” to me, doesn’t seem to show. That peaked in the 50s. “Bruce” has a slightly different trajectory.

Megan Figueroa: My mom’s name is Charlotte, which sounds so old school to me, except then the –

Carrie Gillon: It’s coming back.

Megan Figueroa: Yeah, Princess Charlotte over in –

Laurel MacKenzie: “Charlotte” came back.

Megan Figueroa: I mean, it cycles, right? That’s one of the things you looked at.

Laurel MacKenzie: Yes. That was something that I learned from reading Lieberson, yeah. He looks at these roller coaster type patterns where names that were really common in the 1880s/1890s/turn of the century get recycled. His theory is that those names get imbued with an old fashioned feeling when they’re the names of your parents and grandparents, but once all the old “Charlotte”s have sort of died off, they lose those connotations and they’re ripe for being revitalized in a way. That doesn’t hold for everything. I don’t think “Ethel” is coming back, some of these –

Carrie Gillon: No. Or “Doris.”

Laurel MacKenzie: Right. But a lot of them – so “Emma,” I think, is a very similar trajectory. I’m looking at it in the Voyager right now. It shows a real trough and then a massive peak.

Carrie Gillon: That makes sense.

Laurel MacKenzie: All the FL starting names – so I just typed in “FL,” so you get “Flora,” “Florence,” “Flossy,” “Floyd” – those have all just tanked and they’re not really coming back. Although, you never know. “Florence” –

Carrie Gillon: “Florence” is a little bit nicer than “Doris.” Maybe.

Laurel MacKenzie: Yeah.

Carrie Gillon: You’ve already sort of answered this but maybe you can delve into one area that you think is the most interesting. What can we learn studying names?

Laurel MacKenzie: I designed my undergrad course around a single question which was whether names behaved like other elements of language or whether names are somehow linguistically special. From a lot of perspectives, names do actually seem a lot like other elements of language. Phonologically, they behave very similarly. For instance, nouns in English tend to be trochaic, they have stress on the first syllable. Most of the names in English do too, or at least the disyllabic ones. Names follow similar processes of hypocoristic formation, so the way we make nicknames. We use very similar processes when we make nicknames or play names of non-name words. There’s a lot of phonological literature on when you make a nickname, what part of the name do you chop off, basically.

Megan Figueroa: Is this in English?

Laurel MacKenzie: Yeah. In English, at least, but other Germanic languages and French as well has specific nickname formation patterns that are followed by names but also can be done to non-name words, I think. Those were similarities. I thought the sociolinguistic similarities were really interesting too because names are a lot like accents. You’re brought up with them. They’re bestowed upon you. They’re not necessarily something you choose. They can be really hard to change. They can carry hallmarks of somebody’s ethnic background, their social class background, their gender certainly, and they’re subject to taste and fashion in the same way that changing elements of language can be too. Megan Figueroa: Also, I bet we’re seeing a spike in gender non-conforming names right now – those vague names. Laurel MacKenzie: It’s an interesting question, yeah. There’s a fair amount of literature on the phonological correlates of names given to babies of different genders, different sexes. Researchers have found – again, in English and using data in the US, although I suspect the UK would be really similar – that names given to babies assigned female at birth tend to be longer. They tend to have more syllables. They tend to be more likely to end in a vowel, specifically schwa. Think of like, “Amanda,” “Rebecca,” those sorts of things. They tend not to have stress on the initial syllable compared to names given to babies assigned male at birth. That’s, again, like, “Amanda,” “Rebecca,” “Marie.” One exercise that I had my students do is to look at whether names have become less likely over time to show these gender hallmarks like, “Have names given to baby boys gotten more quote-unquote ‘feminine’ in their phonology and have names given to baby girls gotten less feminine?” What we actually found is that both sets of names seem to have had more phonological correlates associated with femininity over time, at least in the US data, which is a little surprising.

Carrie Gillon: I’ve also heard that boys’ names tend to end in /n/ like, “Brandon,” and “Aiden.”

Laurel MacKenzie: That’s a huge spike. Yeah. Boys’ names used to end more in obstruents, so your hard consonants – stops and fricatives and things. Now, there’s been a big rise in N-final baby names. Part of that I noticed in digging through the data is that there’s been a big spike in a lot of rhyming names. “Aiden” became popular in the early 2000s, I think. Then, we see this massive influx of “Braden,” “Zaden,” “Jaden,” “Raden,” “Hayden,” “Kayden” spelled a couple of different ways, seemingly all on the model of “Aiden.” That’s probably beefing up the number of N-final boys names.

Megan Figueroa: I wonder if that’s like the whole “Lauren” and “Laurel” thing, if that’s just a little bit different than “Aiden.” Maybe it’ll be a little bit more unique. Then, it just so happens that since it’s similar to “Aiden” that other people were thinking the same thing. It kinda starts trending.

Laurel MacKenzie: This is exactly what Lieberson says – the sociologist Stanley Lieberson – about how innovations in taste and fashion catch on. They catch on because they’re just a tiny little bit different from what was popular before. They’re not so different that they feel threatening, but they’re different enough that they can seem a little bit innovative or interesting. He makes the analogy to skirt lengths changing over time, actually. He tracked this in, I think, ads in fashion magazines. Over the course of the 20th century, skirts got much, much, much shorter and then they worked their way longer again. But it was only by tiny little increments. It was never a massive jump.

Carrie Gillon: That’s so fascinating!

Laurel MacKenzie: I know! If you see which names are popular, you can trace “Jacen” to “Jacob,” to “Mason,” to “Aiden,” among the topmost popular boys names. They’re all phonologically similar but not identical. It’s really neat.

Carrie Gillon: That is really neat. Laurel MacKenzie: Another thing I learned in researching names is that there are countries and cultures where naming is very government regulated. Your name has to be on a list, and those lists have assigned genders with them too. There was a big news story a few years back where parents in Iceland wanted to name – I believe it was that they wanted to name a baby girl “Blaer,” which means “breeze” or something. But “blaer” is a masculine noun in Iceland so the government wouldn’t allow it because the child was female.

Carrie Gillon: I’ve heard of this before. I hadn’t heard about this particular case those. I wonder if there’s a way to feminize it in Icelandic that would’ve made it acceptable.

Laurel MacKenzie: That I don’t know.

Carrie Gillon: Not that they should be forced to do that, I’m just curious.

Laurel MacKenzie: “Blaer,” B-L-A-E-R. It means “light breeze.” Oh, apparently the decision got overturned.

Carrie Gillon: Oh, okay. Well, that’s good.

Megan Figueroa: Since you’ve looked at this, do you notice that there’re some countries or pockets of the country where family names are more important to pass on?

Laurel MacKenzie: Oh, as first names?

Megan Figueroa: Yeah.

Laurel MacKenzie: Anecdotally, I always had that impression in the south.

Megan Figueroa: That would be my guess but, yeah.

Laurel MacKenzie: That’s just my association. I grew up in Texas and I knew kids at least whose middle names were their mother’s maiden name.

Megan Figueroa: Oh, that’s very Mexican too.

Carrie Gillon: And also very British. My family – that was a tradition.

Laurel MacKenzie: Maybe there’s just a lot of that out there.

Carrie Gillon: That was a tradition. But my parents decided not to go with that tradition anymore because they just – I dunno. They were kind of non-traditional, I guess. Yeah. It’s common, I think, in lots of different cultures to do that. I guess the United States may be – depending on which country your family originated from – you may or may not continue to do it.

Laurel MacKenzie: It occurs to me, I don’t know of any research on middle names, and that could be actually pretty interesting because I feel like middles is just a whole wild west. They don’t really get used much. You hardly ever see them except on really official documents. It’s like people could go kinda wild but I’m not sure that they do. I feel like growing up I knew a whole lot of people whose middle name was either “Marie” or “Lee” or something.

Carrie Gillon: Or “Ann.”

Laurel MacKenzie: Yeah! Very small set.

Carrie Gillon: The only time we really hear about people’s middle names is if they’re a serial killer, and that’s only to distinguish them from all other people with the same name.

Megan Figueroa: That’s so funny.

Carrie Gillon: Or there’re people in Hollywood who will use their middle initial because they also have to distinguish themselves from the other Michael Fox or whatever in SAG. Middle names are interesting, and I do know people without any middle names at all. That also gets them in trouble because it’s expected in North American culture, but they’re not necessary.

Laurel MacKenzie: Harry S Truman does not have a middle name. His middle name was just “S,” right? He just made that up as a president because he felt he needed on.

Carrie Gillon: You’re not supposed to put a period afterwards because it’s not an abbreviation. It’s just S.

Laurel MacKenzie: That’s right. That’s a good point of punctuation trivia.

Carrie Gillon: I just found this out a couple weeks ago.

Laurel MacKenzie: I had this thought the other night, I wonder if anybody has ever used a middle initial of a letter that is also a roman numeral and then insisted that, no, my middle is not “V,” it’s “Five.”

Carrie Gillon: Why not? [Laughter]

Laurel MacKenzie: You might hear that on the next kid.

Carrie Gillon: Experimentation through having children.

Laurel MacKenzie: Yes. But, yeah, you mentioned surnames as first names and that, from reading the blog associated with the Baby Name Wizard, was something that I think she noticed had been on the rise, definitely. I mean, to take an example at random, I definitely noticed where there were a bunch of little Makenzies starting – that started to be a thing. I hadn’t known anyone with my last name as their first name until, I think it was about high school when this started happening for me.

Megan Figueroa: I had the opposite, since my last name’s not “MacKenzie,” but I always thought that was a first name. When I see it as a last name, I’m like, “Oh? Okay.”

Laurel MacKenzie: Yes. When I started seeing it as a first name, I was like, “I had it first.” [Laughter]

Megan Figueroa: I think a lot of interesting things are happening with names too because people are, I dunno, coming to terms with it or deciding for themselves that you don’t have to name a child with the father’s last name too. A lot of different things are happening with that too. I feel like it’s a really interesting time for names. I grew up with a lot of girls whose names were like, “Alexandra,” or “Samantha,” and they would by “Alex” and “Sam.” I’m seeing those just becoming names for girls now – just naming your child “Sam” or “Alex” – which I think is pretty cool.

Carrie Gillon: Well, technically, my name is a diminutive of “Carolyn” or “Caroline,” but I was named “Carrie.” That is my name.

Laurel MacKenzie: Yes. Nicknames can sort of take on a life of their own.

Megan Figueroa: I dunno. I think that there is still some societal expectations that a “Sam” or an “Alex” is perhaps more masculine coded too, so to see these nicknames being first names for baby girls is interesting to me.

Laurel MacKenzie: Right.

Megan Figueroa: This shift.

Laurel MacKenzie: So, the question is, does the gender shift ever go the other way? Do we ever find feminine-coded names being given to baby boys?

Carrie Gillon: Not that I’m aware of.

Laurel MacKenzie: The closest we can get is that – so names like “Noah” and “Jonah,” ending in an /ə/, which is, in many English names, a feminine ending because a lot of them come from Latin and other romance languages, I think.

Carrie Gillon: But those are Biblical names.

Laurel MacKenzie: Yes. They’re not feminine coded even though they sound a little bit feminine. They don’t even.

Carrie Gillon: Yeah. I think it’s because they’re Biblical where they just would never shift in that way because, unless everyone stopped reading the Bible for, like, a hundred years or something, then maybe.

Laurel MacKenzie: I suspect that other Biblical names like “Rebecca” has really plummeted since the 80s and 90s. I mean, obviously “Mary” – “Mary” was the Number 1 name given to baby girls until the 1970s. In 2017, it was down to Number 126.

Carrie Gillon: Wow. Yeah. Now’s maybe the time.

Laurel MacKenzie: To bring back the Biblical names?

Carrie Gillon: To use “Mary” for a girl child that’s gonna be somewhat unique maybe.

Laurel MacKenzie: She’ll probably be the only one in her class, yeah. It’s possible. I think another reason I was always so interested in this was because my mom was an elementary school teacher for about 20 years. Every year she was coming home with “You can’t imagine the new names in my class this year.”

Carrie Gillon: When I was growing up, it was a lot of “Jennifer”s. So many “Jennifer”s.

Laurel MacKenzie: “Jennifer” was Number 1 in the 70s and 80s.

Carrie Gillon: When I was growing up, you could sort of tell – I’m from Canada, and you could tell if a boy had come from the more Ontario area or more from the British Columbia area. There were a lot of “Dave”s from Ontario and a lot of “Mike”s from British Columbia.

Laurel MacKenzie: Hah! Yeah. It’s like pinpointing where someone is from based on their accent. It’s this linguistic hallmark that you get stamped with depending on when and where and what culture you’re from.

Megan Figueroa: I think this has been of interest to a lot of people recently because of Hassan Minhaj. Am I saying his name right, Carrie?

Carrie Gillon: I think so.

Megan Figueroa: I think I said it right because I had been saying it /ˌhəˈsan/ for so long, but then he corrected Ellen so it was /ˈhəˌsən/, having that whole viral thing where he talked to Ellen about his name and he was like, “Listen, my parents named me this, so this is how you’re gonna say it,” right? I think there has been some interest, at least looking at Twitter and the Vocal Fries and what people will tag us in, that people are real interested in how we can be assholes about names, which I think is great because it’s not like suddenly it’s possible to be an asshole about names. It’s been possible the whole time. But now people really seem to care and want to know how not to be an asshole about it.

Laurel MacKenzie: Yes. There’s some good literature on this in education and in linguistic anthropology about teachers and students’ feelings when they’re basically – the term is – “indexically bleached” or “racial/ethnically bleached” by teachers just either butchering their name pronunciation – not trying to get the pronunciation right – or even just renaming the kid entirely. “Oh, I can’t say your name. You’re Jeff now.”

[Excerpt from Key & Peele Substitute Teacher]

Kegan Michael Key: All right, listen up, ya’ll. I’m ya’ll’s substitute teacher, Mr. Garvey. I taught school for 20 years in the inner city so don’t even think about messing with me. Ya’ll feel me? Okay. Let’s take role here. /d͡ʒɛɪkwɛlɪn/? Where’s /d͡ʒɛɪkwɛlɪn/ at? (juhkwelin)

[End excerpt]

Megan Figueroa: It’s so ridiculous to think that one population or demographic of people have “normal” names, like they’re the only ones with quote-unquote “normal” names. It’s just so absurd to think that. I think a lot of us get stuck in our little bubble – not that you’re meaning to be an asshole, it’s just so easy to get stuck in that idea that, “Well, of course, my name is normal. Why is your name so strange?”

Laurel MacKenzie: I know. That’s like accents. You don’t realize you have one, you think everybody else does.

Megan Figueroa: Absolutely. That’s a really good analogy.

Carrie Gillon: There’s many ways that ethnicity or race can be encoded by names, but I think black names in the United States are particularly noticeable to white people. Is there any interesting research on those? And how can we tell white people to be less of an asshole about that stuff?

Laurel MacKenzie: Let’s see. So, the research that I know of – I know Stanley Lieberson, again, the name guy, has research looking at distinctive African American names and when they came into being. He actually found that they correlated really well with the civil rights movement and the black rights movement. People started becoming more likely to actually make names up entirely or use variations on existing names. That was where black naming practices and white naming practices – we can really see them diverge quantitatively. The flip side to names are like accents is that the fact that accent discrimination exists means that name discrimination exists. There have also been studies that have sent out identical resumes with traditionally black names and traditionally white names and found fewer call backs to the resume with the black name than the traditionally white name, just like we find with linguistic profiling – the work of John Baugh – who called up a bunch of different real estate agents speaking mainstream American English or African American English or Chicano English and got different amounts of call backs depending on the accent he was using. There’s a parallel for any sociolinguistics study about discrimination in names it seems.

Megan Figueroa: Someone once told me that I was lucky to have my last name because surely that helped me with my resume if people saw my resume. And I was like, “No, I’m sorry.” That’s very offensive to say that to someone. Like, you can think it, sure, but keep it to yourself. But also that’s not how it works, not yet.

Carrie Gillon: I mean, maybe there’s one job where that might work for you but, generally, no.

Megan Figueroa: Well, there was one time where I was told I was – I did AmeriCorps, and the man, who was Mexican-American, he’s like, “I saw your name. I looked at your statement about your story with Spanish,” and he was like, “You’re gonna be able to connect with these kids.” That’s, I think, a very good thing that that all happened but, for the most part, a name like my last name, unconsciously to a lot of people or consciously, is not gonna do as well as “Smith.” My point there is that a lot of people – well-meaning people – do not know that. They really think it’s changed.

Carrie Gillon: I know a lot of white people are living in a fantasy, maybe less so now – the last three years maybe, hopefully, woke some of them up. But I think a lot of white people are living in a fantasy of a post-racial world.

Laurel MacKenzie: It’s interesting. There’s the one line of research on this, I’ll call it, “overt” discrimination of names. There’s another interesting paper I found a while back by a researcher named Latanya Sweeney. It’s called “Discrimination and Online Ad Delivery.” What she did is she tried googling a bunch of different names – more traditionally black-coded names and white-coded names – and seeing what sort of ads Google offered her up. She was finding, when you google a black name like “Latanya,” you were more likely to get ads for arrest records than if you google

[sighs and groans]

– yeah – than a more white-coded name like “Emily.” It’ll say, “Latanya. Has she been arrested? Click here to find out,” which you’re not getting when you search for “Emily” for instance.

Carrie Gillon: I should not be shocked but I actually am.

Megan Figueroa: I am too because I thought you were gonna say like maybe some black hair products or something very, very – that you could buy.

Carrie Gillon: That’s where my brain went too.

Laurel MacKenzie: That could be productive, but this is just like, “Oh, yeah. Algorithms are racist too.”

Carrie Gillon: We’ve talked about that before and, yes – yes, they are.

Megan Figueroa: Because they’re created by humans who are racist, and misogynistic, and all of this.

Carrie Gillon: Speaking of that connection there, there was also a guy who was talking about sending out resumes and his name is “Kim.” He had to change his resume to “Mr. Kim Whatever” because he wasn’t getting call backs. There’s also sexist –

Laurel MacKenzie: Yeah. There’s another study that I think it was published in Science or Nature. The researchers sent out resumes for a lab manager position that were either “John” or “Jennifer” or something like that – experienced that same sort of thing. FiveThirtyEight, the website, had an article a few years back, “How to Guess Somebody’s Age When All You Know is Their Name,” and they combined name statistics and actuarial tables to basically include like, “Okay. If your name peaked around the 1930s, you’re likely to live X number of years. If you meet a ‘John,’ they’re probably from this era,’” or so.

Carrie Gillon: I loved that. That’s one of my favorite things that they’ve done.

Laurel MacKenzie: It’s just remarkable having never – once you realize that names can be pinpointed to an era with such accuracy to then think about the next level of like, “How on earth does that happen? How do these things really go through those sort of chronological waves?” This is something that Lieberson points out. Unlike fashion, we don’t have magazines telling us like, “Name your kid ‘Rebecca’ now! It’s the trendy 80s thing to do. Everyone else is doing it.” But somehow, we pick it up. That’s how innovations in language progress too. Nobody goes around saying, “Oh, it’s the trendy thing nowadays to say /æ̃/ instead of /æ/. Everyone else in Michigan is doing it,” but it happens.

Megan Figueroa: It’s true. I think baby name books existed back then. It’s nothing like today where it’s like, “Baby Name Generator,” or all these websites that you can look at. Still, you see these trends.

Carrie Gillon: That’s a good point. Has anything changed as a result that now that we have more information at our fingertips? Or is it still the same?

Megan Figueroa: Game of Throne names.

Carrie Gillon: That’s a change.

Laurel MacKenzie: Celebrity names – that’s always been a possibility, right? There’s a little “Shirley” peak for Shirley Temple back in the 30s or 40s. You can see presidential bumps – “Franklin” for the Roosevelt bump and I think there’s a little “Herbert” bump around Herbert Hoover that you can see in the data. Game of Thrones names for that – and they’re not that different there, I guess. But the question of like the way information is just more available to us now than it used to be, is that changing naming? I don’t know.

Carrie Gillon: What you might, maybe, expect is, “Okay. I see that this is on the rise. I don’t wanna join.” Whereas, you couldn’t really do that before because you didn’t have that much information. I dunno if that’s actually happening.

Megan Figueroa: Again, along with that access to information, I’m again reminded of people caring more about being right – “being right” – trying hard to be right about people’s names and caring that that’s a very personal part of someone. What are some of the biggest ways you would that there are to be assholes about names? What is it? Okay. We’ve talked about perhaps this is happening unconsciously – but seeing someone’s last name and thinking maybe they’re not as qualified or they’re more likely to have been arrested. That’s one asshole thing.

Laurel MacKenzie: Yeah. Snap social judgments about somebody’s character or personality or interests or even language abilities or anything based on their name.

Megan Figueroa: Ah! That feels very personal because – I’m at Verizon. I tell the person my name. Okay Gave them my last name. He was Mexican American. He’s like, “Oh, you’re Mexican too. You speak Spanish then?” It’s like, “No.”


Yeah. Also, of course, it’s not even without a foreign language, right? Or “foreign” – or another language. With black names, people can be assholes and assume that their English isn’t as good because we have these assumptions about African American English.

Laurel MacKenzie: Just like opinions and attitudes toward people seep into attitudes toward people’s language, the same thing happens with people’s names. There’s that aspect. There’s the aspect of perception of traits based on a name. Then, there’s also the production aspect. How do you pronounce somebody’s name when they ask you to pronounce it? I know you talked about this in the episode when you had Zack Jaggers on – former colleague of mine from NYU.

Megan Figueroa: Ya’ll are doing good stuff over there.

Laurel MacKenzie: I know! It’s a great place to be. There’s actually a poster down the hall from me on which Zach was the first author and other colleagues here at NYU were co-authors. It’s called, “What it Means When You Say My Name Right: Subjective Evaluations of the Linguistic Reproduction of Names.” Zach and his collaborators did an online study where listeners heard audio clips in which a conversation participant either accurately or inaccurately reproduced the other conversation participant’s name. One person says, “Hi, my name is Natalia.” And the other person either says, “Oh, hi, Natalia” or “Oh, hi, Natalie” or “Nataliea” or something very anglicized. Then, they asked subjects’ opinions of the person who repeated the name – “Do you think they’re working class or middle class? Do you think they’re likely to vote republican or conservative? Do you think they’re intelligent? Do you think they’re friendly?” – and so forth and had people rate them on a number of different metrics. Accurate reproductions of a name, whether it was either Anglo or not, were rated more sociable, more friendly, more polite, more cooperative. Listeners were more likely to wanna be friends with those people who accurately reproduce names. It’s the nice thing to do. Listen to people when they tell you how they say their name and do your best to reproduce it.

Carrie Gillon: Yes. Do your best. Some are easier than others. “Natalia” is not that hard for an English speaker. There’re other names that are harder.

Laurel MacKenzie: I mean, in my experience, people are reasonable. They understand that their name has a sound in it that is hard for English speakers and they will often give you an alternative. “If you can’t say the /ɖə/ say it like a /də/, but please don’t say it like a /ɹə/.”

Carrie Gillon: Right. Exactly.

Laurel MacKenzie: I find, even from my own experience with a name that is not phonologically difficult to other people, they often just seem to listen to the first part when I say my name and tune out the rest of it, so I just say, “Hi, I’m Laurel” – “Oh, hi, Lauren,” as if they had just stopped listening after the first syllable.

Carrie Gillon: That’s what’s happening with me too! I didn’t realize that. I actually thought it was just I was pronouncing it funny or I wasn’t being clear enough. But, no, they’re not paying attention.

Laurel MacKenzie: I wonder if that’s part of it.

Megan Figueroa: I gotta say though that I get really anxious when I meet people for the first time – it’s getting better with age – that I can see tuning out on the second half of a name, or just not even getting the name the first time.

Carrie Gillon: Well, I’ve definitely said the name wrong to someone because I’ve misheard it. I mean, that happens. As long as they correct you and you go, “Oh, sorry.”

Megan Figueroa: But it’s a pattern for you both. I totally get it.

Carrie Gillon: I don’t really care. If it’s a person that I’m gonna talk to more than once in my life, I want them to get my name right. If it’s a Starbucks person, I don’t care.

Megan Figueroa: Although, some of the Starbucks people care so much. You know why though, and it makes me sad? It’s probably because they get so much shit from people.

Carrie Gillon: They do get a lot of shit. That’s why I don’t want to be an asshole by them because like, “Eh, it’s fine. ‘Karen’ is fine.”

Laurel MacKenzie: But they could also just call out order numbers. Do they really need to do names?

Carrie Gillon: This is a corporate decision, right, because they wanna humanize –

Laurel MacKenzie: Yes. It’s not the barista’s fault, sure.

Megan Figueroa: I dunno if it’s true elsewhere or what the major company is for Safeway. I know that fries is Kroger, but Safeway here in Arizona, they have a company policy where they say the last name on the person’s card. And I’m like, “Ugh! That’s so stressful for me.” Every time. Especially when I’m with my dad who says it always with the Spanish pronunciation. Then, I remember as a kid, he would say that, and they wouldn’t understand, and it was one of those awkward moments, and I just hated it. At a certain point, he had decided that he didn’t care. He was gonna do it no matter what. I’m at that point too where I can see why, when you get to that point, it’s freeing, but as a kid, I was like, “Oh, we’re having one of those moments again.”

Laurel MacKenzie: See, that policy is extra problematic because you need a title in addition to the last name, right? Then, I get, “Thanks, Miss MacKenzie,” and it’s like, “Ugh.”

Carrie Gillon: Yeah. Same. I also have a problem with my last name. So, “Gillon” is just like “Dillon” but, for some reason, everyone wants to pronounce it /gɪliən/. Again, I don’t really care if it’s someone I don’t know but, if we’re gonna know each other for more than one interaction, it – yeah.

Laurel MacKenzie: Actually, Carrie, with your last name, I have the /gɪf/d͡ʒɪf/ problem. I wasn’t sure whether you were /gɪlən/ or /d͡ʒɪlən/.

Megan Figueroa: But not /d͡ʒɪliən/, right?

Laurel MacKenzie: No. That one I could tell. There wasn’t another I in there. This just goes to show that, I mean, yes, there can be idiosyncratic pronunciations. You don’t know whether someone says their name with the French pronunciation or the English pronunciation. It’s like, just ask! Ask people how to pronounce their names. Just two days ago, we got an email from NYU saying, “We have now made it possible for students to enter their name pronunciations into the student system.”

Carrie Gillon: Perfect. But that should’ve been earlier.

Laurel MacKenzie: It should’ve been earlier. And I won’t be entirely happy until everybody knows IPA, and then they can actually enter it in IPA because, I mean, it’s great to get pronunciations, but if they’re not in IPA, I’m not gonna be able – will I really know how to say them?

Carrie Gillon: I totally get it. I mean, especially if it’s not English. You’re like, “Hmm.”

Laurel MacKenzie: “That makes sense to you but” – yeah.

Carrie Gillon: We have the same problem. We say, “If you want us to pronounce your name correctly, can you please give us” – like, if it’s not obvious from the spelling – “Can you give us a pronunciation guide?” A lot of people don’t know the IPA, so they’re like, “Oh, I’m so sorry.” And I’m like, “You shouldn’t apologize, but also, I don’t know!” My best guess. I do my best guess.

Megan Figueroa: I know. I get so nervous pronouncing people’s names on this podcast, even when I ask them before. Then, we start recording and I’m like, “This is so important.” I’ve gotten better but it’s like – because interviewing gets easier, everything gets easier, but the name just feels so heavy and important still. It’s the one thing – okay. We’re gonna respect this in the most perfect pronunciation that I can possibly do. I dunno. It’s great to talk about names. I could talk all day about names. I’m just realizing how many stories I have about my name. And I know that everyone has tons of stories about their name. Some of them happy, some of them quite discriminatory. There’s all these things.

Laurel MacKenzie: It’s this funny thing that we didn’t choose our names, and yet we’re basically stuck with them unless we wanna jump through a fair amount of hoops.

Megan Figueroa: That’s a good point too though. We should really make it easier for people to legally change their name.

Carrie Gillon: I know. It’s such a mess. Considering that for a long, long time – and women are still doing it – women were expected to change their last names. We still make it very hard for women to do that, all things considered, that that was the norm for so long. It still is, technically.

Megan Figueroa: The money involved – I remember my friend changed their name and it was like – we all had a little get together party for it because it was a big deal because not only is it legally hard but they had to get money for it and there was some fundraising involved. It shouldn’t cost emotionally and financially like it does.

Carrie Gillon: It also has implications for voting later because every time the republicans make it harder to vote, often it affects anyone who’s changed their name.

Megan Figueroa: Yeah. Because of the IDs they have, you mean? They won’t match?

Carrie Gillon: Mm-hmm.

Megan Figueroa: Well, universities are getting a lot better, at least. I can say that working at the University of Arizona. It’s much easier to put which name you would like to have on your ID that will show up with the professors or any of your TAs. They’ll see that name.

Carrie Gillon: That’s good. That’s very good.

Megan Figueroa: It’s a small thing to do, but it’s big because you actually realize how –

Carrie Gillon: Important it was.

Megan Figueroa: – hard it was. Yeah. How important it was – or “is.” Are there any other big ways that – well, okay, here’s the opposite question. How can we not be assholes? You said just be kind and ask people how to pronounce their name. Are there any other advice you have?

Laurel MacKenzie: Don’t make snap judgements by names. Call people what they wanna be called and how they want to be called it – how they want it pronounced. Yeah. I think that pretty much sums it up with names.

Megan Figueroa: It sounds so simple. It could be if we wanted it to, right?

Laurel MacKenzie: Right. Why is it hard?

Carrie Gillon: I mean, I think it’s mostly simple as long as people don’t wanna be assholes. It’s just we get anxious when we don’t know how to pronounce a name. That’s the only thing that makes it kind of emotionally hard, and we should recognize that, but other than that, I think, it’s very easy.

Megan Figueroa: As someone who is an anxious person, I totally get it.

Carrie Gillon: Me too!

Megan Figueroa: Yeah, yeah. Gotta be some room to forgive yourself for it because it’s harder when you make a big deal about it after, right? You don’t wanna make the person uncomfortable by being like, “I’m so sorry. I’m the worst.”

Carrie Gillon: Right. Just remember with Kirby’s episode when we talked about using the wrong pronouns, don’t go like, “Oh my god! I’m so sorry.” Just be like, “Oh, sorry.”

Megan Figueroa: Then, we move on. Make the change.

Laurel MacKenzie: I mean, name spelling is also something that is very variable. There’s “Elisabeth”s with an S, and with a Z, and that’s another thing where, make a good faith effort to get it right, but it’s not the end of the world. As a MacKenzie who has an A in the last name, I get “McKenzie” without an A a lot and – correct it and you move on.

Megan Figueroa: Except, if you spell “Meghan” with an H, I will kill you. Just kidding. [Laughter]

Laurel MacKenzie: I’m gonna send you a box full of Megan-with-an-H coffee mugs. [Laughter]

Megan Figueroa: Are you gonna do it with a sharpie and take the H out? Just put an X through it?

Laurel MacKenzie: Yes. All I could find. Hope it was good enough. [Laughter]

Carrie Gillon: Well, this has been so fun. Thank you so much for coming to talk to us. Laurel MacKenzie: This has been great. My pleasure.

Megan Figueroa: Well, shall we say, “Don’t be an asshole”? Carrie Gillon: Don’t be an asshole!

Laurel MacKenzie: Don’t be an asshole.


Carrie Gillon: As of right now, we have two patrons to thank for this month. I’d like to thank Jamar Brown and Shelby Greenwood.

Megan Figueroa: Thank you so much.

Carrie Gillon: Yes. Thank you.

Megan Figueroa: I love all of you so much.

Carrie Gillon: heart eyes motherfucker! [Laughter] If you wanna join us on Patreon, you can, at patreon.com/vocalfriespod. We do bonus episodes for the $5.00 level. Everyone from the $3.00 level and $5.00 level gets stickers!

Carrie Gillon: The Vocal Fries Podcast is produced by me, Carrie Gillon, for Halftone Audio, them music by Nick Granum. You can find us on Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram @vocalfriespod. You can email us at vocalfriespod@gmail.com, and our website is vocalfriespod.com.

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