The intersection of identity, baby names and the outrage machine

Caleb Walsh illustration

Sometimes it's nice to take a break from raging against the various global calamities we face and aim the outrage machine at a random individual. In the waning days of November it was Traci Redford, of El Paso, Texas, who was openly mocked by a couple of Southwest Airlines ticketing agents at John Wayne International for naming her daughter Abcde.

click to enlarge Zach Hagadone
Zach Hagadone

Pronounced "ab-city," the 5-year-old girl was alternately pitied for her "stupid" name and being born at all to such a mother. (The outrage machine didn't exert much force against the father, who was jokingly referred to by many as "Lmnop.") Making matters worse, Redford had the nerve to be offended and demanded an apology, which the airline promptly proffered.

No matter, the consensus was outrage that anyone who would name their kid Abcde felt the right to be outraged. First, what did she think was going to happen with such a ludicrous name; and, second, of course she was outraged because everybody is outraged at everything these days and that's outrageous.

The story was perfect stimulus for the American amygdala, which lights up like a California wildfire whenever someone performs some low-stakes stupidity that allows us to freight their foible with whatever cultural, social or political beef we're ravenous to dine on.

I'll admit, my first reaction to this story was out of all proportion to the significance of the event. I was enraged at every aspect of the thing, and happily so.

Then I remembered a Boise Weekly editor's note I wrote in January 2015 referring to my then-newborn daughter, who my wife and I named Eleanor. No other such missive generated as much reader feedback. I received emails and handwritten letters thanking me for bestowing on my children — John and Eleanor — "normal" names. Shot through these grateful effusions was relief that I was upholding tradition. These were good Anglo-Saxon names uninfected by postmodern narcissism, multiculturalism or any other squishiness that might suggest I thought society should confront my children's uniqueness from the moment of introduction.

I was taken aback. My kids were recruited to serve in some epic cultural struggle to beat back a tide of silly names that represented silly people with silly ideas.

Names project social and economic class, ethnicity, regional identity and cultural power. According to research published 10 years ago in the Journal of Managerial Psychology, so-called "common" names were unsurprisingly more liked and thus more likely to be hired, and the study recommended that managers avoid this bias by leaving names off resumes during screening. Researchers went the extra step of suggesting that "when selecting, parents may want to reconsider choosing something distinctive."

Fair enough, a common criticism of "stupid" names is that it's impossible to imagine a President Jayden or Nevaeh — the most hated boy and girl names, respectively, according to a 2011 survey by Baby Name Wizard. Yet it certainly doesn't take too much historical memory to recall the thinly veiled racist hay that was made of President Barack Hussein Obama's name or the snide attempt to deflate Donald Trump's ego by referring to him by his German ancestors' spelling of the surname Drumpf.

Though 23 or so kids were named Abcde every year between 1990 and 2014, when Vocativ crunched the numbers, it's still an extreme outlier. The odds of a President Jayden or Nevaeh are slightly better, but still more likely to be overtaken by a Jacob or Michael or Emma or Emily, which most consistently ranked among the Social Security Administration's top five boy and girl names from the years 1995 to 2017.

Let's be honest, though: It doesn't matter except to the outrage machine, which gives us all a bad name. ♦

Zach Hagadone is a former co-publisher/owner of the Sandpoint Reader, former editor of Boise Weekly and a current grad student at Washington State University.