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Jewish World Review Feb. 25, 2002 / 13 Adar, 5762

Bob Greene

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Consumer Reports

Mary, this is Heather;
Tyler, this is Bill -- YOU out there, Mary?

How about you, Tom? Bill? Chuck? Frank? Jim?


Apparently not.

And therein lies a tale.

The Social Security Administration keeps a list -- has for a long, long time -- of the most popular names for babies who are born each year. The babies grow up, and become the people you see on the street. Thus, the government has the official word on what we call ourselves -- what our names are.

All the ones you read at the beginning of today's column are gone, gone, gone. They were once the classic American names. Now? None of them even cracks the list. There's a story here -- not one that makes the front pages, but a smaller story of who we are.

Let's start in 1880. The top 10 names for newborn males that year were names that would end up passing the test of time -- until recently. In order, starting with the most popular name, the boys of 1880 were John, William, Charles, George, James, Joseph, Frank, Henry, Thomas, and Harry.

The most popular name for a newborn girl that year was Mary (more on her in a moment). Then you had Anna, Elizabeth, Margaret, Minnie, Emma, Martha, Alice, Marie, and a tie between Annie and Sarah.

Mary was the champion -- the name of names. No matter how much the styles in names changed over the generations, Mary was always on top. She was No. 1 in 1880, in 1904, in 1916, in 1928, in 1934, in 1940, in 1946. . . .

You couldn't beat her.

Now she's gone.

Similarly, John and Bill (William) and Chuck (Charles) and Robert always made the list, generation after generation. They were there in 1910, and in 1925, and in 1952. . . .

(Interestingly, a guy named Joe dropped on and off -- you wouldn't have thought that. Tom, too -- he had some off years. Who would have bet on that?)

But for the most part, the standard names were standard. Mary and Bill were your leaders in the clubhouse.

So what happened?

Heather happened.

And Kimberly, and Jennifer, and Michelle, and the powerhouse Lisa. Nicole happened. Crystal happened. Ashley happened, big.

And who were the men in their lives?

Christopher came around. Joshua made an appearance, and stayed. Matthew introduced himself, along with Zachary and Tyler. You know Brandon, don't you?

By 1994 Tom and Bill and Joe and Chuck were all long gone from the top 10 list. The aforementioned Zachary was hanging strong at No. 5. Yep -- Zack was No. 5, with Tom, Bill, Joe and Chuck -- not to mention Bob; he was so far gone he was no longer even an echo -- nowhere to be found.

(There is a side narrative here -- the sad story of Ralph. I know for a fact that Ralph had a melancholy rise and fall, for I have chronicled it before. Yet Ralph is largely absent from these lists, even in the years when he was robust, which makes me think something is fishy here. This will require further delving.)

Back to the main thrust, though -- where is Mary, where is Tom?

And if they were the classics for so many generations, are we at the cusp of a new classicism -- 50 and 100 years from now, will Samantha and Kayla be the Marys of their time? They had made the list by '97 -- Mary was missing in action.

And will the Bill and Joe of the United States in the years after all of us are long departed be Jacob and Austin? Austin, too, was on the list by '97 -- Tom wasn't. Bill wasn't. John wasn't. (As for Bob, don't even ask.)

What has happened here? Allow me to put it to you this way:

Mary has vanished -- but last year, Madison was No. 3. For girls.

Taylor was No. 9. For girls.

Those are very nice names; so is Emily, who was No. 1 last year, and Hannah, who was No. 2.

But for every winner there is a loser. Has been since the beginning of time.

Someone had to drop off.

Bill. Tom. Jim.

Bob, of course.

When you have time, we can talk about Jane.

And poor Mary. She was the best.

Maybe she ran off with Ralph. Someone sure did.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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