If you know someone named Barbara, then they’re probably at least 50 years old. Same goes for people named Deborah, Linda, Larry or Gary. Maybe you even have a parent or grandparent with one of these names.
Just like hairstyles and waistlines, names go in and out of fashion. And hairstyles, clothing choices and names can all act as signifiers that lead us toward some other level of meaning or interpretation.
For example, a style choice can point us to a specific era — teased hair plus giant shoulder pads equals ‘80s. Corduroy everything plus bell-bottoms so wide that they could hide a small child in them equals ‘70s.
And in 2018, Linda equals person who is most likely 50 or older. There was a generation of Lindas born in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s; before and after that generation, the name wasn’t very popular at all.
I was born in 1994 amid a generation of Nicks, near the crest of the Nicholas tsunami that swept across America for decades. Parents from Tustin to Tallahassee all decided they just had to have their own little baby Nicholas to go along with the tens of thousands of other baby Nicholases who were born the same year.
Most of these parents probably didn’t realize they had such mainstream taste in names. Well, maybe they didn’t realize it until their little Nick joined a daycare with two or three other Nicks. And then met some more Nicks in preschool, elementary school, middle school, high school and college. We’re everywhere! I couldn’t escape us if I tried!
I’m basically the millennial version of Linda, Barbara or Gary — because my name is so linked to a particular period of time (the early-‘80s through the mid-2000s, with extra emphasis on the ‘90s), it’s possible to approximate my age just by hearing or reading my name out of context.
A way to think about how we’re able to draw these kinds of conclusions is through semiotics, which is the study of signs. In this context, a sign is basically just anything that conveys meaning.
Sometimes there is only an arbitrary connection between the sign and the meaning that it signals. For example, the word “cat” is just three letters, c-a-t, that somehow symbolize a specific kind of four-legged mammal with whiskers and a long tail.
There is no real connection between the word “cat” and an actual cat, but when you read or hear this word, you know what it represents. Many words have these kinds of arbitrary connections to what they signal.
Other times, there is an actual connection between the sign and the meaning that it signals. The semiotician Charles Sanders Peirce calls this type of sign an “index,” a term that today is used as either a noun or a verb.
It’s not arbitrary to guess that a picture of someone with teased hair and giant shoulder pads dates back to the 1980s — these styles were extremely popular and widely available during that decade, so both styles serve as indexes.
Big shoulder pads and even bigger hair index the ‘80s because these signs have an actual connection to the ‘80s. Lots of people in the ‘80s got perms and Jheri curls and teased the shit out of their hair, then decided to pair their bodacious hair with some super rad shoulder pads. Totally bitchin’!
My name indexes my age as much as these fashion trends index the ‘80s. I’m the ‘90s Linda, the millennial Larry, appelatively tied to my generation and doomed to encounter fellow Nicks in my age bracket for the rest of my life.
But it could be a lot worse — some names index extremely specific and often negative meanings. To all the Beckys of the world: I’m sorry. Maybe consider going by Rebecca instead?