Posted by: jt | December 29, 2008


George Bernard Shaw can kiss my ass.

I like names. I like learning their origins; that they having meaning; that you can impart meaning to them; that you can create deeper meanings with combinations and initials. I have a general love of words and language, and the additional dimension of attaching a personality to a word only adds to my fascination – I like names.

Saddled with the most common of first names and an unpronounceable last name (it’s phonetic, fools!), it’s little wonder that I spent hours of my childhood pouring over names. Since my first name is, literally, the most common name given to baby girls in the U.S. from 1970-1984, perhaps I’m not sacrificing much in terms of anonymity if I tell you that it’s Jennifer.

Really, it’s something of a karmic joke that a girl who will read books of names as voraciously as if they were trashy magazines got stuck with “Jennifer.”

Growing up, there was always at least one other Jennifer in my class and freshman biology won the prize for wretchedness: in a class of 25, there were 5 Jennifers. Just like it’s illegal to scream, Fire! in a crowded theater, I think that shouting, Jennifer! in a public space should be equally taboo. In high school, my friends learned that, if you wanted me to turn around in a crowded hallway, you had to use my last name. The odds were just too good that a cry for Jenny was not for me.

I’m convinced that, if your name is Jennifer and you care what people call you, you will spend your life pissed off. From an early age, I was fairly apathetic toward nicknames. My teachers all called me Jenny, due to my own laziness – “Jennifer” is just far too long for a first grader to write on every worksheet. Like most Jennifers, I experimented with spellings. Third grade saw a new variation almost daily as I tried on different personas. Today, was I Jenny, Jenni, Jennie, Jeni, Jeny, Jenne, Jenifer, Jennefer or Jennafer? (My teacher must have been highly amused or annoyed – we’ll hope for amused.)

In my travels (oh, my dramatic holiday travels) this past week, I made quite a few single-serving friends. My travel conversations tend to work backwards – I lead off with the content and, if I decide I’m willing to engage in dialogue, it’s much later, often only at the very end of a conversation, that I actually introduce myself. On three separate occasions in the last week, I introduced myself after three, four and five hours of on-and-off conversation, only to be met with some variation of, So, do you go by Jen or…you don’t seem like a…

And I laughed.

Much as I don’t care, I’m not a Jenny. I’m so not a Jenny.

I said as much and they all agreed. These days, I’m usually Jennifer, Jen or JT. I actually think JT suits me best and, when meeting someone new and pressed (I suppose it is polite to provide an answer), that’s what I’m likely to suggest.

For the record, I was JT before Justin Timberlake, thank you very much. Because it’s a competition.

The irony is that, while I’m so obviously not a Jenny, that’s what all of my closest friends all call me. (And y’all aren’t allowed to change. That’s weird.) It’s simply a question of timing. If you met me pre-work era (and are not my mother), you call me Jenny. If you met me via people who knew me pre-work era, you call me Jenny. If English is not your first language, odds are, you call me Jenny.

I have nothing against Jennifer and her many variations. When I actually listen to the name, aesthetically, I find it rather pretty. When my super-hot German professor declared it to be his favorite name repeated it again and again and again with his adorable trace of an accent, I had to agree that it’s a beautiful name. After I wiped the drool off my chin. Plus, given the apparent complexity of my surname (again, it’s totally phonetic, fools), it’s nice to pair it with something fairly foolproof.

But still, George Bernard Shaw can kiss my ass, and not just because of his highly questionable taste. (Not only did the man extol the brilliance of Stalin, he was a hardcore Wagnerite at the expense of Brahms. Come on!)

Prior to the 1900s, it was extremely rare to find a Jennifer outside of Cornwall. Then came George Bernard Shaw and The Doctor’s Dilemma, a seemingly innocuous play in which the female protagonist is named, of course, Jennifer. After its publication in 1906, we see a steady climb in the popularity of my name, with a (ahem) dramatic increase after the play was made into a film in 1958. By the time Love Story came along in 1970, with its Jenny dying of cancer and all the where do I begin / love means never having to say you’re sorry schmoopiness, “Jennifer” was already topping the list of popular names for American girls. Love Story just helped keep us on top – and annoyed – for another fourteen years.

It seems to take about a decade for a name to transition from relative anonymity to the top ten via pop culture. My favorite example is Madison, which was virtually nonexistent as a name prior to Darryl Hannah crawling out of the ocean and christening herself thusly in Splash in 1984. By 1995, Madison was the 29th most popular name for girls in the U.S. and two years later it hit the top ten – where it’s remained ever since – despite Tom Hanks’ protests that, Madison isn’t a name!

Mostly true, Tom. It wasn’t a girl’s name – at the time. It is now. That’s all well and good.  Personally, I get a bit of a kick out of all these parents naming their little baby girls after a mermaid called the Son of Maud.


Alternative cheesy title: “talkin’ ’bout my jenny-ration”



  1. So are you saying you want me to stop calling you Jenny?

    (And, I’m glad you didn’t go w/ the alternate cheesy title.)

  2. Never.

    Like I said, it’s weird when people switch, or try to. My sister – completely of her own volition – keeps trying to remember to call me Jennifer, because apparently I’m a grown-up now. It’s just awkward – even more so that she pressures my brother-in-law into calling me Jennifer. Poor guy actually asked me if I minded being called Jenny.

    I don’t. Not at all.

    Like I said, the people who are closest to me all call me Jenny. Even though it’s essentially by chance, it still has that connotation for me. When I was back in Minnesota for the campaign it was oddly comforting to hear it again – almost like one more thing to come home to…that I hadn’t even realized I missed…on some levels.

    And, I like the alternate cheesy title. :-) I almost went with it. There are scores of pages out there on life as a Jennifer. There is this crazy generation of people with issues surrounding their name…and how it’s never really your own, since you always have to share.

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