In a subterranean salon at the Marriott Marquis in Washington, D.C., the members of the American Name Society gathered for its biggest vote of the year on Friday. Each January, these experts and linguists nominate and vote on the name that has most proved the relevance and power of naming the year before. The year of 2015 gave them no lack of contenders to debate. But even among Charlie Hebdo, Denali and the new characters in the Star Wars universe, the title of Name of the Year went solidly to… Caitlyn Jenner.
“It’s really just symbolizing the power of naming and the identity that is connected with a name, and the relationship between the acceptance of a name and the acceptance of a person,” William and Mary law professor Laura Heymann said as she advocated for that choice before the vote.
First the assembled group, about 30 people this year, votes for winners in four categories: trade name, place name, personal name and fictional/literary name. Then those four winners become the nominees for the overall Name of the Year.
Trade name nominees included Google’s new parent company, Alphabet, as well as the popular podcast Serial, and Kickstarter, an older name that was advocated for as one that has become more widespread and even become a verb (much like Uber, which won the trade name category last year). But the emotional resonance of Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical newspaper that lost several staff members in a January 2015 shooting, made it an easy favorite, though a faction fought to anoint the hashtag #jesuischarlie instead.
“We should choose names that have social significance as well as just prominence,” one voter said. In the end, the only rival proved to be Airbnb, which came a distant second in a runoff, with about seven votes to Charlie Hebdo’s more than 20.
The sites of several terror attacks and terrible violence were nominated for the place name of the year. Syria. San Bernardino. Paris. But the president of the society, Iman Nick, won the crowd with her argument for Denali, which is now the name of the tallest mountain in America. This past summer Obama restored that indigenous name, displacing Mt. McKinley and causing uproar among Republicans who felt the former president was being treated with disrespect.
Nick said she received emails from people all over the United States asking whether the society had a position on the controversial decision. This, she said, was proof that the place name itself—rather than events that happened to occur in a place with a certain name—was more powerful in showing how much names mean to people. “It’s about the issues of name-changing,” she said, “and the rights of indigenous people.” Denali took the category roughly 25 to 1, with a single vote going to Paris.
For a time, it seemed like Donald Trump might win for personal name of the year. “The name has certainly captured national (and international) attention in the media and popular culture,” the anonymous nominator wrote along with their submission, “and has evoked a plethora of emotions and reactions, both positive and negative, from politicians, pundits and the populace at large.”
But some members of the society threatened to move to Canada if their society picked Trump’s name for any accolade. Another said she resented the very air that he breathes. “I would like to argue against Trump,” said one member, “because I don’t want him to win anything.”
But it was less animus than the broad appeal of acceptance that ignited support for Caitlyn Jenner. Many members noted how quickly American outlets had adopted that name, while outlets in other countries continue to “dead name” Jenner, by using the name the athlete formerly went by. “It’s gotten people to finally be able to talk about transgender issues simply from discussing a name change,” said one member.
The most serious challenger to Jenner was Cecil, the name of the most famous lion in the world, who was killed on a hunting trip by a Minnesota dentist in 2015, igniting firestorms about animal rights, hunters’ rights and when and why the West pays attention to what’s going on in Africa. The fact that the lion had a name gave him much more influence as a symbol, advocates argued, showing the strength a name has to humanize and mobilize political factions. But Cecil only garnered a third of the votes that Caitlyn Jenner did.
The final category was for fictional/literary names. And in the monikers of the new Star Wars heroes—Rey, Finn and Poe—the society saw important cultural change and lesson about humanity. (They were not just advanced because, like most humans alive today, many people in the room were fans.)
Finn, the storm trooper who defects to the light side, got his name from a serial number that was the only title he had known before leaving the grasp of the dark side. And the act of him being given a name was a critical turning point in his shedding the faceless, unquestioning life that FN-2187 had been forced to live. “For the first time, he feels like he has an identity,” one member said.
Rey is the name of the strongest female protagonist that the franchise has ever known. And though the appellation is fashioned like a more typical male name (single syllable, ending in a consonant rather than a vowel like “a”), her female presence was historic and the name she was given felt strong. Her absence among certain merchandise also inspired a viral hashtag built on her name: #whereisrey. Poe, advocates argued, was another example of Star Wars embracing a more diverse universe. “For the first time we are seeing a very multi-cultural side of the Star Wars universe,” one woman argued. “Now we have these more sensitive and multi-faceted characters.”
Others said it’s only a matter of time before America sees the influence of these names on parents who will have little Reys and Finns and Poes running around. The crowd voted that all three should be treated as a single nominee, and names such as Atticus Finch gave the trio little competition.
Jenner won the overall title after arguments were made on behalf of every single nominee. But the act of her re-naming herself, which she celebrated in a naming ceremony on her series I Am Cait and which Vanity Fair used as its cover line (“Call me Caitlyn”) when she came out, seemed the most poignant sign of the times.
“Whether you like Caitlyn Jenner as a person or not,” said one voter, “this entire situation has brought the act of changing your name to the forefront in America.”
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