The 2018 Name of the Year is BBQ Becky

Dec 22nd 2018

It all started with a spring picnic. In April, two African-American men fired up a grill for a cookout in an Oakland, California park. A white woman who was passing by objected to their grilling in that location, demanded that they leave, and ultimately called the police on their picnic. A video of the incident went viral, and on the internet the woman was dubbed "BBQ Becky."

The derisive nickname quickly became a template. Throughout the year, more white women who called the police on their black neighbors for seemingly trivial reasons were tagged with copycat labels like "Permit Patty" and "Golfcart Gail." The nicknames, and the way they were used, touched a range of pressure points in American society: prejudice and privilege, race and gender, civility and name-calling, social media and shaming. That makes BBQ Becky the 2018 Name of the Year.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Roots of a Name Phenomenon

The actual "BBQ Becky" was not named Becky. Social media commenters leapt in with that name because it was an established derisive term for a white woman in a black context. In prior usage, the name had typically signaled a generic young white woman with a blinkered worldview who was free with sexual favors. [Read more about the term "Becky."] While that precise image didn't fit the woman in the barbecue incident, it's the reason the nickname stuck so easily.

The fact that Becky is a diminutive—a pet form of a name, suggesting youth or smallness—made it especially potent as a put-down. While diminutives come across as affectionate in a friendly context, in unfriendly usage they sound inherently belittling. Combining the racial reference and the diminutive with the irresistible appeal of alliteration made the name BBQ Becky memorable, sharable, and above all, replicable.

As it turned out, opportunities to replicate the form came fast and furious. Back in the 1990s, the prevalence of racial profiling in traffic stops led to the phrase "Driving While Black," a play on actual offenses like "Driving While Intoxicated." In 2018, a rash of incidents between private citizens saw the phrase evolve into "Living While Black." Among the moments captured on viral video:

• A white woman called the police on an eight-year-old black girl for selling water, lemonade-stand style, without a permit
• A white woman threatened to call the police on a black teenager because he "didn't belong" swimming at a community pool
• A white woman called the police to report two black women who were waiting for a tow truck in front of their apartment building
• A white woman called the police on a nine-year-old black boy, falsely accusing him of groping her at a corner grocery store
• A white woman called the police about a black father who was shouting advice and encouragement to his son during a soccer game

Thanks to the model of BBQ Becky, these women were quickly dubbed Permit Patty, Pool Patrol Paula, South Park Susan, Cornerstore Caroline, and Golf Cart Gail.

The Impact of a Nickname

The coordinating nicknames highlighted the links among the incidents, making the cultural pattern clear. They also provided a shorthand form of reference which helped encourage the creation of mocking memes. All of this gave the core stories traction, raising awareness of the pervasiveness of everyday racism.

The use of belittling nicknames also subtly turned the tables on the power dynamics of racial tensions. Applying a diminutive to someone of another race, such as calling an African-American man "boy," has always been an instrument of subjugation. Conversely, real names have been instruments of power, as in the "say his name" chants for black victims of police violence. Tagging white instigators with mocking nicknames symbolically stripped them of their assumed privilege and power.

Yet the BBQ Becky names raised concerns as well. Reducing incidents of racial profiling to memes can numb us to their seriousness, rendering them merely ridiculous rather than frightening. What's more, referring to a confrontation by a nickname for the instigator frames the problem in terms of individuals, rather than something more systematic. "Pool Patrol Paula" sounds like just some annoying neighbor who is a little too picky about rules for free swim time, not a symptom of a hostile culture.

The uniform labels also reduce all the incidents to equivalence, masking the severity of individual events. Some of the instigators were belligerent and used hate speech, showcasing the increasing boldness of prejudice in 2018. And from the cute nickname, you would never guess that "Pool Patrol Paula" physically assaulted the boy at the pool.

More broadly, these viral stories of racial profiling are just one corner of a media culture in which public shaming and taunting put-downs are becoming ever more mainstream. We've seen the benefits of sharing cell phone videos as a crucial new tool of justice, illuminating events that would previously have remained in the shadows. But when a national news story can instantaneously erupt from a few seconds of video circulated by one side of a conflict, injustice can also be done. There is no way to recover the privacy and reputation lost by a viral video. We might also question the growing use of schoolyard-style insults by adults, even in serious settings. Taking down a target with public taunts rather than substantive criticism can amount to a "trial by nickname" which requires no due process.

Then there's the fact that all of the nicknamed instigators I listed were women. The year was equally packed with examples of white men confronting their black neighbors for questionable cause, but few of those men were tarred with similar nicknames. Once BBQ Becky was christened, the face of everyday racism was officially rendered female.

This gender disparity echoes another theme of the year, which saw outsized anger at white women (including voters and lawmakers) for behavior and choices that were at least as common, but less remarked on, among men. The outrage often appeared to reflect elevated expectations. Society expected women to be compassionate and nurturing, and to empathize with the experience of unequal treatment. Failing to meet these high targets made for a long and painful fall, with disproportionate outrage. Meanwhile, expectations for men to show compassion and civility seemed to be in decline. After the death of President George H. W. Bush in November, tributes lauded his decency and dignity as if they were superhuman achievements.

The BBQ Becky nicknames are complicated symbols, shining light on a disturbing pattern of antagonism in an antagonistic manner. They're also a reminder of the power that names and nicknames yield in public discourse. May we use them thoughtfully in the year to come.


Special thanks to readers jguliap, Holey and lucindajane for their nominations and thoughtful observations on BBQ Becky. And special apologies to all of the fine, blameless women actually named Becky.


Read More: 3 Names that Mattered in 2018


3 Names that Mattered in 2018

Dec 19th 2018

Names change with the times, reflect the times, and help shape the times. These three names all helped define the times of 2018.

Photo: Getty Images

Abcde. In November, an outraged mother accused a Southwest Airlines gate agent of publicly "name shaming" her five-year-old daughter. Seeing the girl's unconventional name, the agent laughed and pointed and commented loudly to other employees. Most shockingly, the agent took a photo of the young girl's boarding pass and posted it to social media. The incident became a viral sensation, focused on the name itself: Abcde.

The alphabetic name Abcde (AB-si-dee) is a rare choice, given to an average of just 20 American girls each year over the past two decades. Yet it holds an outsized role in our national name discussion. Long before the viral airport squabble, I was fielding curious, puzzled, derisive and skeptical questions about the name. Presciently, eight years ago our Name Lady advice column used Abcde as an example of why we need a new etiquette to match the new generation of names. The recent incident drives that point home.

The story of Abcde is important because it's just the tip of the iceberg. We live in a creative naming era. There is no longer such a thing as a "normal" name, and going forward we're all going to meet a steady stream of people with names that surprise or downright amuse us. We have to be polite about it, because ridiculing a person's name is ridiculing the person. We need to have courteous responses prepared and ready: "Oh, what an interesting name! Would you mind spelling that again for me?" That way we won't be tempted into publicly insulting a stranger, let alone a child.

On the other side of the etiquette equation, the growing ranks of parents who choose highly unconventional names have to learn not to expect conventional reactions. A name like Abcde is deliberately eye-catching and playful, tweaking our expectations about names and language. While flat-out rudeness is never ok, honest surprise, confusion and mistakes are inevitable. Prepare cheerful, disarming replies—and make sure to arm your child with them, too.

Beto merchandise. Image:

Beto. In the much-watched Texas senatorial race, both candidates ran exclusively under their nicknames. That's hardly surprising in itself. Nicknames are everywhere in politics. The twist is that this contest pitted a Hispanic man with an Anglo nickname against an Anglo man with a Hispanic nickname: Senator Rafael Edward "Ted" Cruz vs. Representative Robert Francis "Beto" O'Rourke.

In Texas, with its very large Hispanic population, cultural identity became a significant issue in the race. The O'Rourke campaign proposed that the candidates debate in Spanish, thus highlighting the fact that O'Rourke is fluent in the language while Cruz is not. The Cruz campaign ran ads deriding O'Rourke for running as Beto (a Spanish pet form of Roberto) rather than his "real" name, implying that his use of the Spanish nickname was phony or pandering. O'Rourke's campaign responded with a photo of him as a small child in a sweater with "BETO" sewn across the front, to establish the nickname's authenticity.

Beyond the question of ethnicity, the name Beto turns standard political nicknaming on its head. Politicians rely on the familiarity of common nicknames to make them sound likeable and down-to-earth. The "All-American nice guy nicknames" in particular rule the political arena. Congress currently boasts 15 Toms but just one Thomas; 5 Tims but no Timothys. O'Rourke's campaign, though, embraced the less conventional nickname Beto as its calling card. Yard signs and bumper stickers referred to him by first name only, banking on the contrast with standard political nicknames to make an impact. Just the fact of "Beto" neatly suggested that their candidate was a change from Washington business as usual.


Stormi and Stormy. Images: instagram/kylie jenner, Reuters

Stormy/Stormi. 2018 brought a perfect "storm" of publicity to this pair of names. All-purpose celebrity Kylie Jenner and rapper Travis Scott welcomed a daughter named Stormi in February, shining a new spotlight on a name that peaked in popularity before Ms. Jenner was born. Meanwhile, adult entertainer Stormy Daniels was steadily in the news, as it was determined that she was paid illegal hush money during the 2016 presidential campaign to keep quiet about an alleged affair with then-candidate Donald Trump.

In the case of Ms. Daniels, Stormy is a stage name, and a classic one. Word-based names are popular among adult entertainers to help establish the fantasy they're selling. "Stormy" suggests wildness, which pairs neatly with the surname she reportedly borrowed from Jack Daniels whiskey.

What does all of this mean for the baby names Stormi and Stormy? The Jenner-Kardashian clan has shown its clout in the baby name arena, helping to spur the popularity of names like Mason and Khloe. But in this generation, baby names and politics don't mix. Most parents will want to steer wide of the Stormy Daniels saga. It will be interesting to see whether the small difference in spelling is enough to keep Stormi in the clear.


Harlow, Shiloh, Beau and All the Hidden-O Names

Dec 13th 2018

Oh, those hidden o's. They're the special ingredient in hot names from Margot to Willow to Pharaoh. End a name in the sound "o," but not the letter o, and you have a recipe for high style.

The final o may be cloaked by a silent letter, as in Harlow and Shiloh, or an alternate spelling may lead to a similar sound, as in Beau. The effect of the spelling is subtle, but it shapes the name's impact. Think of how different Harlow and Arlo feel, despite being just a breath apart in pronunciation.

I first talked about hidden o's when they started rising in girls' names. Parents loved the unconventional sound for girls, and the fact that spelling set them apart from the many boys' names ending in o. That trend is still growing. Seven different hidden-o names now rank among America's top-1000 names for girls, vs. zero with the final letter o. But the style is catching on for boys, too. You'll find it lending an edge to new, adventurous choices like Arrow, and making throwbacks like Roscoe intriguing again.

Even with their rise, the hidden-o names still sound fresh and have plenty of potential ahead. So far, only Willow has broken through to become a major hit name for either sex. See the potential for yourself in these 37 options, from the familiar to the fanciful.


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