Jordan, Ryan . . The Boys at the Back of the Bac

July 26, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

The birth mother in the novel I’m reading (The Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore) has named her child Mary. The adoptive parents promise to keep the name. But for them, the name Mary will not do. They call the child Emmie. They added Emma to Mary to get Mary-Emma, which became M.E., which became Emmie.

The difference in names reflects the social difference. The birth mother is from a small town in Wisconsin.  A foster parent who cared briefly for the child describes her as “not the sharpest tool in the shed.” The adoptive parents live in the university town (presumably patterned after Madison). The mother runs an expensive French restaurant (“Le Petit Moulin served things that sounded like instruments — timbales and quenelles . . .”) Her husband is a scientist. So baby Mary becomes Emmie. The Emmies of the world will have richer childhoods than the Marys. They will do better in school. They will have brighter futures.

The name-class connection is even stronger in France, as I’ve learned from Baptiste Coulmont. Each year, he blogs a graph showing the percentages of students who receive a très bien on the bac, a national test taken by all high school students.* Here are the results for 2019.

(Click for a larger view. The original is on Coulmont’s blog.)

Once again, girls do better than boys, and once again it’s the same girls — Alice and Diane, Louise and Adèle — who score très bien at a rate of roughly 20% or more. And each year, among the boys with Anglo names — Bryan, Ryan, Jordan, Dylan — less than one in twenty rate top honors. William does not do as well as his French counterpart Guillaume.

Here is just the left side of the graph, where the boys with the American names hang out.

The point, as M. Coulmont noted out in a comment when I blogged the 2016 bac, is the “cultural autonomy” of the French working class. In the US and probably elsewhere, fashions in names, like fashions in clothes, filter down through the class system. I remember that the names my upper-middle class, Upper West Side friends were choosing for their kids in the late 80s and early 90s — names like Oliver and Sophia, Noah and Olivia — were unusual at the time but became widely popular twenty years later.

But in France starting in the late twentieth century, the working class looked not upwards in the social system but outside of it, outside of the country entirely. They looked to the US as represented in TV shows and there found Jordan, Ryan, and the others.

* All this assumes a strong correlation between social class and performance on the bac and other school measures. I’m not familiar with research on this topic in France, but I would guess that the correlation is as strong as it is in the US.

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