baby names

How ’80s Are the Names on Stranger Things?

Mike, Lucas, and Dustin. Photo: Netflix

Netflix’s Stranger Things has been receiving rave reviews for its artful reanimation (and occasional subversion) of ’80s pop-culture tropes. But one aspect of the show’s period detail deserves a closer look: the absolute perfection of its characters’ names. Stranger Things’ Hawkins, Indiana, counts among its residents a single mother named Joyce, best friends called Barb and Nance, and a teen bully named Troy — names that evoke the early ‘80s Midwest as solidly as the band Toto on the soundtrack does. In a TV landscape where shows don’t always do their naming homework, Stranger Things’ thoroughness is appreciated.

Exactly how ‘80s are these names? To find out, we checked Social Security Administration data to see. With the adult characters, it seems safe to assume that each character is about the same age as the actor playing them, which meant the parental generation would have been born around 1940. For the middle-schoolers, we used an assumed birth date of 1970. And since we don’t know which grade each of the high-schoolers are in, we just looked at the popularity of their names in the late ‘60s. 

Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder)
Joyce! In 1983, this would have been a mom-name among mom-names: Joyce was a top-20 baby name for girls between 1930 and 1947, peaking with 12,693 baby girls in 1938 — almost exactly when our Joyce would have been born.

Jim Hopper (David Harbour)
Can we call you James, chief? Good. James is one of those names that’s been so popular for so long that it’s practically never anachronistic. Heck, even Hamilton has a James. But it’s particularly fitting in this instance: James was the No. 1 most-popular name for boys from 1940 to 1952. (It only fell out of the top 10 in 1993, but has since returned.) There’s also the off chance that Mr. and Mrs. Hopper might have been super-casual parents who called their baby Jim, which was hovering in the lower reaches of the top 100 around 1940.

Karen Wheeler (Cara Buono)
Our Karen was born right in the middle of a rapid jump in the name’s popularity: In 1934, Karen was the 258th most popular girl’s name; by 1941, it was the 19th. (It stayed in the top 20 until 1972.) Could this be a sign that, like her children, Mrs. Wheeler was also born into a comfortable upper-middle-class household, attuned to the latest trends?

Lonnie Byers (Ross Partridge)
Basically no one’s named Lonnie anymore — the name dropped off the top 1,000 in 2002 — but it was a common-ish name for the first three-quarters of the 20th century. Stranger Things’ Lonnie seems to have been born in the late ‘30s, a slight down period, which seems fitting for this unpleasant dad.

Florence (Susan Shalhoub Larkin)
In the late teens, when our heroic office manager was likely born, Florence was the 14th-most-popular name for girls. By the early ‘80s, though, it was definitely an old-person name: It dropped out of the top 100 in 1940, and had left the top 1,000 entirely a few years before Stranger Things takes place.

Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard)
Throughout the turbulence of the post-war era, there was one thing that united every generation of Americans: They all really liked to call their sons Michael. It was the most popular boy’s name in the country from 1954 to 1998, (with the exception of 1960, when it fell all the way to No. 2). That may be about to change, though: Michael finally dropped out of the top 5 in 2011, and its rank has fallen slowly but steadily ever since. The nickname Mike was the 130th-most-popular boy’s name of 1970, but you have to assume the Wheelers went with the longer, more proper name.

Will Byers (Noah Schnapp)
Another name that’s almost impossible to be anachronistic. The Social Security bar graph on the popularity of the name William looks more like a wall: It’s consistently been a top-20 name all the way back to 1900; in 1970, it was the seventh-most-popular boy’s name.

Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo)
Our first slip up! Well, maybe not a slip up, just not a slam dunk. Dustin first appeared in the top-1,000 boy’s names in 1968, and in 1970, when our Dustin was probably born, it was only the 202nd-most-popular baby name. This may have been a case of the Duffer brothers getting their wires crossed: Dustin was a super-popular baby name during the period Stranger Things is set, peaking in 1985 with 10,436 births.

Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLaughlin)
Anther name that’s less period-appropriate than it might seem. Lucas was just starting to take off as a first name around 1970, after spending the ‘60s in the very bottom of the top 1,000. But since this name also doubles as a tribute to George Lucas, we’ll let it slide.

Troy (Peyton Wich)
This one is pretty spot-on for a middle-school bully: Troy peaked as a boy’s name in 1968, during its brief dip into the top 50 in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. It also got a tiny bump in the mid-2000s, which I am hoping and praying is because of High School Musical.

Carol (Chelsea Talmadge)
The name Carol peaked in 1941, then plateaued for 30 years. Like Barb and Nance, it was around the 50th-most-popular name for girls in the late ‘60s. (That’s much more popular than it was in the first decade of the 1900s, when Carol’s Carol was born.)

Holly Wheeler (Anniston and Tinsley Price)
Baby Holly is another instance of the Duffers doing their homework: The name Holly crested in popularity in the ‘70s and ‘80s, peaking in 1983, the exact year Stranger Things was set. Wheelers on trend again!

Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer)
Nancy was still a top-50 name in the late ‘60s, but it had dropped off considerably since its peak in 1950, when it was the sixth-most-popular girl’s name in the country. In other words, Nancy in the early ‘80s was more of a woman’s name than a girl’s — which fits our Nancy, who’s just a little bit smarter and more mature than her peers.

Barbara “Barb” Holland (Shannon Purser)
What we said about Nancy goes double for everyone’s new favorite TV character: Barbara was fairly popular in the late ‘60s, but not nearly as popular as it had been in late ‘30s and early ‘40s, when it was the second-most-popular name for baby girls. By 1983, Barb was edging into mom-name territory.

Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton)
Since I was born during its peak, Jonathan seems as normal to me as a name like Will or Mike, but it’s seen more fluctuation than either of those stalwarts. It peaked as a top-20 name throughout the ‘80s, but when our Jonathan was born it was hovering around No. 50, about where it is in 2016.

Steve Harrington (Joe Keery)
Steve Harrington — what a cool guy! And he’s got a cool-guy name, too: Steven was ranked in the teens throughout the late ‘60s, while Steve itself had just finished a nine-year run as a top-50 boy’s name.

Tommy H. (Chester Rushing)
Is he a Tommy or a Thomas? From his smirk, you’d guess he’s a Tommy. Demographically, though, he’s probably a Thomas, which was a top-10 name in the late ‘60s. (Tommy was around 120th.)

Dr. Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine)
If this creepy doctor is the same age as the actor playing him, he would have been born in the late 1920s, around the same time as that other famous Dr. Martin. (No, not him.) It was a mildly common name for the period, coming in at around No. 80. If you’re curious about the golden age of babies being named Martin, it was 1963, for reasons that are probably obvious.

Eleven (Millie Bobbie Brown)
Unsurprisingly, Eleven has never been a popular name for baby girls, and probably won’t be unless the U.S. becomes a dehumanizing dystopia that forbids all expressions of individuality. As for Mike’s psuedonym, Elle, it wasn’t a popular given name until recently — it only entered the top 1,000 in 2002 — but it was familiar as a nickname for Eleanor, as well as a fashion magazine. And in the ‘80s, sometimes those things combined! Good thinking, Mike.

How ’80s Are the Names on Stranger Things?