Greg Bruce asks what's in a name and doesn't like the answer
In the United States, where all culture is created, the name Greg climbed into the top 100 most popular names for the first time in 1945. It cracked the top 30 five years later and there it stayed for more than 20 years. By the time I was born, in 1976, it had slipped to number 35, the beginning of the gentle slide that would greatly accelerate through the 1990s and beyond until, by the turn of the millennium, it was no longer in the top 100. By 2018 it was not even in the top 400.
Greg, it is clear, is a name that is no longer cool. That's fine, these things happen and once you reach your 40s, cool is no longer any use to you anyway - but recently something much more unpleasant than a loss of coolness has started happening to this once-much loved name.
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I first noticed it in the hit HBO series Succession , with the appearance of the extraordinarily tall, dorky, grasping, hapless, morally confused, shambolic young cousin character. My wife had a little laugh about it - "Haha, Greg's a loser" - and that was all fine, maritally speaking, because I'm pretty sure she was talking about the character, but then I started seeing dropkick Gregs everywhere.
In Netflix's hit animated sex comedy Big Mouth, Greg is a loser, stoner dad, relegated to the basement of the family home; in the movie The Disaster Artist, Greg is a naive and unwitting (but very attractive) wingman on one of the world's worst film projects; in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Greg is an alcoholic, directionless cynic, competing and failing to win the love of the main character; in one of my 2-year-old's favourite shows, PJ Masks, Greg doesn't like speaking in front of people and is wracked with self-doubt; on one of the world's most popular podcasts Armchair Expert, host Dax Shepard uses the name "Greg" as a byword for annoying asshole.
Just the other day, my wife sent me a screenshot from the book she was reading, Dolly Alderton's 2018 bestseller, Everything I Know About Love, in which two people were making fun of the idea that being "appropriate" might be an attractive quality in a partner. Obviously, they needed a name for this hypothetical sexual failure:
"Oooh, that Greg," he said in a lustful voice. "He turns me on, he's so f***ing appropriate."
At this point, you might want to argue confirmation bias is in play but I can confirm it isn't. I can see it happening, in real time, literally before my eyes: "Greg" is becoming another Karen or Sharon, a name used to denote a very particular collection of negative qualities, a permanent joke. As if life isn't already hard enough for me with my red hair and glasses and embarrassingly chiselled torso.
As my name continues to gather around it an abundance of apparently laughable qualities, I can't help but wonder when they'll start sticking to me. Perception is reality and I can feel myself being perceived.
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The truth is that the name, even during the long years of its popularity, was perfectly positioned for ridicule. Think of all the cool Gregs in history. Don't worry, I've already done it. There are two - Louganis and Norman - and one of them was a professional golfer. Greg Inglis is a rugby league player, Greg Somerville a prop. The man who would have been the coolest Greg in history, Peck, presciently called himself Gregory.
Until the last few years, the lameness of my name had been relatively benign, but the speed of its recent decline has been astonishing. Why "Greg"? How did we reach this point? Who is responsible? On this, I thought long and hard, googled lightly and ineffectively, and ultimately concluded the most likely culprit was Greg Focker, the hapless nurse played by Ben Stiller in the hit 2000 film Meet The Parents. Focker was repeatedly shamed, forced to swim in borrowed speedos, ostracised by all and particularly hated by his father in law. He was boring, bumbling, unworthy of respect and lacking in self-esteem.
The more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that the root cause of the shame on my name was Focker's fame. I decided to call Ben Stiller to get his thoughts on all this, and on exactly what he thought it meant to be Greg in a post-Focker world.
Psych! Lol! As if! Nuh-uh! Me call Stiller?! Are you kidding? You'd have to be a real Greg to believe that.
No, what Greg does is remain all day at his desk, thinking about how he wishes he were the type of person who would pick up the phone and start trying to track down Stiller; wishes he were the sort of person who had a big enough contact book that picking up the phone was a realistic way to start tracking down Ben Stiller; wishes he were the type of person with a contact book, or with contacts; wishes, wishes, wishes. In short, and in summary, Greg is not a man of action.
So Greg sits and dreams of what Greg might have been, had it not been for this and that and the other, had it not been for his fundamental Gregness.
If only! If only he had been wilder, less appropriate, more driven to achieve, less worried what others think of him. If only he'd taken a chance.
He frets and muses, contemplates and prevaricates and ultimately produces a meaningless musing almost entirely without substance. What could be more Greg than that?
In the second season of Succession, hapless, lanky Cousin Greg starts to become more assertive and less of a joke, more part of the family. He's still not up to much, but at least he's trying. At a family gathering in episode six, he tells everyone he's going by Gregory now. Nobody notices or pays him any attention. Of course they don't. He is Greg. He is only Greg. He will never not be Greg.