It was my freshman year of high school and I was wandering the hallway in between classes, doing everything I could to blend in and stay out of the way. That’s when I heard it: “Rachel! Rachel!” I spun around.
But the call wasn’t for me: It was for Rachel H. She was tall, sophisticated, fabulous, the kind of upperclassman you could only aspire to be. “Wow,” I thought as my cheeks turned ever so slightly pink. My own name took on instant power. To be associated with someone like that? I suddenly felt seen, important, cool.
For the record, I also walked the halls with another Rachel, a Rachael and a Rachelle. We didn’t always acknowledge each other’s presence, but we were aware of our tandem existence—like we were members of an unofficial club.
As you might expect, I was a baby of the 1980s, the decade in which Rachel really took off after a steady rise throughout the ‘70s and late ‘60s. (In 1968, Joanne Woodward was fresh off an Oscar nod for her role in Rachel, Rachel, her husband Paul Newman’s directorial debut, which is credited with putting the moniker on the map.) By 1985, Rachel was #13 on the charts with more than 9,500 Rachels per million born, according to BabyCenter.
My own mother (one of five Lindas in her school growing up) clearly remembers the surge in popularity. She had been set on choosing a name that was less common, then fell in love with Rachel, which she viewed at the time as a unique choice. Then came the moment her newborn (me!) was checked into the nursery: “The doctor informed us that you were one of seven Rachels he was attending to that morning. My jaw dropped.”
Friends came next, premiering in 1994 as Rachel sailed higher up the charts. It even made the top 10 baby names by 1996, no doubt due to the massive popularity of the show and character. (The episode where Ross told Rachel she was his lobster aired in February of that year.) All this did little to deter my Rachel pride. After all, having something in common with Jennifer Aniston isn’t the worst thing.
But then things took a turn. By 2011, Rachel’s popularity began to dip. It dropped to #117 on the baby name charts that year and, despite the fact that TV hits like Glee (hello, Rachel Berry) and Suits (with Meghan Markle’s Rachel Zane) continued to promote it, Rachel saw a steady decline. Now, in 2021, it’s barely breaking the top 500 baby names. Some say, in the post-Friends years, Rachel became passé.
As I reflected on that hallway moment from my ‘90s high school days and the unspoken camaraderie I shared with my fellow Rachels, I felt kinda sad. Was my name now just a pop culture relic? A moniker outdated enough to be relegated to an old lady baby name list, its only shot at rebirth?
I decided to reach out to the OG Rachel (you know, Rachel H.) to get her take on our name’s fate. Was she sad to see it fade into oblivion?
First, she remembered all the Rachels. (As it turns out, she’s still besties with yet another Rachel from her graduating class.) “I definitely loved Rachel from Friends and I remember it being special and fun to share a name with her,” she says. “But now I am a teacher and I can attest that the popularity has waned. Case in point: I’ve never taught a Rachel…ever! But I’ll always have a soft spot for our name and that time.”
And that’s just it. Our name—any name—is a powerful part of our life experience. Rachel’s disappearance from the zeitgeist does feel like the end of an era, but that’s also what makes it special, and further solidifies my bond with my fellow Rachels. We are a symbol of our generation and a marker of a time pre-internet when our moms couldn’t Google name popularity with the tap of a keyboard. Hey, at the very least, we’ve got something to discuss with all the Jessicas and Laurens out there.