Thursday, November 11, 2010


There is a particularly foolish article about baby names at The Daily Beast. (I know. I followed a link from a usually trustworthy source. Really.) The author is described as a "baby name expert." Sez who?

For hundreds of years, both boys and girls names were very stable. Girls were Mary, Anne, or Elizabeth, though Margaret, Alice, and Joan also got some play. 50% of females had one of those names. Over 50% of boys were John, Thomas, or William, with Robert and Richard in the second tier. By mid 20th C, Michael and David were perennial tops for boys, Mary, Linda, Susan, and Betty for girls. But the wheels were already turning. Girl names had more variation throughout the 20th C, but really picked up steam after WWII. The most common name changed every 15 years or so, from Mary to Lisa to Jennifer to Jessica. Now it changes every few years. The top 10 for boys in 1990 looked scarcely different from 1950, but are now starting to show the same turnover that the girls did a few decades ago.

What does it mean? Many things, and I won't even attempt to cover them all. And I will wildly overgeneralise, because we are speaking of trends, not individual decisions.

The stability of boys' names was meant to convey solidity and strength. Girls' names came to be regarded as something more decorative. In evangelical circles, Biblical names were big, so there were plenty of Rebeccas, Sarahs, and Rachels, but there was also a wide field for something more unusual. Roman Catholics insisted on a saint's name - my wife Tracy was actually baptised Therese. Paedobaptist traditions in general have been more conservative in naming. Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson has long bemoaned the drive to unique names in the African-American community, attributing it to the breakdown of families and generational continuity. But this also results from the black churches being much less likely to practice infant baptism, a reality that long predates the last few decades of absent fathers.

More recently, parents have taken to giving their daughters some of the less-common boys' names, or English surnames with a rather aristocratic feel to them, such as Madison, Cameron, and Taylor. But far more common have been older female names, so long out of use that we cannot think of them as girls' names, but as women's names: Olivia, Sophia, Abigail, Isabella. Similarly, the new names for boys - Jacob, Alexander, Joshua, Ethan - are recognisable old names. These do not suggest continuity so much as approbation of tradition, which is somewhat different.

Families have less continuity, so it is hardly surprising that there is less of it in the names. Yet we still desire something of that hearkening back, and so pull names from the Old Testament, classical history, Victorian England, or the American West (Cody, Colt, Dakota). We are more fragmented now, and while there still are top ten names every year, those ten represent a smaller overall percentage of the total - and the published lists have moved to top 25, then 50, and now 100.

In our family, the tradition of using Douglas as a middle name has held for at least five generations on my wife's side. Naming a first son for an uncle will go to three generations on my side if the new Wyman is a boy: David-David/Jonathan-Jonathan/Benjamin-Benjamin. We have had fewer girls, so there has been less opportunity for tradition, but taking a middle name found in the family tree has some precedent. My grandaughter's middle name is Adelaide, not only her great grandmother's middle name (she hated it, BTW), but a form of her mother's name, Heidi.

It is a continuity, not so emphatic as Junior or III, but similar to the custom in many cultures of naming after a grandparent or great-grandparent.


terri said...

I was just talking to someone about name trending the other day.

I know that if someone has my name, Terri, that they were born in a brief stretch between the late sixties, or early seventies. This rule always holds true I never met a Terri who was more than a few years older or younger than me ...though usually older.

On the other hand all of my mother's name were stereotypical fifties names: Linda, Susan, Peggy, Janet, Pam. She usually had multiple friends with these same names.

WHen I was in school, there were always at least three Jennifers in every class and just as many Jasons.

My husband's name is Jason and his sister is Jennifer...they were in the same age grouping as I am.

I'd conjecture that the sixties led to people choosing names that parents thought would be more about the individual baby and parents rather than upholding general familial tradition.

As people moved into the eighties, names tended to be more like accessories, with people picking names that were "pretty" or "unique" or names that evoked a character in a movie, or book.

My two sons have very traditional, biblical names. I was definitely an evangelical at the time we had them, so I leaned heavily toward picking something that would evoke a biblical personage, or story.

Yet...their names are also very common.

My sister-in-law chose "unique" names for her children. I would classify the names as trendy. However, invoking some sense of tradition, she honored her mother-in-law by making her daughter's middle name be the same as a baby that her mother-in-law had lost in infancy. I guess this touched her mother-in-law deeply, and she appreciated the thought.

I find the whole naming process kind of fascinating. It's almost a universal, quasi-sacred type of thing. It signifies thought and intention for the new life coming into the world.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Also in your mom's generation, Debbie, Patty, Barbara, Karen.

Donna B. said...

Some names of my husband's ancestors born in the mid 1800s:

Theosophus Socrates
Flavius Gustavus
Baber Adolphus

and their younger brother James Nathaniel.

Sam L. said...

I love it when you wildly overgeneralize.

Der Hahn said...

The trend towards uniqueness seems to accelerate as fewer children are born into families. I imagine that by the time you need to christen the fourth kid (and beyond) you are running out of recent ancestors to honor, running into problems with intra-familial repetition (your brothers and sisters are pulling from a similar pool of names) or if you started off unique, you're getting tired of putting the effort into coming up with something distinctive.

GraniteDad said...

I'm also a two-fer, with the Scott thrown in.

GraniteDad said...

but then, I've always been twice as grounded in tradition.

Erin said...

As a teacher of 120-140 students each year, I often see trends rolling through. In addition to specific names seems to be the desire for unique spellings. This also happens more with girls (again, the creative flair). Last year alone I had a 2 Kaitlyns (Katies both), Caitlyn, Katelyn (Katie), Katlyn (Kate), Kathleen (Katie), Kate, 2 Megans (Meg), Meaghan (Meg), Jacqueline (Jackie), 2 Jaclyns (Jackie), and 2 Alexandras (1 Allie & 1 Alex). Needless to say, it has ruined any chance of us possible using any of these names for future children.

Anna said...

You forgot Madison/Maddyson/Madisson. Don't forget Ava, Lilly, Jaden, Eben, Owen, Ethan, Zachary, etc. At my semi large company, somehow everyone's kids are all named the same thing.

That being said, I have met very few Annas who are my age - although Anna did come into style like 5-8 years ago so a lot of little girls named Anna are running around.

terri said...


That is my only pet peeve with parents trying to have "unique" names for their children...the wacky spelling of otherwise normal names.

Parents are dooming their children to having to constantly correct everyone's "misspelling" of their names.

Anna said...

On another note, has anyone noticed how 99.9% of all females in the country have one of the following middle names:
1. Lynn (easily half the female population)
2. Marie/Mary
3. Beth/Elizabeth
4. Grace
5. Anne
6. Lee/Leigh
7. Dawn