Wednesday, February 15, 2012

That name sounds familiar...

by Sandra Parshall

How many young Emmas, Isabellas, Jacobs and Ethans do you know? According to databases of popular baby names, parents in the U.S. have been stuck on those names for years, so if you haven’t come across a lot of kids with those monikers, you soon will. (We have two Isabellas of different ages on our 10-family cul de sac, and one Jacob. In our own household, we have a 10-year-old cat named Emma.)

"You named me WHAT?"

Despite all the colorful baby names that catch our attention, and the modernized spellings some parents think are so clever, Americans have remained remarkably steady in their preference for traditional names that are both attractive and mainstream. Even during the turbulent late 1960s and early 1970s, when society was turning itself inside out, couples continued naming their babies Michael and Lisa, David and Michelle, James and Jennifer. John and Mary aren’t at the very top anymore, but over the past century they have been the most enduringly popular baby names in the U.S.

A handful of unusual names have gained footholds in the top ranks. Jax, Jaxen, Jaxon, and Jaxton are all on the list, as are Unique and Precious. Cheyenne (for a girl) appeared at #84 in 1999 and was #229 in 2010, and Jayden, a unisex name that is also spelled Jaden, Jaeden, and Jaiden, has risen quickly. According to the Social Security Administration’s database, Jayden was the #4 boy’s name in 2010 and the #212 girl’s name. Jaden, for boys, was at #91, and #762 for girls. Variations of the name first jumped into the top 1,000 baby names in the late 1990s. Where did it come from? Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith have a 13-year-old son named Jaden, and it might seem the name was created to honor the mother, but it appeared in written records a century before any of the Smiths were born. And it was already gaining popularity before the Smiths named their son Jaden, so they may have been following a trend rather creating one. (Show business now has another baby boy named Jayden, Britney Spears’s son.)

Celebrities’ names for their offspring have little influence on most parents – and for that we should probably be grateful. Moms and Dads have not rushed to follow Gwyneth Paltrow’s example in calling her first child Apple. It’s too soon to tell, though, whether names of celebrity babies born in 2011 will strike a chord with other parents. I fervently hope Alicia Silverstone didn’t ignite a trend when she named her baby boy Bear Blu. Beyonce, as you no doubt know, has a little girl named Blue Ivy. Mariah Carey and Nick Cannon named their twins Moroccan (boy) and Monroe (girl). Mike Tyson chose the shorter Morocco as his son’s name. Viola Davis and her husband adopted a boy and named him Genesis. In similar spirit, Natalie Portman named her son Aleph, for the first character in the Hebrew alphabet. Mike Myers and his wife thought Spike was the perfect name to hang on an innocent child who was too young to defend himself.

The celebrities who arguably have the greatest impact on baby naming trends these days are Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. After the birth of their daughter Shiloh in 2006, the name appeared among the top 1,000 for girls and has been there ever since. Maddox, the name of one of their sons, appeared on the list for the first time ever in 2003 and was at #180 in 2010. Their twins’ names, Vivienne and Knox, landed on the list for the first time after the Jolie-Pitt pair were born. Pax and Zahara’s names haven’t caught on, though. The parents have perennially favored first names, and now Jolie is also popular for girls.

A few odd names show up on the top 1,000 list, fade away for a while, then reappear. Unique (for a girl) is one of those, and Maverick (for a boy) is another. A few old-fashioned names, like Ethel and Gertrude, seem to have disappeared permanently, while others have hung on. Why, I wonder, have Cora and Cornelia remained steadily in the top 1,000, while Cordelia hasn’t appeared since 1950?

My own name has been on the list every year except one since 1913, and during the decade I was born it was at #5 or #6 for eight years in a row and at #8 or 9 for another three years. That explains why I meet so many women my age named Sandra. It remained in the top 100 until 1984 and has been dropping slowly since then. In 2010, Sandra ranked #517. Soon baby girls with my name may be rarities.

Writers use various lists to find out how common a name was in the year a character was born (or would have been if he or she were real), but anybody who wants to avoid giving an overused name to a baby would be smart to check the rankings too. In addition to the Social Security site (which hasn't yet been updated with 2011 information), you’ll find helpful data at and Parenting predicts that the most popular baby names in 2012 will be... pretty much the same as in the past few years.

What are your children’s names? Why did you choose them? Do you think it's better to give a child a traditional name or something unusual?

How does your own name rank in popularity?


Barb Goffman said...

I have no children of my own, and my dog arrived already named, but I have named a number of fictional characters. I always try to use somewhat normal names for the time the character would have been born, eschewing the very popular or the very unusual. But I don't think I'm typical. It seems to me that authors lately keep trying to come up with odder and odder names, especially for their protagonist, perhaps hoping it will make the character stand out. And those names do stand out, bit not necessarily in a good way.

And of course there's the other side of the spectrum in mysteries: the name Kate. I bet if the Social Security Administration kept track of mystery protagonists' first names, Kate would top the list for girls every single year. I don't know why, but we mystery authors love our Kates.

Sheila Connolly said...

As a genealogist, I've always paid attention to names because they often run in families. This was driven home to me because I try to use family names as characters in my books. However, with the women I ran out very quickly, since most of them were named Mary (40), Elizabeth (29), Sarah (28) and Hannah (12).

And don't get me started on Irish families, where there are very specific rules for naming children.

Sheila has never been extremely common, but it peaked in my birth year.

I think a name should mean something personal to a family (not that I understand why one of my grand-nephews has the middle name Maize), but it shouldn't get the poor kid laughed at in school.

Sandra Parshall said...

Barb, a few years ago I went through a list of series published by Sisters in Crime members to see which names were used for characters most often, and just as you say, Kate was overwhelmingly the most common. There were also Kats, Kathys, Katherine/Catherines, Kays (as in Kay Scarpetta,)and Katies. And they're still appearing in new series. You'd think editors would notice, even if the writers don't, that the name and its variations are a tad overused and the characters may run together in readers' minds.

Sheila -- I've always loved the name Sheila. Such a beautiful, musical sound. I love the name Erin too, and I hope that eventually a thriller I wrote with a protagonist named Erin will see print.

Edith Maxwell said...

Interesting post, Sandra. My name, of course, is a real dazzler. All the way down at number 820 for 2010, but it was in the top 40 until 1925. I have only ever met two people anywhere near my age with my name. All the others are over 80 by now.

My sons? Allan (25) and John (23). Allan was my father's name, who passed away while I was pregnant with my first son, and John is my kids' father's name. Allan needs to do a lot of spelling explanations, and John David tends to go by JD to distinguish himself from all the other Johns.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Almost as common for fictional characters as Kate seem to be the boy's nicknames used as girls' names: Sam, Max, and Alex.

Julia Buckley said...

My sons' names are Ian and Graham. First, my husband and I just liked these names, and I suppose we thought they were distinctive (at least in America) without being embarrassingly so. I just like the way they sound.

As a teacher I've seen endless name fads come and go. About 18 years after FAMILY TIES was popular I saw a slew of girls named Mallory in my classroom (now, not a one).

This year I have lots of interesting doubles: in my homeroom, I have both a Domenicka and a Dominika. In one class I have both a Yasmeen, a Jasmine, and a Yamesse. I have two Annies, three Stephanies, and about five Kellys.
Also lots of doubles on the names Laura, Colleen, Claire/Clare.

I had never encountered my own name, Julia, in a classroom before a few years ago (probably when kids named after Julia Roberts got to high school). Now we have about five Julias in our school.

The coolest and most distinctive name of the year was the name of a DAD I met at parent-teacher conferences. His first name is Odyssey, and he is named after his own father, Odyssey Senior. :)

Sandra Parshall said...

My mother's name was Oice (OH-iss), and I have never seen or heard that name anywhere else.

Julia Buckley said...

My mother-in-law's best friend's name was Anoel, which was her mother's name backwards. I always thought she had a strange mother.

Sheila Connolly said...

Julia, we named our daughter Julia for a wealth of reasons:
--Julia was the only Irish relative (one of my father's aunts)that my mother's family could tolerate
--Jullia Child, of course
--the movie Julia
--and in Irish, Sheila and Julia are the same (Sile)

Of course, we also gave her three middle names to cover all our female relatives.

Athanasia said...

My children are Emily (24) Andrew (27) and Laura (22) and they have all told me at various times in their lives that they have the best name. They really like their names. I am so glad . We took them home unnamed from the hospital...personnel were aghast that we did not have a name for them. Well we did not know if they were boy or girl, pre-birth, plus we wanted to try out the name. So for a week we kept sampling names on them until we decided these 3 were just perfect. I guess we succeeded.

Something that bothers me with names in books is as Sandra said if the name is not age appropriate. Why are older sounding names sometimes given to younger characters? If is a family tradition as happens in real life well than bring that up somewhere in the book that "I'm Vera because I was named after my great-aunt who loves adventure as much as I do" for example.

Also I have certainly notice an over use of Kate, Cat etc. I just started book 2 in new series featuring becomes almost like the over use of the F-word. I start thinking can't they put more thought into this?

Leslie Budewitz said...

Sandy, your future Erin can duke it out with mine -- the protag in my cozy series is Erin Murphy. Half Irish, half Italian, and all American!

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