Monday, December 17, 2012

What's in a Name?

Regular readers may remember my obsession with names. Whether it's people with common names being hounded by debt collectors for money they don't owe or people with unusual names being unable to hide in the age of the interweb, what you name your child these days is a dicey business.

So I was, of course, fascinated by a recent article listing the most unusual baby names of recent times. Each of these names was given to at least two children. Really.

These are the ones I found to be the biggest head-shakers:


Inny (not a twin with Outie, I hope)
Rogue (but it will always be misspelled, a la Sarah Palin)


Google (try looking that one up!)
Mango (probably wouldn't have made me blink if it was a girl's name, I admit)
Rogue (see Sarah Palin note above)
Vice (may become best friends with Savior)

One of the most notable changes that's happened with baby names, from a sociological perspective, is the way the list of most popular names for boys has changed. It seems like girls' names have always been subject to fashion -- and I know whereof I speak, as a baby boomer member of the vast Nancy/Linda/Carol/Patricia/Janet/Lori/Susan/Brenda confederation -- while boys' names were almost immune. Biblical names like Michael, William, and Thomas seemed unshakeable in their positions atop the list.

Now the 10 most popular boys names are:


A couple of those are from the Bible, but they were names that were unusual for most of the 20th century (Noah and Lucas as a variant of Luke were particularly absent, and even Jacob wasn't that common until the last 20 years).

Scanning the lists of popular names shows a lot of clearly trendy girls' name like Aubrey and Peyton, but the boys' list is littered with just about as many Braydens and Graysons.

I did a rough count of the names, loosely grouping them into one of three types:

  1. Old-fashioned: A name you wouldn't think was unusual if you found it in records from 50-100 years ago, or older. Examples: Emma, Hannah, Isaac, Charlie.
  2. Old but reanimated: Not new, but uncommon in the 20th century. Examples: Zoe, Chloe, Owen, Ethan.
  3. Trendy: Neologisms, pop-culture references, and former last names. Examples: Addison, Nevaeh (now number 96!), Brayden, Chase, Colton, Bentley.
The gender split is like this:
  1. Old-fashioned: Surprisingly, there was an even count with 35 names for each sex. But the boys' names are much more likely to be biblical, 30 vs. 5 (disclaimer: I used my imperfect recollection of saint names and didn't spend a bunch of time looking up obscure women in the Bible).
  2. Old but reanimated: More popular with boy names than girl names, 25 to 15.
  3. Trendy: More popular with girls than with boys, 50 to 40. But closer than I would have thought.
The takeaway, for me, is that the combination of trendy and reanimated names is the same for both sexes, with the parents of boys genuflecting just a bit more the the direction of tradition.

The most popular sound to use at the end of a girl's name was the venerable schwa (uh) with 39, followed by the long "e" (21). It's no surprise that vowels for the girls are the order of the day.

Boys' names are most likely to end in "n" (39), but I didn't see much of a pattern for other sounds. It's interesting that the girls also had 14 names ending in "n" -- Jasmine, Caroline, Morgan, Lauren, Madison, Addison, Madelyn, Kaitlyn, Peyton, Lillian, Brooklyn, Evelyn, Reagan, Allison. Half of those are last name switchers, formerly male names, or place names, and all of those have a decidedly masculine feel. The old names (Madelyn, Lauren, Caroline, Allison) sound less masculine to my ear.

The upshot of the ending sound analysis, it seems to me, is that girls' names have a much more circumscribed set of options, since 60 percent end with one of two vowels, and another almost 15 percent end in "n." So as with gendered colors, girls get a couple of options, while boys get all the rest.

Finally, I only spotted one name that appeared on both lists -- Riley -- though there are others that I've seen fairly often in use for the other gender: Dylan, Jackson, Tyler, Charlie, Adrian from the boy list and Morgan and Evelyn from the girls' list.

1 comment:

Gina said...

Names fascinate me also, and I tend to shake my head at all the new trendy names, boy or girl. For me, it's about naming characters in my fiction. Finding the right name for a character is just as important as for a real person. It took me months to figure out what the protagonist of the Perceval novels would be named.

When I decided to establish a pen name for my commentary blog and my nonfiction, I had no problem with the last name. It was the first name that flummoxed me. I finally put it to a vote among 3 possibilities on Facebook. That's how Gina Hunter got her name....