Name Comebacks

It’s interesting to see how names that went out of style, similar to fashion, are becoming popular again. Names like Henry and Charlotte were fairly popular 100 years ago before nearly dying off and then seeing a revival in the last decade or so. Two of my coworkers have daughters named Charlotte; Chelsea Clinton named her daughter Charlotte; and my friend’s sister recently named one of her twins Charlotte. I have a college friend who named her son Henry and Julia Roberts did the same. Yet I can’t think of a single person around my age named Charlotte or Henry except for a friend of a friend named Charlotte who lives in my apartment building.

These names sound fresh and cool- for whatever reason, it’s adorable (to me and others, at least) to currently name your baby son George, Jack or Henry, names we traditionally think of for old men. People are going back to the classics, perhaps picking a name their great-grandparents had (or could have had). After many years in the 1990s and 2000s of girls being given boy or masculine-sounding names like Jordan, Riley and Taylor, parents started going back to more feminine names that were popular long ago, like Emma, Olivia, Ava, Alice, and Olive, many of which end with an “a” instead of a “y” sound like most popular 80s/90s names like Ashley, Brittany, and Mackenzie. It’s rare for boys to have an “a”-ending name- exceptions include “ah” names like Elijah, Micah, Ezra, Jonah, and Joshua- all Biblical names. Dakota, Dana, Ira, and Luca/Luka make up the few “a”-ending, non-Biblical names that are at least somewhat commonly assigned to boys, but the first three are also frequently assigned to girls. I’ve noticed from following pro tennis, which has become very international, that many European women on tour have “a”-ending names, like Maria, Anna and Martina, and tend to be more traditional; much more so than the American women, whose names are all over the board, from Venus to Madison to Shelby.

The graph below shows several names experiencing comebacks after dying off following the 20s and 30s. I noticed that they started going downhill around the time of a low-point in US births (see this post to see how many babies were born in the US each year) but they obviously didn’t go back up during the baby boom, indicating a major decrease in popularity. Emma is the most popular of all these and I’m curious if that peak in 2003 happened because of Rachel from the popular show Friends naming her daughter Emma in a May 2002 episode. Or it could have just been that it reached its max popularity before it became too popular for everyone, but I bet Emma Geller Green had at least some impact!

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Not as Popular as You Think

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When I was a kid in school, there might be more than one Amanda, Sarah, or Jessica in class, and every Matt in college seemed to have a nickname because there were so many. My parents (born in the 50s) talk about all the Marys, Johns and James in their classes.  Nowadays, people say “don’t name your kid Madison or Madelyn, there will be 5 Maddie’s in one class alone” but is that really true? Seems like there is more of a variety of names today which would mean that giving your kid a popular name would mean they might not have to contend with being Olivia K. instead of just “Olivia” too often. Looking at data from the SSA, which releases all the baby names assigned since 1880 (as long as it occurred at least 5 times in a year), it would appear my hypothesis is true. Of course, this data set is lumping all names assigned across the entire US, so fortunately they do release data per state, which shows that certain states, especially western ones like Wyoming and Nevada, have much fewer distinct names. I would guess this has to do with them being less populated and less diverse. States like New York had a greater variety and I even noticed many Jewish-sounding names in the list. I read here that Utahns tend to be extra creative, perhaps to help their kids stand out in a culture of super-size polygamous families. I nodded my head when I read this, thinking of the Brown family on Sister Wives– they’ve got 17ish kids with names like Mykelti, Aspyn, Dayton and Paedon. In the end, naming your kid Olivia might mean that in many areas, they will be the only one in their class, but in other areas they might have to take on their last initial.

The graphs above show how popular names today are not as popular as you would think. In each, I compare two of the most popular names of 2013 compared to two extremely common names in the past. I cannot believe how popular Mary was and how little the Olivia and Emma lines are next to it! Note that I picked names with fewer spelling varieties to make this as accurate as possible, like Emma is usually spelled Emma, whereas Sophia can also be spelled Sofia. People back in the day were not as creative with how they spelled names. Grouping names together by similar spellings is something I’m still working on (it’s somewhat of a manual process).

It’s also crazy how many boys were named John or James.  Over 94,000 named James in 1947! Approximately 11.5% of all boys in 1947 were either John or James!  No wonder my dad, James, had nicknames growing up, whether it being something like Jay or Jim or a nickname based off of his last name.

Source: Social Security Administration