Stretching the limits
The standard length for an English boy's name is four to seven letters. That's the sweet spot for most of the popular classics, both old (John, Edward, Henry, Joseph) and new (David, Michael, Steven, Mark). As a group, these mid-length names maintain a very steady popularity over time and account for more than 90% of all boys. Styles change, but 4-7 remains a comfort zone where even new creations sound natural.
But name length does tell a tale. The effects of changing styles stand out most clearly at the ends of the length spectrum. Each generation has a distinctive pattern of very long and very short boys' names that speaks volumes about parents' tastes.
Take a look at the frequency of 2-3 letter boys' names since the 1880s:
And now the 8+ letter names:
In the early years of the graphs, pet forms like Joe, Sam and Gus show up strongly as given names. That's a window on an age when--despite our impression of stiff, buttoned-down ancestors--fun and informal names like Buster and Birdie were at their peaks. In the middle of the century you see parents withdrawing from both ends of the spectrum and sticking safely to the center. And the past generation shows a dramatic rise in long, multi-syllabic names...turf traditionally ceded to girls. (The girls' counterparts to Joseph, Henry and Edward, for instance, are Elizabeth, Catherine and Margaret.)
This "fancification" of boys' names is part of a general change in our approach to naming boys. Boys' names used to change slowly, but now they're just as subject to the whims of fashion as girls' names are. (Consider the case of Aidan.) So parents are turning to extra-long boys' names as part of the trend away from the average, toward names that stand out from the crowd.
Yet in one way, these long names seem to buck the trends. Parents today are inventing and importing new names at a furious clip, but the 8-letter-plus names look mighty traditional. It's hard to think of Benjamin, Alexander and Nathaniel as fashion-slave signs of the times. Even as parents strive for distinctive names, they try to keep one foot grounded. So we opt for the traditional, but bypass Bob and Jim for Nicholas and Sebastian. Or we get creative, but rein in the syllables with Cade and Tanner. Each style is a balancing act, inching away from the center without tipping into the land of the truly unfamiliar.