Stretching the limits

Aug 24th 2005

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.


By dolcedaze (not verified)
August 24, 2005 6:59 PM

Very interesting, as always.It would be so wonderful if there was a way for us to use the graphing program the way you do, tracking different types of names. Is this likely to happen anytime soon?

By Anonymous (not verified)
August 25, 2005 1:09 AM

Ha! I've been teasing my brother Paul for years that all of his friends have one or two-syllable names of three or four letters (Bud, Ryan, Eric, Dave, Ron, Rob, Drew, etc.). He was born in 1969. I didn't realize that MOST boys were given names that fit those parameters at the time, making my observation less astute.

By Anonymous (not verified)
August 25, 2005 1:57 PM

Interesting that the 8+ letter names peaked in the 1990s and are on their way back down.Looks like we're entering another 5-6-7 letter cycle (probably due to all the Aidans/Braydens/Jadens/Cadens/Haydens/Logans/Jacksons, etc.

By Anonymous (not verified)
August 25, 2005 7:13 PM

I've been gone for a few weeks. I missed the announcement about the move to ivillage. What happened?

By Anonymous (not verified)
August 26, 2005 12:16 PM

HATE the iVillage move... It's messy, busy, ads float over my screen... Ick!! I don't suppose you can go back?!?!

By Anonymous (not verified)
August 26, 2005 3:22 PM your site and your book, but I also am having problems since the ivillage move. Ivillage and Netscape don't seem to mix. The info on the left side of the screen covers up part of the blog. Have this problem in various iVillage areas. Have tried various screen settings, etc. Please don't make me switch to Internet Explorer...

By Anonymous (not verified)
August 26, 2005 4:39 PM

I would happily pay a small subscription fee to view the site without all the iVillage clutter, and I bet I'm not the only one. The new "branding" has truly cut down on my enjoyment of the site.

By Anonymous (not verified)
August 26, 2005 6:29 PM

There was an announcement post about the move to iVillage, and a bunch of people immediately complained about how cluttered/annoying it was. That post was then taken down. I agree -- find a different subscription model, or use adsense, or something. This iVillage site is a mess.

By Anonymous (not verified)
August 27, 2005 3:58 AM

Please can you at least change the title at the top of the window? "Pregnancy and Parenting" are NOT the reasons I use your site, and I know I'm not the only one.

By Anonymous (not verified)
August 28, 2005 9:09 AM

What I have found amazing with the wizard gizmo is the weird appearance of what you would consider definitely gender specific names turning up for the oppsite one. Arthur and Paul for girls, Betty and Alice for boys! Is this a fluke or for real? Also, how curve of gender neutral names like Robin seems to match up for boys and girls. Very nifty!

By Anonymous (not verified)
August 28, 2005 9:12 AM

previous post about problems with Netscape and lack of desire to use Internet Exploder. Try Firefox,, free and fast.

By Anonymous (not verified)
August 28, 2005 8:18 PM

I remember learning a theory about art in one of my psychology classes which said that people prefer things to either be either new and simple, or familiar and complex. I think longer names are more complex so people prefer for them to be more familiar. It's like when you have a short name that's very familiar to people such as John, it starts to seem boring to most people. When you have a long name that nobody's heard of such as Erasistratus, the opposite happens and it's too much for people. I think that explains why all of the most popular long names are traditional names.

By Anonymous (not verified)
August 28, 2005 9:56 PM

haha,in regards to the previous comment,i suppose the whole ivillage layout can also be applied to the "new and simple or familiar and complex" psychology.everyone hates the babynamewizard site now, because the layout is new and complex.

By Anonymous (not verified)
September 2, 2005 1:46 AM

This iVillage formatting is a serious mess; some of the worst web design I've ever had the misfortune of seeing. You can't even see what the point of the page is without scrolling a couple of screens. Truly, truly sad.

By Amanda (not verified)
September 2, 2005 9:42 PM

Come on, everybody, let's move on from the iVillage issue. Laura has a fantastic blog and statistical tool that we all enjoy. If she has to add some clutter to make it possible to keep bringing it to us, fine by me. It may have looked better before, but I'd rather have to deal with some ads than have a great resource disappear. I'm sure she's aware that most readers aren't crazy about it and will make whatever decision is necessary to keep it up and going. Let's get back to deciphering what on earth would make someone name their kid Banjo.Amanda

By Netpowersoft (not verified)
November 28, 2005 10:21 AM

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By Anonymous (not verified)
January 22, 2006 2:29 AM

Anthony, Christopher and Jonathan are long and popular. Of course they are often called Tony, Chris and Jon. Boys/men *must* have short names, it seems they are seen as more masculine.But I love long names for both boys and girls. And I would never shorten the name, though maybe his friends would.Maybe these names are or are getting popular: Damian, Dominic, Gabriel, Julian, Oliver, Sebastian, Theodore. I love them all.

By Rhonda (not verified)
March 31, 2006 7:42 PM

Odd... I named my child Nicholas Sebastian and she referenced both in the same sentence as being long and traditional... Hmm...

By xavier (not verified)
May 9, 2006 2:47 AM

i would like this name for either the first or last name of my baby and would like to kno what can match up with this name hopefull a R or A letter name

By kristi (not verified)
March 20, 2007 5:12 PM

You may not think of this when naming a child, but one day that child will cut off little sister's hair or set the shed on fire and you will sternly address them using every syllable of their name, the more syllables the better. And you will be thankful that you did not name them simply Bud.

By Nicole (not verified)
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