Names Frozen In Time
Parents often ask me whether their favorite baby name will take off in the future. I can make some good educated guesses through the next decade or so. (See "The top baby names of 2019?") After that, though, my crystal ball grows cloudier. Will Joyce be the Jennifer of 2050? It's impossible to say.
You might well ask, "does it matter"? If a 40-year-old Joyce is suddenly surrounded by baby namesakes, what's the harm? If anything, it will make her seem attractively ahead of her time.
But there is one group that faces greater risks from long-term shifts in name fashion: fictional characters. Unlike dear Joyce, people in books don't age along with their names. Worse yet, their readers don't age. A new generation of readers decades or centuries later may not pick up on the social signals the authors meant to send with their name choices. You can see that shift clearly in older books where the the characters' names are discussed and analyzed.
One such book is a favorite of mine: Edward Eager's kids' fantasy Seven-Day Magic. The story centers on two sets of siblings. The first, Susan and John, "look worthy and dependable...like people who would be president and vice president of the class." Indeed, Susan admits "we usually are." To her brother she complains. "Our names sound just like us."
The book was written in 1962, but that name commentary still resonates. Susan and John aren't nearly as common today, of course. The number of Susans born, in particular, has dropped by 99%. Yet the siblings still sound like a "worthy and dependable" pair.
Now meet the other family. The eldest boy is imaginative, opinionated and hot-tempered. "It was typical of him, Susan and John felt, to have an interesting and unusual name and to have sisters with interesting names, too." The boy is named Barnaby, his sisters Fredericka and...Abigail.
Barnaby and Fredericka remain ultra-rare today as they were in 1962. Abigail, though, is now a top-10 staple. In fact, Abigail and Susan have essentially swapped places on the popularity charts, making Abbie the Susie of 2010.
It takes the author's description of the name as "interesting and unusual" to help today's readers understand that Abigail and siblings were an eye-popping sibling set, marking their family as unconventional. Even with that pointer, I doubt any young reader can appreciate how a rare name would have seemed in the naming climate of 1962, when "normal" really was the norm. Susan, John and twenty-nine other names were more common then than any name is today.