Names Frozen In Time

Sep 19th 2010

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 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.


September 19, 2010 11:04 PM

I love that you mention Edward Eager. His series of books is one of my very favorite. I love that he has Katherine and Martha as children in some of his books and then as the parents of Roger, Eliza, Jack, and Ann in others. I think the first are set in the 1930s and the later ones in the 1950s. Plausible names?

By AJ (not verified)
September 19, 2010 11:45 PM

" Susan, John and twenty-nine other names were more common then than any name is today."

Out of curiosity, do you mean "more common" in terms of raw numbers or in terms of percentage of babies given a particular name?

September 20, 2010 12:08 AM

"Out of curiosity, do you mean "more common" in terms of raw numbers or in terms of percentage of babies given a particular name?"

Actually, both! As it happens, the numbers of babies born in the U.S. in 1962 and 2009 are extremely close.

By Uly (not verified)
September 20, 2010 1:05 AM

Edward Eager actually wrote two series of books, to my knowledge - the Half Magic series and the Magic or Not series. And, of course, Seven-Day Magic, which isn't in EITHER series.

He was amazingly popular given that he only wrote 7 children's books in eight years. He probably would've written more, but of course he died.

By Kristen R. (not verified)
September 20, 2010 7:37 AM

This reminds me of a naming pet peeve I have with books: when the author uses currently hot-stuff baby names for their adult characters. It's really hard to get into a story about a romance between Emma and Henry, both in their late 20s, because I'm so hyper-aware that the author used her own favorite BABY names for her characters.

September 20, 2010 8:37 AM

Kristen R-That dichotomy always interests me too. However, the reverse of authors using out-dated names for children's books characters strikes me as much odder. Picking names for cartoon characters or movies is a similarly difficult task because you can actually see the authors/creators representation of the character as they saw them in their heads.

By HMF not signed in (not verified)
September 20, 2010 8:45 AM

I know I've posted about this here before, but I have yet to come up with a satisfactory answer: why, in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), does is Jean Arthur character so ashamed of her first name—Clarissa?

By Jen. (not verified)
September 20, 2010 8:56 AM

re: Kristen R.

The same thing bugs me, too! The reverse can also be funny: my son loves a picture book called "Swish!" in which the basketball players, who look to be in about junior high, are named Lynn, Kim, Janet, Katie, Marie, Jill, and Allie. I know some little Allies and Katies, but most of the rest sound like a group of 50-year-olds to me!

September 20, 2010 10:03 AM

I try to focus on names I like focusing on both the sound and the historical context. Recognizing that you don't control the future I think is a good skill for us all to pass!

In an update for those of you who have been around these comments, our two are apparently prude fetuses! At our 16 week appointment they said they should have "no trouble" telling us genders. Well, BOTH of them had their legs not just together, but CROSSED for the entire ultrasound and while they would move them around, they wouldn't uncross them!

So, we still don't know what they are! We are still officially observing the policy of not working on names until we know genders, but some ideas keep getting randomly thrown around. Current contenders are: Chiron Falco (yes folks, that one hasn't budged apparently), Ronan Miles and Aletheia Diane. I am still completely torn between whether I think Aletheia or Aurelia meets my naming goals better!

By Guest the 2nd (not verified)
September 20, 2010 10:46 AM

***completely random tangent ****

My nephew Liam started Kindergarten earlier this month and his new best friend is....Amber. It seemed so strange amongst the sea of Noahs, Ivys, Lucys, Ians, and yes other Liams that he was surrounded by in preschool. Although the name is NMS (I personally can't get past the many Ambers I grew up with) it certainly was the stand out name in the class.

By Joyce (not verified)
September 20, 2010 11:38 AM

"This reminds me of a naming pet peeve I have with books: when the author uses currently hot-stuff baby names for their adult characters."

Kristen R, I've noticed the same thing. I just read a historical (1880s) where ALL the characters had attractive names. Adelaide, and Gideon with daughter Isabella, for example.

September 20, 2010 11:58 AM

I think that we should all collaborate on an accurately named historical novel. :p

By Rachel Y (not verified)
September 20, 2010 12:54 PM

@Kristen, Yes! My pet peeve, too and T.V. shows are even worse.

@Joyce and Awkward Turtle, indeed, the world does need an accurately named historical novel.

Personally, my favorite example of historical novel names not aging as the author intended is Forever Amber, written in 1944. It's based (loosely) on a real Amber. I guess in 1944 Amber was off-the-wall and historical, but now it rings 1985.

September 20, 2010 1:20 PM

Speaking of novels with great names, I've been obsessed lately with Anthony Trollope novels, and he uses FABULOUS names. Sisters Isabella (Bell) and Lillian (Lily), the hard-edged Lady Alexandrina, blue-blooded Plantagenet Palliser, powerful and winning Lady Glencora, sympathetic Alice Vavasor, rakish Sir Felix Carbury...Lucinda Roanoke, the wayward, wicked Ruby. So many great names. Some of his best are for minor characters, such as a ladies maid named Patience Crabstick. Wish I could remember more. He's a master at it. It's interesting to see how he gives information about class and personality through the names and how his views from the 1860's aren't so different from those today.

I keep noticing lately that adult movie characters are being named popular baby names. It is annoying.

Oh, I mentioned Osric to dh just to see what he thought. He said, "Osric? What about Osril?" I guess indicating that Osric to him was such a made-up sounding name that you might as well put two other random syllables together. It's just funny to see his reactions sometimes.

September 20, 2010 1:37 PM

I've been thinking about names in stories set in fictional settings (e.g. sci-fi, dystopic) and realized it's somewhat related to this post! Anyway, not sure if anyone else is reading The Hunger Games trilogy (I'm almost halfway through the second book) but I find it interesting that the names are sort of familiar, but with little twists. Some of the names are:

Katniss Everdeen, Prim, Sae, Gale, Rory, Vick, Posy, Peeta, Madge, Haymitch

Rue, Thresh

Twill, Bonnie


Octavia, Cinna, Effie

I broke them up by Districts; I think each district is supposed to have like it's own culture. Anyway, I had read Princess Academy several months ago, which is sort of like fantasy I guess, and it also had a similar familiar-with-a-twist naming style.

September 20, 2010 1:49 PM

PennyX, Don't forget the wastrel Dolly Longstaffe!

September 20, 2010 2:27 PM

Oh yes, Dolly!

Just found two other great ones: Lady Iphegenia Theodata (known as Iffy) and her sister Euphemia (Phemie)!

September 20, 2010 2:59 PM

RobynT: I just finished Mockingjay. (The ending of the series is v. dramatic, but I won't ruin it. I warn you know: get tissues). Those are brilliant books. Other names I remember:

Alma Coin
Wiress [she's a computer nerd and I like the play on wires]
Annie Cresta

September 20, 2010 3:21 PM


I've been curious about how you are planning to pronounce Osric. Osric is an Anglo-Saxon name, indeed the name of several Anglo-Saxon kings. Its correct historical pronunciation is Os-rich (rather like ostrich), just as Godric is the precursor of the modern Goodrich, and Aelfric, the name of two important Anglo-Saxon churchmen, is pronounced Alf-rich. Church in Anglo-Saxon is ciric, showing the same pronunciation.

September 20, 2010 3:48 PM

Osric isn't really on our list, actually. I just wanted to see what dh thought of it. I pronounce it Oz-rick. That's how I've heard it pronounced in Hamlet productions, for whatever that's worth. I don't like the possible nn of Rick, though, and apparently dh thinks it's just too "out there". Os-rich like Ostrich isn't too appealing.

I think our frontrunner for a boy at the moment is Xavier (pronounced Zay-vyer).

By Birgitte (not verified)
September 20, 2010 4:10 PM

About Hunger Games, most of the names from the capital are very Roman, i.e. Castor and Pollux. A not so subtle hint. :)

September 20, 2010 5:46 PM

Oh right. I was noticing that with Octavia, but was just like, maybe it is to show they are more educated in the classics? lol, losing my mind.

By T.R. (not verified)
September 20, 2010 9:43 PM

As a kid, I read a book (I don't remember name) that had immigrant girls living in SF named Katrin and Dagmar. I liked both names, but remember wondering at the time if those names seemed more or less unusual at during the era that story portrayed -- not that either name was ever super common in the US.

September 20, 2010 11:53 PM

I also hate books and tv shows that have lots of character names out of sync with what was popular at that time. I don't necessarily mind one or two outlier names, as we all know they happen. But, when they are all out of whack it makes me annoyed :)

@chipper28 - bugger about the twins being shy :) I have been awaiting your update on their flavour! I like your suggested names. You have a son, Trajan, right? I really like Ronan Miles, but it seems much more mainstream than your other choices. I'm not sure if this matters to you though?

September 21, 2010 12:45 AM

T.R., you are remembering Mama's Bank Account, which was then adapted as a Broadway play and film, entitled I Remember Mama and a TV show (title Mama) which ran eight years in the fifties and which I remember. The 1948 film was re-released because of the popularity of the tv show, and that's when I saw it. The family were Norwegian immigrants living in San Francisco.

Here's a list of the character names and cast members of the film:

* Irene Dunne as Marta 'Mama' Hanson
* Barbara Bel Geddes as Katrin Hanson
* Oskar Homolka as Uncle Chris Halvorsen
* Philip Dorn as Lars 'Papa' Hanson
* Steve Brown as Nels Hanson
* Peggy McIntyre as Christine Hanson
* June Hedin as Dagmar Hanson
* Sir Cedric Hardwicke as Mr. Jonathan Hyde
* Ellen Corby as Aunt Trina
* Hope Landin as Aunt Jenny
* Edith Evanson as Aunt Sigrid
* Edgar Bergen as Peter Thorkelson
* Florence Bates as Florence Dana Moorhead
* Barbara O'Neil as Jessie Brown
* Rudy Vallee as Dr. Johnson
* Tommy Ivo as Arne

A piece of trivia--Marlon Brando made his acting debut as Nels in the Broadway version. When I think of Marlon Brando, I don't particularly think Norwegian, but whatever. He was, after all, a very good actor and was as convincing as Stanley Kowalski as he was as Don Corleone.

By KatiepieC (not verified)
September 21, 2010 5:51 AM

This drove me BANANAs in Jodi Picoult's latest, House Rules. Jacob and Toby for late teens, Henry for the father. No!

September 21, 2010 8:43 AM

chipper28-To me that is funny that your twins won't show themselves. The next time you have an ultrasound say "It doesn't matter. We have names all set regardless" and then maybe it will happen LOL! Good luck.

Guest the 2nd-I have recently been wondering about Amber and its return to the charts. I don't think it would be unreasonable to see a few more pop up. It has the right sound and feel for the times to me. Emma>Anabelle>Abagail> what's wrong with Amber?

As far as great names in books, I read a romance by Catherine Anderson over the summer. It was the classic girl meets western cowboy type thing. Well long story short, he named all of his horses biblical names. I remember Uriah specifically. I'll have to go back and check the others.

September 21, 2010 9:37 AM

Chipper28: That's hilarious about their crossed legs!

I love the movie "I Remember Mama". Maybe I'm a sap. I actually re-watched it recently. There's something about the Norwegian vowel sounds that's so satisfying.

September 21, 2010 11:11 AM

If anyone watches Mad Men, one name anachronism that bothers me is the secretary Megan. This season takes place in 1965, so she was probably born around 1945, and has a French mother. Her name just seems so inaccurate to me (both the date and the family/ethnic identity). They get all the other names so right I wonder if I'm missing something.

September 21, 2010 11:17 AM

RB: I don't watch Mad Men but Megan does seem like an outlier. Maybe it's an in-joke for the writers. Like maybe one has a daughter named Megan and thought it would be cute to name a character after her?

September 21, 2010 1:11 PM


The Mad Men name that strikes me as anachronistic is Bethany. I was in my early twenties at the time, and there were NO Bethanys, none. Trust me. Diane, Carol, Judith, Barbara, Deborah, Ann, Patricia, Susan, Jeanne, Louise, Ellen, yes, Bethany and Megan, no. There were Al(l)isons, Peggys, Janes, Bettys, Sallys, Francines, Joans, Bobbies, Annas and even Carlas, Fayes, and Joyces, but no Bethanys and Megans.

Given that I made my living as a medievalist, I am particularly bugged by the anachronistic names so often found in historical novels set in the Middle Ages. There is no excuse for that. The heralds of the Society for Creative Anachronism have long lists of names attested in the historical records of Europe and Asia for the millennium from 500-1500 AD or thereabouts, lists available online, so there is really no excuse whatsoever for using anachronistic names. I am no big fan of the SCA myself, but some members do do meticulous research, and the heralds really are strict about medieval naming practices.

By AC (not verified)
September 21, 2010 1:38 PM

I have to protest and take up for the Henrys. I know it's far more common now than in my youth (I'm 30) and I'm overly sensitive because I have a Henry myself but he is a 4th generation Henry. It's hardly a new or invented name. A college aged Henry rang up my purchases at Costco on Saturday. How about we get irritated with a middle-aged Dakota or Brittany instead? :)

By Guest
September 21, 2010 1:55 PM

This is funny - I was just reading a book with my daughter yesterday, and I was struck by the out-of-date names. The book was written for 6-8 graders, and was copyrighted in 2000. The four school age kids in the family were Jeff, Kaci, Jodie and Wally. The childrens' friends were Bethany, Marsha and Nancy. Nancy??? I know lots of Nancy's but few are younger than 50! I couldn't get past that. It all had a very late 60's /early 70's feel to me.

By Guest1 (not verified)
September 21, 2010 2:09 PM

Actually, Henry has never been out of the top 150 and Jacob has been in the top 30 over the past 25 years so both of those names are entirely plausible for those characters, even if they seem "trendy" by today's standards

September 21, 2010 2:31 PM

The Medievalist got me interested in looking up names from that period. I found this list of common names from the Anglo-Norman period in England that was very interesting.

The most popular men's names are all pretty familiar:


The girls are a lot more surprising. Sure, Mary, Elizabeth, and Eleanor are common, but if you think they were the most popular, guess again:

Hawisa (!)

You can see the whole list here:

By EVie
September 21, 2010 3:43 PM

Miriam - two of my favorite novels are set in medieval England: A Vision of Light and In Pursuit of the Green Lion by Judith Merkle Riley. The first is loosely inspired by the life of Margery Kempe. The names in those books always struck me as very accurate—off the top of my head, I remember Margaret, Alison, Cecily, Roger, Gregory, Petronilla, Gilbert, Hugo (the last two from an aristocratic Norman family). The author's day job is a professor of political science, so I imagine she knows how to do research.

I find it especially hard to parse the significance of names in literature from the 18th and 19th centuries. I know we had a recent discussion here about Fitzwilliam Darcy and the significance of his name—fancy French-origin surname indicates that he is from an old aristocratic family on his father's side, and his mother's surname as his Christian name indicates that his mother was from an important family as well. If there are any other names in Austen's novels that carry special meaning, I would love to know. A lot of other 18th-century novelists seemed to give their heroines fancy, sometimes even invented names that probably weren't used much in real life at the time—Pamela, Clarissa, Cecilia, Camilla, Evelina, Arabella, Emmeline, Leonora, Belinda. But then, those novels weren't exactly known for their verisimilitude, anyway.

Georgette Heyer strikes me as being very good at historical naming in her Regency romances. For example, in The Grand Sophy, the title character is named Sophia, and her nickname is spelled the way it would have been at the time, rather than Sophie, as we tend to spell it now.

By Eo (not verified)
September 21, 2010 4:06 PM

HMF, not signed in-- I do love it when posters reference such Golden Age of moviemaking classics as "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"! Yours is a great question.

Interestingly, at one point we did discuss "Clarissa", otherwise jauntily known by her surname of "Saunders"--

That delightful character played by the one-of- a-kind Jean Arthur was a Thirties career "gal", outwardly tough, sardonic, modern and "wised-up".

She would have been, I imagine, too generationally close to the sweetly Victorian era of "Clarissas" and "Annabels" to appreciate their own attractive qualities. She wanted to be forward-looking!

"Modern" girls in Thirties films frequently had shorter, sleek and more streamlined names like "Susan", "Ellen" and "Ann(e)". If the script writer wanted to make them seem even more avant garde, he might give them a boy's name like "Stanley" or "Roy" or "George". Bette Davis played a few of those....

PennyX, I've always liked the Trollope names too, especially Lady Glencora and Plantagenet Palliser. Also Phineas Finn, who was a young Irish politician that Trollope dreamed up... I love your discovery of "Patience Crabstick"!

September 21, 2010 6:42 PM

Speaking of young Nancys or would it be Nancies...I was at the children's museum the other day and an older lady was inquiring about the name of a toddler. The mom responded that the girl's name was Nancy. The older lady was pleasantly surprised and said that it was her name - you know she probably hasn't run into a small Nancy in a long time.

By Guest #3 (not verified)
September 21, 2010 6:48 PM

This is totally not related, but I recently heard a "new" name. It was on a toddler (2-ish?) and the name was Katieri. I'm totally guessing on the spelling here. I've never heard that before, so I am sharing it!

I knew a girl named Kateri once though.

September 21, 2010 7:33 PM

I'm a Mad Men fan and I must say both Bethany and Megan annoy me too! Matthew Weiner is such a perfectionist that I'm surprised those names got through.

Jacob and Henry don't seem out of place to me either, I have known some grown up ones so don't find it too strange.

September 21, 2010 8:51 PM

Guest#3@post39-I am wondering how that would have been pronounced? Cah-tee-air-ee? Kay-tear-ee? Never heard either before.

Guest+another Laura-Re Nancy as a young name, the first thing I think of is the children's book series Fancy Nancy. Then secondly I think of Nancy McKeon from Facts of Life.

The biggest anachronism I've come across recently is when I watched the Pixar movie Monsters vs. Aliens. The main characters name was Susan. There is a line in the movie that the monsters ask her as she becomes one of them. They say "What is your name" She says "Susan". They say "No when you want to be scary-like your monster name" She says "Sooo-san" Do little kids think Susan is a nice home-grown common kind of name these days? Maybe it is funny to them because their mom's might be named Susan? I thought it was funny because to me, Susan is a very NON-scary kind of name. Maybe not so much an anachronism than a purposeful pun for the adults?

By Andrea58 (not verified)
September 21, 2010 9:09 PM

I know two 50-something teachers, one male and one female, named Dakota. It was apparently a character on some radio program in the 1940s. It would not be out of the question for a middle-aged character.

By Andrea58 (not verified)
September 21, 2010 9:20 PM

Kateri is a Catholic saint's name in honor of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, a Mohawk woman from the 1600s. It is probably more common among American Indians but I've heard it used by other people too. It's fairly well used in this area. It's usually pronounced Ka-tare-ree or Ka-teer-ree. The original Mohawk pronounciation was somewhat different. It's a Mohawk version of the name Catherine.

September 21, 2010 10:44 PM

re: Henry: I have to side with the old Henrys here. I'm not sure when House Rules is set but I know a Henry who is in his 60s. He's my friend's dad, and growing up, we found it sufficiently old-fashioned.

By Guest #3 (not verified)
September 21, 2010 11:07 PM

It was pronounced Ka-teer-ee. She was being called "Teiry" (Or Teer-ee) for short. :)

The Kateri I knew pronounced it Ka-tare-ee and was Native American.

September 21, 2010 11:31 PM

Very cool guest#3 and Andrea58! Thank you for the info. I think I like the name.

By Guest the 2nd (not verified)
September 21, 2010 11:59 PM

I love the movie I Remember Mama. I'm in my late 20's and a huge classic film fan. This flick never fails to put a smile on my face. It is so sweet and Irene Dunne is just amazing. It's usually on the old movie channel on mother's day.

zoerhenne: I have personal problems with Amber. It's probably a nice name, but I went to school with a lot of them. One in particular made my life miserable in middle school, so it will never be a winner with me. My nephew's friend seems to be a lovely little girl, I just don't like her moniker.

By T.R. (not verified)
September 22, 2010 2:11 AM

Wow, thanks for the information about the book and film and everything! I didn't know all that, now I want to check it out again.
I'm kind of embarrassed now at how little I remember of it besides the names.

...and Irene Dunne too, yay. We're having another girl soon (not a boy, so no Mark as I had thought) and one of the top choices we're thinking of is Irene. Makes me think of Irene Dunne and Irene Castle.

By lili73 (not verified)
September 22, 2010 2:27 AM

I'm disappointed that someone decided that Enid Blyton's characters in the Faraway Tree series had to be "updated". Are 'they' going to do this to other popular stories and characters? I guess it just annoyed me LOL I have the original books and absolutely love them, I'll be encouraging my children to read them just the way they are.

Jo is now Joe because that is the more common spelling for a boy (and he is a boy)
Bessie is Beth because that is the more common nickname for Elizabeth now.
Fanny is now Franny, I'm sure everyone can guess why.
And finally Dick is Rick, again you can guess why.

September 22, 2010 2:49 AM

@lili73 - I was also disappointed at the Faraway Tree characters having their names changed. I loved that series as a kid, and even then some of the names were a little odd. Fanny and Dick certainly made me laugh but it was part of the charm of the series.