The Antique Name Illusion: In search of the Next Ava and Isabella
Like optical illusions, naming illusions are surprisingly powerful. You can see one working its magic in this excerpt from the official Social Security Administration announcment of the top baby names of 2010:
"A recent trend in the top girls names is a return to names that were popular in the early to mid-1900s. Names like Isabella, Ava, and Chloe, which had disappeared almost completely from the top 1,000 girls names, have surged in popularity in recent years, which suggests a trend in naming newborn girls after their grandmothers."
The SSA, the very keepers of our nation's name data, were taken in by the "antique name illusion."
Faux antique names sound like living embodiments of a bygone age. They take you back to the time when they were all the rage, when flocks of little Avas and Isabellas trailed behind fashionable young ladies in shirtwaists and high-button shoes. And yes, that image is an illusion. The names existed back then, but they were heard only occasionally and were far from typical. None of them ever cracked the top 200.
To put the old-time usage of Isabella, Ava and Chloe in perspective, here are some groups of names that were more popular in the early 20th century. I doubt any of them will conjure up those high-button shoes.
Mid-century sound: Janet, Peggy, Ellen, Lee, Carol
'60-'70s sound: Amy, Leslie, Sara, Christine, Jennie
'80s-'90s sound: Shelby, Jewel, Callie, Amanda, Katie
"You mean those were actually popular?" sound: Elva, Virgie, Alta, Mittie, Ollie
Or to put it visually, compare this historical graph of three names that are genuine antique revivals, Emma, Grace and Amelia...
...with the graph of Isabella, Ava and Chloe:
Together, the SSA's three "grandma" names are 40 times as common today as they were in the early 20th Century -- meaning there's no chance their popularity comes from being named after grandma. (Or great-great-grandma. Today's typical new grandma was born in the 1960s.) Rather than emissaries from the real past, Isabella and friends represent an imaginary past. Like much fiction, this alternate history keeps a foothold in our world but spins something more exciting and stylish than mundane reality.
The SSA's faux-antique faux pas got me thinking more about the nature of this imaginary past. If it's such a rich source of attractive names, can we explore it and mine for more? Perhaps Isabella, Ava, Chloe and their kin can point the way.
Statistically speaking, those names do have a historical pattern in common. They were used in past eras, not often but at a slow, steady rate for a generation or more before declining. That gave them enough time to acquire a coating of antique-style dust without becoming so common as to sound hokey or boring. In other words, part of their appeal is that you don't have a great-grandma by that name, you've never known a great-grandma by that name, but you do have the impression they're out there.
Are there other names that fit that description? I looked through decades of old stats to find names with untapped faux-antique potential. Could one of these be the next Chloe or Ava...or better yet, a stylish but uncommon choice for your baby?