The Shape of Boys' Names: An Update on the Age of Aidan

May 16th 2012

Once upon a time -- not so very long ago -- parents were super conservative with boys' names. Even as trendy girls' names began to rise and fall, you could count on the classic English kingly names to rule the boys' chart. Compare the top 5 boys and girls of 1947:

GIRLS
Linda
Mary
Patricia
Barbara
Sandra

BOYS
James
Robert
John
William
Richard

The girls' list is recognizably American Baby Boom. As for the boys...well, check out the top 5 boys' names in London in the year 1260, per Douglas Galbi:

John
William
Robert
Richard
Thomas

How many styles can say they've held steady for 7 centuries? In the space of the past two generations, though, that rock-solid name base has started to melt away. Parents no longer feel bound by age-old tradition in naming their sons. As tradition gives way, something has to take its place, and that something turns out to be pure fashion.

My shorthand for the power of boys' name fashion has been names rhyming with Aidan (Jaden, Kayden, Braidyn, etc.). When I started tracking "The Age of Aidans" in 2003, 28 Aidan rhymes Aidan ranked among the top 1,000 American boys' names. That number rapidly climbed, and has been holding steady around 40-41.

In 2011 the Aidans showed their first small decline to 37. Don't expect revolution, though; this change looks like a very gradual evolution. As the -den names have slid, names ending in -ton have risen to keep pace.

In fact, the pure rhyming names are just the tip of the iceberg. I first charted the extraordinary rise of -n names for boys back in 2007. Here's the historical view again, 5 years later:

American Boys Born, By Last Letter of Name, Year 1900

American Boys Born By Last Letter of Name, Year 1900


American Boys Born, By Last Letter of Name, Year 1950


American Boys Born, By Last Letter of Name, Year 2011


The takeaway message seems to be: The more things change, the more they sound the same.

Comments

1
By You Can't Call It "It"! (not verified)
May 16, 2012 2:55 PM

That is one helluva graph.  I'd be really to see what the same study looks like for girls over time.

2
By alysa (not verified)
May 16, 2012 2:57 PM

It would be interesting to see these graphs without the name John included...

3
May 16, 2012 4:35 PM

Re: You Can't Call It "It"!: On the expert NameVoyager I did the same thing for girls, and like the boys there is an ending letter that now dominates. Can you guess what it is? Hint: All of the top 5 girl's names from 2011 end in that letter.

4
May 16, 2012 5:03 PM

KellyXY -- there is indeed a dominant girl's letter, but it's far from new! I think it's pretty amazing that -n for boys is now as standard as the classical marker of femininity for girls.

5
By JustPupsTilBeckett (not verified)
May 16, 2012 5:42 PM

So frustrating having a last name that ends in n. rules out so many of my favorite boy names as too sing-songy.

6
May 16, 2012 6:07 PM

I think I've just added John, William, Robert, Richard, and Thomas to my list.

My name ends in "n" as well but that didn't stop my MIL as both my husband and his older brother have names ending in "n" and her pick for the girl she never had was Lauren.

7
By Andre (not verified)
May 16, 2012 6:33 PM

I still think the US is way more traditional when it comes to boy names than the UK. I mean look at their list? Yes there are some classics but John is almost out of the top100, and its filled with names like Bailey, Marley, Kai, Luca, Riley, McKenzie, Jensen, Rio, Kayden, Alfie, etc...

8
May 16, 2012 6:45 PM

Re: another Laura: I have the same issue (last name ending in "n"). However, I think that "n" overall tends to be one of the more manageable letters if they end in the same sound; that could be because -n is also a common ending letter for last names with all the -son patronymics out there, so we're more used to it. (In places like Scandinavia where such last names are even more common ruling out any -n ending first names would severely limit many namers).

9
May 16, 2012 7:06 PM

Andre: On the other hand in the U.S. you have lots of other surname-names (which is a decidedly American trend) like Landon and Mason to make up the difference.

Numerically, based on some computations I made last year based on both countries' 2010 stats, in terms of the percentage of babies given a top name the UK is quite a bit more conformist than the US (with the boys having an even greater difference than the girls between the countries). Although that may mean some of the classics rank higher in America by default, it does show that the typical American's name pool is larger than the typical Brit's. The post is at the link below:

http://millennialkelly.blogspot.com/2011/08/brits-are-more-likely-to-use-top-name.html

To put it another way, a greater percentage of British boys got the #10 name over there (James) than American boys got the #1 name (Jacob), and the equal percentage to the #1 American girl's name for the year in the stats I used (Isabella) would fall somewhere in the #5-#10 range on the British girl's list. Or to put it yet another way the British "conformity curve" equals about what the American one was in the mid-1990s.

10
May 16, 2012 7:45 PM

"Numerically, based on some computations I made last year based on both countries' 2010 stats, in terms of the percentage of babies given a top name the UK is quite a bit more conformist than the US"

Kelly, I've been tempted to try the same thing looking only within regions of the U.S. with roughly the same population as England. The U.S. is just so huge, that's bound to play into diversity. It's hard to imagine that any parts of England are as different as, say, New Mexico, New Jersey, Hawaii and Maine. But maybe that's my American bias talking!

Here's my old naming map of the U.S....an updated version coming soon!

http://www.babynamewizard.com/map.html

11
May 16, 2012 8:59 PM

Laura Wattenberg: I tried what you described awhile back with each states' individual data (comparing them to the national data the same way I did with the England/Wales data by multiplying the smaller set by the population ratio), and as it turns out the "conformity curve" in many cases isn't that much different than when compared to the nationwide stats. (What you get to make up the regional differences are different names making up the top of the lists.) I do see two clusters that tend to be more conformist than the rest of America: the Hispanic set (although that's hard to tell from the numbers, I do think that Hispanics tend to draw from a smaller name pool than the mainstream American culture, especially for boys; if you look at the completely separate stats for Puerto Rico you can see that) and the Northeastern cluster (I noticed from the numbers that they're the most conformist of the major regions, and being a guy with a unisex name from some computations of which I have a spreadsheet on I discovered they're also in general the most unisex-name-phobic for boys of the American regions*).

*As many who grew up in the more "conservative" parts of the country can attest to, ironically those regions are the ones most open to unisex names - both ways. The more "sexually liberated Left Coast" places like California come out pretty much neutral in this regard.

12
May 16, 2012 10:36 PM

I actually do agree with you KellyXY and was trying to reassure JustPupsTilBeckett that the "n" ending sound is probably fine for both a first and last name.   For some reason my MIL was teased about it some so that what was coming across in my post.  My husband's name does actually sound a bit rhymy but I don't think all "n" ending names would be.  And I realized after I posted that one of my 5 kids is named Katharine which obviously ends in a "n".

That's really interesting about the difference in the conformity curve between British parents and American ones.

13
By anon (not verified)
May 16, 2012 11:53 PM

If I was naming a boy now, I'd avoid the N ending for sure! It gets confusing. There are six two-year-old boys in my daughter's preschool class in the suburban San Francisco area, and half of them have N endings. I guess that's not a large amount as far as the national statistics go, but even so I have to think twice before addressing the boys by name, because I get mixed up between Aiden, Mason, and Caden.

And two of the six girls are Hailey!

14
May 17, 2012 12:03 AM

While we wanted to avoid the Aidan-rhymes, we ended up choosing between the names Ian, Ethan and Evan for my son (born in 2010).  Evan won out, but we sure were on trend for the "n" ending.

15
May 17, 2012 1:29 AM

The ending in 'n' thing does seem to be very popular for boys. I must say I notice the ending in 'a' thing for girls more though. Nearly all the girl babies I know have names that end in 'a' or an 'a' sound. It makes it very rhymey when you are out with a group of them or at a singing lesoon etc.  I think all the ones that don't end in 'a' seem to be the 'ee' sound, Lucy, Lily etc.

It certainly makes my Astrid stand out. We had quite a few names on the list that ended in 'a' or 'ee' sounds so while I wasn't deliberately avoiding the trend it is a nice bonus. 

16
May 17, 2012 9:30 AM

If you're looking to avoid the trends, I'd go with a name that avoids a long-a sound, for both genders. L is prevalent for girls, too. This is in addition to the -n boys' ending and the -a or -y ending for girls. Also note how many names (especially for boys) are two-syllable names, with the accent on the first syllable.

17
May 17, 2012 9:40 AM

Anon, I can see why you'd mix up Aiden, Caden and Mason: besides ending in 'n', they're all 2-syllable names with the long 'A' in the first syllable.

Just looked at the names of the am/pm pre-K classes at my grandsons' school in the Midwest:

AM Boys end in 'n': Gavin, Houston, Benjamin, Carson (plus Eli and Luke)

PM Boys end in 'n': Brayden, Grayson, Colton, Tyson (plus Noah, Spencer, Jack, Andrew, Leif)

AM Girls end in 'a': Ella, Olivia, Rebecca, Sarah, Ava

AM Girls end in 'ee" sound: Finley, Josie (2), Shelbi,

(also Isabel, Taryn, Addison, Campbell, Madilynn)

PM Girls end in 'a': Isabella, Savannah, Emma, Karena

PM Girls end in 'ee' sound: Natalee, Ellie

(also Elizabeth, Abigail, Lillian, Sawyer)

Combining the classes: boys names ending in 'n': 8; other: 7

Girls names ening in 'a': 9; in the 'ee' sound: 6; other: 9

 

 

18
By cl (not verified)
May 17, 2012 10:54 AM

Just looked at my 3 year old's class list (upper middle class NYC area) and 4/6 boys have an N. 7/12 girls have an A. I'm not surprised by either individually but rather that N is more common among the boys than A among the girls.

19
By S J Bell (not verified)
May 17, 2012 11:57 AM

I think there has must have been a slight decline in the N names recently in one respect; a lot of the boys who were called Dan when they were born seem to have become Daniel - at least in my neighbourhood :)

In the early 1980s about one friend in two in New Zealand seemed to have a son called either Dan or Ben. I'm waiting for the Bens to follow suit - though of course that would meake no difference to the _n statistics.

20
By Kallie (not verified)
May 17, 2012 12:38 PM

Random thing about Ben, though, is Benedict is still way, way out of the top 1000 and I would think it might have some rising appeal - non "n" name but still the common, popular nickname.  It is top on my list if I have another boy, but then again it would be after the saint and the pope.  Maybe it still has too many negative associations in the US with Arnold.

All the Benjamins I know still shorten it to Ben, unlike with Dans becoming Daniels.

21
By RB
May 17, 2012 4:36 PM

Funny how trends work--we wanted a name for our son (b. 2011) that was neither super trendy nor weird/unfamiliar. We chose Byron. The name is not numerically popular, but now that I think about it, it certainly fits the cadence of the age of Aidens. And I thought we were bucking the trends! (Yeah, and there's that trendy "Y" and the long vowel sound in the first syllable, too...)

And FWIW, our last name ends with -n (even ends with the same "-un" sound as Byron) and it doesn't sound sing-songy. I think it depends a lot on the sounds in the middles of the first and last names. For those who are worried.

22
May 17, 2012 10:38 PM

I tried to post a comment a while back that nobody seems to have used "Maiden" for boys yet.

23
By Ann83 (not verified)
May 17, 2012 10:47 PM

I'm not sure how new the "-n" trend is for boys names. I'm in my late 20s, and looking around the small group in my graduate school class today, I realized the men (all approx my age) were Aaron, Brandon, Loren, Steven, ...and Adam, which isn't too far off.  Clearly the taste in "-n" names has changed a bit, but the style itself doesn't seem so new.

24
By Charly (not verified)
May 18, 2012 2:30 AM

To my ears, "-y" is the sound of my generation: Tiffany, Brittany, Ashley, Aubrey, Kimberly, and yes, Charly. (mid-twenties now, born in late '80s) Any experts want to tell me the breakdown?

 

Of course, these days it's "-a:" Olivia, Isabella, Sophia, Aiyanna. I'd love to see more consonant-heavy -a names like Greta or Magda make a comeback. Probably 10-15 years from now they will as that silver screen era gets recycled. 

 

 

25
By Guest-2011 (not verified)
May 18, 2012 3:44 AM

Besides Mason, there is also Jason. May I predict a wave of new Ason's and Ayson's coming with Cason, Kayson, Nason, Tason, ... making the Aiden's sound outdated?

26
May 18, 2012 7:23 AM

Fascinating analysis.  I knew boy's/men's fashions took much longer to change, but from 1260-1947 - that's just amazing to see!

I realize I'm influenced by the current -n trend, or I wouldn't be so fond of the name Simon.  Since DH won't go for it, I was even trying to think of other names that end in -mon, but given the trendiness of the sound, maybe I should spare myself the effort!

27
By AJ (not verified)
May 18, 2012 10:38 AM

KellyXY wrote: "the Northeastern cluster (I noticed from the numbers that they're the most conformist of the major regions, and being a guy with a unisex name from some computations of which I have a spreadsheet on I discovered they're also in general the most unisex-name-phobic for boys of the American regions*).

*As many who grew up in the more "conservative" parts of the country can attest to, ironically those regions are the ones most open to unisex names - both ways. The more "sexually liberated Left Coast" places like California come out pretty much neutral in this regard."

I have an alternative logic that says the use of unisex names for boys in conservative areas is actually evidence of their conservatism. What we call "unisex" names mostly come in two forms: 1) Male first names that people have decided to use for girls now, and 2) Surnames being used as first names. I would think that conservatism would mean they are less willing to change traditions of naming sons after male relatives even if the name has crossed over to being more "girly" in other regions. So if Grandpa was Kelly, Stacy, or Ashley, they are more likely to stick with the idea that it's more important for the family name to be carried on by their son regardless of current gender trends for the name. Similarly, use of a surname like Riley, Taylor, or Jordan as a first name could indicate another iteration of the conservative tradition of highly prizing the carrying on of family names, sometimes the maiden surname of the mother. In other words, it is an insistence on tradition that keeps boys in conservative areas being named names that girls around the nation get as well.
Your argument would only work for me if there were feminine names that have become unisex, and boys in conservative places had more of those formerly femme names than boys in liberal locales.

28
May 18, 2012 10:56 AM

AJ: That's a good thought - many of the unisex names I'm referring to are indeed surnames as well, and in many cases may represent a family or other tradition. The kinds of crossovers that probably fare better in the liberal areas are those with a more "international" feel when used on boys like Alexis and Sasha (as opposed to surnames like Ashley or Kelly, nicknames like Jamie or Sam, place names like Austin or Shannon, or nature/word names like River or Rowan). In fact, most of the styles I mentioned in the parenthesis are more common in the "red" states than in the "blue" ones (the latter tend to go for more "established" names when looking for something different, and that's where styles like the pan-European and saint's names come in).

29
By D--50Guest (not verified)
May 18, 2012 12:01 PM

Please excuse the length of my ruminations below.  Please bear with me as I try to work these things out in my own mind:

Some commenters seem to be implying a similarity between the predominance of -n endings for boys' names and -a endings for girls.  However, -a is an extremely longstanding feminine ending in Romance languages. So Lucius is a male name in Latin, with Lucia its feminine counterpart.  This is distinct from, say, Indic language naming traditions, in which the -a ending tends to indicate masculinity (Aditya, for example) with the -i ending generally indicating femininity (Aditi), although the rule doesn't hold as often as in Latin--there are   plenty of female Ramas and Radhas and men with names ending in -i, though I can't think of any examples right now.

The prevalence of male -n endings in contmporary America I'd say is more equivalent to -ia or -iya or -elle for girls. 

I've been thinking of the connotations the-n ending has for me. Excluding -son names, they feel more like adjectives than nouns for me. Like the difference between America and American.  So this class of names sounds almost more like descriptors than identifiers to me.

Like Lucius is a man, Lucia is a woman, and Lucian is someone associated with Lucius-ness.  Like a disciple of Lucius'.  They sound less definitive, almost.  

Anyone else feel similarly? Any of these ruminations resonate with you?

 

30
May 18, 2012 5:19 PM

D--50Guest --regarding -n ending as adjectives.  DH and I have been looking for a middle name for Grace something that would honor Mary.  In the last week I compiled a list of choices and dh and I were talking through them.  I nixed Marian because for me it's an adjective not a name.  In this case I believe that the name Marian is actually a French combination of Mary and Anne but still the feel of the "-n" ending name in English is an adjective.

31
By J&H's mom (not verified)
May 18, 2012 6:58 PM

Many n names feel generic to me, but I do like quite a few.

Our younger son was almost an Owen, and I met a Calvin the other day, which I found totally charming.

I think part of their popularity is because they seem like names you can tinker with...Aidan becomes Brayden becomes Raiden...You can't really do that with James or John.

And, I think that desptie their modern sound, N names offer the feeling of being substantial and masculine. This is all just me guessing, of course!

32
By EVie
May 19, 2012 1:55 AM

D--50 Guest - I agree with you about the -a ending in Latin and other Romance languages. Even today, if you look at the top girls' name lists for Italy and Spain, the vast majority of names on them end in -a (and the ones that don't are largely French imports that end in e). It's not a trend, it's a feature of the language, and one which English has inherited to some extent. I agree that comparing styles of -a ending like -ella, -anna, -iana, etc. will be more telling.

You're also right, of course, that the -us ending in Latin is masculine. But there's something different going on with the -n in Lucian—it's not an adjective (adjectives in Latin share the inflections of their nouns, so "great Lucius" is Lucius magnus). Lucian is actually an Anglicized verion of Lucianus (which is a derivative of Lucius). The -us just got dropped off. That has happened with a lot of masculine names derived from Latin, including the many, many emperor names that end in -ian: Vespasian, Domitian, Trajan, Hadrian, Gordian, Aemilian, Valerian, Aurelian, Florian, Diocletian, Maximian, Julian, Valentinian, Justinian, also Justin... all of those have -us at the end in Latin. The same thing happens with some female names as well—Vivian is a good example (was originally Bibiana/Vibiana/Viviana, lost the -a), and also Julian, which was a feminine form of Juliana as well as Julianus in the Middle Ages.

Marian is different, though. That comes from Marie + -on, a French diminutive suffix. It was first Marion in French, then became Marian in English. Apparently in some languages, though (Polish and German I think?), it's a male name that comes from Marianus (as above). And of course, it actually is an adjective as well, as in Marian names or Marian apparitions.

33
By D--50Guest (not verified)
May 19, 2012 9:42 AM

Very interesting!  EVie, I didn't mean that -n was adjectival in Latin, but rather in contemporary English. My re-use of the Lucius example was confusing/confused. I meant to imply that to my ears a name like Agustus retains the definitive, singular, masculine sense we get from Latin, whereas Augustin sounds almost derivative and adjectival- describing someone who has something to do with Augustus.

Many of the -n names sound to me almost more like epithets than names.  Which might be part of the appeal. 

34
By Tirzah not logged in (not verified)
May 21, 2012 5:44 PM

I was born in '74.  In college, I was in an all women singing group.  Of the 14 women, only 3 had names that did not end in an "a" or "ee" sound, mine being one of them.  So I think this is a longstanding trend.

35
May 23, 2012 5:27 PM

This is all fascinating to me!

I must admit I love that the names we like tend to buck the ending trends (DS name ends in -er and DD ends in -ne but sounds like an "n"). In fact of all the names we considered, only one girl name ended in a vowel, and only one (Benjamin) ended in -n for the boys.

36
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