The Magic Formula For an Attractive Traditional Baby Name, Revealed!

Oct 23rd 2013

If baby naming is alchemy, I believe I've just brewed up a wee pot o' gold. I have a Magic Formula for finding appealing, fresh-sounding traditional names.

Yes, I'm totally serious. My bit of conjuring may not track down every single attractive name possibility, and it may be a bit quirkier with boys' names than girls. But it is a genuine formula for style, a purely quantitative recipe that yields classic names suited to contemporary tastes at all popularity levels.

That last item is what makes the Magic Formula special. It finds names that share an undeniable sense of style, whether they rank in today's top 20 or outside the top 1,000. And better yet, they're more likely than other names to stand the test of time.

I'll detail the alchemy below, but first see what you think of the results. Here is the list of names the formula yielded. (The only editing I've done is to cross off minor spelling variants of classic names.)

GIRLS

Camille        Elise     Ivory     Coral
Camilla     Claire     Amalia        Marianna
Elisa     Amelia     Naomi     Molly
Adelina     Juliet     Eve     Luisa
Elena     Charlotte       Leah     Caroline
Phoebe     Linnea     Leila     Daphne
Aurora     Lucia     Libby     Audrey
                   

BOYS

Lorenzo     Asa     Jefferson        Miller
Benton     Major     Max     Augustus
Reed     Emilio     Noel     Benjamin
Elliott     Oliver     Rocco     Israel
Simon     Miles     Raphael     Grady
Cyrus     Ivan     Alden     Dominick
Theo     Julian     Preston     Samuel
Prince     Brooks     Hugo     Rafael
Jasper     Abraham       Emanuel      
Emerson        Davis            


THE FORMULA

My Magic Formula screens for two attributes of name usage history: "timelessness" and "freshness." To qualify as timeless, a name must have been given to five or more babies in each year since 1900 and have a ratio of maximum to minimum usage (normalized to occurrences per million babies) ≤ 20. In other words, the usage history is long and steady. To qualify as fresh, the name's current popularity has to be a high percentage of its maximum (ratio of max/current ≤ 1.25). In other words, its heyday can't have already come and gone.

That's it. Simple, but remarkably powerful.

"How powerful?" you might ask. Do the names identified by this formula hold up over time? Does the timeless essence endure if a name becomes highly popular?

To find out I re-ran the formula, rolling back the clock to 40 years ago (1972 name data). Below on the left are the "Magic" names from that period that were also popular names, ranking in the top 100 for boys or girls. That makes them part of the sound of their times. Then, for comparison, I matched each of them with the name closest in popularity in '72. Take a look at the pair of lists:

40-YEAR "MAGIC" GIRLS          40-YEAR GIRLS CONTROL GROUP
Rebecca     Mary
Christine     Elizabeth
Maria     Stacy
Rachel     Stacey
Amanda     Leslie
Veronica     Diana
Victoria     Valerie
Sara     Laurie
       
40-YEAR "MAGIC" BOYS         40-YEAR BOYS CONTROL GROUP
Daniel     Eric
Anthony     Timothy
Andrew     Todd
Aaron     Gary
Jose     Adam
Benjamin     Brandon
Marcus     Jamie
Juan     Johnny
Joel     Phillip
Nathan     Brett
Carlos     Carl
Jesse     Jon
Antonio     Shannon

 

Do you agree that as a group, the control group names sound more tied to 40-year-olds than the Magic Formula names?

In fact, 18 of the 21 names chosen by the formula still rank in the top 200 today, and all are comfortably in the top 1,000. Meanwhile only 7 of the 21 control names still make today's top 200, and 4 have left the top 1,000 altogether.

This bodes well if you're considering one of the more popular names from the current Magic Formula list, such as Charlotte or Samuel. The magic of "timeless freshness" lingers, even as fashion marches on. How's that for baby name wizardry?

Comments

1
October 23, 2013 11:16 AM

Wow. Color me impressed. You got three of my top five girl names, and basically all of my top boy names, including the name I gave to my son (Cyrus).

2
October 23, 2013 11:39 AM

Wow!  My girls, Ameli@ and L!nnea, are both "magic"!  The boys' names are more interesting.  My son's name (Stefan) isn't even close to any of the "magic" names.  

3
October 23, 2013 12:20 PM

Both of my grandson's names are on the "magic" list.  We and his birth mom must have done something right.  :-)

4
By moll
October 23, 2013 12:43 PM

Love it! I've thought the same thing about baby names - but phrased much less elegantly and without the solid math. If you choose a name that has never completely disappeared from the scene (and didn't appear out of nowhere either), and that has not had enormous peaks and valleys, it won't sound dated.

Your second prong - current popularity at high proportion of maximum - is something I'd never thought about. It really works - I might have guessed that the 1972 magic names were a group of women born in the 70s, meaning they sounded "fresh" at the time -- but also, if you told me they were born in 1942 or 2012 I wouldn't be floored.

5
October 23, 2013 1:33 PM

Hmm, I like the girls' names better than the boys'. My favorites are:

      Ivory   Camilla  Claire                  Adelina     Eve   Elena      Leah         Leila   Aurora            

 

 

 

      

6
October 23, 2013 2:14 PM

Laura, you're a genuis but maybe we should try to keep this information a secret :) I don't like seeing so many of my favorite names listed up there- now everyone else will realize how perfect they are!

7
October 23, 2013 3:18 PM

I see a bunch of my favorite girl names, and quite a few of my favorite boy names!

8
October 23, 2013 5:15 PM

One nitpick: the freshness formula severely penalizes names that were relatively popular (and at their peak) early on, when name diversity was at its lowest.

To put some numbers to it, in 1900 the 50th most popular girl's name was given to about 2590 babies in a million. Taking that as the "max" value in the freshness formula, this means that a name needs to currently be given to more than 2072 babies per million to get below 1.25. In 2010, for girls, that meant top 18. (Three of that top 18 were in the top 50 in 1900: Emma, Ella, and Grace.)

More specifically, take my name, Julia. Even at its lowest ebb in the 70s (when I was born), it was given to about 700 babies (per million). It had a recent peak around the turn of the millenium, at about 1700, and has gone down from that to about 1000 currently. In 1900, it ranked 46th, with almost 3000 babies in a million being named Julia. (The 1880s numbers are even higher.) This means that according to this formula, it would only qualify as "fresh" in years where it was given to more than about 2400 babies per million. The Baby Name Voyager shows that it hasn't reached that level since the 1910s.

I wonder how one would calculate a "name diversity factor" for any particular year: maybe how far down the list you have to go to cover some percentage of all births?

9
October 23, 2013 5:32 PM

HungarianNameGeek, I tried a number of variations but kept returning to a simple measure of absolute popularity.

It seems like our perception of past usage is pretty accurate as a reflection of how many people bore *that name*, regardless of where the frequency ranked in a given time period.

10
October 23, 2013 9:22 PM

We just named our son Jasper! I considered a few of the other boy and girl names on your list as well. Really neat. 

11
October 24, 2013 1:50 AM

Interesting stuff, but I am not sure if I buy that the 1972 "magic" names are a good test set for the current data.  The 1972 magic names were both more popular and more consistently popular than the current magic names.

For example, 5 of the 8 female magic names from 1972 were ranked in the top 200 in popularity in each of the 9 previous decades (so the 1880s-1960s), Two of the three (Amanda and Veronica) were in the top 200 in only 4 out of the 9 decades, and these both seem like misses by the formula, as they have dropped out of the top 200 and sound kind of dated to me. The final name (Victoria) was in 8 of the previous 9, and was a good pick by the formula. In comparison, I do not think that any of the current female magic names have been in the top 200 in popularity in all 9 of the previous decades (1920s-2000s).

So, I think the 1972 names could be used to investigate the idea that Audrey, Charlotte, and Claire won't become Nancy or Barbara (or Christine, I guess) in 40 years, but I don't know what they say about Adelina or Linnea. 

12
October 24, 2013 7:38 AM

ej2557, maybe I should emphasize more that the 1972 "Magic" names I presented are only the subset that were most popular, since rare names are at less risk of being tied to their time period:

"below on the left are the "Magic" names from that period that were also popular names, ranking in the top 100 for boys or girls. That makes them part of the sound of their times. "

If anyone's curious, here are the current Magic names that rank in today's top 100, as a better comparison set to the 1972 list:

GIRLS: Charlotte, Amelia, Leah, Audrey, Claire, Caroline, Naomi, Molly

BOYS: Benjamin, Julian, Oliver, Samuel (Max and Miles just miss the cut)

Statistically, I'd expect that popular names are at greatest risk of falling out of the "freshness" screen, and rare names at greatest risk of fallingout of the "timeless" screen. It might be interesting to look at that more closely.

 

13
October 24, 2013 4:41 PM

You have perfectly described exactly my name criteria!  My son's name (Simon) and his runner-up potential name (Samuel) both qualify, as do five of the names on my girl short list for baby #2!  I'm so proud.

I am also very tempted to start building my own spreadsheets to tweak your formula to my personal tastes (such as making freshness slightly less important and maximizing timelessness, especially for boys) and see what else I find.  See what you've done! Pity my poor husband.

14
October 25, 2013 3:00 AM

I like almost all of the current magic names, so I think there is something to the formula. I also  think the magic 1972 names do sound much less dated than the control group.  

Obviously some of the 1972 control names like Mary and Elizabeth are timeless, but I wonder why those names became dated and a name like Sara stayed fresh.  

15
October 25, 2013 9:35 AM

We have five children. Four of them have "magic" names.

Therefore, I do think you're onto something. But how about we just keep this little formula a secret?? 

16
October 25, 2013 9:38 AM

Love it!  I'd consider naming a daughter almost all of those names but not so much the boys names -- they feel a little trendy to me, probably because it's more recently that boys are given non-traditional names.  The people I know whose boys have these names have sibs with modern names (except Samuel & Elliot).

Theo is absolutely red-hot around here.  I feel like saying "of course" when a mom tells me that's her boy's name!

17
October 26, 2013 4:44 AM

This is all so interesting. I think our daughter has a sub-magic name — Greta. One thing we both liked about the name is that it's never been *too* popular, even with the Garbo surge and an unexplainable (to me) surge in the 60s. There have never been tons of Gretas, but there have always been some, so it's never really in or out of style. That said, both our parents balked at the name at first, because it seemed jarring to them (who, after all, named all their daughters Jennifer and Melissa and the like). 

Anyway, I've actually been thinking more about another issue altogether that you hit on here and occasionally, and that is the issue of alternate spellings and how to count or strike them. I've searched, as far as my searching ingenuity can carry me, but haven't found a way to talk about what we might call the ur-name: Steven/Stephen, Linda/Lynda, Kynleigh/Kynlee. There's *got* to be some way to think about each of these name-sets as one thing and rank it that way. Right? Is there? What do we call that name-set, that Platonic ur-name? Because I think it's an important datum that *must* get overlooked the way many statisticians operate.

 

18
October 26, 2013 5:58 AM

Fascinating, Laura! I see that my borther Philip and I have non-magic names, which goes some way to explaining why I so disliked my name as a child, particularly as my name already sounded dated. My sister was a Sarah born in 1970, just at the start of a massive boom, so she ended up being one of many, which was a bit of a nuisance too.

However, I was in a shop last week and wanted to put a sweater aside- when I asked the shop assistants (both 20-ish males) to put it by in my name, they both exclaimed how much they liked my name. I think it might be starting to have a resurgence! BTW, I quite like my name now, fortunately!

19
October 26, 2013 10:36 AM

bbbbarry, one problem with trying to group names when looking at statistics like the SSA's is that we have no context, and thus no indication what pronunciation the parents were actually going for. The other problem is finding the boundaries: does a variant that sounds slightly different (Stepan versus Stephan, say) count as another name? There is a website out there (namenerds? something like that) that combines spellings, with a fairly strict sound-alike rule, at least for consonants (Marta is separate from Martha). I don't know how they deal with things like Lela-Lila-Leila-Laila, where the vowels could go several different ways.

That all said, when discussing historical use of names in things like name dictionaries, there's usually a "header name" (the spelling in bold at the beginning of the entry), and then variant spellings and forms under that. The thinking goes kinda backwards from the SSA lists: it's taken for granted that this is all one name; there were just varying solutions to the problem of representing the sounds in symbols. Actually, this goes for all words, not just names, back before "correct" spelling became a widespread concept. Check an OED entry for just about any word, and you'll see what I mean. And yet, dictionary editors somehow manage to talk about specific words, without regard to their spellings.

20
October 27, 2013 3:40 PM

Superb points, HungarianNameGeek. 

 

I think it would be incredibly useful, at the very least, to have some way of combining names on a provisional basis, so that we could see the true impact of, say, that Spanish-sounding deadly-chick name that's gaining so much in popularity. Part of that gain is masked by the variant spellings. Could there be a kind of statistical switch to flip so that we can see more true numbers thereby? *Is* there already such a thing?

21
October 27, 2013 3:54 PM

So, thinking about variants like Lela, Lila, Leila, and Laila, (along with rock-n-roll Layla and semi-Hispanic Leyla), there *should* be a way to talk about the rise or fall or significance of the Leila Supername, and then we could also break it apart to talk about how Layla sounds more trendy and dated and Lila sounds antique and traditional.

22
October 29, 2013 11:08 PM

I've only known two Valeries, both less than a decade older than me (I'm 31). I always liked the name and never thought it sounded dated! I'm always surprised when I hear Valerie as a generational name -- and not my generation. Val sounds like a current nickname, too, not like, say, Tammy or Kathy or Judy.

23
November 4, 2013 3:48 PM

how did you manage to collect and manipulate this data? If we wanted to amend the formula you are using to our own tastes can you give us tips? Thanks!

24
By AMM
November 6, 2013 11:14 PM

Very interesting! We are pretty set on Adeline for our baby girl, so that's not too far off Adalina. Also loving Amalia and Audrey (it seems I'm into 'A' names at the moment!)

25
November 25, 2014 12:10 PM

Laura, this is my all time favourite post! Will you please, please create a new list of magic names for 2014? I have baby #2 arriving in February and an attractive, traditional name is just what I need!

Love this entire site. Thanks for helping all of us with such a big decision.

26
August 21, 2015 8:06 AM

Oh how I wish I could get my hands on this formula. I downloaded all of the tables from SSA's website, but I can't, for the LIFE of me, figure out how to set up the data to repeat what you've done here! Feel free to send it to me!!! :)