Baby Names Are Getting Ready to Rule
Have you heard this one? A King, an Empress, a Legend and a Messiah walk into a…preschool. It couldn't be a bar, because nobody over 21 is likely to have any of those names. In the diaper demographic, though, the names are all soaring. American baby names are suddenly ready to rule.
Image Via Khamidulin Sergey/Shutterstock
The rise of exalted names has been swift and dramatic. As of 2005, King barely registered as a baby name at all. It hadn't cracked the top 1,000 boys' name list for more than 40 years. Yet by 2014 King had leapt to #175 among all boys' names, ahead of names like Kyle and Aidan.
King is just one of 111 different exalted names I've identified in the most recent year's baby name stats. [You can see the full list at the bottom of this post.] I looked for names that don't merely suggest royalty or divinity, but shout it. Names like, yes, Royalty and Divinity. As a group, the exalted names are eight times as popular as they were 20 years ago, and much of that rise has happened in just the past few years:
That 3-year trend is extraordinarily sharp for a set of over 100 names. The biggest numbers come from the explosion of all things King (e.g. Kingston, Kingsley, MyKing, KingJames), but the trend goes far beyond that one title. Royal and Reign are soaring, as are Zeus and Odin, Messiah and Miracle, Legend and Majesty. This is one place where celebrity parents Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, who named their son Saint, are solidly in America's mainstream.
The trend is clear for both genders, but particularly dramatic for boys:
If you look at the crossing lines, you'll see that girls received more exalted names as recently as 2006, but today the boys outnumber them by more than 2 to 1. That's notable since parents have traditionally been more conservative with boys' names. The exalted style is far from conservative, yet it's not a typical creative modern name trend either. Style today is usually driven by sound, in trends like -n names and "raindrop names." Exalted names are a rare contemporary example of substance over sound, but a kind of substance we've never seen before.
The adoption of lofty titles as names isn't strictly new. Regal names like King and Queen had a modest vogue a century ago. Back then, though, the titles were part of an aspirational name style that included potential real-life career goals: Judge, Doctor, General. Most of today's exalted names lie firmly outside the career track in a realm of dreams. Their scope is boundless: Goddess, Messiah, Yahweh.
There's a stylistic boldness to many of the selections as well. Standard English meaning names have always been nouns, from Grace and Pearl to Maverick and Destiny. The exalted names reach into adjectives, daring to be Majestic, Amazing, Heavenly, and Supreme.
When thousands of American families start choosing names like these, it has to mean something. For many of the names, I suspect that "something" is simply a loosening of inhibitions. Our naming culture has broken wide open so that a far wider range of options seem possible. Parents in the past might have thought Zeus was a cool name, but today they feel free to go for it.
When it comes to the boldest exalted names, though, it feels like there's more going on. A name like Goddess or Amazing is clearly intended to inspire the child, and to celebrate her. Again, those aren't new impulses. Humbler virtue names like Faith and Grace aim to inspire, and names of precious beauty like Pearl and Lily to aim celebrate. The exalted names are distinctive for the way they skip the inspiration journey and go straight to the finish line – and beyond, to an impossibly high winner's podium. A name like Destiny seeks to inspire greatness. A name like Empress thrusts greatness upon you.
The new exalted names are emphatic, demanding that this child will be valued and respected. Which makes you realize that for many kids, that destiny is far from certain.
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The full lineup of exalted names given to 5+ American boys or girls in 2014 (the most recent year for which stats are available):