One baby name selection is a personal choice. Four million baby names a year, taken together, make up something more: a portrait of the state of the American psyche. It's a picture worth looking at closely.
We had a reminder of that fact this weekend, when the New York Times ran a cover story revealing that maternal age (the age at which women have children) is a key driver of societal differences. That's an insight names already taught us years ago. Starting with the 2004 election, I tracked a seeming paradox in baby naming. If you looked at the most liberal and most conservative pockets of the country, they seemed to name babies opposite to their ideologies. Progressives were most likely to choose names that were traditional, single-sex, and based in Christian tradition. Conservatives were most likely to choose names that were newly created, androgynous, and non-religious.
The explanation for this paradox was a growing gap in maternal age. Progressive voters increasingly have their children older than conservative voters, for reasons closely entangled with education. A 35-year-old mom, naturally, is going to have a different style sense than an 18-year-old mom. That same growing gap could explain a whole lot more than just baby names, as I described in a 2009 column:
"Going head to head in a decision that parents take very seriously, style beat values by a mile. So perhaps the style-making variable of maternal age plays a bigger role in the cultural divide than we realize. In fact, if you start with nothing but a maternal age gap, you end up predicting a lot of the behaviors that divide red and blue America....What it adds up to is that the age when you have children isn't just one more variable in the cultural spreadsheet. It's your life story, and the life story of your community."
That was a decade ago. What are baby names telling us about American society today? The portrait they paint is of cultural fracturing. Liberals and conservatives are moving farther apart. Various racial and ethnic groups are moving farther apart. States and regions are moving farther apart. And most fundamentally, individuals are moving farther apart. Baby name data suggests not just an "us vs. them" attitude but a deeper "me vs. everybody else" attitude. The one thing we all seem to have in common today is our desire to be nothing at all like one another.
We see this fracturing clearly at the top of the baby name popularity charts, which represent an ever-shrinking slice of the population. Today's top 10 boys' names together account for a smaller percentage of babies than John alone once did. Today's average American baby receives a name that's relatively uncommon nationwide, and concentrated in specific communities. Statistically speaking, there is no more "normal" in baby names.
In part, the decline in consensus represents a divergence in viewpoints. In the past, regional and even ideological differences didn't play out on the baby name charts, whereas now you see them strongly. The two tables below represent the top boys' names in the most politically extreme states in two years. On the left you see the lower-48 states with the highest vote differentials in the 1960 election, Nebraska (most heavily Republican) and Rhode Island (Democrat). You'll see that four of their top five names were the same. On the right are current rankings for the most extreme states in the 2016 election, Wyoming and California. None of their top five choices are the same, and most are wildly different.
Not only have communities diverged, but consensus within a community is disappearing. Those top six names in 1960 Nebraska accounted for one out of every five Nebraskan boys born. Last year, the top six names in Nebraska accounted for one boy out of twenty. Even groups with conservative naming traditions are seeing an explosion of diversity. For instance, the core classic Spanish boys' names traditionally held strong in the U.S., even as comparable English names fell out of fashion. But today, names like Juan and José are at their lowest point in half a century, despite a growing Hispanic population.
As American parents across the spectrum turn toward ever more novel and individual names, they're inevitably turning away from something as well. Children are less likely to be named after family members today. Biblical names are at an all-time historic low, and are increasingly selected based on style impact rather than religious role models. (Duplicitous Delilah now outpaces Mary as a baby name.) Political and military leaders no longer inspire namesakes. Overall, names based on connection and shared societal meaning are being replaced by names based on fashion and personal meaning.
The increasingly divided nature of our society is apparent in every realm today. Most often, though, we talk of it as two camps separated by a widening gulf. The resurgence of "nationalism," for instance, suggests a kind of divisive unity, with one group banding tightly together against outsiders. The baby name data reveal no points of unity at all. Even within in-groups, everyone is shaking off traditions and trying to stand out as unique. That's what the names tell us, and past experience suggest we should listen.
If you watch superhero movies, you've probably noticed the trend. All the stars seem to be named Chris. An actor is cast as Captain America? Call him Chris. Thor? Chris. Robin? Star-Lord? Steve Trevor? Chris, Chris, Chris.
Many have remarked on this coincidence, joked about it, and even compiled rankings of best Chrises in hero-dom. But here at BabyNameWizard.com, we want to know why. Is it pure chance, or does it point to something deeper about the actors, or about the name? Is Chris an intrinsically super-powered name, custom-made to leap tall buildings and conquer space and time?
In fact, the secret of Chris turns out to be precisely the opposite. Its reign represents the last hurrah of the everyman.
Let's take a look at the current big four of super-Chrises.
Images of Evans, Hemsworth and Pratt via Disney.com; Pine via WarnerBros.com
Chris Evans of Captain America: born 1981 in Massachusetts, USA
Chris Hemsworth of Thor: born 1983 in Victoria, Australia
Chris Pine of Wonder Woman: born 1980 in California, USA
Chris Pratt of Guardians of the Galaxy: born 1979 in Minnesota, USA
That's four white guys born in four very different locales, all in the same short span of time. What's the common thread?
First off, the full name of all four actors is actually Christopher. At the time they were born, the "All-American Nice Guy Nicknames" still ruled, and any ordinary Christopher could expect to be called Chris. Next, let's look at the popularity of Christopher during that period. Christopher is an old and traditional name, but not a timeless one. The name experienced a huge surge in popularity in the 1970s and '80s. In fact, only Michael was given to more U.S. babies from 1979-83. Take a look at the NameVoyager graph of Christopher's popularity:
What's more, that popularity was nationwide. Christopher was a top-3 boy's name in every state in the union in the early '80s. As for demographics, New York City historical stats show that the name Christopher reached the top 10 in every racial group. And the popularity didn't stop at the border. Christopher was just as popular in England, Canada, and Chris Hemsworth's native Australia.
Certainly, there's a big element of chance in a cluster of names like the super Chrises. But underlying that chance is a probability distribution. A bunch of guys in their 30's are likely to be named Chris, because that's just what guys in their 30's are named. You might think of the actor names as the mild-mannered alter egos for their onscreen heroes: the everyman brigade.
They may be the last of their breed. In its peak as America's #2 name, Christopher was over three times as popular as today's #1, Liam. So a generation from now, we shouldn't expect a new crop of matching everymen behind our superheroes. Today's baby names are all Superman, no Clark Kent.
For fresh names with crowd-pleasing appeal, one of the best places to look is abroad. Italian parents have already given their seal of approval to the names below: they all rank in the top 200 in Italy, but have yet to make the top 500 in the United States. Some will sound familiar, some more surprising, but each of these names has a feminine sweetness that could appeal to American namers.
Chiara. Melodious Chiara is the Italian variant of Claire, commonly associated with Saint Chiara of Assisi (a follower of Saint Francis). While many European parents have embraced this beautiful name, it’s yet to gain comparable recognition in Anglophone communities - perhaps its similarities to Cora and Keira will encourage English speakers to give it a try.
Viola. Sophisticated and dramatic, Viola is a gorgeous choice currently flying under the radar. Its Shakespearean background will appeal to literary tastes, and its aural closeness to favorites like Olivia and Violet will help it fit in on the playground - but Viola’s confident personality makes it stand out from the crowd.
Rita. Though Americans may associate this sassy name with 1940’s starlet Rita Hayworth, Rita is also well-used abroad as a nickname for the longer Margherita. With short vintage classics like Ava and Ruby back on the scene, Rita’s retro style and multicultural appeal are sure to attract attention.
Caterina. With Katrina out of the picture, the elegant, Italian form of Catherine is perfectly primed to cross the Atlantic. Caterina combines a musical sound, a pleasant meaning - from the late Greek word for “pure” - and a variable choice of fabulous nicknames, making this name particularly attractive.
Gioia. Pronounced “ZHOY-ah,” this pretty name adds a syllable of flair to the already-delightful Joy. It’s rarely used in the United States, but would work well as an alternative to Gia or Gemma. If you like virtue names but want something with a little more glamour, Gioia is for you!
Livia. There’s a balance of strength and femininity in this lovely name, dating back to the days of Roman emperor Augustus and his wife, Livia Drusilla. American audiences are likely to relate the name to Olivia or Lydia, but Livia has its own unique history separate from those of soundalike choices.
Flavia. From the Latin flavus, meaning “golden-haired,” Flavia is a shining option with an unusual sound. The name has been used in a number of books and films, and also boasts connections with at least two saint Flavias. Striking yet accessible, Flavia merits more attention in Anglophone countries.
Eleonora. Stately Eleanor remains in the top 100 for a number of countries, but lilting Eleonora has yet to achieve similar popularity. Its euphonic sound matches modern trends, but Eleonora has an uncommon sense of regality and inherent grace. The name is also a gold mine for nicknames - Ellie, Leo, Leonie, and Nora are just a few of the possibilities.
Ilaria. Refreshing and vibrant, Ilaria feels like a pleasant pick for a little girl today - especially since English variant Hillary hasn’t been popular since the 1980’s. The name comes from the Greek hilaros, meaning “happy,” and it’s been worn by a variety of notable Italian athletes and actresses.
Gaia. In Greek mythology, Gaia is the personification of the Earth and the divine mother from whom all life originated - a powerful and awe-inspiring namesake. This illustrious history has led to Gaia’s inclusion in everything from rock music to science fiction, yet the name remains comparatively rare in modern usage.
Marika. This variant of Mary is decidedly not Italian - Greek and Slavic languages claim Marika - but this upbeat name has already reached #111 on the Italian popularity charts. Marika blends a spirited melody with a friendly vibe, and it works exceptionally well as a cross-cultural choice.
Morena. Originally a name for a woman with darker hair or skin, Morena fits in stylistically with modern “raindrop name” trends - think Melanie, Ariana, or Maya. As a word, Morena can be found in a number of global languages, relating to religion, physiology, and even geology.
Annamaria. Romantic and refined, Annamaria is a name combination that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Popular among Italian Catholic families, Annamaria might offer a beautiful, multisyllabic alternative to the -ella and -bella names of today.
Giada. Many Americans were first introduced to this charming choice via Giada De Laurentiis, the Food Network star and mother to namesake Jade (who wears the Anglicized version of the name). Today, Giada feels more approachable next to Gia and Gianna, but holds its own as an unexpected choice.
Rossella. If Scarlett and Ruby are too mainstream for your taste, why not Rossella? Vivacious and colorful, Rossella gained recent attention in Italy as the heroine of an eponymous television show. It’s also another unorthodox route to a variety of sweet nicknames, like Rosie and Ella.