If you could shop for baby names in the grocery store, today's parents would all flock to the produce aisle. Everyone's looking for the freshest, most colorful options. Yet baby name shopping is a future-looking business. The name you choose has to stand the test of time, sounding as good thirty years from now as it does today.
That means "shelf life" may be as important as freshness. What would be the naming equivalent of a jar of honey -- long-lasting and eternally appealing? The answer is names that have already stood the test of time for generations. Names like James and Elizabeth don't go in and out of fashion like hem lengths. They're timeless, and happily, they're not alone. You can find timeless names at all levels of popularity, even some with the potential to surprise.
All of the names below have been given to at least 5 American babies per year every year since 1900, without any sharp popularity peaks that would date them. [For you hard core name geeks, my criterion was SQRT(maximum normalized frequency)/SQRT(minimum normalized frequency) ≤ 3.] These names are all over the style map but they're all timeless, and not a James or Elizabeth in the bunch.
Timeless Boys You Might Have Overlooked:
Timeless Girls You Might Have Overlooked:
Is Bellatrix a traditional name, or did J.K. Rowling make it up? Is Sookie short for something? And how do you pronounce Quvenzhané?
Image via Photo Image Press / Splash News
Let this list satisfy your name curiousity. I've compiled a list of the girls' names that everyone wonders about -- the names that send us scurrying to the internet to learn more, or to settle a bet. I identified those hot-button names based on the ratio of visitors the name attracts on Namipedia vs. its popularity as a baby name. If everybody's looking it up and nobody's using it, that's wonder-land.
The most wondered-about names for girls: (See the boys' list)
Abcde. Nope, it's not just an urban legend. Since the late 1990s, about 20 American girls each year have been given this alphabetical name, pronounced "AB-si-dee." The wordplay isn't for everyone, but it does lend Abcde a spirit of fun that stands out in the sometimes self-important realm of contemporary names.
Bellatrix. From the Latin for "female warrior," Bellatrix is the name of a star in the constellation Orion. It wasn't considered a given name until Harry Potter introduced the wildly villainous Bellatrix Lestrange, who was part of a celestially named family tree (e.g. Andromeda, Sirius, Regulus). This could be a smashingly stylish name if it weren't for the mad murderatrix.
Eilonwy. Writer Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles, including The Black Cauldron, drew on Welsh myths. Ultimately, though, the stories, characters and names were his own creations. That includes the name of Princess Eilonwy, which resembles Welsh names like Aeronwy and Eirwen but is the stuff of dreams.
Greer. Greer became a girl's name thanks to 1940s film star Greer Garson. Greer was originally her second middle name, from the maiden name of her mother; it's believed to be a form of MacGregor. Actress Greer Grammer has carried on the name's Hollywood tradition. Fittingly, it's Ms. Grammer's middle name as well.
Kinga. Kinga is a classic Polish and Hungarian name honoring St. Kinga, a medieval queen. The name's standard-bearer in the United States is television host Kinga Philipps, born Kinga Szpakiewicz in Poland. Pronounce it with a hard g.
La-A. Yep, this one IS an urban legend. It's impossible to prove the total non-existence of the "dash don't be silent" name, but the many circulating versions of the tale are classic examples of urban legend, and often nasty-minded ones at that. For a deeper look, please see the past post "Ledasha, Legends and Race."
Malala. By the age of 17, education activist Malala Yousafzai had been the subject of a documentary, survived an assassination attempt, written a best-selling autobiography, and received the Nobel Peace Prize. Not surprisingly, this remarkable young woman's name has attracted attention as well. Malala is a Pashto name meaning "grief stricken." Ms.Yousafzai was named after after a Pashtun hero who rallied troops in the 1880 Battle of Maiwand.
Paget. This old English surname is a diminutive of page, pronounced to rhyme with gadget. As a first name, it's all about actress Paget Brewster. Her parents were reportedly inspired by 1950s starlet Debra Paget, née Debralee Griffin, who in turn took the stage name from an aristocratic ancestor in her family tree.
Phryne. The epicenter of Phryne curiosity is Australia, home of the roaring-twenties Phryne Fisher mysteries. The Honourable Phryne (FRY-nee) is beautiful, wealthy, stylish and adventurous. She's named for a legendary courtesan of ancient Greece, who was similarly known for her beauty, wealth and boldness. Phryne was the courtesan's nickname, meaning – brace yourself – "toad."
Quvenzhané. Quvenzhané Wallis was the youngest person ever nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, and she also turned heads with her mega-Scrabble-value name. Her parents built it off of parts of their own names, Qulyndreia and Venjie. If your curiosity is about the pronunciation, it's kwa-VEN-zha-nay.
Rapunzel. We all know the second half of the fairy tale Rapunzel, with the tower and the hair. But the key to the name comes earlier in the story, before the titular heroine is born. Her pregnant mother is beset by cravings for greens she spotted in a private garden: rapunzel, or mâche. It has never caught on as a baby name.
Sansa. The most-researched names from Game of Thrones are fashionable-sounding girls' names. Many parents are hoping to find that an appealing name exists outside of the fantasy realm as well, making it an easier sell as a baby name. While you can hunt down examples of women named Sansa, realistically this name is pure Westeros. If it helps, Arya is a traditional Sanskrit name meaning "honorable."
Sookie. Year in and year out, True Blood's Sookie Stackhouse is name-curiosity royalty. Sookie is just a good old-fashioned nickname, a pet form of Susan. Creator Charlaine Harris knew the name via a friend of her grandma's, and felt it had a nice Southern feel to it. Outside the supernatural realm you'll usually see the spellings Sukey and Sukie, as in the nursery rhyme "Polly put the kettle on/Sukey take it off again."
Taissa. Actress Taissa Farmiga comes from a large Ukrainian-American family, and her six older siblings all have names that cross over smoothly from Ukrainian to English. Taissa (tah-EE-sə) also fills that bill, though it's more often written as Taisia or Taisa. The usual origin cited for the name is "dedicated to Isis."
Veruca. A veruca (or verruca) is a wart. We're only discussing this as a name thanks to the marvelously twisted mind of writer Roald Dahl, who named the spoiled brat in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory "Veruca Salt." An alt-rock band later named itself after the character, and Buffy gave the name Veruca to an alluring werewolf. But Dahl's wicked little joke remains the name's essence.
Zuzu. "Zuzu’s petals!" Those two words from the 1946 film It's a Wonderful Life represent the joy of everyday life itself. Zuzu was the main character's daughter, but how did a small-town girl with siblings called Pete, Janie and Tommy end up with such an exotic name? Probably the same way Sookie Stackhouse got hers: as a pet form of Susan. Zuzu comes from Zuzana, a Czech/Slovak form of that name.
Some of today's most popular names are what we think of as old fashioned: Noah, Emma, Eva, and Henry were all favorites from the late 1800s. It's in that spirit that some parents have branched out in search of something not just stylishly old, but rare and retro.
If fanciful up and comers like August and Adelaide aren't boldly old fashioned enough for you, these names might be just right. They aren't shy. They are proudly, profoundly, over the hill names worn by generations past and now your little one. These names use a touch of frumpy to their advantage, balking at the lyrical modern choices that are mainstream. But they aren't altogether unattractive. We think some of them may just show more life in the next years as people dig for name relics that show creative spirit and wisdom beyond their years.
Amos: What do you get when you mix biblical, old-fashioned, and questionable cultural associations? An enigma of a name that is waiting for a clean slate. It's possible that Amos is poised to break free from the nursing home and the reputation of a long-ago radio and TV show. It has strong roots, it's simple, easy to pronounce, and it's got an ever-popular "A" beginning. Amos is nowhere near the popularity of names like Aiden and Abel, but it has a sound worthy of consideration.
Bernice: There's nothing modern about this name. But Bernice does have some unexpected glamor, in the form of an ancient Queen of Egypt (spelled Berenice), a famed Hawaiian princess, and a character from a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald (whose name may be a homage to the Egyptian queen). The name was at its most popular in 1921, and today it's very unusual. Some may consider Bernice's sound to be outdated, but between its royal heritage and the sweet nickname Bea, there's a certain charm to this antique choice.
Clarence: Some of us would love this name if it was just a little bit, well, altogether different. Similarities to the feminine Claire could have helped this name (like Elliot and Ella), but instead we're just indifferent. The ending of this name adds a bit of a geeky feel, and without any obvious nicknames, Clarence is stuck in limbo. It does bring to mind the angel in It's a Wonderful Life, which adds some feel-good qualities to the name. Creative options for a nickname could include Clark, Larry, or Aren.
Cordelia: We aren't sure why poor Cordelia has never moved past her antiquated image. She's Shakespearean and was used in the name-inspiring TV show Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and yet...she's still sitting in the rocking chair knitting. We love her multisyllabic flow, and with nickname options like Cordie, Delia, and new favorite Cora, this not-so-shabby name should be a no-brainer.
Clyde: Part outlaw, part grandpa, Clyde refuses to be properly categorized like a silvery old man sporting a fauxhawk. We're putting him in the frumpy column just for this post, and the numbers will back us up, as Clyde hit a peak in the 1890s. But Clyde's bad boy image, thanks to notorious American robber Clyde Barrow, combined with its so-out-it's-in sound is giving this name an edge. In 2013, Clyde made a sliver of an appearance in the top 1,000 at a triumphant rank of 999.
Edith: In the 1800s, Edith was living large. An Old English name that means "wealth, fortune," Edith once lived up to its meaning with royal sophistication. But something happened along the way. In today's naming climate, Edith will strike most as either unfashionable and elderly, or hip and vintage. A Downton Abbey character is adding more appeal to this name, and the nickname Edie aims to please. Those who can't quite pull the trigger on Edith can go for Eden, but they may be missing out. Edith is on an upswing in England.
Estelle: Are names like Esther, Stella, Esme, or Isabel on your favorites list? Take a second look at Estelle, a French import that hasn't had a good day since the roaring 20s. While Americans lost interest in this name quickly in the last century, we're just starting to take notice again after a few spunky grandmas have faded from pop culture, including actresses Estelle Getty of Golden Girls, and Estelle Harris of Seinfeld (who shared a first name with her character, Estelle Costanza). We think its only a matter of time before this name tosses the walker in favor of a tricycle.
Frances: Over the past 20 years, the feminine name Frances had not been doing so well. Its unisex sound wasn't helped by one unfortunate nickname from the past: Fanny. But parents have started to see some charm in Fran and Frannie, and when Pope Francis was inaugurated in 2013, it gave the name Frances a bit of a boost. She may be the very definition of a loveably frumpy name, but that's part of her charm.
Gertrude: With plenty of consonants to stumble over, Gertrude's sound is boldly archaic. After the second world war, Gertrude's strong German roots made it difficult for parents to love this name, and with short and peppy names coming into fashion, it disappeared from the top 1,000 girls' names altogether in 1966. Today, there's not much room for names with a decidedly clunky sound, even though this one does have saintly and literary namesakes. Nicknames Gertie and Trudy don't offer much solace, and your daughter might just insist on going by her middle name if you choose this one.
Gus: Gus just can't get it together. So many of us seem to love this name, but parents are looking to names like August for a longer, formal sound with more options. So while the actual numbers are showing Gus to be an old-time dud, it's really an unexpected hit. If you're looking for a little encouragement to go for a short, old-fashioned name, you got it—use Gus and you'll delight and surprise the masses.
Harold: It's been a century since Harold was last popular. The name literally has "old" in it, which is fitting with the image this name brings to mind for a lot of people. On the flip side, Harold has some classic and kingly qualities, and the nickname Harry is starting to sound cute to American ears once again. While most aren't looking for a name that's been declining in use (Harold is hanging out in the high 800s), this regal, antiquated name could be just the right kind of different for your son.
Hubert: On the whole, Hubert strikes us as a dusty relic of a name. It's been missing from the top 1,000s since 1987 and it doesn't look good for this name to come back. That being said, Hugh has some potential and Bert isn't unheard of. If you want to thumb your nose at today's naming trends, Hubert will make the statement you're looking for.
Iva: As Americans embrace Ivy, a charming nature name that is much more popular now than ever before, the truly vintage Iva has been left in the dusty name chronicles of the 1890s. Iva has the grace of Eva and Ava, but it hasn't experienced any of their modern day success. Its Slavic roots give this name a certain unexpected glamor, and parents who are looking for a more unique take on today's popular old-fashioned choices shouldn't be afraid to add this one to the list.
Millicent: Millicent may be a bit off-beat, but it has a sound that's full of frills and charisma. It's a unique choice that feels boldly old-fashioned, enough for some parents to avoid it and go straight for the irresistible nickname Millie. If the similarity to the word innocent is throwing you off, think of it as a sweet coincidence that makes Millicent on par with virtue names like Felicity or Grace. This one is ready for more use!
Myron: A name with ancient Greek roots, Myron has been around forever. In the US, this name reached a peak in the early 30s, and fell into oblivion by the 21st century. While Myron has some obstacles to overcome, like its grandpa image and a seemingly built-in southern drawl, its sound could be compared to names like Milo, Miles, and even Cameron. We think there could be some hope for this one yet.
Myrtle: In theory, this name should be red-hot. It's a vintage nature name with appearances in books like The Great Gatsby and the Harry Potter series. It shares a name with a Carolina beach and comes from a flowering plant. So what's the problem? The biggest obstacle poor Myrtle has is its lack of flow, jamming one consonant after another together (and a sometimes-vowel), with no relief until a single silent e at the end. It also happens to rhyme with turtle. But Myrtle may be ideal if you're looking for a sturdy name that's a perfect picture of days gone by.
Opal: With gem names like Pearl and Ruby on the rise, Opal is a throwback name worthy of consideration. Despite its "grandma" status, Opal is sophisticated and charming, and manages to carry a tasteful ring to it that more parents are bound to discover.
Otis: This bygone moniker brings to mind an elderly man clad in suspenders, driving a golf cart around the retirement condos in Florida. But that's exactly why this dinosaur of a name is ready for a little excavating. Modern parents looking for freshly fossilized names can add this grandfatherly choice to their lists, alongside Silas, Cyrus, Augustus, and Elias. In case you sense a theme, it's the striking ending of this name that gives Otis potential.
Walter: A cherished choice once considered a classic, Walter has tons of famous namesakes and a dapper sound. It's the most popular choice on this list by far, but it still has a small town soda-fountain feel that makes us think of the good ol' days. Its popularity was at an all-time high in 1892, giving it an antique feel. The nickname Walt feels stylish, while Wally seems fit for a big box discount retailer.
Wilbur: It's the fictional namesakes that make this name a lock for a hopelessly rural old-man name, including the owner of famed talking horse "Mister Ed" and the pig from Charlotte's Web. But even without those characters, the sound of this name would still be pretty frumpy to our ears. Perhaps the most famous Wilbur is inventor and aviator Wright, who was born in 1867. So if you're looking for a name that is so old it's new again, Wilbur will express your sense of humor if not your style.
For more unusual baby names from the past, check out 20 Forgotten Victorian Names to Put on Your List.