Name Rankings and the Illusion of Consensus

Mar 22nd 2018

In May, the U.S. government will release its annual baby name statistics and I will post the new top 20 name list in this space. It's the most exciting naming day of the year, my profession's Superbowl Sunday. But how much does that top 20 list really mean?

The answer is "less and less every year." The top 20 names represent the points of agreement and commonality in our baby name culture, and agreement and commonality are going out of style. The driving force behind current name trends is the desire to be different. Take a look at the percentage of babies receiving a top 20 name over time:

Through the 1960s, the top 20 names covered between a third and a half of all American babies. Back then, a top-20 list would have given you a pretty solid snapshot of name style. Today, the portion of babies covered by a top 20 list is just one in eight, and falling.

The new top 20 is not just a smaller snapshot, but a potentially a misleading one. For instance, the top names of the 1960s, Michael and Lisa, were broadly popular across ethnic, geographic and socioeconomic lines. Today, it's easier for names to rise up the ranks by appealing primarily to a particular demographic or region. What's more, the lifecycle of hit names is getting shorter. When style is about rapid change and individuality, focusing on the ever-shrinking points of consensus leads us away from the real story.

This isn't to say that name stats aren't informative. They have a great deal to tell us about our whole society's attitudes, values and obsessions. We just have to cast a broader net, looking at samples and shifts in addition to summaries. I'll still be posting the new top 20 name list the moment it's released this May, but I'm going to post other ways of tracking style as well. I'll be talking about the median or "average" names, the risers and fallers, the brand-new names, and the top names in each state. That kind of array now paints a far clearer picture than the top of the charts. In today's fashion, consensus itself is an outlier.


Predict America’s Hottest Names—Enter the Baby Name Pool

Mar 15th 2018

When you first watched Game of Thrones, did you notice the name Arya? Has it struck you that you know young boys named Emmett, Wyatt and Everett? Would you be surprised to meet a new baby named Karen? Or, perhaps, do you just think about every baby name you hear, silently judging its style?

If so, you have an ear out for name trends. It’s time to put that to use.

The 13th annual Baby Name Pool is a trend-spotting contest. Entering is simple: just come up with three names that you think rose in popularity last year, and three that you think fell. That’s it. In May, when the official U.S. baby name statistics are released, we’ll tally up the ballots and announce the top name spotters here.

If you haven't played before, you can read more details and check out the fastest rising (boysgirls) names of the previous year to get a sense of how name fashions operate. Then convince your friends and coworkers to enter and compete against you. (If you’d like to form your own sub-pool with bragging rights for your group champion, drop me a line!)

All entries must be received by April 30, 2018.

Ready to go? Fill out your ballot now!

Vintage Names from Disney Classics

Mar 13th 2018

We have Disney movies to thank for popularizing elegant princess names like Ariel and Jasmine over the years. But what about the unexpected character names that remain outside the spotlight? Plenty of our favorite animated characters have fabulous names to match their quirky personalities, with lovely vintage sounds to boot. 

Here are fifteen retro choices for both boys and girls, fresh from the Disney vault. Ranging from familiar to obscure and adorable to elegant, these options are sure to exude friendliness and old-fashioned charm.

Flora & Fairy Godmother Friends.

Louie. Thanks to the rise of other revived classics like Louis and Leo, darling Louie recently jumped back on the Top 1000 in the United States. The iconic character of King Louie in The Jungle Book makes for a fun association, along with the fact that the orangutan was voiced by Louis Prima, the “King of Swing.”

Dinah. An uncommon Biblical choice, attractive Dinah meshes well with current favorites like Delilah or Diana. It’s the name of Alice’s cat in Alice in Wonderland, with a plethora of other literary and musical connections across the globe. Strong and straightforward, Dinah has an unparalleled air of confidence.

Bernard. One of the heroes in The Rescuers, Bernard is the name of a brave and selfless mouse - somewhat fitting, since the name Bernard comes from old German for “brave as a bear.” A masculine standard, Bernard may be ready for reintroduction along with its endearing nickname, Bernie, after a few years on the bench.

Flora. This pretty and feminine name comes from the Roman goddess of flowers, and Disney continued the supernatural link by bestowing the name on a fairy godmother in Sleeping Beauty. Flora would make a beautiful option next to Cora or Clara, with its elegant style and simplicity. While the name ranks highly in the UK, Flora is virtually invisible in the US.

Jasper. The name of a bumbling henchman in 101 Dalmatians, Jasper has gone from devilish to desirable in the name landscape over the past few years across the US and Europe.  It’s the name of a gemstone associated with energy and strength, as well as a variation of the name of a Biblical king. Charming and brilliant (in more ways than one), Jasper is a fantastic choice for a variety of tastes.

Marian. The bold and bright character of Maid Marian has been portrayed in dozens of films, but the Disney Marian is particularly memorable - and foxy! The name is believed to be a form of Mary or Mary-Ann, and has been used historically for both genders until the last century. Marian resembles Vivian and Lillian in style, but it feels more down-to-earth and friendly.

Amos. A handsome Old Testament option, Amos fits in well alongside Noah, Ethan, and all of the other names in the recent Biblical boom. This pleasant name was surprisingly given to a villain in The Fox and the Hound, but that doesn’t sour Amos’ gentle reputation too much. Now ranking at #678, it’s only a matter of time before sweet Amos gains more attention.

Mim. This spirited derivative of Miriam is the name of a witch in The Sword and the Stone, but we won’t hold that against her. Mim has been found occasionally in literature and television, yet it’s never been recorded as a name in the United States. Mim could be a wonderful unique nickname for another M-name or stand on its own, with such inherent energy and pride.

Gus. Adorable Gus squeaked back onto the US Top 1000 in 2016, coming it at #999, but already it seems like a star on the rise. It’s a short form of August or Gustave, and it’s chosen by Cinderella for her unforgettable mouse friend (along with the nickname “Gus Gus”). Classic yet refreshing, Gus is a distinguished choice that will stand the test of time.

Penny. Once the favorite version of Penelope, sparkling Penny has now has been overtaken in popularity by her originator. The name has a fun and positive girl-next-door vibe, and it’s used for the young female character in The Rescuers. A pop culture pick, Penny has been immortalized on screen, in song, and on the page - let your little one make this name her own.

Cyril. Aristocratic and unexpected Cyril is used for a character in The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. It’s not too far from modern Cyrus in sound, and parallels standards like Arthur and Francis in its style. Only given to about 40 boys each year, Cyril is an unusual option with a lot of potential.

Anita. Appealing Anita is is the name of Perdita’s owner in 101 Dalmatians; she’s a loving and maternal figure in the puppies’ home. The name Anita has become a cross-cultural favorite over the last century, being a diminutive of eternal Anna. It’s melodic and radiant, and accessible but not too common - an excellent option for any little girl.

Mickey. Forever associated with Mr. Mouse, dynamic Mickey peaked in the 1950’s and slowly declined from there. But it fits in with upbeat nickname-names like Charlie or Jack, and a wide variety of individuals have worn this dynamic name, from athletes to movie stars. Oh Mickey, you’re so fine - and just ripe for a comeback.

Daisy. Another early Disney character, Daisy Duck first appeared in 1940 as a foil for classic Donald. The delightful name came into use in the nineteenth century along with other floral options, and it’s never left the US Top 1000. Daisy is warm and cheery, and a sassy alternative to choices like Lily and Violet today.

Rufus. A final name from The Rescuers, delightful Rufus is the name of Penny’s pet cat. The name has been on the rise in the United Kingdom, gaining global attention thanks to musician Rufus Wainwright. Rufus combines a saintly background with contemporary chic, which could explain its popularity among A-listers.