Something mysterious has happened to America's popular baby names: they've disappeared.
No, the names Noah and Emma haven't suddenly vanished from the nation's nurseries. Those names are still #1 for American boys and girls. But it's debatable whether they're truly popular, at least by historical standards. For perspective, let's take a look at popular names of the past.
Dialing all the way back to 1880 (the earliest year of detailed baby name stats), half of all American boys received a name ranked among the top 15 on the popularity chart. Each of those 15 names was given to at least 1% of American boys. That makes for a tidy criterion: back in the age of traditional naming, a very popular boy's name was one given to 1% of all boys born, and a typical baby boy was likely to bear one of those names.
Baby naming evolved during the 20th Century, but that 1% standard remained a reasonable way to describe popular names. In the graph below, you'll see the total percentage of American boys receiving any name given to 1% or more of boys, in 25 year increments from 1880 through 1980. I've also listed the names that qualified at each point to get a sense of what "popular" names looked like at the time.
Styles certainly changed, from the eras of Fred and Frank to Larry and Gary to Jason and Justin. Yet the common names of each era still accounted for well over a third of all boys born. Now let's extend that same graph into the 21st Century.
Oh my, it appears we've fallen off a cliff! The list of qualifying names in 2005 was just Jacob, Michael, Joshua, Matthew and Ethan. Today (as of 2016 data), it's null. Zero, zip, nothing. Not a single boy's name today reaches the threshold that marked everyday popularity in generations past.
The graph for girls' names is nearly as stark:
It's one thing to say that we're naming more creatively today. It's quite another to realize that, from a historical perspective, popular names essentially no longer exist. Sure, we know that today's #1 names, Noah and Emma, aren't what John and Mary used to be. But they're not even what, say, Gary and Cynthia used to be.
The next generation, growing up at the far end of those graphs, is bound to have a different perspective on names. There are no generic names in their cohort. That's no "every Tom, Dick and Harry," no "little Susie and Johnny," no "Karen, hold my calls." Instead, each name points more than ever to a specific place, time and subculture into which a child was born.
These days, name inspiration can come from all kinds of cultural icons, from rock stars to politicians. When looking for a worthy namesake, choosing one that embodies a plethora of positive traits is ideal. Why not consider the fabulous female stars of 1930’s and 1940’s Hollywood films? Witty, strong, and beautiful, these women continue to inspire audiences and fans today.
This list contains thirteen names outside of the current top 400 that come from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Elegant and dynamic, these names are sure to imbue your little one with confidence - and a flair for the dramatic!
Claudette Colbert. Image via Wikimedia Commons
Greta. Already bouncing around the top 1000, Greta is a sweet and graceful name that has the added bonus of being a cross-cultural option - it’s already a popular choice in Italy and Germany. Bombshell namesake Greta Garbo gives this name an extra layer of sophistication, making Greta versatile for all types of personalities.
Veronica. Beautiful Veronica has long been a favorite of American parents - its feminine sound, Biblical history, and multitude of namesakes makes it a fantastic choice for all types. Hollywood star Veronica Lake helped make it a chic pick as well, giving Veronica a boost in popularity in the 1940’s. If you’re looking for a name with Victoria’s energy but without its trendiness, why not consider Veronica?
Katharine. One of the most accomplished actresses ever to grace the silver screen was the iconic Katharine Hepburn. Her own popularity directly affected the usage of Katharine (with an A) - the name climbed through the 1940’s, and had its last surge in use the year she died, 2003. This spelling was also used by Shakespeare for one of his characters in Love’s Labour Lost - truly a stylish and substantial choice.
Rita. Born into a family of dancers, the glamorous Rita Hayworth was destined for stardom from the beginning. She became one of the most beloved actresses and pin-up girls in the United States during the 1940’s. Her nickname was short for Margarita, but these days the short form is just ripe for a return - vintage and feminine, Rita exudes positive energy and confidence.
Bette. A commanding performer, Bette Davis had such a wide range of film successes that it’s difficult to characterize her as any single type. Though she was born Ruth Elizabeth, she took her stage name from a character in a Balzac novel. Riveting and retro, Bette would be a memorable choice for any modern girl.
Vivien. Vivien Leigh’s outstanding performance as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind prompted this lovely name to jump almost 300% in popularity between 1939 and 1940 - not bad for her first American film! Though the Vivien spelling is historically male, Tennyson’s use of the name for a female character in 1859 almost single-handedly switched the name to the girls’ side. Pretty yet vivacious, Vivien has an attitude all its own.
Claudette. The gorgeous and witty Claudette Colbert propelled both her career and her first name to stardom during the 1930’s, both peaking the year she won Best Actress for It Happened One Night. Her name carries a classic French vibe, and was used recently for a character in Orange is the New Black - could captivating Claudette return to the rankings?
Marlene. Born Marie Magdalene, Marlene Dietrich combined her first and middle name to create the elegant Marlene (pronounced as three syllables). A star in both Germany and the United States, Dietrich’s popularity rocketed her name into the top 100 in 1931, where it stayed for the next ten years. While two-syllable Marlene hasn’t quite moved past its dated air, three-syllable Marlene (or Marlena) could fit in well with modern trends while still sounding snazzy.
Dorothy. A top 10 name continuously between 1904 and 1939, it’s no wonder that three major Dorothy’s lit up the silver screen during the 1930’s and 40’s - Dandridge, Lamour, and McGuire. Though this melodic name waned through the following decades, darling Dorothy is now back on the upswing, currently at #652.
Ginger. Triple-threat Ginger Rogers danced and sang her way across movie screens during the 1930’s and 40’s, doing everything Fred Astaire did “backwards and in high heels.” Her stage name Ginger was derived from her birth name Virginia, and became popular in its own right through the twentieth century. With names like Sage and Clementine on the rise, Ginger might fit in well on today’s playgrounds.
Jean. Two blonde Jean’s caught the public’s eye in the 1930’s - Jean Harlow of The Public Enemy, and Jean Arthur of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. While the name has been in decline since that decade, Jean’s literary connections and pop culture links may inspire modern parents to revisit the sassy name.
Hedy. Similar-sounding choices Hadley and Eden have been embraced by parents looking for a combined contemporary yet vintage sound - perhaps unusual Hedy should receive a second look. Austrian actress and inventor Hedy Lamarr chose to be known by her nickname rather than Hedwig, and inspired Hedy’s brief foray into the top 1000 in the 1940’s.
Rosalind. As Rose-related names continue to bloom, historical Rosalind may find itself flourishing once again. Comedian and actress Rosalind Russell popularized the name through the 1940’s, but it hasn’t ranked on the top 1000 since 1978. Uma Thurman recently used the name for her daughter, continuing Rosalind’s association with the best and brightest of Hollywood.
Looking for a boy's name that spells action? Try spelling it with an X.
The letter X is the hottest sound in the action-name belt. That's the style zone running roughly from Idaho and Montana south to Oklahoma and Arkansas, and east toward Tennessee and West Virginia. It's the likeliest place to find rough-and-ready action names like Stryker and Gunner, along with Maddox, Jaxxon, Dax, and just about any modern-sounding X name you can imagine.
Even in this x-travagant name region, one specific style of X name stands out. Boys' names ending in XT*N (like Axton) are suddenly everywhere.
Some of the names, like Paxton and Ruxton, are familiar as surnames and place names. Those set the blueprint for a flowering of new inventions like Bronxton and Zaxtyn. Parents are treating the XT*N as an infinitely extensible base, limited only by their imaginations.
The list below shows names given to 5 or more American boys last year. Browse it for a snapshot of a new action-packed generation.
|ACTION AXTON NAMES|