Can you sum up a baby naming era in a single pair of names? Let's give it a try: Donald and Betty. Gary and Deborah. Austin and Alexis. None of those names ever hit #1 on the popularity charts, but they were the most characteristic baby names of 1930, 1953 and 1996 respectively.
I've identified the characteristic names of every year since 1900 -- the names most distinctively popular at that time compared to other eras. Some of the names did become #1 hits, but many others defined their fashion times without ever reaching the top spot. Each year's boy/girl name pair represents a moment in American culture.
Scroll through the name style timeline below. I think you'll feel time itself scrolling along with with you.
American parents love Celtic names. We've adopted scores of Irish, Scottish and Welsh favorites across the generations. Think of Douglas and Eileen, Brian and Bridget, Ryan and Megan, Liam and Riley. But how many hit names can you think of from Cornwall, Brittany or the Isle of Man?
Cornish, Breton and Manx are the "other" Celtic languages, mostly neglected in the baby name hunt. Even the massive triumph of the Cornish-ish name Jennifer didn't turn the tide. It's not surprising, given the greater size and influence of the other three traditions. More than 30 million Americans claim Irish ancestry, while the total population of the Isle of Man is just 87,545.
Style is a factor too. Breton names often sound French rather than Celtic to American ears, and some Cornish and Manx names can frankly sound like off-brand Lord of the Rings characters. ("I Can't Believe It's Not Tolkein: The Manx Adventures of Gilno and Sandulf!")
Don't give up yet, though. The very unfamiliarity and otherworldliness of these names can work to their advantage. I've scoured the less-traveled corners of Celtic heritage and come up with a name list that carries a surprising air of valor, romance and adventure. You might be inspired to name a baby, or at least to write a fantasy novel.
(Note that pronunciations of many of these names vary with location.)
Elowen (eh-LOH-in): Wondering how Tolkein missed this one? Elowen is a modern name, from the Cornish for "elm tree." Its use is spreading beyond Cornwall.
Kerensa/Kerenza (kə-REHN-zə): The Cornish word for "love," Kerensa has multiple equally popular spellings.
Emblyn (EHM-blin): This medieval form of Emmeline remained in use in Cornwall for centuries, though it's rare in modern usage.
Veryan (VEHR-ee-ən): The Cornish village of Veryan took its name from its patron saint Symphorian via a process of linguistic corruption: Symphorian --> Severian --> St. Veryan. While the saint was male, the name is somewhat more common for girls today.
Delen (DEHL-ən): This modern name is the Cornish word for "leaf" or "petal."
Endellion (ehn-DEHL-yən, ehn-DEHL-ee-ən): A saintly classic with fairy-tale style. St. Endellion was said to be a daughter of the legendary 5th-century King Brychan, and a village in Cornwall is named for her.
Cador (CAD-ohr): The Cornish ruler Sir Cador is straight out of Arthurian legend. The name remains more familiar as legend than as a baby name, and still sounds valiant.
Locryn (LAWK-rin): Legends tell us that spurned Queen Gwendolen assembled an army in Cornwall to defeat King Locrinus of the Britons. The King's name survives in the Cornish name Locryn, which has been revived somewhat in modern Cornwall.
Lowen (LŌ-en): A modern name taken from the Cornish word for "happy," Lowen is a unisex name in Cornwall today.
Zennor (ZEHN-er): The name of a Cornish village, from the local name for Saint Senara. Used for girls as well.
Jory (JOR-ee): A Cornish form of George, Jory could also work as a youthful nickname for that formal classic.
Talek (TAL-ehk): Cornish writer E. G. Retallack Hooper, a 20th-century Grand Bard of Cornwall, adopted the bardic name Talek ("big-browed"). It developed some momentum as a baby name in his wake.
Enora (eh-NOH-rə): The Breton form of Honora, this name has gained popularity in the past generation.
Katell (KA-tell): A rare French "K" name, Katell is a Breton form of Katherine.
Briac (bree-AK, BREE-ahk): An old Breton Saint's name, Briac is a linguistic relative of familiar Celtic names like Brian and Bridget.
Mael (MIY-ayl, MIYL): Mael is currently the most popular name of Breton heritage. It's typically written Maël in French, and the feminine version Maëlle is nearly as popular.
Calybrid (KAH-lee-breed): The Caly- prefix was attached to various saints' names and meant "devotee/servant of"; in this case, "devotee of St. Brigid." Gil- was the male counterpart, and both prefixes can also stand alone.
Finlo (FIN-loh): A Manx classic built around the popular root Finn ("white, fair").
As one of the most enduring books of all time, the Bible has given us loads of classic names that have remained treasured throughout generations. It's also inspired trends, and now more than ever, today's parents are looking for the next hot biblical name. Here are a few that haven't yet broken into the mainstream, but have lots of potential with a trend-worthy feel and an unshakeable biblical background.
Jotham (JOTH-əm): This name is a rare but refreshingly uncomplicated biblical choice that sounds as modern as Batman's hometown (Gotham City). Jotham was the youngest son of Gideon in the Old Testament. This name is a character in the novel The Pioneers, written in the 1800s, which makes the point for us that this name also has "American pioneer" written all over it.
Hezekiah: Once cherished in the pioneer days of America, this intriguing biblical name is beginning to charm parents yet again. It's a rare choice that combines the soft sounds of Jeremiah with the lovable quirkiness of Ezekiel. In fact, the nickname Zeke is a possibility for a little Hezekiah, as well as other splashy choices like Hezzie, Ky, or Kiah.
Ephraim: So much more than a character in the Twilight series, Ephraim is a tribe of Israel in the Old Testament grounded in tradition. We're just taking notice of this name for its antiquated and unique sound, which, although debated, is most commonly EHF-rəm.
Matthias, Mathias: As the most popular name on this list, Matthias is leading the group with its familiar sound, biblical roots, and nostalgic image. Affording parents a twist on the standard Matthew, Matthias is an Old Testament choice that dares to be just a little bit different...but not so different you can't still call him Matty.
Elisha (ee-LIY-shə): In the shadow of the ultra popular Elijah sits Elisha, a lesser-known biblical figure with a softer sound that still affords the nickname Eli. If you're looking for something a little different but still trend-worthy, this name strikes a perfect balance between the two. In fact, this is quarterback Eli Manning's full name.
Phineas: The name of more than one minor character in the Bible, Phineas is an unusual but sweetly appealing name that doesn't get enough attention. With names like Finnegan and Silas stealing the spotlight, Phineas is waiting in the wings to be discovered as the storied biblical alternative with a trendy sound and antique sensibilities.
Samson: Muscle goes hand-in-hand with this famed Hebrew name, forever linked to the Nazarite warrior whose great strength came from his long hair. Samson is just starting to explode on the naming scene, hitting an all-time high of 628 out of the top 1,000 names for boys in the past year.
Uriah: It's all about the vowel sounds with this one, which leads with a distinguished U- and follows up with a familiar and pleasant -iah ending. The name means, "God is my light." The biblical Uriah was an honorable soldier for King David and Bathsheba's husband, before he was murdered.
Zebulon (or Zebulun): A son of Jacob and Leah, this name also represents a Hebrew tribe. It's very rare, but we think it has a lot going for it, especially the zippy nickname Zeb. Even its old-fashioned associations add character to this name, including real life namesakes like Zebulon Pike (explorer for whom Pike's Peak is named), and fictional ones like Zebulon Walton.
Reuben: It's a little unfortunate that this name became synonymous with a sandwich. Reuben is in fact a fantastic Hebrew choice and one of the twelve tribes of Israel. Parents are starting to look past its delicatessen associations and toward the charming sound and biblical heritage this name offers.
Jedidiah: A biblical name meaning "beloved of God," Jedidiah has loads of old-fashioned appeal and was used with enthusiasm among the Puritans. Today, this name is feeling fresh again as we continue our search for the next fashionable biblical hit.
Simeon: Once a fashionable choice in Victorian times, Simeon took a dramatic fall from popularity over the past century. That makes this bygone biblical standard an uncommonly refreshing choice for today with loads of potential. For more than 10 years now, Simeon has been flirting with top 1,000 names, appearing near the bottom of the list.
Jabez (JAY-behz, JAH-behz): The recent inspirational book and movement featuring this name came from the Old Testament, where Jabez was blessed by God. It was much more common in centuries past, and you can find it used for characters from the Sherlock Holmes series as well as the classic short story The Devil and Daniel Webster. The sound may be antiquated, but it has an attractive -z ending and the possibility for the nickname Jay.
Jeriah: A rare choice found in the Old Testament, Jeriah hits a sweet spot with its popular -iah ending and brevity. It works well among other hit biblical names, while keeping its appeal as a unique option.
Enoch: It's time to blow the dust off this ancient name, as today's parents are proving. Five years ago, Enoch appeared in the top 1,000 names, and it's slowly but steadily becoming more popular. The strong E- sound at the beginning is helping Enoch feel like a unique alternative to Ethan or Elijah.