Have you heard this one? A King, an Empress, a Legend and a Messiah walk into a…preschool. It couldn't be a bar, because nobody over 21 is likely to have any of those names. In the diaper demographic, though, the names are all soaring. American baby names are suddenly ready to rule.
Image Via Khamidulin Sergey/Shutterstock
The rise of exalted names has been swift and dramatic. As of 2005, King barely registered as a baby name at all. It hadn't cracked the top 1,000 boys' name list for more than 40 years. Yet by 2014 King had leapt to #175 among all boys' names, ahead of names like Kyle and Aidan.
King is just one of 111 different exalted names I've identified in the most recent year's baby name stats. [You can see the full list at the bottom of this post.] I looked for names that don't merely suggest royalty or divinity, but shout it. Names like, yes, Royalty and Divinity. As a group, the exalted names are eight times as popular as they were 20 years ago, and much of that rise has happened in just the past few years:
That 3-year trend is extraordinarily sharp for a set of over 100 names. The biggest numbers come from the explosion of all things King (e.g. Kingston, Kingsley, MyKing, KingJames), but the trend goes far beyond that one title. Royal and Reign are soaring, as are Zeus and Odin, Messiah and Miracle, Legend and Majesty. This is one place where celebrity parents Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, who named their son Saint, are solidly in America's mainstream.
The trend is clear for both genders, but particularly dramatic for boys:
If you look at the crossing lines, you'll see that girls received more exalted names as recently as 2006, but today the boys outnumber them by more than 2 to 1. That's notable since parents have traditionally been more conservative with boys' names. The exalted style is far from conservative, yet it's not a typical creative modern name trend either. Style today is usually driven by sound, in trends like -n names and "raindrop names." Exalted names are a rare contemporary example of substance over sound, but a kind of substance we've never seen before.
The adoption of lofty titles as names isn't strictly new. Regal names like King and Queen had a modest vogue a century ago. Back then, though, the titles were part of an aspirational name style that included potential real-life career goals: Judge, Doctor, General. Most of today's exalted names lie firmly outside the career track in a realm of dreams. Their scope is boundless: Goddess, Messiah, Yahweh.
There's a stylistic boldness to many of the selections as well. Standard English meaning names have always been nouns, from Grace and Pearl to Maverick and Destiny. The exalted names reach into adjectives, daring to be Majestic, Amazing, Heavenly, and Supreme.
When thousands of American families start choosing names like these, it has to mean something. For many of the names, I suspect that "something" is simply a loosening of inhibitions. Our naming culture has broken wide open so that a far wider range of options seem possible. Parents in the past might have thought Zeus was a cool name, but today they feel free to go for it.
When it comes to the boldest exalted names, though, it feels like there's more going on. A name like Goddess or Amazing is clearly intended to inspire the child, and to celebrate her. Again, those aren't new impulses. Humbler virtue names like Faith and Grace aim to inspire, and names of precious beauty like Pearl and Lily to aim celebrate. The exalted names are distinctive for the way they skip the inspiration journey and go straight to the finish line – and beyond, to an impossibly high winner's podium. A name like Destiny seeks to inspire greatness. A name like Empress thrusts greatness upon you.
The new exalted names are emphatic, demanding that this child will be valued and respected. Which makes you realize that for many kids, that destiny is far from certain.
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The full lineup of exalted names given to 5+ American boys or girls in 2014 (the most recent year for which stats are available):
Sometimes the nickname comes first. Maybe you want to name after Grandpa Ben, but you already know two little Benjamins. Maybe you'd love to call your son Cole, but you'd like a longer formal name for flexibility. Or maybe you just like classic nicknames but want a given name that stands out from the pack.
The good news is that nicknames are flexible creatures. They don't have be simple trimmings of full name, and they mix and match with surprising ease. Think of Ike, which can be a contraction of Isaac – or a riff on any first or last name with a strong "I" sound, as in case of Dwight David "Ike" Eisenhower.
Each of the familiar nicknames below can link up with formal names of widely different styles. If you're brainstorming beyond this list, remember to look past the first syllable for strong sounds anywhere in the name.
Andy (Conventional source: Andrew)
Anders, Anderson, Andre, Andreas, Andres, Androcles, Leander
Ben (Conventional source: Benjamin)
Alben, Benedict, Benicio, Bennett, Benno, Bentley, Benton, Benoit, Reuben
Colby, Coleman, Coleridge, Colin, Colm, Colton, Colwyn, Nicholas, Nicholson
Ike (Conventional source: Isaac)
Einar, Ichabod, Ikaika, Iker, Isaiah, Ryker
Ken (Conventional source: Kenneth)
Kendall, Kendrick, Kenelm, Kennan, Kensington, Kenyon, Kenzo, McKennon
Mike (Conventional source: Michael)
Amichai, Carmichael, Micah, Michelangelo, Michelson
Ned (Conventional source: Edward, Edmund)
Edgar, Edison, Edmond, Needham, Nevada, Newland
Nick (Conventional source: Nicholas)
Dominick, Niccolò, Nicholson, Nicodemus, Nikhil, Nikolai, Yannick
Rick (Conventional source: Richard)
Aidrick, Alaric, Broderick, Carrick, Derrick, Dietrich, Emeric, Enrico, Erick, Ericson, Frederick, Garrick, Jericho, Kendrick, Maverick, Merrick, Ricardo, Richmond, Roderick, Ulrich, Warrick, Varick
Rod (Conventional source: Rodney)
Jarod, Roderick, Rodger, Rodion, Rodman, Rodrigo, Rolando, Rowland
Ron (Conventional source: Ronald)
Chiron, Evron, Geronimo, Kyron, Oberon, Ronaldo, Ronan, Rondell, Tyron
Sam (Conventional source: Samuel)
Samir, Sampson, Samson, Samwise, Seamus
Will (Conventional source: William)
Fitzwilliam, Wilder, Wiley, Wilkes, Willis, Willoughby, Wilson, Wilton
"Star Wars: The Force Awakens" is a powerhouse at the box office and in toy stores. With its deep cultural roots and cross-generational appeal, it's likely to extend that reach to baby names. After all, even the much-maligned prequels managed to launch the name Anakin onto the top-1,000 baby names chart. My question for the new Star Wars entry is, which names?
After seeing the film with a large multigenerational group, I surveyed my fellow moviegoers for their reactions to the film's key names. Here are the stylemaking odds, counting down from the longest longshot to the likeliest hit. SPOILER ALERT: If you haven't seen "The Force Awakens," get thee to a cinema first then come back and read on.
Image via StarWars.com
The name of the film's biggest, baddest villain earned nothing but eye rolls from my panelists. As one put it, "It doesn't even work for a bad guy."
Odds of taking off as a baby name: 10,000 to 1.
The ancient space pirate Maz Kanata was a favorite with my group, "kind of a woman Yoda." They reluctantly rejected her name, though. The consensus was that Maz "would be a good name for pets, not humans."
Odds: 1,000 to 1.
With the rising popularity of the names Sky and Walker, I thought this name might have legs as a futuristic take on the tradesman style. My panel was having none of it: "It's too specific to the characters."
Odds: 100 to 1.
Could "The Force Awakens" spark a new wave of namesakes for old friend Han Solo? Perhaps not. "It sounds incomplete," one respondent explained. Another summed it up: "If Han hasn't worked yet, it's just not going to work."
Odds: 50 to 1
The name of masked baddie Kylo Ren split the panel along generational lines. The kids and teenagers thought Kylo could catch on as a baby name. "It's a pretty cool villain name, not too villainous." Their grandparents were unconvinced. "It sounds like a brand of laundry detergent or toothpaste," one retiree observed. "Remember Halo Shampoo?" chimed in another, and they sang a duet of the 1950s shampoo sales jingle.
Odds: 8 to 1
"Edgar Allan Poe!" shouted my panelists in unison when I brought up the fighter pilot's name. The literary association wasn't necessarily a bad thing, though. "It could be a winner."
Odds: 2 to 1
Finn is already a fashionable, fast-rising name, and the new Star Wars character could put it over the top. "Finn used to sound super-Irish to me. Associating it with a person of color broadens the image in an appealing way." "It was already a cool name, (Star Wars) makes it even cooler."
The sound of this name was a hit with our whole panel. Notably, the young heroine Rey resonated particularly with the teenage girls. One explained that unlike the rest of the Star Wars universe which she had inherited from previous generations, "she's mine." And better yet, "she wears sensible clothing THE WHOLE TIME!"
The big point of contention was the spelling Rey, like the Spanish word for king. Most didn't care for it, offering alternatives like Rae, Raye, Re and Ray, "like a ray of light." Some liked it best as a middle name. In one form or another, though, look for Rey to rise for girls in the years ahead.
Odds: Bet on it.