I have a file where I jot down little name questions, curiosities and mysteries for future investigation. Some of those questions eventually grow into full-fledged columns. Others just languish on the list, sadly neglected.
Here are two of the orphans. Care to play name detective and help me solve them?
Ansley in Georgia. Ansley is an uncommon girl's name, currently ranking #719 in America. It wouldn't make the national charts at all, though, if it weren't for Georgia, where Ansley has been a top-hundred name every year since 1994. Why? Yes, there is an Ansley, GA with a golf course, but there are plenty of attractively named towns and golf courses in Georgia that don't get the baby name treatment.
The Stephanie Rebound. In some ways, baby names seem to obey the same laws as the physical world. For instance, one of the hardest things in the name world is to reverse momentum. Once a popular name starts to decline, the sense that it's getting stale grows and it keeps on falling. In the rare case that you spot a name reversing its decline, you can draw the same conclusion you could with a ball that turns around and rolls uphill: it was acted upon by an outside force.
Stephanie was such a name in the 1970s, declining for three years than surging back bigger than ever. The question is, what was the outside force?
Here's a little pet peeve of mine: nothing rhymes with orange. You've heard that before, right? Orange is famous for its rhymelessness. There's even a comic strip called "Rhymes with Orange." Fine then, let me ask you something. What the heck rhymes with purple?
If you stop and think about it, you'll find that English is jam-packed with rhymeless common words. What rhymes with empty, or olive, or silver, or circle? You can even find plenty of one-syllable words like wolf, bulb, and beige. Yet orange somehow became notorious for its rhymelessness, with the curious result that people now assume its status is unique.
In the realm of baby names, rhymeless examples are even easier to find -- and rhyming has a more practical significance. Compare the names Kayden and Faith. Faith is far more common, but Kayden is one of 40 names rhyming with Aidan that make the boys' top-1000 list. Even a rare name like Grayden hardly sounds distinctive in a Jayden-meet-Brayden world. Faith is a top-100 name, but its stand-alone sound helps keep it from sounding overused.
I've scoured the top 200 boys' and girls' lists for fashionable names with no rhymes, near rhymes, or shared roots/nicknames in the top 1000. (A single alternate spelling can pass.) I've also ruled out all boys' names ending in -n, for reason of outrageous abundance. The names on this list may not be rare in themselves, but like orange...er, purple...they stand alone.
Nothing has greater potential to move baby name style than a teen/tween craze. Just think, thanks to Harry Potter a whole generation on the cusp of procreation now sees Hermione as brainy and Luna as looney. Yet the Hogwarts crew has been limited in its baby name impact, because author J.K. Rowling wasn't targeting fashion with her names. Like Charles Dickens, Rowling crafted eccentric character names for mood, meaning and laughs.
Rowling's successor atop the children's best seller lists has chosen a more fashion-forward path. That makes Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series a potential earthshaker in the baby name landscape.
If you've somehow managed to miss the Twilight phenomenon, it sets up as your classic girl-meets-vampire moon-crossed romance. Your leading lady is Bella, the most symbolic name in the series. It connects to the Beauty and the Beast tradition (La Belle et la Bête), adjusted for 21st-century teenager style. Bella's undead beau is Edward, lending a new edge to that neglected classic. Other characters come in handy name groups: ordinary teenagers named Mike, Lauren and Jessica; dads named Charlie and Billy. But the real naming clout of the series belongs to the supporting vampires.
Meet Edward Cullen's family: Alice, Carlisle, Esme, Emmett, Jasper, and Rosalie. They're not blood relatives, at least not in the traditional sense. They're a close-knit undead clan, with birth dates ranging from the 1640s (Carlisle) to 1935 (Emmett).
Some of the names are more historically plausible than others. Carlisle is unlikely for a 17th-century Englishman, while an Alice would have sounded natural in Biloxi, Mississippi in 1901. They all do have some striking features in common, though. Note their vowel-heavy sounds, more typical of the 21st Century than the 19th. Note also that none of the names ranked among the 400 most popular for boys or girls in 2005, the year that both Twilight and The Baby Name Wizard were first published.
Here are quotes on some of the Cullen family names from that first edition of BNW: "Name watchers report increased sightings of this rare bird among the literary and artistic elite." "Has the kind of mischievous charm that makes all the girls swoon." "Expect to see the name come back first in the tony urban neighborhoods where Lucy and Henry are hits."
As a group, these vampiric names defined cutting-edge urban/artsy style. They were selected to set the family apart from their supposed high school peers. The names helped make the Cullens both alluring and intimidating, a scary, sophisticated clique impenetrable to kids with names like Mike and Jessica.
Since 2005 the names Alice, Emmett and Jasper have all risen significantly in popularity. Esme and Rosalie are poised to crack the top 1000 for 2009, Rosalie for the first time in decades and Esme for the first time ever. In part, this doubtless reflects the influence of the books themselves. But as always, the name matters more than the fame. Stephenie Meyer chose those names to be so cool that they would sparkle in the sunlight, and live forever.