Congratulations! It's a...uh oh.

Aug 6th 2007

You're well into the second trimester of your pregnancy. You're feeling fine, the baby has starting kicking and you're heading in to the doctor's office for a much-anticipated ultrasound. As the squirming image of the baby brings tears to your eyes, the ultrasound technician announces: "it looks like a boy!" You head home in a happy daze, marred only by this thought:

Uh-oh. Now I'll never be able to choose a name.


My husband and I loved debating girls' names but couldn't get too excited about any of the boys' options. (Our ultrasounds always said "girl," conveniently sparing us the decision.) Judging by mail from my readers the boy's-name block is a common experience, much more common than the reverse.

Why do so many of us find boys' names harder? Perhaps we're narrower in our notions of what's acceptably "masculine" vs. "feminine." Perhaps we're more conservative, less willing to go out on a creative limb. But perhaps -- for some of us -- the sense that "there just aren't any good boys' names" isn't mere perception.

Quick, which of these sets of girls' names appeals to you more:

A. Teagan, Ryleigh, Makayla
B. Isabel, Sophie, Evelyn

If you chose B, you're at much greater risk of boy-block.

For parents who embrace new or invented names, the choices are wide open. Kyler and Braeden, Colton and Jace are just a handful of the hundreds of new masculine names. The trouble awaits the fashionable traditionalists, the baby namers who have brought names like Isabel, Sophie and Evelyn back into style. For these parents, the sense that there aren't any suitable boys' names is flat statistical reality.

At some point around 200 years ago English boys' and girls' names diverged. Both entered a period of change, but girls far more so. Girls' names were tossed fully into the realm of fashion, so that a name like Evelyn could rise to the heights of popularity then fall out of style all in the space of just a few decades. Evelyn reached its peak in 1915, sharing the top 10 with other trendy names of the moment like Mildred, Dorothy, Helen, Ruth and Frances. But look at the top 10 boys of the same year:

John
William
James
Robert
Joseph
George
Charles
Edward
Frank
Thomas

As a group those names were popular for centuries before 1915, and all but George and Frank still rank among the top 100 boys' names today. Hmph. What's the fun in that? The most fashionable traditional names are those that were common in the past but dipped out of use 80+ years ago. They're familiar from history and literature but not tainted with the ordinariness of our own circle of acquaintance. That leaves them with the charming patina of antiques. Names like Thomas and James may be strong, timeless classics, but where's the spark that comes with "rediscovering" a forgotten classic? You can't rediscover something that never went away. In other words, the old-fashioned boys' names aren't old-fashioned enough.

I ran into this problem constantly when I was choosing the sibling name suggestions for the Baby Name Wizard book. Girl after girl seemed to match the same handful of boys. You can only suggest Emmett, Henry, Jasper, Julian, Leo, Max, Oliver, Owen and Theo so many times as matches for dozens of different girls' names.

So if you're looking for a little brother for Sophie and Isabel, it's not your imagination: boys' names really are harder. You aren't just restricted by your own tastes, you're at the mercy of the tastes of parents a century ago.

So, read any good books lately? (JK Rowling and Charles Dickens)

Jul 30th 2007

OK, yes, I was waiting at midnight for my reserved copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The date had been marked on our family's calendar for months. I started with Harry back when the first book came out and was happy to be able to throw myself into that rarest of all moments, the global literary event.

They're books, they're movies, they're toys and costumes and a whole vocabulary that has permeated our times. Such a powerhouse of entertainment is sure to leave its mark on baby names too, right? Nope. You're still not likely to meet a little Hermione or Albus or Sirius, old friend Ronald continues to sink deeper and deeper out of fashion, and even Harry itself has continued its steady decline.

The fundamental law of celebrity naming influence still holds. It's not about the fame, it's about the name. A minor reality tv star with a stylish name can wipe up the floor with a Harry Potter or Seinfeld or Madonna. J.K. Rowling's wizarding world has left no impact on American naming because that's not her game. She doesn't name her characters the way we name babies. To understand Rowling's names, it helps to look back at the last comparable global literary event.

In 1841, eager readers crowded onto a New York wharf to await a ship from England bearing the final installment of Charles Dickens' serialized novel The Old Curiosity Shop. I remember reading about this in high school history class, where it was presented as an emblem of an unimaginably different age. Now, of course, we see that we're not really so different from the folks back then. It just took 166 years for the right book to come along.

Some observers have taken the Dickens-Rowling analogy further. Each author, for instance, brought a new popular legitimacy to what had previously been considered "low" literature. But in this space there can be only one comparison: the names. In Dickens and Rowling, names don't just represent people. They're drenched with mood and meaning, conjuring up scenes, backstories, and as often as not laughs. Many other authors have attempted the same thing, but it's a tricky sort of poetry. Make the name too obvious or too extreme and it all falls apart; the reader is jerked out of the book and finds herself staring face to face with an author who's trying a little too hard.

In celebration of the masters of the genre, here are some memorable Dickens-Rowling names. If you can't sort out which is which, perhaps it's time to start your reading with Harry Potter book 1.

Abel Magwitch
Anastasia Veneering
Arabella Figg
Chevy Slyme
Dolores Umbridge
Elphias Doge
Filius Flitwick
Flora Finching
Horace Slughorn
Humphrey Belcher
John Podsnap
Kingsley Shacklebolt
Lucretia Tox
Luke Honeythunder
Millicent Bulstrode
Montigue Tigg
Mortimer Lightwood
Mundungus Fletcher
Ninetta Crummles
Paul Sweedlepipe
Peg Sliderskew
Pius Thicknesse
Rufus Scrimgeour
Stan Shunpike
Stubby Boardman
Volumnia Dedlock
Wackford Squeers
Wilkie Twycross
Willy Widdershins
Zephaniah Scadder

Where all boys end up nowadays

Jul 19th 2007

As I research names I'm constantly poking into dusty corners of data and compiling arcane charts. Most will never see the light of day, but one has grabbed me so hard I just have to share. So strap on your helmets, we're going data mining!

For background, I'm convinced that that the whole baby-naming enterprise has changed dramatically over the past 25 years. Part of what I'm trying to do is to demonstrate that this change is real and get a handle on what it means. One natural place to look is in name endings. As I've discussed in the past, endings do a lot of the work of giving a generation of names its trademark sound. (See the posts called "It's how you finish," parts one and two.)

So here is a graph of boys born by the last letter of their given names, back in 1906:

Only 11 letters were in common end-letter use, led by a clear "Big Four" that memorably spell ENDS (think George, John, Edward, James.) Now let's leap 50 years ahead and chart the same data for boys born in 1956:

It's hard to compare the graphs in this format, but the changes are relatively modest given the 50-year time span. The exact same 11 end letters dominate as in 1906, and the Big Four ENDS all rank among a new Big Five. This is the fundamental conservatism of the English men's naming stock, the immovable core of Johns and Jameses that endures across generations. Or did, at least. 'Cause take a gander at 2006:


Ladies and gentlemen, that is a baby naming revolution.

More on this in the months to come...