I flatter myself that The Baby Name Wizard is a good source for name information, particularly trends and ideas. But it doesn't cover everything. Most conspicuously absent is the stuff of the familiar baby name dictionary: name etymology, or "meanings and origins." (Personally I think meanings and origins are very different things, but that's an argument for another day.) Etymology buffs might want to keep a name dictionary at hand to research the linguistic history of their favorite names. But which dictionary?
I get the question often enough that I figured I ought to share my answer here. First, I should make clear that there are quite a few worthwhile name dictionaries on the market (as well as quite a few stinkers.) I have no affiliation with any of them. But if I had to recommend just one book on English name origins to keep on your bookshelf, my choice would be:
The Oxford Dictionary of First Names by Patrick Hanks and Flavia Hodges.
This book was compiled by distinguished lexicographers, and it shows. Compare the entries on my name, Laura, in a typical name "dictionary" vs. the Oxford...
Italian, Spanish, and English: feminine form of the Late Latin male name Laurus "Laurel". St Laura was a 9th-century Spanish nun who met her death in a cauldron of molten lead. Laura is also the name of the woman addressed in the love poetry of the Italian poet Petrarch (Francesco Petrarca, 1304-74), and it owes much of its subsequent popularity to this. There have been various speculations about her identity, but it has not been established with any certainty. He first met her in 1327 while living in Avignon, and she died of the plague in 1348. The current popularity of the given name in the English-speaking world dates from the 19th century, when it was probably imported from Italy. Cognates: French: Laure. Catalan: Llora. German: Lora, Lore. Pet form: English: Laurie.
Need I say more? Well, perhaps a bit more. Given current name styles, you might also want a dictionary of surnames. Conveniently, Hanks and Hodges wrote one of those as well. It's pricy and not easily available in the U.S., but fear not. The first-name and surname dictionaries have been collected in a single massive volume together with A. D. Mills' dictionary of English place names. With a shipping weight of 4.5 pounds, the Oxford Names Companion is a whole lot of dictionary for your money. It's only for the hard-core name enthusiast...but hey, you're reading this blog, right?
Extra bonus radio edition!
If you're looking for even more baby name talk in all media, you might want to check out the recent name-filled hour on NPR's "On Point."
Last week I introduced the "one-hit wonders," names that made the U.S. top-1000 name charts one year and never again. In the weeks to come I'll be taking periodic dips into this fascinating pool of names, exploring the outer edges of American baby name style.
This week I'll lead off with some superlatives -- one-hit names of past generations that are hardest and easiest to picture parents turning to today.
Easiest to picture:
Tacy (psst, parents, don't forget to give your daughter Betsy-Tacy for her 5th birthday!)
Hardest to picture
Girtha (a special award winner; like Bertha, but fatter!)
If you look again at the "easiest" boy's list above, you'll see that it's dominated by surnames. Overall, surname-based names make up about a third of the male one-hit wonders. The late 1800s and early 1900s were a heyday of the surname style, with common choices like Winfield, Sanford, Eldridge and Lyman. Some, doubtless, were taken from personal family trees. Others were chosen for the reflected glory of prominent citizens. The one-hits of the 1880s-90s, for instance, include gilded-age financiers (Pratt, Vanderbilt) and Civil War generals (Meade, McClellan). But many other names were chosen as pure style statements, emblems of Anglo elegance.
One intriguing sub-style in the one-hit list is surnames ending in -s. They're exceedingly formal, and exceedingly rare now that our taste in surnames turns more to the rugged and rakish (see this 2005 post on tradesman names). Some one-hit s-men:
And a selection of other evocative one-hit surnames:
It's request hour here at WBNW, with this post going out to the listeners...er, readers who asked for some "one-hit wonders." Those are the baby names that made the U.S. top-1000 name charts one year, never to be heard from again. Where did they come from, and where are they now?
I've run the calculations and I now have the definitive list of the names that appeared on the charts exactly once from the 1880s through the 1980s, and never since. Any guess how many? 860 names. It's a big number, but not really surprising given that we're spanning 110 years of baby naming style. The list reflects passing fashions, creative spellings, historical moments and waves of immigration. It's a fascinating collection of styles ranging from what-were-they-thinking to why-didn't-I-think-of-that. Today I'm going to describe the one-hit wonders as a group, and I'll highlight various discoveries over the coming weeks.
Before we delve into stats and methods, a few choice names:
- Euclid and Pliny
- Sable and Ermine
- Profit, Worthy and Wealthy
And now, the fine print. My first step was to classify the one-hit names into three broad categories:
1. Data entry artifacts (E.g. Infant, Christop, girls named Melvin)
2. Variant spellings of more common names with the same sound
3. Pure one-and-done names
There were plenty of judgment calls along the way. Were there really boys named Lottie? Is Darlyne pronounced the same as Darlene? The totals I arrived at: 47 artifacts, 157 variants, 656 straight one-hit-wonders.
Due to quirks in my data sample, the distribution of one-hit names skews heavily toward the earliest years in the range, the 1880s-90s. The biggest reason is that far more names made the top 1000 in those years than any others. How can more than 1000 names rank in the top 1000? The answer is ties. For instance, in 1980 the top 1000 girls list actually numbered 1002 names, with Lashunda, Mariel and Rae tying at #1000. (147 babies bore each name.) But that's 1980. 1880 America was a smaller country, and babies born then only made it into our data if they survived long enough to get 20th-century Social Security Numbers. The smaller data set means a smaller range in popularity and more ties at the bottom. So the 1880 girls list features a whopping 1102 girls' names, with a 158-way tie at four babies apiece. I considered skipping the 1880s for this reason, but frankly the names of that time were too much fun to ignore.
And now for a few more names:
- Welcome, Constant, Bliss (all boys)
- Sweetie, Lovie, Doll (any guesses which are boys?)
- Icey, Nicy, Spicy, Vicy (girls; Dicy appears in multiple years' lists)
To be continued....