The Name That Launched a Thousand Female Sons

Jul 4th 2011

Androgynous names are always controversial. But right now, one group of gender-bending names is generating more than the usual heat: -son surnames names for girls.

These names have an explicitly masculine meaning, "son of," that's hard to miss. Applying them to girls drives a certain segment of the populace bananas. On Namipedia, in comments on this blog, and wherever people talk about names, you'll find harsh opinions like this:

"Sad to see that people are still giving their girls masculine boy names like Addison, Emerson, Madison etc. News flash people, the suffix  'son' literally means son. For instance, the origin of the name Addison is 'son of Adam.' These parents put as much thought into naming their girls as a toddler would in naming his hamster."

Buried beneath all the vitriol is an interesting question. Why did parents start naming their daughters "sons"?

Let's take a look at the three top examples: Madison, Addison, and Emerson. All of them feature the powerhouse combo of androgynous formal name and familiar girlish nickname. Maddie, Addy and Emmy surely take part of the credit for the female "son" boom.

Then there's the mermaid factor. When the mermaid in the 1984 movie Splash took the name Madison from a street sign, she made the name fairy-tale feminine for a generation of girls. Once Madison was a hit, Emerson and Addison could easily follow.

Even Madison, though, owes a lot to a name that blazed a trail before it, one that seldom gets credit or blame. It's a traditional female name that's not a bit controversial on its own. That name is Alison.

Alison is an old Norman French pet form of Alice. (Compare to Marion, a pet form of Marie.) It was very common in the Middle Ages; the Wife of Bath in the Canterbury Tales is one period example. The name eventually faded away in France and England, holding on only in Scotland. By the early 20th Century the name was very rare. Americans were more likely to encounter Alison in a Scottish historical novel like The Master of Ballantrae than on a living person.

In the 1940s Alison started to rise in the UK and US alike. And it kept on rising, with popularity eventually spreading to Allison and other spellings. (Allison is actually a surname of separate, unclear origin that used to be mostly masculine.)

I can't find any cultural spark to account for this comeback -- actress June Allyson doesn't quite cut it. I believe we can call it an organic style phenomenon, a traditional-but-fresh name of the time like the Scandinavian import Karen. And just as Karen paved the way for hit names like Megan and Lauren, Alison established a sound that made us ready for Madison the mermaid.

You can see the Alison influence in the rhythm of the new female -son names. Madison, Addison and Emerson all follow Alison's pattern, while most of the hot -son names for boys are two syllables (Jackson, Hudson). You can also see Alison's heirs returning the favor to their ancestor by keeping that name's sound current. The surge of new -son names has helped Alison and Allison maintain rare staying power in this age of fast fashion changes. Allison in particular has ranked in America's top 100 for an impressive 37 years running.

Allison is now the traditional choice in a contemporary genre, the one name that you, your mom and your grandma can all agree on. It's also a popular stepping stone for talking mom and grandma into Emerson. Sorry, messageboard critics. Sons just aren't as male as they used to be.

When Names Were Heroes, Part 2

Jun 23rd 2011

Yesterday I described how baby name homages to heroes have been disappearing. Today, some thoughts on what that change says about our attitudes and naming culture.

In part, the shift away from hero naming represents the triumph of fashion in baby names. As sound and style play ever larger roles in naming decisions, homages have to yield. Note, for instance, the decline of "Juniors," and the way grandparents are increasingly honored with middle names or initials rather than direct namesakes. We still love our parents (and ourselves), but style comes first.

Cynicism about public figures appears to play a role too. We do name babies after presidents today, but we wait until their history is fully written, just in case. Ronald Reagan's death inspired far more little Reagans than his election did. Similarly, names like Ava, Harlow and Lana take their spark from celebrities who have moved beyond scandal-prone reality into Hollywood myth.

What's more, a Golden Age Hollywood name is seen as cool and retro, while a modern celebrity association seems to embarrass today's parents. Even when a baby name appears to be ripped from the headlines, they'll disavow it: "OUR Isabella has NOTHING to do with Twilight," they rush to assure you. That's quite a contrast to the generation of little Shirleys who were cheerfully, forthrightly named after Shirley Temple.

Perhaps, then, it's not just hero names but frank, public admiration itself that's out of style. The homage names that do still pop up take different forms, like naming after crime victims. Compare two different figures who were big in the news in 2009: Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger and Caylee Anthony. Captain Sullenberger had the word "hero" permanently attached to his name for saving the lives of hundreds of passengers on a doomed airplane. Ms. Anthony, a toddler, was tragically murdered. The naming effect was a thousand more Caylees, and scarcely a Sully to be seen.

In fact, using a baby name as a public expression of empathy is more common than ever. Crime victims of past eras didn't have a naming impact like Caylee (or Laci, or Natalee). Strange as it may sound, today we'd rather link our children to victims than to heroes.

When Names Were Heroes

Jun 22nd 2011

We don't name babies to honor people any more.

Yes, that's too sweeping a statement. You're probably dredging up examples right now to prove me wrong. But on a broad, societal level it's dramatically true -- a sweeping statement to represent a sweeping change.

It can be hard to appreciate the change, because we don't realize just how standard homage names were in generations past. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, politicians, military leaders and all manner of inspiring individuals could count on a bevy of namesakes. Today? Let's take a look.

The 2008 election saw the historic election of America's first black president. As you might expect, this event was commemorated in names. Approximately 60 more babies were named Barack or Obama than the year before. How big a deal was that? Well, it means hero naming for the new president accounted for .00001 percent of babies born, or one in every 71,000. Neither Barack nor Obama ranked among America's top 2,000 names for boys. In other words, the effect was so trivially small that you would never notice it unless you went searching for it. Recent presidents with more familiar names, like Clinton, fared even worse on the name charts.

Now roll back the clock to the presidential election of 1896. Democrat William Jennings Bryan inspired a dramatic jump in the names Jennings and Bryan. Those jumps accounted for one in every 2,400 babies born  -- an effect 30 times bigger than Obama's. It was enough to rank both names in the top 300 for the year. And in case your American history is a little shaky: Bryan lost the election.

This isn't an anomaly. Generations' worth of presidential losers past inspired more namesakes than triumphant new presidents do today. The likes of James Blaine, Alton Parker and Charles Hughes were baby-name stylemakers back in the days when names were, routinely, heroes.

Presidents are just the tip of the iceberg. How about new vice presidents? Yep, plenty of them. Adlai Stevenson's VP nod in 1892, for instance, prompted a big spike in baby Adlais. Military leaders? You bet. The name Pershing made the top 1000 for three years running after World War I, but that's too easy. Try Schley, a hot name in 1898. (A gold star if you recall the controversy over credit for the Battle of Santiago de Cuba between Commodore Schley and Rear Admiral Sampson.) Cultural icons? Sure, the death of opera singer Enrico Caruso sent the name Enrico to its all-time high in 1921.

In short, almost anyone you could stand up and cheer for prior to WWII inspired baby name homages. And every one of the individuals mentioned in the paragraph above outpaced President Obama in the namesake wars.

Thoughts on the significance of this change in naming practices tomorrow... Continue to part 2.