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Fast rising and falling names sometimes remind me of Tolstoy's happy and unhappy families. The rising names tend to have a lot in common. You can look at this year's hottest risers and see clear themes of sound and style (or last year's, and see an infatuation with attractive young singers). But when names fall, they often fall alone.
How do we explain this year's #1 faller, the much-loved biblical classic Hannah? The name had been quietly declining for several years, but nothing like this year's plummet. Other Old Testament names are still very much in style -- just look at the current top five names for boys...
...and kindred girl's classics like Sarah, Abigail and Anna declined only gradually. Yet the number of Hannah's fell by thousands -- an almost 30% decline -- dropping the name from #9 to #17 on the girl's charts.
The rest of the not-hot parade gives offers few clues about Hannah's demise:
That list leans heavily toward names favored by Latino families, which isn't too surprising. The more a name's popularity is concentrated in one community (be it cultural, ethnic, geographic), the more quickly its appeal can shift. But even among the Latino favorites, there's little in common. Diego, Ashley, Julissa and Angelique are stylistic worlds apart. The names have very different popularity histories, as well: Diego's a long-neglected classic that made a strong comeback in the last decade. Ashley's an '80s favorite in decline. Julissa built up gradually over the span of 20 years, while Joselin/Joselyn is simply coming down from a sudden 2007 spike.
Looking beyond that brief list, though, one broad theme does start to emerge. America's long J-joyride seems to be winding down. A whopping 12 of the 30 fastest-falling names of the year started with J, vs. zero of the 30 fastest rising. The momentum is moving away from the the letter that has reigned as America's favorite throughout the generations, from John to Jason to Jacob.
I have some rules of thumb I often repeat about trendy names:
1. When it comes to celebrities, it's not about the fame, it's about the name.
A minor reality tv star can have a far bigger impact than a Madonna, if the name fits parents' existing tastes. Stars seldom lead us places we're not already set to go.
2. We all want to be unique...without being "different."
Parents today are eager to choose distinctive names, but our tastes our as similar as ever. So we end up carving out tiny personal niches by creating countless variations on the same theme. Seen from a macro level, all that micro-uniqueness makes us look a whole lot alike.
With that in mind, check out the fastest rising American names of 2008, as determined by the standard Baby Name Wizard Hotness Formula:
Aaden (M, #343) -- as in Aaden Gosselin, one of the eight young kids of the Gosselin family whose lives are chronicled on the TLC reality show "Jon & Kate Plus 8."
Khloe (F, #196) -- as in Khloe Kardashian, a general-purpose celebrity who found the limelight via the E! network reality show "Keeping Up with the Kardashians."
Allisson (F, #418) -- as in Allisson Lozz, a Mexican teen singer and actress who has appeared in several telenovelas.
The pattern's not subtle, is it? Start with a name that's extremely well-liked, and tweak it to "personalize" it for your child. If a tv star of any rank leads the way, you have a hit.
And now brace yourself for the next 5 on the Hot Name Parade:
You can find 2008 pop-culture rocket engines behind many of those specific choices. There's the book and movie Marley & Me, the pop princess Miley Cyrus, and the heroine Marely of the telenovela "Yo amo a Juan Querendón." But that's not the real story, is it? After all, the Marley of Marley & Me is a badly behaved dog. You never saw a generation of kids named after Lassie and Rin Tin Tin (let alone Beethoven or Cujo).
The incredible concentration of similar sounds is nothing less than the stylistic fingerprint of 2008. In my book, I describe the broader style as "Bell Tone" names. Here's an excerpt:
"Listen to parents calling out names at your local playground and it may sound like bells chiming. The sharp clang of a consonant launches clear, bright long vowels: Bay-lee! Cay-den! Ja-cey! It’s the distinctive chorus of our time.
The Bell Tone names aim for freshness with a clean, light touch. They’re 180 degrees removed from the Orvilles and Velmas of the “Porch Sitter” era."
One thing's for sure about these names: they're cheery and forward-looking, not the retreat to nervous conservatism that some had predicted for these difficult times (see recession naming, parts 1 & 2). After all, you can't say a name ending with -ee without your mouth ending up in a smile.