You can paint a portrait of a year in names. That truth came through loud and clear in the hundreds of thoughtful reader nominations for the Baby Name Wizard Name of the Year. From Bernie and Neda to Jackson and Octomom, you all made compelling cases for the names that shaped, and were shaped by, 2009.
To do the names justice, I'm splitting this year's announcement into three parts. The two runners up and the Name of the Year made the grade through their timeliness, resonance, and "naminess" -- how essential the name itself was to the cultural story. And as always, I was guided by reader nominations, seconds and comments. Thanks, everybody.
Second runner up: Falcon
On October 15, 2009, officials in Colorado scrambled to respond to a bizarre emergency. A Fort Collins family had accidentally released a homemade weather balloon, and their six-year-old son Falcon was believed to be inside. After frantic hours in which National Guard helicopters tracked the balloon and the Denver International Airport was shut down, young Falcon Heene was found safe at home. Eventually, the entire episode was revealed to be a hoax. Falcon's parents had met in acting school, had appeared on a reality tv series, and were eagerly shopping their own reality tv concept without success. They dreamed up the balloon stunt in hopes that the publicity would help get their family back on the air.
This story brought together two powerful trends, highlighting an underlying theme they have in common. 2009 was the year that, in the words of one BabyNameWizard.com reader, "exploded the myth of reality TV." As reality shows pushed the limits of celebrity-seeking and self-revelation, viewers began to squirm. In particular, stories like the "balloon boy" and the divorce of Jon and Kate Gosselin raised questions about putting children's lives in front of the camera.
Meanwhile, American parents were working harder and harder to choose eye-catching names to make their children stand out. The traditional classics were plummeting in popularity, while names like Cannon, Messiah and Phoenix were soaring. Surely it's no coincidence that parents so desperate for attention that they'd coach their six-year-old to carry out a media hoax were also parents who chose to name him Falcon? As another reader wrote, "We have such an obsession with fame and the actions of one family have us thinking about at what cost."
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.