The Most-Hated Baby Names in America

Apr 21st 2011

[Note (05/03/11): Since I wrote this blog post, it has been picked up by a variety of media outlets -- often without context or explanation of the methodology. Much of the reporting has been guided by the post's unfortunately extreme title. To clarify, this column discusses the results of an informal survey of internet discussions, to gauge which names generated the most negative mentions. The names listed aren't "bad" or necessarily even unpopular. In fact, many of them are highly popular, well-loved names that some people are simply getting tired of. In other cases, the negative reactions reflect different cultural perspectives on a single name. Bentley, for instance, is generally seen negatively by people who hear it as a stuffy surname or a luxury car brand. It's seen positively by people who hear it as an easygoing neo-Southern name, via country singer Dierks Bentley. I believe that the existence of strongly divided opinions like these is a meaningful variable in understanding a name's impact and place in our culture.]

 

Which baby names do people like the most? You can answer that with a glance at the top of the baby names popularity chart. Which names do people loathe most? That's a trickier question. There's no such thing as the "least popular name." (Dogbreath? Margitudinal? Sxsddhwwwb? It's a many-way tie.)

What's more, the most-hated name might well be a popular one. Some names just provoke strong reactions, whether retching or swooning. In fact, popularity itself can be held against a name.

To capture negative name feelings, I scoured the web for conversations about baby names people can't stand. I skipped the "what's the worst name you've ever heard" freak shows (Felanie, Ima Hogg, La-a). My target was everyday baby-name negativity: the "normal" baby names that, for whatever reason, set your teeth on edge.

I ended up tallying the viewpoints of hundreds of U.S. messageboard participants, comprising almost 1,500 name mentions. Many of the discussions were on parenting forums, but a good number were simply chatter on forums of diverse kinds. The results are below. Spellings are combined in the count, listing the name under its most-mentioned form. I've also included comments on what people objected to about each name, which often point to themes that resonate beyond the individual name.

My goal in this is NOT to bash anyone's name. It's simply to track and describe the negative sentiment out there, as one more piece of information for parents weighing name choices.

GIRLS

1. Nevaeh (47 mentions). A landslide winner, no surprise. In the most recent edition of my book, I wrote "Nevaeh may be the most stylistically divisive name in America." Grounds for objection included look, sound and origin, the whole package.

2 (tie). Destiny (16). This name seemed to run afoul of two groups: people annoyed by "virtue names," and people who grouped it with other dreamy choices like Heaven and Candy as "stripperish."

2 (tie). Madison (16). The negative reactions to this name were particularly strong, especially in non-standard spellings. Reasons were seldom given; it just seemed to grate on people.

4. Mackenzie (13). Often presented in a group with other Mc- names, which several posters described as "low class."

5. McKenna (9). See Mackenzie above.

6 (tie). Addison (8). Sometimes grouped with Madison, and sometimes held as an example of the #1 most-cited loathing category: "boys' names used for girls."

6 (tie). Gertrude (8). When the conversation focused on "ugly" names, old-fashioned Germanic names like Gertrude, Bertha and Helga ruled.

6 (tie). Kaitlyn (8). The poster child for the #2 most common objection: "made-up spellings." Some people specifically exempted the classic spelling Caitlin from their wrath.

6 (tie). Makayla (8).  See Mackenzie above.

10 (tie). Bertha (7). See Gertrude above.

10 (tie). Hope (7). To my surprise, the objection to virtue names extended to traditional choices like Hope, Faith and Grace.

BOYS

1. Jayden (23). The overwhelming theme for boys' names was a backlash against the rhyming -ayden family. Many felt there were just too many of these names, and "it's getting really old." Others said the names sounded too childish or feminine. The names were often mentioned as a group, but Jayden was frequently singled out.

2. Brayden (16).

3 (tie). Aiden (15).

4 (tie). Kaden (15). See Jayden above.

5. Hunter (9). Objections included "should only be a last name" and "too violent."

6. Hayden (8). Part of the -ayden family but mentioned much less often than the others. It seems to be considered a little more mature and established-sounding than the rest of the clan.

7 (tie). Bentley (7). A lot of contempt was shown in mentions of this name, as people considered the luxury-car association "trashy."

7 (tie). Tristan (7). Described as "fakey" and "unlikeable."

9. Michael (6). The whipping boy for people who scorned "common" names. Names like Matthew, Sarah and Emily also came up several times. (Notably, they were the most likely names to be defended by others in the conversation.)

10. Jackson (5). No consistency to the reasons. Some grouped it with Peyton as "way too trendy," others with Jack as "old-fashioned and worn out." This was the one name where I didn't collapse spellings, since the several people who mentioned Jaxon objected to it solely on basis of spelling.

Other Notables:

- At least three mentions apiece were tallied for Kayla, Kaylin, Kyle, Kyler and Kylie along with the high scores for Kaitlyn and Makayla, suggesting negativity toward that general sound category.

- Two statistically unlikely names ranked just outside the top 10. Star is a very rare name, so the fact that it occurred to so many people suggests particularly active negativity. Tiffany peaked back in the 1980s. That it's still mentioned so often as a disliked baby name leads to me suspect it may have been the "Nevaeh" of its generation.

P.S. If Your Favorite Name is Listed Above...


Sorry to freak you out! Don't go tearing up your name list yet.

First off, remember that "loved" and "loathed" are often two sides of the same coin. Anything that scales the heights of fashion attracts attention and becomes a target for contrarians. Many of the names listed are simply victims of their own success. In fact, almost every name in the top 10 for boys or girls received at least one "hate it" vote. Realistically, your little Aiden and Addison will be comfortably in the fashion mainstream, and any currents of negativity will flow right by them.

As for rarer names like Bentley that set off disproportionate levels of bad vibes, in the end you have to choose the name YOU think is best. Just consider this list a heads-up that some folks may respond badly to your beloved name. Forewarned is forearmed.

Creative Naming, 19th-Century Style

Apr 14th 2011

Many women change their surnames when they get married. In the past, I've discussed the idea of changing your first name while you're at it. But can you imagine a man insisting that his new bride change her first name, just to sound good with his surname?

That is the tale of one Lidian Emerson. The second wife of the great writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, Lidian was intellectually inclined and an ardent abolitionist. Her marriage to Ralph was, by all accounts, a long and content one. (Tales abound that Henry Thoreau was in love with her as well, but we don't traffic in centuries-old gossip around here.)

Mrs. Emerson was christened not Lidian, but Lydia Jackson. Mr. Emerson decided his wife should be known as Lidian upon their marriage in 1835. The reason is unclear. Here are some explanations I've found -- all presented as simple statements of fact:

"Emerson asked Lydia Jackson to become Lydian Emerson, wishing a less common name."

"Emerson changed her name to prevent the final 'a' from turning into "er" through local pronunciation"

"Lidian (as he spelled it) had both musical and classical echoes."

"The first name was changed from 'Lydia' to 'Lidian,' at Emerson's request, to avoid the hiatus between 'Lydia' and the new surname."


This last explanation, from a 1915 biography of Emerson, has the ring of truth to me. The specific choice of Lidian doubtless reflects the ancient Lydian language and Lydian musical mode. But the decision to change the name to begin with? Well, consider that Emerson never objected to his first wife's equally prosaic name of Ellen. My guess is that Lydia just didn't sound good with his last name.

In theory, this is a concern we should all be able to relate to. Every parent choosing baby names thinks carefully about how the first and last name sound together. Plenty of women today also take the first/last match into consideration when they decide whether to change their names at marriage. But to change your grown wife's name to match your surname? Even back in 1835, it was extraordinary. Check out Mrs. Emerson's embarrassed tone in a letter to Thomas Carlyle, six years into her marriage:

"Will you pardon my signing the unheard-of name by which my husband has presumed to re-baptise me? He will have me known by no other—and believes it valid even to Civil Law."

Then consider that the Emersons' children received unremarkable family names: Waldo, Ellen, Edith and Edward. In that context, the invention of Lidian is even more curious. Grand explanations like "flight of romantic fancy" or "chauvinistic power play" don't seem to fit the rest of the facts. So given my profession, I'm going with the name-first reasoning. It just sounded better that way.

Countdown to the Baby Name Pool!

Apr 13th 2011

There's still time to enter the 2010 Baby Name Pool, but your entry must be in by the end of the day on Friday, April 15. Your taxes have to be in by then too. (You probably knew that, but I thought I'd offer a public-spirited reminder.)

Here's the great news: entering the Name Pool is WAY easier than doing your taxes. Just list 3 names you think rose last year, and 3 that you think fell. If you do it badly, there will be no audits or penalties. If you do it well, you'll be publicly celebrated. Beat that, IRS!

So go enter the Pool already.

 

UPDATE: Thank you to the reader who reminded me that the IRS deadline is April 18 this year, due to the observance of Emancipation Day in Washington D.C. You might wonder if this gives you extra baby-naming time as well. Sorry, procrastinators. I live in Massachusetts, and will be celebrating Patriots' Day on Monday instead. So the 15th it is.

Note that I put the apostrophe at the end of the word Patriots, as I've been given to understand is correct by Massachusetts statute. Yet the official Commonwealth holiday calendar (we're a Commonwealth here, not a state) says "Patriot's Day" -- but lists November 11 as "Veterans' Day." Why do we honor all Veterans, but only one Patriot? And if you've bothered to read this whole tangent, surely you have enough free time to enter the Name Pool, right?

A real blog entry is coming tomorrow, I promise.