Antique or forgery?

Oct 5th 2006

When parents with a traditional bent look for a fresh baby name, they look to the past. Not just one generation back, but four or five to the time of the baby's great-great ancestors. That generation of names has lain fallow long enough that the names sound new again. The names also take on a patina of grace and charm from the bygone era they evoke.

These antique revival names are especially popular for girls, as you can tell by a glance at the U.S. name popularity chart. Names like Emma, Olivia and Ava are all in the top-10. This graph of the number of Emmas born shows the classic revival trend:

Emma was an old-time favorite that had all but vanished, so now it sounds sweetly old-fashioned. Or take Olivia, another staple of "retro" and "old-fashioned" baby-name lists:

Wait a second. Where's the antique part? We all know that Olivia is a great-great-grandmother name...right? But if you look at the numbers, it turns out that a baby girl was actually more likely to be named Olivia in 1950 than in 1890. Huh.

Well, let's look at Ava instead. A recent article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about the antique name cycle claimed: "Old-fashioned names like Ava, Milo, Hazel, Hugo and Clara are coming back."

How's that for an old-fashioned name? And that graph is a major year out of date. More Avas were born in the United States last year than in 1880-1980 -- the whole century combined. How can a name "come back" when it was never here to begin with?

Perhaps they're even more antique than my graphs can show--say, top hits of the 1840s. But no, a check of census records says otherwise. The unavoidable conclusion is that Olivia and Ava aren't real antiques. They were timeless but uncommon names that are suddenly, dramatically contemporary. So why do we hear them as old-fashioned?

More on this next time....

The new life of the party

Sep 28th 2006

Reader James recently pointed me to an unconventional name-choosing story. In a New York Metro interview, "Project Runway" contestant Laura Bennett described how she and her husband named one of their five children:

Truman is 7. He was named by a cocktail-party crowd when he was about 3 months old.

He didn't have a name?

My husband could never commit to one. So poor Truman just went for months being called "the baby." His birth certificate said Baby White Male. Finally, we were at this cocktail party with a bunch of my old friends and they voted on Truman.

OK, your quick gut reaction...sound ridiculous? They didn't give their baby a name and finally let a "cocktail-party crowd" do it for them?

Yet the more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that those parents might have been on to something. Their only mistake was waiting so long to take the plunge. Suppose....

The baby's due in a month, and you and your partner are still sweating over names. You've debated every possibility into the ground, nothing sounds right, and you just can't agree. Don't have an argument, have a party! Invite a group of people whose taste you trust, and who understand your own values and style. Provide some good food and drink. (It's a party, after all.) Give the guests an initial list of top name prospects, and open the floor to write-in candidates. Let everyone share their reactions to each name and lobby for their favorites. Then vote.

At this point I'll bet many of you are recoiling in horror. "But it's our choice! And a name is so personal. I'm not going give the decision over to a committee!" Ok...but you're stuck, remember? Besides, it's not like you're just taking a poll of passers-by at the mall. Your son might actually be glad to have a name selected by the loving community around him, pre-screened to be a choice that warms their hearts. Better yet, the process will help all the guests at the party feel an immediate connection to the new baby--a special bond reinforced every time they say his name. Ideally, you could end up elevating your naming problems from personal dilemma to community ritual and celebration.

Or not. It certainly takes a leap of faith, or of desperation, to hand over the baby naming reins.

Has anybody out there thrown a baby-naming party? Anybody tempted? Anybody want to invite me?

Name refinishing

Sep 21st 2006

What do these names have in common?

Ann
Elaine
Jennie
Julie
Marian

To start off, they're all familar American girls' names that ranked among the top 100 in the U.S. for at least two decades during the past century. And they're all currently in a slump. Together, those five names now account for fewer than 500 out of every million babies born:

But change the endings of the names to an -a, and it's a different story. Anna, Elaina, Jenna, Julia and Mariana are a group on the rise -- 12 times as popular as their a-less siblings.

This ending adaptability helps classic name roots like Juli and Mari maintain their appeal through generations of changing styles. Some of you discovered that when you tried your hands at the "name stairs" puzzle, building chains of names letter by letter...

Mari
Maria
Marian
Mariann
Marianna

We freshen the names for each generation by tweaking their endings. Right now, -e endings are down, while -a is hot. Can the a work its magic on any other familiar favorites? Here are some likely candidates for future re-finishing:

Callie --> Calla
Cassie --> Cassia
Stacie --> Stacia (usually pronounced STAY-sha)
Nicole --> Nicola (1st-syllable stress; common in U.K. in the '80s)
Stephanie --> Stephania (2nd-syllable stress; commonly spelled Stefania)
Susanne --> Susanna