Who is Sylvia?

Nov 2nd 2007

This blog is blessed with an incredible community of readers who keep a lively, intelligent discussion going all week long. It's so active, in fact, that I seldom manage to keep up! But this week one topic particularly caught my eye: the perception and popularity of the name Sylvia.

A reader asked: "Why hasn't Sylvia come back, given the popularity of Olivia and Sophia?"

One reply was particularly informative. Regular comment readers may have noticed a preternaturally knowledgeable poster by the name of Cleveland Kent Evans. Dr. Evans is a well-known name researcher and past president of the American Name Society. Having him posting here is a little like having Curt Schilling posting on your Red Sox bulletin board. (Which reminds me, woo-hoo, Sox! OK, got it out of my system, we'll move on now.) On Sylvia, Dr. Evans noted:

It isn't time yet for Sylvia to sound "fresh" again to young parents. Sylvia's high point of use since 1880 in the USA was #50 on the SSA list in 1937. The most typical Sylvia in the USA is turning 70 this year. Most young Americans know an elderly Sylvia, so they still associate the name with grey hair...

As it turns out, quite a few readers had never met a Sylvia (and indeed, seldom meet any women over 65! But that's a whole other discussion.) Personally, I'm at the opposite end of the spectrum with a grand abundance of Sylvias in my life. It's my official Aunt Name -- an Aunt Sylvia, two Great Aunt Sylvias and a Great-Great Aunt Sylvia. You might expect that experience to fossilize the name in my mind, except I've also had the pleasure of meeting new little Sylvias in the carseat demographic. It's a matter of local style. I live in antique style territory (in Massachusetts, in case the Red Sox cheer didn't tip you off), so little Sylvias fit right in.

Yet as Dr. Evans points out, Sylvia isn't properly an antique. Head over to the NameVoyager for a moment and type in Sylvia. Based on that popularity history, Sylvia's closest relatives are actually Gordon, Loretta and Melvin--with cousins Arnold, Stanley and Wilma. That is the least fashionable generation of names in America. So despite Sylvia's modest numbers, I'd argue that the name isn't surprisingly rare today, it's surprisingly common.

Focus on the past decade in the NameVoyager graph and you'll find that Sylvia's fall has leveled off and the name shows hints of a resurgence. That's a remarkable success story for a trendy name of the '30s and '40s. Only a handful of those names have held on at all. Why is Sylvia different? And which other names of that generation might follow in her path?

For clues, let's turn back to the original reader's question. She linked Sylvia with the more popular Sophia and Olivia. What are the common threads? 3+ syllables, ending in -a and preferably -ia, with bonus points for v's. I plugged in those variables and matched to Sylvia's popularity curve to find dark-horse comeback candidates. The clear winner: Virginia, with honorable mentions to Geneva and Dorothea.

Finally, a note on alternate forms. A number of readers mentioned that Sylvie sounded fresher, and even those who didn't care for Sylvia liked this "nickname." I agree on the freshness; Sylvie is listed as a "Why Not?" name in my book. But don't dismiss it as just a nickname. Sylvie is also the French form of the full name, as Sophie is to Sophia. While it may sound nickname-cute in English it can stand on its own as a given name. Another option is the Italian spelling Silvia, which is also the proper spelling for the Shakespearean title of this post.

Then to Silvia let us sing,
That Silvia is excelling;
She excels each mortal thing
Upon the dull earth dwelling:
To her let us garlands bring.

To nickname or not to nickname

Oct 26th 2007

"What's up with the nicknames? Why not name your child what you are going to call them?"
- blog comment

I usually try to avoid taking sides in the great name debates. Traditional vs. creative, popular vs. unusual...there are valid arguments and stylish names on all sides. But when it comes to nicknames vs. full names on a birth certificate, I'm getting off the fence.

All else being equal, go with the full formal version.

"Why not name your child what you are going to call them?" For the same reasons that you have more than one kind of outfit in your closet. Different styles suit different occasions.

Many parents put formal names on birth certificates knowing full well that they won't call their child by that name. We all know plenty of them -- the Deborahs called Debbie, the Josephs called JoJo. Picture JoJo's parents way back when, reveling in the fun-loving nickname for their lively little boy. Now, 30 years later, JoJo's family and childhood friends may still call him that. But ask the folks who know him as an adult and they'll tell you they can't even imagine him as a JoJo. By the time he entered the working world he was introducing himself by the name on his resume, Joseph. He's hardly alone in wearing his full name like a suit and tie. Ever see Marty Scorsese or Chuck Heston listed in film credits? Martin and Charlton were deemed more suitable for the occasion.

So what happens to JoJo once Joseph takes over? With any luck the nickname lives on with a special status, as a mark of intimacy or long-standing relationships. When I was little I always loved hearing older relatives call my mother Ruth, "Ruthie." The nickname showed they'd been with her since she was a kid like me; it was a name that was always spoken with love. Some people even go through multiple nicknames at different life stages. Our Joseph may be a JoJo with his family, Joe with the college buddies, and Joseph as an adult professional. None of the names is right or wrong. Each one is a precious part of a life story and identity.

Is there a downside to choosing a formal version? Suppose, say, an Elizabeth wants stay Libby exclusively. That's seldom a problem. People are happy to call you whatever you call yourself. But suppose that Libby doesn't want what her parents want. Aha. This, I think, is the crux of the matter. "I want Libby on the birth certificate, otherwise she might decide she doesn't like it and wants to call herself Elizabeth instead!" May I gently suggest that is an argument in favor of full names, not against them? It's her name, not yours. If she ultimately decides that your preferred nickname doesn't fit -- or simply doesn't fit the occasion -- she'll be glad you left that choice in her hands.

Now, the caveats. Plenty of nicknames have become so well established as given names that they've earned their independence. Molly, Drew, Eliza and Jack are just a few of the many examples. Further, I wouldn't dream of telling parents to choose a name they actively dislike. If you love Libby but loathe Elizabeth, do what you've got to do. But if you're on the fence, I say err on the side of flexibility. An Elizabeth can always be Libby "for short," but a Libby can't be Elizabeth "for long."

The One-Hit Wonder Timeline

Oct 12th 2007

In this final installment of "one-hit wonder names" (see parts, 1, 2 and 3) we take a names-eye-view tour through history.

Baby names act as a cultural mirror, reflecting the mood and obsessions of every age. Sometimes it's a whole style, like the girls given boyish names (Frankie, Tommie) in the 1930s. Sometimes it's personality driven, like the Shirley surge in that same decade. And sometimes a specific historical moment is memorialized in names. The one-hit wonder names are a treasure trove of these cultural moments. Some of the moments were momentous, others pop-culture trifles. A few were completely unknown to me until the names themselves led me to them, and a few frankly shocked me as name inspirations. Check them out yourself in this arbitrary, capricious One-Hit Timeline of History.


1895: Trilby
George du Maurier's novel Trilby, first published serially in 1894, was a popular sensation. Filled with romance, horror, plucky heroes and supernatural villainry, Trilby became one of the most popular books (and later plays) of its time. The novel's longest-lasting contribution to our language comes from its villain, the all-powerful Jewish hypnotist Svengali, but during the book's heyday the beautiful Irish heroine Trilby made her naming mark as well.

1898: Gladstone
William Ewart Gladstone was one of the leading political forces of 19th-century England, serving several terms as Prime Minister between 1868 and 1894. The "gladstone bag" and "gladstone carriage" took their names from him. Gladstone died in 1898.

1898: Schley
The 1898 Battle of Santiago de Cuba was the largest naval engagement of the Spanish-American War. The destruction of the Spanish fleet was a milestone in the decline of Spanish influence in the Americas. The United States squadron was commanded, somewhat controversially, by Rear Admiral Winfield Scott Schley.

1900: Goebel

William J. Goebel was a controversial figure in Kentucky politics. Goebel was a populist, a foe of big business and an advocate of civil rights, and the consummate practitioner of machine politics. In 1895 he killed political adversary John Sanford in a duel, but plead self-defense and was acquitted. In 1899 he won a disputed election to become governor of Kentucky. On January 30, 1900 Goebel was shot in the chest by an assassin; the next day he was sworn in as governor; two days later he was dead. He remains the only U.S. state governor to be assassinated in office.

1918: Foch
Ferdinand Foch was a distinguished general of the French Army and Marshal of France. In the Spring of 1918 he was named Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, leading the international armies which turned back the last major German advance of WWI. Foch accepted Germany's surrender on November 11, 1918.

1954: Rahn
In 1954 the German soccer team was unseeded entering the World Cup tournament in Bern, Switzerland, the first World Cup they were permitted to compete in after World War II. In the finals against heavily favored Hungary, Germany trailed until Helmut Rahn scored both tying and winning goals. Rahn became a national sporting legend and the game came to be known as the "Miracle of Bern," a turning point in post-war German identity.

1964: Destry
The TV Western "Destry" which premiered in 1964 was a spinoff of the classic film Destry Rides Again. It didn't last a full season.

1972: Jabbar
In 1971 basketball great Lew Alcindor, who had led the Milwaukee Bucks and UCLA Bruins to championships, changed his name to the Arabic Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Kareem debuted on the popular name charts in 1972 at #407 and has become an African-American standard. Jabbar was propelled to popularity the same year but quickly faded.

1977: Amin
In 1976 Ugandan president Idi Amin allowed a hijacked airplane originating from Israel to land at the Entebbe airport. The event turned international attention toward his violent regime which was blamed for hundreds of thousands of deaths. By 1977, Amin was a global larger-than-life villain. As other nations broke off diplomatic ties he bestowed extravagant titles on himself and attracted a swirl of rumors of personal atrocities.

1977: Kunta, Kinte
The 1977 miniseries "Roots," based on the novel by Alex Haley, was a cultural phenomen. An overwhelming popular and critical success, "Roots" turned a generation of Americans--especially African-Americans--toward the study of geneology and family history, and helped encourage a trend toward African-styled baby names. The lead character, Kunta Kinte, was a Mandinka boy in Gambia who was kidnapped by slave traders and taken to America. Both Kunta and Kinte made the 1977 name charts.