Everybody's talking about it

Aug 31st 2006

I hear from a lot of parents-to-be as they agonize over baby name choices, and I do my best to help. Not surprisingly, certain names come up again and again in my inbox. But they're not the most popular names. If you love popular names like Emma and Josh you're usually spared from sleepless, nameless nights. Everybody knows how to spell and pronounce those names. Nobody worries that they're too strange or too androgynous. And just about everybody, even the grandparents, approves of your choice. At the opposite extreme, if you love names like Evergreen or Jaxxon you don't care what anybody else thinks -- Baby Name Wizards included.

Somewhere in the middle are the names that parents are drawn to but nervous about. That's where I come in. My inbox, and blog comments here, are full of questions about names that hardly rate a blip on the popularity charts. For now, something is holding parents back...but someday soon the balance could tip and these names may start to soar.

So I figured I'd tell you about these tension-creating names. But then it occurred to me that the parents would all hate me. You're afraid that I'm about to give away your special, secret name, right? To keep it fair, I'm going to limit this discussion to names that have come up repeatedly in the public web discussion. If it turns out that your personal dilemma is listed below, you're not alone.

The names everybody's talking about, but nobody's using -- so far:

BOYS

#1. Jasper
I hear this name so often, I can scarcely believe it's not among the top 500 boys' names. This is a love-it-or-hate-it problem, and often divides down gender lines. Mom puts it on the short list and Dad immediately scratches it off. I like the name myself, so I'll consult my husband for his opinion....

Sure enough, Mr. Wattenberg groaned at Jasper. "Isn't that some kind of rock?" said he.


#2. Emmett
If Jasper is love-it-or-hate-it, Emmett is like-it-don't-love-it. This name seems to make the short list of scores of parents, but it's such a mild-mannered choice that nothing about it leaps out to carry it to the top. That could actually be a positive characteristic in the long run, though...a non-trendy name that wears well.


GIRLS

#1. Helena
This one's oh-so-close, but the big question is pronunciation. Most parents I hear from want to pronounce it hel-AIN-a, and that's the most standard pronunciation in the Eastern half of the U.S. and in Britain. The closer you get to Helena, Montana, though, the more often you'll hear HEL-in-a. And several towns called St. Helena (notably one in California's Napa Valley) tilt the local pronunciation toward hel-EEN-a. I'm going to go on the record as saying it doesn't matter. It's a lovely, classic name and it's ok if people don't pronounce it your way the first time. As long as you don't make a fuss about it, chances are your daughter won't either.

#2. Jemima
This one's not-so-close, and the big reason is pancakes. In England, where the image of a kerchiefed, mammy-type Aunt Jemima isn't so strong, this name is more common. And when Americans can get the pancake image out of their minds, they usually find the name itself charming. The current Aunt Jemima logo -- a well-coiffed woman in pearls -- dates to 1989. Another decade or two of distance from the kerchief could bring this name back in the U.S.

#3. Scarlett
Actress Scarlett Johansson has single-handedly wrested this this name from the iron grip of Scarlett O'Hara. It used to be that the name was considered clearly "too much." Now parents are asking, "hmm, do you think it's too much?" And soon it could be "just right." In England it's already there.

#4. Susannah
A completely familiar, completely classic name that NOBODY uses. Yeah, yeah, there's "Oh, Susannah," but that's a pretty innocuous association. A bigger problem may be that the nicknames Sue and Susie sound dated. Zanna is a more exotic alternative, but don't rush past Sue...it just might grow on you if you give it a chance.

#5. Harper
Oops, sorry, you didn't want me to mention that one, did you? You see, the big thing holding Harper back is...nothing. Androgynous surnames for girls are hot, and Harper is one that even traditionalists can live with. Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, gives the name a unique pedigree. So the name comes up a lot, always followed by demands to "shhhh! don't give it away!"

The question of Dorothy

Aug 25th 2006

In a recent column I mentioned my surprise that the names Dorothy and Dorothea show no signs of revival. A few of you agreed with me, but most said it was no surprise at all. In fact, most commenters felt pretty confident that they knew just what was keeping the name down. Here are some excerpts:

I don't find it surprising at all. I think we'll have to wait longer until the Wizard of Oz one fades out of pop culture.

I doubt Dorothea will make a showing any time soon, since it is the name of one of the most notorious female serial killers of the 1990s.

I wonder if Dorothy is fading away because it's become synonymous with Dorothy the Dinosaur (from the Wiggles) and Dorothy, Elmo's pet goldfish, on Sesame Street.

i am not surprised by the unpopularity of dorothy since it has been adopted by the gay community

My grandmother has half a dozen friends named Dorothy nn, Dottie. Isn't that an old slang term for silly or dopey in the head?

Dorothy always makes me think of those horrible outfits with the gigantic shoulder pads that Dorothy wore on The Golden Girls.

While we're at it, I could throw in another connotation of my own -- if you've seen the movie After Hours, the phrase "surrender Dorothy" sticks in your mind in a whole different way. In the end, though, such a long list of reasons starts to look like no reason at all. No one explanation really holds water. Take the "Golden Girls" sitcom reference, which was the most-cited objection. There were four Golden Girls: Dorothy, Blanche, Sophia and Rose. In the 20 years since the show premiered, Dorothy is the only name that has fallen in popularity. Blanche and Rose are unchanged, and Sophia has skyrocketed. As for the Wizard of Oz, a timeless and positive cultural association isn't likely to sink a name. And so on.


So other readers took a different approach, suggesting that the problem was simply timing:

Girls' names tend to run on a 100-year popularity cycle (look at Emily, Emma, Hannah, Sophie). In the 2020s we'll probably see a whole new crop of Marjories, Dorothys, Dorises, Sylvias and Phyllises

That's a fair point, but chronologically Dorothy is actually closer to Sophie than to Sylvia. The lasting appeal of the 1939 Wizard of Oz movie throws off our sense of timing...this name was a phenomenon not of film but of literature. L. Frank Baum's book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, published in 1900, was a huge popular success that spawned decades of sequels, comic strips, silent films and stage plays, including a long-running hit musical. Dorothy was already a trendy name in 1900, but the Oz phenomenon made it soar.

Try typing Dorothy into the NameVoyager. Two of the closest matches for that graph are Evelyn and Eleanor, both of which are already back on the upslope. (Evelyn, in fact, is back on the top-100 names list.)

So what's really holding Dorothy back? All of the issues mentioned above may well have a cumulative effect, but here are my two top candidates: raw numbers and raw sound. For numbers, Dorothy was not merely a hit but a HUGE hit -- ranked among the top 5 girls' names for 26 years in a row. The closest comparisons from that time period are Helen and Ruth, which haven't really hit their comeback strides either. For that matter neither has Ida, a monster hit of an even earlier generation. It may be easier to revive a modest hit girl's name than a mammoth hit.

As for sound, take a look at the history of all names featuring the sounds R and TH, in that order:

The upshot? I still like Dorothy, but I admit to being an Oz partisan. So my money's on Dorothea, which retains a lot of Dorothy's old-fashioned sweetness but sweeps away its cultural baggage. It also shifts the stress away from the less fashionable sounds to the contemporary long E at the end. And if you're not ready to go Dottie, readers suggested a cornucopia of nicknames including Dora, Doe, Dorie, Doro, Dot, Dodie, Thea, Thee and the little powerhouse Dart.

A Ricky-Dicky footnote

Aug 21st 2006

Brother. You go to college, get a job, get married, have kids, maybe even write some fancy-schmancy baby name book, you think you're a grownup, right? Then what happens? You get totally schooled by your dad on your baby name blog.

Yes, after last week's blog on Ricks and Dicks, my father sent an innocent little note. He was shocked, shocked to discover I had neglected to mention a certain Rick. A Rick who hit the silver screen in a white dinner jacket in 1942. Whoopsy-daisy. So kindly insert a big line for Casablanca in the Rick-Dick graph.

Though it's worth noting that Ricky, not Rick, was the major phenomenon, and nobody would have dreamed of calling Humphrey Bogart Ricky. For that matter, nobody got named Ilsa after the movie, either. And...aww, nevermind. Back to the baby naming mines. (And thanks, Dad.)