In memoriam: the departed names of 2007

May 29th 2008

Each year, a handful of familiar, long-popular names drop off the top-1000 name charts for the first time. Practically speaking, that means that they represent less than one baby out of 20,000 -- or to put it another way, that if you met a baby Elbert you'd be surprised. (Elbert made the charts for more than a century straight, by the way, including 45 years in the top 200. How quickly we forget.)

Many familiar names have been off the charts for years: Harvey, Susie, Herman, Louise. But the newly fallen names represent the turning point of current fashion, and deserve a moment of quiet memorium:


(Note spelling. This is a rare example of a variant spelling carrying high social status; think patricians like actress Katharine Hepburn and Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham.)

The most telling names, to me, are the ones with tall and recent popularity peaks: Colleen, Donna and Stacey. Together, they suggest that the '60s naming era is heading toward its style nadir.

One of these lists is not like the other

May 22nd 2008

Here's a top-10 name list. What strikes you about it?

1. Isabella 1. Angel
2. Emily 2. José
3. Mia 3. Daniel
4. Sophia 4. Anthony
5. Ashley 5. Jacob
6. Emma 6. David
7. Madison 7. Luis
8. Ava 8. Ethan
9. Samantha 9. Jesús
10. Elizabeth 10. Michael

What leaps out at me is that the boys and girls look very different. The boys clearly represent a heavily Latino population. Almost half of the boys' names are exclusively Latino, and several of the others (Daniel, Anthony, David) are cross-cultural names especially favored by Latino families. The girls? Well, they look at lot like a cross section of the United States.

So, any guesses where those lists come from?

They're the top 10 baby names of 2007 for the state of Arizona. Arizona's population is about 30% Latino, twice the national average. Among young families, the percentage is probably higher. And as the name lists above show, American Latino families still lean toward traditional Spanish names for boys...but not for girls. The boys' names Angel, José, Luis, Jesús, Carlos, Diego, Juan, Miguel, Alejandro, Jorge, Victor, and Francisco are all more popular in Arizona than the top distinctly Spanish girl's name, Maria -- and even Maria is used cross-culturally.

(A quick aside: all of this makes it tremendously difficult to come up with style-matching "sibling" suggestions for the Baby Name Wizard book. There is no crop of timeless Spanish girls' names to match with José, Juan, Carlos and friends.)

So what are little Latinas named? The top-10 list does give us some clues. Ashley is #5 in Arizona compared to #13 nationally. Ashley is an English surname, popularized by a Welsh/English fashion designer and an Anglo soap opera star. Its sound and spelling are virtually impossible in Spanish. Yet Ashley is one of the top names for girls in the same communities where José and Luis lead for boys. In fact, for a number of years now the "Ashley rate" has been a pretty good indicator of any state's Latino population.

Such different approaches to boys' and girls' names used to be the widespread norm. If you look back at the decades before World War I, the top 10 boys' names in America were reliably the pure English standards. The girls' lists, though, were studded with the trendy names of the moment: Bessie, Mildred, Ethel. My grandmother was one of those Ethels, and her brothers, predictably, were Charles, George and Richard.

Over the past century, the naming gap between boys and girls has been slowly closing. Today trendy new boys' names like Jayden (in all its spellings) are more popular than any traditional name. But that's for the country as a big, diverse whole. You still see echoes of Ethel, Charles, George and Richard in families named Ashley, Carlos, Jorge and Ricardo.

There's a difference, of course. Charles, George and Richard were traditional English names, chosen by my immigrant great-grandparents who were not native English speakers. Today, not only do many immigrants choose names from their native cultures, but their American-born children and grandchildren often choose them too. You shouldn't assume that a Carlos is the son of immigrants today, any more than you would have assumed a Charles was the son of native English speakers a century ago. That's just one of countless cultural changes that separate my great-grandparents' generation from today's Arizona parents. Yet the boy/girl name gap is one tradition that lives on.

Easy come, easy go: the fastest falling names of the year

May 14th 2008

When I tallied up the hottest rising baby names of the year, it looked like a small-screen triumph. Tv star names led the charge, including two reality tv champions: Jordin (Sparks, of "American Idol") and Jaslene (Gonzalez, of "America's Next Top Model"). It's not the first time reality shows have launched hot baby names. Two years ago, the #1 fastest-rising name was straight from realityville. Let's roll back the clock...

It's 2005. MTV has just wrapped up the first season of "Laguna Beach," trailing a pack of attractive high school students through their sun-drenched seaside lives. Most of them -- being "real," rather than soap characters -- have familiar, ordinary names. But then there's one. Talan Torriero wasn't even a focal point of the show, but his previously obscure first name becomes a star. 446 young Talans are born in 2005, making Talan the #1 hottest name in America.

Fast forward. By season three of "Laguna Beach," Torriero is nowhere to be found. Out of sight, out of least where baby-naming parents are concerned. In a perfect U-turn, Talan was last year's #1 fastest-falling baby name.

Two other reality tv names made the top 10 falling list: Trista ("The Bachelorette") and Sheyla ("Cantando por un sueño"). This baby name evidence suggests that reality shows really do deliver the proverbial 15 minutes of fame. The reality spotlight shines brightly, but once it dims most of its "stars" are quickly forgotton.

The rest of the falling five:

#2: Akeelah
With the movie Akeelah and the Bee out of theaters, the name dropped out of nurseries. This name looks like a good bet to enter the rolls of one-hit wonders, names that appeared for a single year, never to be heard from again.

#3: Betsy
The real story here isn't the disappearance of Betsy in 2007. It's the appearance of Betsy in 2006 -- the only time in over a decade that this classic made the charts. Any ideas why, Baby Name Nation?

#4: Sherlyn
Names of Spanish-language tv stars are a mercurial niche, and none more so than Sherlyn. Track the up-and-down prominence of Mexican actress Sherlyn through six years of baby naming:

#5: Nathalia
Nathalia appeared suddenly in 2006 then disappeared just as suddenly the following year. The full story, though, is a little more complicated. The spike wasn't specific to that spelling -- names like Natalia and Natalya rose too. In fact, the entire Natalie family of names has experienced a volatile surge in the past half-dozen years. Contemplate the NATAL- names in the NameVoyager. (Yes, you can now link to specific search results in the NameVoyager! We're full of good tricks here at 2005 & 2006 were particular peak years, presumably encouraged by intense media coverage of the disappearance of teenager Natalee Holloway. As usual, publicity -- even of a tragic event -- makes a name rise. For a close parallel, see the name Laci in 2003.