British Baby Names vs. American Baby Names, Part 2

Aug 10th 2011

Last time, I described how I compared baby name stats in the United States vs. England and Wales to look for stylistic differences. (Take a moment and read that part first!) The distinguishing characteristic of contemporary British naming turned out to be cuteness. The most-British list was packed with old-fashioned diminutives (Alfie, Ollie) and sweet li'l cuddly names (Poppy, Ellie-May).

The irony is that that nicknames, especially with hyphens attached, used to be stereotypically American names. Once upon a time, Americans were supposed to be Chuck, Steve, Nancy, Randy, and Hank...or Billy-Ray and Peggy-Sue. Clearly, those days are gone. What are the Americans up to now, then?

There turn out to be multiple answers, some which fit other American stereotypes, and some which might surprise you. Here's the top-10 list:

Most American Baby Names, 2010

1 Landon Addison
2 Anthony Avery
3 Gavin Hailey
4 Angel Allison
5 Andrew Kaylee
6 Brayden Aubree
7 Jose Natalie
8 Elijah Brooklyn
9 Christian Ashley
10 Hunter Lillian

Compared to the most-British list, you'll notice a strong formality. In place of Alfie and Lily-Mae, we have Anthony and Lillian. Even when a name ends in the -ee sound typical of diminutives, as much of the girls' list does, it's a full, formal name.

That formality plays out in several overlapping themes. First off, we have surnames -- lots of surnames. Names like Addison, Landon, Hunter and Hailey have strong surname style, and several names with longer histories as given names, like Avery and Ashley, also have surname roots. (Note that the surname spelling Allison makes the most-American list, while the classic first-name spelling Alison doesn't come close.)

Surnames like these are a contemporary name style, but a relatively conservative and formal one. On the girl's side, you especially see surnames that had a tradition as male names -- yet a farther step from Lily-Mae and friends. It's as if America wants to dress up its little boys and girls alike in pinstripe suits.

Other themes: Jose and Angel represent the Spanish traditions of parts of the American population, the counterparts, you might say, to the Celtic names on the E& W list. Next come the modern inventions packed with long vowels (Kaylee, Brayden). These fit some American self-stereotypes about modern naming, that our nurseries are filled with newly created names that sound like teen idols.

And then we have the Western pioneer names. You see hints of the style in Elijah and Landon (picture actor Michael Landon in Bonanza), and it hits its stride just outside the top 10 with names like Wyatt, Jackson and Jeremiah. Yes, Americans really do choose cowboy names! Yee-haw!

In the remainder of the list, the formality resumes...and our American stereotypes abruptly cease. Gavin and Christian are old, traditional names that Americans consider to have a certain formal elegance (and maybe even a British edge). And how about Anthony? Andrew? And lurking just beyond the top 10 you'll find names like Christopher and Jonathan. As in Anthony Trollope, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Christopher Wren, and Jonathan Swift. All impeccably tradional names, all with plenty of British tradition, and all now overwhelmingly American.

It's an interesting group. They're all classic men's names without the slightest whiff of the exotic about them. Even the most conservative namer would approve. Yet none of them are part of the traditional core of English-language names, the kingly names like John, James, William, George, Edward and Robert that reigned for centuries. One hundred years ago, none of the four "all-American standards" ranked among America's top 30 boys' names. Today, they all do. That makes for a neat little balancing act: classic, traditional and formal, but not old. While Americans may not share the British love of child-like names, they're on the lookout for the new and fresh. Americans want to sound youthful, but not young.

British Baby Names vs. American Baby Names

Aug 6th 2011

What makes for a British baby name? A simple answer might come from the official list of the most popular baby names in England and Wales, which was released last week. Those stats show Olivia, Sophie and Emily topping the charts for girls, Oliver, Jack and Harry for boys. None of those name should sound too surprising to an American observer. All but Harry rank among the U.S. top 100 names, and Harry has the British double-whammy of a prince and a boy wizard in its corner. So far, expectations confirmed.

But then there's the #4 boy's name: Alfie. That name is virtually unknown in the U.S., given to only 6 American boys last year. (Other boys' names tied at 6 include Jagjot, Ifeanyichukwu, and Awesome.)

Is Alfie a blip on the radar, or a sign of a major style divide? What kinds of names define British vs. American baby name style?

I decided to look for the differences statistically, in the same way that I track the differences in U.S. naming from one year to the next. I normalized the 2010 name frequency data for England and Wales (E&W) and the United States (US) to occurrences per million babies born, to allow direct comparisons. Then I applied my standard Baby Name Wizard "Hotness formula," a calculation that balances percent change with the absolute number of babies affected. The result is a ranking of the "most British" and "most American" names. And yes, there are consistent differences in naming style.

To American ears, E&W names are overwhelmingly cute. My guess is that's not what the typical American expects. My chapter on "English" names in the Baby Name Wizard book described a style based on Americans' literary imagination, not geographic reality. Deep down, Americans kind of wish English people would be named Nigel and Victoria and live in a Masterpiece Theatre production. But take a look at the names that define real E&W name style today:

Most British Baby Names, 2010

1 Alfie Maisie
2 Olly Poppy
3 Archie Ellie-May
4 Harry Imogen
5 Kenzie Lily-Mae
6 Finlay Ffion
7 Barnaby Darcey
8 Ollie Freya
9 Freddie Bethan
10 Osian Ellie-Mae

Meet the kids, Ellie-May and Ollie! Not so much Masterpiece Theatre as Beverly Hillbillies, eh? But those represent hot name styles in England today. Not only do two spellings of Ollie make the top 10 most-British list, but if I expanded the list the next three girls' names in line would be Lily-Rose, Lilly-May and Lily-May.

The hyphenated girls' names are, admittedly, a bit of a statistical cheat. The U.S. doesn't allow punctuation in name stats. But the run-together versions like Elliemae are overwhelmingly British, as are the individual names Ellie and Lily. And anecdotally, in my nine years in the baby name business no American parent has ever approached me with a dilemma like "Ellie-Mae vs. Lily-Mae."

On the boy's side, cute diminutives have never been less popular in the U.S. This used to be a land of nicknames, overrun with Billys, Jimmies and Tommies. Today that's William, James and Thomas, thank you very much. Oh, you'll meet a fair number of young American Williams called Will or Liam, but little Billy has become scarce as both nickname and given name. In England & Wales, though, Billy is the #101 boy's name, a little behind Bobby and just ahead of Frankie. Lifelong boyishness is now the English way.

Looking beyond the diminutives, you'll notice the list features Welsh names like Osian, Ffion and Bethan. This is, after all, a list based England and Wales. (The individual country lists only run 100 names deep, insufficient for this analysis.) Freya is a Norse goddess name that's hot throughout Scandinavia as well as the U.K. Darcey is a feminized form of the surname Darcy (as seen in Pride and Prejudice). The great English ballerina Darcey Bussell is one prominent bearer.

That leaves just Imogen, Barnaby and the Scottish import Finlay to hold up the image of formal, quirkily classic English names. As for Nigel and Victoria, prepare to be disillusioned: both are twice as common in the U.S. today as in England.

To be continued, with the Most American Names next time...On to part 2, Most American!



The Sound of Modern Femininity

Jul 28th 2011

The look of femininity changes over time, from bustles to miniskirts. Does its sound change, too?

In most European naming traditions, an -a ending is the classic marker of a feminine name. That's not to say that every feminine classic ends in -a (e.g. Elizabeth) or that every classic ending in -a is feminine (Joshua). But historically, boys represent a trivial percentage of American -a babies. If parents choose an -a name for their baby girl, it's fair to generalize that they chose that name as proudly, unequivocally feminine.

That makes -a names a nice barometer of name femininity. Historically, the percentage of girls receiving a name ending in -a has hovered around 25%, with only moderate variation. Don't let that overall stability fool you, though. Within that feminine pool, change is roiling.

If you look at the -a names that peaked in the 1930s, for instance, you'll see a trend toward compact, consonant-dense names. Of the 10 most common -a names, 7 are two syllables long. They include the likes of Myrna, Nelda, Norma and Wanda. That was the sound of that era's sparkling all-American girl. (If it's hard for you to imagine Myrna and Norma as modern, glamorous names, look up Hollywood legends Myrna Loy and Norma Shearer.)

By the most recent decade, those dense names had vanished. 8 of the top 10 -a names that have peaked since 2000 are three or more syllables long. Even the 2 shorter names from the 2000s list, Ava and Mia, bear only a single consonant a piece. That's in keeping with a broad trend toward strong vowel sounds.

But there's more. Even the kind of consonants in today's feminine names have changed.

To talk about that, we'll need some special vocabulary. Consonants are the speech sounds we make by closing the vocal tract, either wholly or partially. (With an open vocal tract, we make vowel sounds.) A consonant that blocks the vocal tract stopping all airflow is called a "plosive." That may sound alarming -- we all do like breathing, after all -- but in English it just means a B, P, D, T, G or K sound.

Unless you've studied linguistics, you've probably never consciously thought about those as a related class of sounds. But on some level, we do seem to sense their commonality. The names we choose show it. Take a look at the historical graph of girls' names ending in a plosive followed by -a:

Girls' names ending in plosive + a

They've fallen dramatically out of style as a group. Meanwhile other classes of consonants such as liquids (L and R), fricatives (F, V, S, Z) and nasal stops (M and N) remain as popular as ever with the -a ending:

And a vowel sound + -a is even hotter...but too complicated to graph for these purposes. (Contemplate that Sophia and Andrea end in two vowel sounds, but Patricia and Chelsea do not.)

What separates the plosives from that wide array of other sounds? Well, try this. Say an S sound and draw it out for three seconds: ssssssssss. Nice hissing! Then do the same with E, R and M. Now try B. No luck, eh? Plosives are vocal speed bumps. They stop you cold, if only for a passing instant. The other letters let you continue on smoothly.

That is the essence of today's feminine sound: smooth. Silky smooth.

You see that trend in other contemporary name styles too. For instance, the "blunt object" boys' names like Kurt, Mark, Brad and Frank are fading away. But the smoothness is especially apparent in the feminine -a arena, where it pairs with the trend toward longer, multisyllabic names.

Today's all-American girl is probably an Isabella or Olivia. (In 2009, Isabella became the first #1 name over 3 syllables in American history.) Or maybe she's a Brianna or Nevaeh. Whatever her style, from classic to creative contemporary, she flows like a breeze.