The Triumph of the Olives! Oliver, Olivia Take England

Oct 27th 2010

The U.K. Office of National Statistics has announced the top baby names of 2009 for England and Wales. You might notice a subtle theme...

#1 girl's name: Olivia

#1 boy's name: Oliver

Yes, long time boy's champion Jack has relinquished the throne, to the masculine version of the girl's favorite.

What makes this not just amusing but amazing is that it's England. Sure, other languages have plenty of boy-girl pairings -- just flip a vowel to make Francesco into Francesca or Julio into Julia. But England is the land of John and Mary, James and Elizabeth. Classic English names always kept to their side of the fence. It's a powerful signal of how sounds and fashion dominate today's naming decisions.

(Okay, for the sake of completeness: it's not certain that Oliver and Olivia are really forms of the same name. Shakespeare invented Olivia, and while many people assume it was a feminization of Oliver, we can't ask him directly. He might have created it from the Latin root for olives, just as he created other Latin-based names like Miranda. Oliver, meanwhile, is believed to be a Latinized version of an old Germanic name. It's closer to Olaf than Olive. Oliver Cromwell singlehandedly knocked it out of style for a couple of centuries in England, but today's parents are probably thinking more of Oliver Twist.)


Mad Men and Megan: Spotlight on a Misunderstood Name

Oct 20th 2010

Reader Lila wrote,

I know that Matthew Weiner, the creator of Mad Men, is meticulous in his attention to precise historical detail. But am I right in thinking that the name of Don Draper's new love interest, Megan, is something of an anachronism? Her character probably would've been born around 1940.

Anachronism it is, unlike most Mad Men names. The name Megan didn't come into common use in North America until the 1950s. In 1940, only nine girls in the U.S. were named Megan -- fewer than forgotten names like Cleva, Trellis, Nezzie, Icy and Doyce. Canada, the supposed birthplace of the TV Megan, was much the same.

Add the Sterling Cooper agency to the long list of folks who have misunderstood Megan. The #1 misconception is about the name's heritage. Spellings like Meaghan look like throwbacks to Irish roots for an Anglicized name, e.g Brighid for Bridget. In fact, Megan was never Irish to start with: it's a Welsh nickname for Margaret. That makes Meaghan something I've referred to as a "Häagen-Dazs name," carefully crafted to suggest ethnic origins it doesn't really have.

Much credit for the Irishization of Megan goes to author Colleen McCullough, who named her oh-so-Irish heroine of The Thorn Birds Meghann Cleary. The bestselling novel was published in 1977, and the names Meghann and Meaghan both debuted on the U.S. popularity charts the following year. A second boost followed in 1983, when the book became a smash TV miniseries. You can see the powerful Thorn Birds influence in this graph of the various Megans, via the Expert NameVoyager:

Only the standard spelling existed in significant numbers pre-Thorn Birds. Even that spelling, though, isn't as "traditional" as you might think. Old records of Megans are scanty, probably because the name was mostly used as an affectionate nickname. It's simply Meg with the Welsh diminutive -an. As a given name it was virtually unknown until David Lloyd George, Britain's only Welsh Prime Minister, bestowed it on a daughter. (His other children included Gwilym, Olwen and Mair.) The rate of Megans in the U.K. rose a hundred fold under Lloyd George's watch, and a new given name was born. Think of it as the Malia of a century ago.

Megan didn't cross the Atlantic until the mid-century rush of Karens, Susans and Sharons sent American parents looking for more names with that modern sound. Megan, Lauren, and Erin were the next wave.

All in all, that's a busy century for the name Megan. From occasional Welsh nickname to British given name to all-American given name to a name of misplaced (though well-meaning) Irish pride. And now we can toss in anachronistic emblem of the '60s modern New York working girl. Perhaps the take home lesson is that Megan is a supremely flexible name, ready to be whatever you want it to be.

Name MatchMaker: A Video Demo

Oct 13th 2010

The new Expert tools can be hard to explain in words -- you really need to see them in action to appreciate them.

I've created a simple video walkthrough of the Name Matchmaker, which is posted on the Baby Name Wizard Facebook page. You don't have to be a Facebook member to view it. I hope the video helps answer some of your questions about the tools' total awesomeness. :-)



Watch the Matchmaker Demo