Want to know what kind of names are in fashion today? We'll give you a tour, from A to Z.
We've selected a full alphabet of girl's names to represent American name style. Since that style has many faces, we've listed four names for each letter. First, we divided names based on popularity. Every name on our alphabetic list has fashion momentum, but they're at different points on their trajectories. The "bullseye" names below are popular names in full flower, while the "upcoming" names are fast-rising but still relatively uncommon.
Our second division is about parents' approaches to name style: traditional vs. contemporary. As straightforward as that distinction sounds, the line between the two can be hard to draw. A name may be traditional in one culture but sound brand-new in another, or familiar as a surname but newly popular as a given name. In some cases, a simple spelling change can flip a name from one column to the other. But the basic goals of the two approaches—tapping into generations of culture vs. striking a fresh, new note—are undeniably different, and real.
Put the two criteria together and you have four names representing a broad range of style and usage. Read across a row in the alphabetic table, and you'll get a snapshot of how an individual initial is being used today. (A few initials may have some blanks where no name fit the criteria, but that says something about the letter as well.) Read down within a column to browse one slice of the American style spectrum.
Photo: Getty Images
|THE FASHION ALPHABET OF GIRLS' NAMES|
|Initial||Traditional Bullseye||Traditional Upcoming||Contemporary Bullseye||Contemporary Upcoming|
One baby name selection is a personal choice. Four million baby names a year, taken together, make up something more: a portrait of the state of the American psyche. It's a picture worth looking at closely.
We had a reminder of that fact this weekend, when the New York Times ran a cover story revealing that maternal age (the age at which women have children) is a key driver of societal differences. That's an insight names already taught us years ago. Starting with the 2004 election, I tracked a seeming paradox in baby naming. If you looked at the most liberal and most conservative pockets of the country, they seemed to name babies opposite to their ideologies. Progressives were most likely to choose names that were traditional, single-sex, and based in Christian tradition. Conservatives were most likely to choose names that were newly created, androgynous, and non-religious.
The explanation for this paradox was a growing gap in maternal age. Progressive voters increasingly have their children older than conservative voters, for reasons closely entangled with education. A 35-year-old mom, naturally, is going to have a different style sense than an 18-year-old mom. That same growing gap could explain a whole lot more than just baby names, as I described in a 2009 column:
"Going head to head in a decision that parents take very seriously, style beat values by a mile. So perhaps the style-making variable of maternal age plays a bigger role in the cultural divide than we realize. In fact, if you start with nothing but a maternal age gap, you end up predicting a lot of the behaviors that divide red and blue America....What it adds up to is that the age when you have children isn't just one more variable in the cultural spreadsheet. It's your life story, and the life story of your community."
That was a decade ago. What are baby names telling us about American society today? The portrait they paint is of cultural fracturing. Liberals and conservatives are moving farther apart. Various racial and ethnic groups are moving farther apart. States and regions are moving farther apart. And most fundamentally, individuals are moving farther apart. Baby name data suggests not just an "us vs. them" attitude but a deeper "me vs. everybody else" attitude. The one thing we all seem to have in common today is our desire to be nothing at all like one another.
We see this fracturing clearly at the top of the baby name popularity charts, which represent an ever-shrinking slice of the population. Today's top 10 boys' names together account for a smaller percentage of babies than John alone once did. Today's average American baby receives a name that's relatively uncommon nationwide, and concentrated in specific communities. Statistically speaking, there is no more "normal" in baby names.
In part, the decline in consensus represents a divergence in viewpoints. In the past, regional and even ideological differences didn't play out on the baby name charts, whereas now you see them strongly. The two tables below represent the top boys' names in the most politically extreme states in two years. On the left you see the lower-48 states with the highest vote differentials in the 1960 election, Nebraska (most heavily Republican) and Rhode Island (Democrat). You'll see that four of their top five names were the same. On the right are current rankings for the most extreme states in the 2016 election, Wyoming and California. None of their top five choices are the same, and most are wildly different.
Not only have communities diverged, but consensus within a community is disappearing. Those top six names in 1960 Nebraska accounted for one out of every five Nebraskan boys born. Last year, the top six names in Nebraska accounted for one boy out of twenty. Even groups with conservative naming traditions are seeing an explosion of diversity. For instance, the core classic Spanish boys' names traditionally held strong in the U.S., even as comparable English names fell out of fashion. But today, names like Juan and José are at their lowest point in half a century, despite a growing Hispanic population.
As American parents across the spectrum turn toward ever more novel and individual names, they're inevitably turning away from something as well. Children are less likely to be named after family members today. Biblical names are at an all-time historic low, and are increasingly selected based on style impact rather than religious role models. (Duplicitous Delilah now outpaces Mary as a baby name.) Political and military leaders no longer inspire namesakes. Overall, names based on connection and shared societal meaning are being replaced by names based on fashion and personal meaning.
The increasingly divided nature of our society is apparent in every realm today. Most often, though, we talk of it as two camps separated by a widening gulf. The resurgence of "nationalism," for instance, suggests a kind of divisive unity, with one group banding tightly together against outsiders. The baby name data reveal no points of unity at all. Even within in-groups, everyone is shaking off traditions and trying to stand out as unique. That's what the names tell us, and past experience suggests we should listen.
If you watch superhero movies, you've probably noticed the trend. All the stars seem to be named Chris. An actor is cast as Captain America? Call him Chris. Thor? Chris. Robin? Star-Lord? Steve Trevor? Chris, Chris, Chris.
Many have remarked on this coincidence, joked about it, and even compiled rankings of best Chrises in hero-dom. But here at BabyNameWizard.com, we want to know why. Is it pure chance, or does it point to something deeper about the actors, or about the name? Is Chris an intrinsically super-powered name, custom-made to leap tall buildings and conquer space and time?
In fact, the secret of Chris turns out to be precisely the opposite. Its reign represents the last hurrah of the everyman.
Let's take a look at the current big four of super-Chrises.
Images of Evans, Hemsworth and Pratt via Disney.com; Pine via WarnerBros.com
Chris Evans of Captain America: born 1981 in Massachusetts, USA
Chris Hemsworth of Thor: born 1983 in Victoria, Australia
Chris Pine of Wonder Woman: born 1980 in California, USA
Chris Pratt of Guardians of the Galaxy: born 1979 in Minnesota, USA
That's four white guys born in four very different locales, all in the same short span of time. What's the common thread?
First off, the full name of all four actors is actually Christopher. At the time they were born, the "All-American Nice Guy Nicknames" still ruled, and any ordinary Christopher could expect to be called Chris. Next, let's look at the popularity of Christopher during that period. Christopher is an old and traditional name, but not a timeless one. The name experienced a huge surge in popularity in the 1970s and '80s. In fact, only Michael was given to more U.S. babies from 1979-83. Take a look at the NameVoyager graph of Christopher's popularity:
What's more, that popularity was nationwide. Christopher was a top-3 boy's name in every state in the union in the early '80s. As for demographics, New York City historical stats show that the name Christopher reached the top 10 in every racial group. And the popularity didn't stop at the border. Christopher was just as popular in England, Canada, and Chris Hemsworth's native Australia.
Certainly, there's a big element of chance in a cluster of names like the super Chrises. But underlying that chance is a probability distribution. A bunch of guys in their 30's are likely to be named Chris, because that's just what guys in their 30's are named. You might think of the actor names as the mild-mannered alter egos for their onscreen heroes: the everyman brigade.
They may be the last of their breed. In its peak as America's #2 name, Christopher was over three times as popular as today's #1, Liam. So a generation from now, we shouldn't expect a new crop of matching everymen behind our superheroes. Today's baby names are all Superman, no Clark Kent.