Name Forecast 2005: Endangered Species

Dec 18th 2004

A look ahead at the coming year in names. First stop: endangered species.

2005 should see some old standbys drop off the style horizon altogether. The names on the brink today are the familiar favorites of the '30s and '40s -- your parents and grandparents, friends and neighbors. These names that are so simple, so well known, that it's hard to think of them as rare birds. Yet that very familiarity has already pushed names like Joan and Betty into fashion oblivion. Parents want names that sound creative, not comfortable.

Heading out:

GIRLS
Ann
Carol
Janet
Joyce
Nancy

BOYS
Donald
Gene
Gerald
Glenn
Ray

For contrarian parents, here's a selection of endangered standards showing comeback potential:

GIRLS
Alice
Jane
June
Marian
Ruth

BOYS
Carl
Frederick
Lawrence
Hugh
Stuart

Julia Roberts gets the Gwyneth treatment

Dec 9th 2004

A few months back, I wrote about the flood of criticism that was aimed at Gwyneth Paltrow for naming her daughter Apple. Well now Gwyneth can rest easy, the pressure's off. All those bad vibes have been redirected toward Julia Roberts and her new twins, Hazel Patricia and Phinneaus Walter.

Newspaper columnists around the country have written snickering pieces on these "weird" names, dragging out examples like 30-somethings Moon and Dweezil Zappa as further proof that the rich and famous have no common sense. But hold on a minute...Hazel is no Dweezil. Let's take a look at the names have set off all this eye-rolling.

Hazel is a botanical name that was extremely popular from the 1870s through the 1920s, outpacing such familiar flower names as Lily and Daisy. It also showcases the red-hot letter Z. Phinneaus is a biblical classic, extremely unusual today but a natural up-and-comer -- other Grecian biblical names like Elias and Silas are rising hits, as are sound-alikes Finn and Finley. Do these names really deserve to be labelled "whacko" by the Boston Herald?

Partly, this is simple schadenfreude. There's an undeniable delight in watching the missteps of the privileged. But I believe there's also an element of culture clash at work. If you're shocked and horrified by a name like Hazel, chances are that you don't travel in the same circles as Julia Roberts. (Not that she comes to my birthday parties, either.)

For the record, here's what the upcoming Baby Name Wizard book has to say about Hazel:

In most places, the idea of naming a little girl Hazel is still unthinkable. But this name is ultra-fashionable in certain circles and it could get hotter. The handful of parents who love Hazel today are the same cutting-edge tastemakers who led names like Ruby and Lillian back from the desert in the '90s.
Yes, for the past several years, Hazel has been a stylish favorite in the elite urban neighborhoods where artistic sensibilities and high incomes meet. Ironically, Hazel's new celebrity status may well turn off those trendsetters, even as it introduces the name to a new audience.

And a final note to the Herald writer, who ended her column with this observation:

Well, at least Julia won't have to worry about her children's middle names becoming hackneyed. If there's one good thing about Walter and Patricia, it's this: They're safe.
Ah, not so fast. Walter and Patricia are endangered species, less common than names like Jaxon and Heaven and fading fast. In a few more years, Hazel and Phin may prove to be "safer" than Patty and Wally.

The new formality

Nov 19th 2004

At a kiddie gym class, I watched these boys crowding around the trampoline: Nicholas, Thomas, William and William. Nothing surprising about that crop of classics -- they would have sounded just as natural at a gym 30 years ago. Except 30 years ago, they would have been Nick, Tom, Billy and Bill. The four boys I met go by their full names, and they have plenty of company.

For generations, nicknames were adopted as a matter of course. Every adult Thomas you meet answers to Tom, every Nicholas to Nick. Some names even had a routine progression of nicknames from boyhood to manhood, with a change serving as a kind of coming of age ceremony. One day my neighbor Billy became a Bill, my cousin Benjy a Ben. Yet today's preschool-aged Williams and Benjamins are already wearing the most formal versions of their names, once reserved for occasions like weddings or job interviews.

Of course, among the preschool set what you wear -- clothing and names alike -- reflects more on your parents' tastes than your own. Parents like the melodious sophistication of the formal names, and perhaps the opportunity to reclaim nicknames as personal terms of endearment. It will be interesting to see what these boys do as they approach their own coming of age. An act of adolescent rebellion for the year 2014: "no, call me Billy!"