Boyish and Girlish

Apr 11th 2005

I've talked in the past about the trend toward androgynous names, and how it's a one-way street. We like girls who sound like boys, but not vice versa. And it is a powerful trend -- over the past decade a tenth of all American girls have received androgynous/boyish names, which is an all-time high by a mile.

Yet at the same time, there is an opposite trend at work. Lacy, ultra-feminine names have also risen dramatically over the past generation. Names ending in -a are a traditional marker of femininity. (With occasional exceptions, I admit in deference to all you manly Joshuas out there.) Today, almost four out of every ten American girls get names ending in -a , which is also an all-time high. When you focus in on the longest and laciest of those names, the trend is even clearer. Take a look at the rate of -a names with more than six letters over the past century:

Not only has the use of these names shot up, but so has the variety. Back in the '40s, Barbara and Patricia accounted for the majority of the long, lacy girls' names. By 2003 there were more than twice as many of these names on the charts, none especially dominant. It's the lacy style itself that's in vogue.

It seems that when it comes to femininity, parents are going to extremes: it's either Parker or Anastasia. Left out in the cold are the traditional names that are unquestionably womanly, but no-frills. A perfect example is the timeless classic Ann. Look at what's happened to Ann over the past generation:

Add an extra feminizing -a, though, and it's a whole different story. New young Annas outnumber Anns 19 to 1.

Extremes naturally make an impact. Yet as parents race to the ends of the femininity spectrum, they're leaving a hole in the middle. Right now, the most creative name ideas might be actually the plainest. Think plain Jane, or Alice, Ruth, Ellen or Sue.

Still silly after all these years

Apr 6th 2005

For the past few weeks, bedtime for my five-year-old has meant My Father's Dragon time. Ruth Stiles Gannett's trilogy follows the adventures of a boy, Elmer, and a dragon, known simply as "the dragon" until the final volume reveals:

"Boris! Is that your name?"
"Yes, said Boris uncomfortably. "I was embarrassed to tell you before."
"It's no worse than Elmer," said Elmer.
"I suppose not, and it's certainly not so bad as some in my family. I might as well tell you the rest. My sisters are Ingeborg, Eustacia, Gertrude, Bertha, Mildred and Hildegarde. And my brothers are Emil, Horatio, Conrad, Jerome, Wilhelm, Dagobert and Egmont. Can you imagine!"
It is an admirably silly roster of names for dragons, making my daughter giggle as intended -- even though the book was written back in 1951.

The passage of time usually blunts the impact of names in fiction. Authors fret over character names, trying to project just the right social cues, but a few generations later the subtlety is wasted on us. Yet names in children's books tend to hold up remarkably well, especially when the intent is on the silly side. A similar example from Virginia Kahl's marvelous 1955 rhymer, The Duchess Bakes a Cake:

A long time ago there lived over the waters
A Duchess, a Duke and their family of daughters --
Madeleine, Gwendolyn, Jane and Clothilde,
Caroline, Genevieve, Maude and Mathilde,
Willibald, Guinevere, Joan and Brunhilde,
And the youngest of all was the baby, Gunhilde.
Perhaps the reason these names still work is that their social cues aren't subtle. Names like Egmont and Willibald are the name equivalents of a pie in the face. Yet it's not all Egmonts. Anybody could slap together a collection of ridiculous names, but these authors are better than that. It's the counterpoint of "Jane and Clothilde" that makes all the difference.

Looking closer, each name list includes 3 general types as seen from the 1950s: the exotica (Dagobert, Gunhilde), the recently fallen fashion victims (Mildred, Maude), and the mundanely common (Conrad, Joan). From today's perspective, the recently fallen are no longer recent and the mundane are now fallen. But the three types still contrast cleanly and leave the whole group off-kilter. It's a robust formula that updates easily. Try it yourself. Imagine, say, a band of mischievous elves named:

Ethelbert, Erlafrid, Ludolph and Duane,
Regimbald, Fymbert, Jim, Kevin, Gawain.
It's also worth noting a type of name the authors didn't use: trendy new hits. That's the name terrain with the most uncertain footing. Back when Gannett and Kahl were writing, the names Rhonda, Melanie and Jennifer were all at the same level of newness and popularity. As it turned out, Rhonda peaked in the '60s and quickly fizzled. Melanie became a quiet, steady new classic. And Jennifer exploded into the defining name of a generation. Looking to the future, authors just can't project what will happen to new hit names. (Neither, for that matter, can parents.)

For some types of fiction, timelessness is beside the point. If a writer's goal is to capture an instantly recognizable "now," girls named Madison and Sydney may be just the ticket. But children's books tend to take place outside of regular space and time, in a self-contained world where cats wear hats and bunnies are tucked to sleep in great green rooms. On that plane a trendy name can be a jarring intruder, grounding the book in the fleeting real world. The silly may stay silly, but the new never stay new.

The cultural accelerator: are names really changing faster?

Apr 1st 2005

Every generation marvels at the pace of change around it. It's not just that the world is different, it's that it's changing faster. Our parents said it, and now so do we. Is it just a trick of perspective as we get older? Or is our culture actually accelerating?

When it comes to names, I'd say it's a reality: the pace of change is changing. I've taken a rough measure of change by tracking the "novelty rate": the pace of previously uncommon names becoming popular. For each decade, I logged the number of names in the top 1000 for boys and girls which had not made the list in the prior two decades. This novelty rate more than doubled from the 1920s to the 1990s (with a spike in the 1970s, which I'll discuss in a moment):

As you might expect, the styles of novelty changed along with the rate. Here's a closeup of the biggest new names of each decade -- the ones that jumped from obscurity to the top 250. (The higher the name on the chart, the more popular it was.)

Through the '40s, the most common kind of novelty was the use of pet forms like Bobby, Ronnie and Cathy as given names. Starting in the '50s, we start to see more variant spellings (Katelyn, Kaitlin, Kaitlyn) and surname and gender crossovers (Kelly, Lindsay, Taylor). And in the '70s, we see the emergence of distinctly African-American names. This, in fact, is the core of the overall novelty spike in the '70s. In the wake of the Black Power movement, black and white names diverged significantly for the first time and over 100 of the novel names of the '70s were chosen largely by African-American parents.

The names of our decade are still being chosen, but a peek at the 2003 list suggests there's plenty more change ahead. Creative spellings in particular are exploding -- try 10 new variants of Jaden for boys and girls. And ethnic diversity is increasing, with names like Pranav and Hamza making the list for several years running. So don't worry, it's not just you slowing down. The culture really is speeding up.