Case study: Ashtons

Mar 8th 2006

Ponder this historical graph, then we'll get underway. (Pink is girls born, blue is boys.)

This is a tale of one name that has traveled a rare path over the past 25 years: from male to female, and back again.

Our story begins with Ashley, an English place name and surname which enjoyed a modest vogue as a boy's name starting in the the 19th Century. It was an elegant, mildly fancified choice which sank from view by the 1930s. It might have stayed dormant with the likes of Aubrey and Emery, but Ashley got a second lease on life thanks to a character in Gone With the Wind. The name hung around and began a slow climb through the 1960s and '70s, and then came the avalanche. The name Ashley became a runaway hit...for girls.

In 1977, 2,705 American girls were named Ashley. In 1987, the number was 54,815. Along the way, some parents of boys who liked the "Ash" sound took refuge in the harder, more masculine-styled name Ashton. But then, just as with Gone With the Wind 50 years before, the Civil War came calling via Hollywood. The tv miniseries "North and South" was a huge hit in 1986, featuring a scheming belle named Ashton. Now parents seized on the name as a female variant on Ashley. Out of nowhere, it became the 267th most popular girl's name of 1986.

Parents of boys reliably turn away from names that have tipped to the girls' side. But kindred names like Austin and Peyton started to soar, and Ashton held on strong enough for a savior to arrive -- on the tv screen, naturally. A young actor named Ashton Kutcher got his big break on the sitcom "That '70s Show" starting in 1998. By 2003 he was starring in movies, hosting an MTV reality series, and dating actress Demi Moore. His name was everywhere.

Before Kutcher's first screen appearance, more girls than boys were named Ashton. Today, new male Ashtons outnumber females by 13 to 1. How's that for a tribute to a guy's manhood -- turning an entire name masculine. At least until one of the girl Ashtons of the '80s hits Hollywood.

The conformity curve

Mar 1st 2006

Recently I caught some flak for suggesting that today's parents are more determined to be individualists than parents of the past. It's certainly an easy trap to look at older names and just hear them as old, not thinking how fresh and trendy they might have seemed in generations past. (Here's a post from last year on just that topic.) In this case, though, I think the numbers bear me out.

The shorthand on modern America paints the middle of the 20th Century as the national pinnacle of conformity -- the organization man, the feminine mystique. This was followed by the social revolutions of the '60s which sparked a flowering of individualism, for better and for worse. But were the families of the '50s really any more conformist than those who came before? Is post-'60s America really a nation of individualists?

When I was writing my book a few years back, I plotted out a baby name "conformity curve" to address those questions. My intent, honestly, was to debunk some of the the pat little stereotypes. Instead, I confirmed them. The 1940s-50s were indeed the peak of modern conformity, and we've been stalking uniqueness more and more ever since.

The curve shows the percentage of babies receiving a top-25 name in each decade, and today. The 1960s marked a sharp drop in conformity. An even sharper decline began in the 1980s, the first generation of parents raised with the '60s in the rear-view mirror, the new social order taken for granted. At the same time, the novelty rate -- the adoption of new names into the core naming pool -- has been accelerating. Combined, it's a portrait of the curious cultural phenomenon that I jokingly called "lockstep individualism." Across regions, races and classes, many thousands of American parents are united by a common bond: their mutual determination to be nothing like each other.

I don't mean to imply any antagonism. I have no reason to suppose that we all like each other less than in the past. We're just determined to carve out a unique, or at least distinctive, identity for ourselves and our kids. But is it possible for everyone to stand out? In order to be the figure, you need a ground. So certain popular names -- Madison, for example -- are held out as emblems of today's conformity. Madison's highest peak (at #2 in 2001) would have made it only the 12th most popular girl's name of 1957. Conformity just isn't what it used to be.

The Name Olympics

Feb 23rd 2006

Reader Liz asks:

Laura, Have you ever looked at the Olympics to see if they have helped propel names into stardom? Will 2006 see lots of little Bodes, Sashas, or Renas?


Few stars rise and set as swiftly as Olympic champions. Their glories are perfectly crystallized in time, and sure enough you can find traces, like fossils, in the name records. But as with all celebrity-inspired names, it's more about the name than the celebrity.

Mark Spitz didn't do anything for the name Mark. Dorothy Hamill failed to revive the name Dorothy. It's the same story for Mary Lou Retton, Peggy Fleming, Bruce Jenner, Bonnie Blair....Those names were yesterday's news by the time their namesakes made history, and it would take more than medals to bring them back. For maximum celebrity impact, a name has to be fresh and interesting. That means that most of the Olympian-inspired names in America have actually been sparked by foreign athletes--in particular, foreign women.

Katarina, for instance, first hit the American popular name charts in 1988 when German figure skater Katarina Witt won her second consecutive gold medal. She was the first to take consecutive golds since Norwegian legend Sonja Henie won in 1928, 1932, and 1936 -- and yes, introduced her name to America. The single biggest Olympic name inspiration was probably Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci, who scored the first perfect 10 in 1976. The name Nadia immediately roared into popularity and has remained an American name ever since.

A few Americans have come close. The name Tai made its one and only appearance on the name charts in 1980, the year that highly touted pairs skaters Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner had to withdraw from competition. This year's top names are also likely to come from the skating ranks. Sasha is a possibility, though it's already been a top-500 U.S. name for decades. The most intriguing name spark may be ice dancer Tanith Belbin. (Tanith was the name of a Phoenician goddess; you might also consider the Greek version Tanis.)

Finally, a bit of perspective on Olympic glory. I mentioned that Sonja Henie's gold-medal performances inspired some American Sonjas. But take a look at what happened when she retired from skating in 1936:

Why the jump? Henie retired to Hollywood, where she starred in a series of popular skate-themed movies. A decade's worth of gold medals didn't hold a candle to films like Thin Ice and Happy Landing.