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.

Fear of Jennifer

Feb 14th 2006

When parents talk about wanting an unusual name for their baby, the phrase you hear most often is: "I don't want her to be one of three Jennifers in her class." The name Jennifer has become a symbol of over-popularity, the emblem of a conformist age. It's the name that today's parents are all running away from. The anti-Jen sentiment has even been memorialized in a baby name guide, "Beyond Jennifer and Jason." As one Jennifer explained in a comment to this blog:

"I think a big part of the current search for unique names comes from a backlash against our parents. We grew up in a world where our classrooms were filled with Jennifers and Stephanies and Amys..."

It might be time we cut our parents some slack. (On names, anyway. Other lingering resentments you may harbor are beyond my jurisdiction.) Every generation has its popular names...were Jennifer and friends really such a conformist crowd?

Compare the accused to some of the trendy names of the 1910s:

Not only did Dorothy and her posse achieve the same level of popularity, but they sustained it longer -- doubling the number of Dorothys you'd actually meet on the street. And Dorothy wasn't even a #1 name. You know that huge peak Jennifer reached in the '70s? Mary reached far greater heights of popularity, decade after decade. It's not only the 1910s, eitcher. Toss Jennifer in with the top names of the 1950s, and it's just one of the crowd:

What's more, Jennifer wasn't truly the #1 name in America during its own reign. It was surpassed every single year by the boy's name Michael -- which kept up that pace for more than 40 years. Think hard about the number of Mikes you've ever heard of vs. the number of Jens, and its probably no contest.

So why do we pick on Jennifer? Perhaps because it rose and fell so quickly, leaving that date-stamped quality. (Michael is still the #2 boy's name, while Jennifer is at #38 for girls and falling fast.) Or maybe because it was the last of its breed -- the true across-the-board hit. Today's top names are only a fraction as popular as Jen and Mike were back in the '70s. But that doesn't necessarily mean the parents of the '70s were lockstep's the parents of the 2000s who are lockstep individualists.

Ava's up, Madison's down: The name world speaks

Feb 9th 2006

Madison is a trendy girl's name that has helped define the sound of a generation. But its reign may be nearing an end, if the experts are right. Which experts? Well, you.

Back in December, I issued a challenge to visitors. Choose three names that you think rose most in popularity in 2005, and three that you think fell. (The actual figures won't be known until Spring.) Almost 500 name hawks entered their best guesses in the inaugural Baby Name Pool. The result is thousands of "hot or not" assessments of American baby names.

Scientific? Nah. Meaningful? Absolutely.

Hundreds of observant name lovers scattered across the map make up an extraordinary scout team on the front lines of fashion. Their collective wisdom not only gives us a sense of what names are being used now, but where trends are likely to be heading.

Take the #2 name on the Pool hot list, Violet. It's a solid choice, a sweet antique with the rhythm of Isabel and the essence of Lily. Its "hot" status, though, is largely celebrity-inspired: Violet made headlines as the name of Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck's new daughter. Did that Hollywood connection really send the name soaring in 2005? Not likely...the baby wasn't born until December. But for 2006, look out.

So consider this your look ahead at name fashion, this year and beyond. Ava is hot and getting hotter, while Kayla is passing its peak. Aidan's still rising, and Jacob and Emily may not hold their #1 thrones much longer. The name world has spoken.

The top choices

1. Ava
2. Violet
3. Emma
4. Ella
5. Madison
6. Aidan
7. Aiden
8. Olivia
9. Lily
10. Sophia
11. Lucy
12. Isabella
13. Avery
14. Owen
15. Cadence
16. Charlotte
17. Jack
18. Jackson

1. Madison
2. John
3. Ethan
4. Kayla
5. Aiden
6. Melissa
7. Nicholas
8. Allison
9. Hailey
10. Madeline
11. Michelle
12. Zachary
13. Elizabeth
14. Jasmine

And some notes:

* It's tough to catch a name dropping out of fashion. They arrive on the scene with a bang, then slink away slowly and quietly. Compared to the many popular "hot" choices, there was very little agreement on the "not hot" names -- with one big exception. Madison was the runaway favorite, outpolling all names on either list and swamping the #2 not-hot choice by a factor of 5 to 1. Madison isn't about to disappear (it was also #5 on the hot list), but a backlash has clearly begun.

* Predictions of girl names outnumbered boys by two to one. That's actually sound strategy, since girls' names have traditionally swept in and out of fashion more quickly.

* If you combined all the spellings of Aidan for boys, it would be the #2 hot pick. In fact, many names had multiple variants submitted, the champion being Caden-Cadin-Caeden-Kaden-Kaeden-Kaiden. Other hot names showed up in families, such as Lily, Lilly, Lillian, Liliana, Lilia, Lila, Laila. (For more on the topic of combining variants, check out this old post.)

* Five names garnered multiple hot votes for both boys and girls: Jordan, Logan, Riley, Rowan, and Tristan.

* Pool participants included 9 Amys and 10 Elizabeths...and not a single Ava or Violet. Thanks to all of you who entered! The contest results will be announced here in May.