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 babynamewizard.com 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.

This look was so 2005...

Jan 23rd 2006
I'm happy to report that the Name Wizard blog is about to get its long-awaited facelift. I hope you'll find the new version simpler, cleaner, and easier on the eyes. And now that I've made fabulous promises...time to wait. This will be my last post for a week or so until the new system is live. Don't forget to submit your entry to the Baby Name Pool by February 1! Finally, I'll leave you with a little NameVoyager scavenger hunt. Can you find, in that collection of most common American baby names, six Japanese names. Five of them highlight the large Japanese immigrant population of the early 20th century, but one is an entirely different cultural phenomenon. Answer below... . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Hiroshi, Kiyoshi, Masao, Yoshio, and Yoshiko were Japanese-American favorites early in the century. Tamiko was a primarily African-American favorite of the 1970s -- a twist on the hit name Tamika.

Filling in the gaps

Jan 18th 2006

My book features lists of names from many languages -- French, German, Arabic, Swahili. But you won't find any Chinese names.

In the 19th century, when European immigrants were filling the cities of the American East, Chinese immigrants helped shape the growth of the West. 25% of the California's workforce was of Chinese descent before the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 barred most immigration. Yet these thousands and thousands of families left little stamp on American naming culture.

In part, this reflects rapid name assimilation among Chinese-American families. Even today, many Chinese who work or live in the West take on Westernized first names as adults. The linguistic distance between English and Chinese also limits the spread of Chinese names into other ethnic communities. (The foreign names most likely to be adopted into English have always been those with a root or form similar to familiar English names.) But the most important factor may be two wholely different cultural approaches to first names.

Chinese tradition does not set aside a class of personal names separate from the general class of words. While certain elements are particularly common in names -- for instance, words for beauty in girls' names -- each name is essentially custom-made for the child. Name popularity is diffuse, with no Chinese counterpart to John and Mary. So while German immigrants could launch names like Hedwig and Ingeborg onto the U.S. popularity charts, no single Chinese name would see the same surge.

Yet you can find Chinese immigrant families in the 19th Century name data. During the 1880s, all of these name cracked the U.S. top 1000 at least once:

Chin, Lim, Lin, Lum, Sing, Wong, Yee

Each of them ranks among the 100 most common Chinese surnames. While given names in China are diverse, family names are highly concentrated. The top 100 names account for the large majority of the Chinese population.

And in Chinese the surname comes first, the given name second.

19th-century American name data is full of quirks. Abbreviations like Geo for George and Wm for William were recorded in sufficient numbers to rank as common names in their own rights. Sex was miscoded often enough to make Margaret a reliably popular boy's name. And it appears that enough Chinese-American names were recorded backwards to leave their footprints in history.