Let me tell you about a certain name. It's a girl's name, four letters long, with independent origins in Ireland and Scandinavia. This name ranked among America's top 250 girls' names for decades, and in the top 1,000 for a century straight. At its peak, it was more popular than names like Jasmine, Sydney and Kayla -- and Mary and Maria -- are today. The name:
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It's possible that you've known an Elva. Perhaps there happens to be an Elva in your own family tree. But I'll bet that to most of you, Elva is a name you've flat-out never heard of. It's one of the forgotten hits, names that had long runs of popularity before vanishing, not just from the popularity charts but from our mental name pool.
Each of the names below ranked among America's top 1000 boys' or girls' names for decades, and spent at least some of that time in the top 500. Yet each sounds utterly unfamiliar to most Americans today.
Floy. Peak Rank: #291 in 1887. Apparently a nickname for the then-wildly-popular name Florence, with echoes of the fashionable male name Floyd.
Mozelle. Peak: #417 in 1920. This name was nearly unknown outside the Southern U.S., but there it was popular enough to place multiple variants (Mozell, Mozella) on the nationwide top-1000 list.
Marvel. Peak: #487 in 1899. Not all Victorian girls' names were modest. Marvelous Marvel took off starting in the 1890s, mostly in the Midwest. Silent film star Marvel Rea was born in Nebraska in 1901.
Ollie. Peak: #96 in 1888. Ollie can be short for Olive as well as Oliver, so it may not surprise you that there were girls with the given name Ollie. What's surprising is how many. In its prime, Ollie was more popular than names like Maya and Mackenzie are today.
Arvilla. #435 in 1881. Many have guessed at the origins of Arvilla. A feminine form of Arnold, perhaps, or of the Welsh name Arwel? I like to think of it as a distillation of the romantic sounds of its moment, much as a name like Aubriella is today.
Elva. Peak: #161 in 1885 & 1901. Elva can be a Nordic name (meaning "elf") or an Irish name (anglicized from Ailbhe). But Elva's long run of popularity wasn't linked to any particular ethnic group. The name was simply stylish, sharing a heyday with names like Erma, Iva and Edna.
Gust. Peak: #330 in 1887. A short form of Gustave, or perhaps in some cases an adoption of the German surname Gust. Probably not an adoption of the word "gust."
Cloyd. #447 in 1892. Cloyd is an occasional surname, and the Anglicized name of the Welsh river Clwyd. But the real key to understanding Cloyd as a given name is that it peaked at a time when Clyde, Lloyd and Floyd all ranked among the top 100 boys' names.
Elzie. Peak: #352 in 1891. Elzie may be a nickname for names like Eliezer, or transferred use of the surname Elzie. There have been a number of notable Elzies who chose to work under other names, like "Popeye" cartoonist E.C. Segar; stock car racer "Buck" Baker; and sportswriter LZ Granderson.
Otha. Peak: #451 in 1909. The name Otha was popular with both black and white families throughout the Southern U.S. In its peak year, the similar names Otho (a Roman emperor) and Othel also ranked in the top 1,000. Beyond that, I can't figure out what the heck this name is. Any insights, readers?
Most baby name judgments are a matter of taste. There's no objectively "coolest" or "strongest" or "smartest" name. But some things about a name can be measured, and that means we can determine champions...or at least extremes.
The names below are all tops by some measure, profound or silly. In cases of ties, the name given to the most babies in the most recent statistical year was awarded the crown.
First off, some ground rules. Just stringing two names together doesn't count. (I'm talking to you, ChristopherJohn and SamanthaNicole). With that in mind, the longest current baby name in America is Oluwatimilehin, a Yoruba name meaning "the Lord supported me/the Lord is my strength." Oluwatimilehin was given to 19 boys, which gave it the tiebreaker over other names like Oluwafunmilayo and Oluwaseyifunmi. In fact, the 15 longest individual names are ALL Yoruba names starting with Oluwa.
Longest String of Repeated Letters
Willliam. Could this just be a typo? Yeah, probabllly.
Of all the names ranking in today's top 20, none got there as fast as the girl's name Harper. In the space of a decade, the name went from rare to everywhere:
Biggest Vanishing Act
Name trends come and go, but it's rare for a popular name to vanish altogether. Every year, some babies are still named Wilbur and Myrtle. The #1 biggest hit of the past that has disappeared completely is the girl's name Willie, which ranked in the top 100 for more than 50 years straight starting in the 1880s, but is now unheard of. The runners-up are all nicknames too, like Pam, Doug, Patti and Jan.
First In the Alphabet
If you added every newborn baby in America to your contacts list, Aaban would show up first….
Last In the Alphabet
…while you'd have to scroll a lonnngggg way down to get to Zyyon. (The all-time alphabetical backstop, Zzyzx, didn't register in this year's stats.)
Highest Scrabble Value
Weighing in at a lean eight letters, Jazzmyne edges out the likes of Krzysztof, Melchizedek and Kamsiyochukwu with a powerhouse Scrabble score of 38. (If you're thinking "but there's only one Z tile," assume we're playing Super Scrabble.)
Longest Name Made of One-Point Letters
Not every Scrabble rack is made for a triple word score. Aristotelis (the Greek form of Aristotle) gives you just 11 points in 11 letters. The girl's champion, Antoinette, clocks in at 10.
Plenty of names are classics, but one has earned the right to say it truly never goes out of style. William alone has never dipped below a rate of 4 born out of every 1,000 American babies.
Baby name trends have embraced new gothic literature - from Bella to Esme to Coraline, names with a tinge of darkness are all the rage. So why not look to classic gothic literature for inspiration? Names from authors like Edgar Allan Poe and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley provide the perfect starting point!
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Edgar. Twilight's popularity has helped the name Edward rise, but Edward's dark and brooding brother may be a bit more enticing. Edgar is synonymous with the deviant hero in old romance novels, or their all-too-attractive villains. Of course, it's Poe's first name, but there are dozens of other namesakes: the gentlemanly husband of Catherine in Wuthering Heights, the Impressionist artist Degas, and a few kings of England. Edgar may rank in the top 500, but it's a one-of-a-kind choice for fans of mystery.
Sebastian. The most popular name on this list, Sebastian is recognized far and wide for its refined sound and dashing aura. But even its trendiness can't undermine its elegance! There are plenty of heroic Sebastian's in classic literature, and dozens of real-life namesakes from all walks of life - actors, royalty, athletes. But the hint of innate tragedy remains. As Sebastian Flyte bemoans in Brideshead Revisited: "If it could only be like this always – always summer, always alone, the fruit always ripe…" In this case, the positive traits in Sebastian will last a long while.
Algernon. One hears the name Algernon, and one thinks of a Victorian gentleman. Even Oscar Wilde counted it as a well-to-do name in The Importance of Being Earnest: "In fact, it is rather an aristocratic name. Half of the chaps who go into the Bankruptcy Court are called Algernon." With Albert and Alfred getting popular in the United Kingdom, it shouldn't be long before the Al-names cross the pond, either. Quite a few noble Brits have been named Algernon in the past, and it's a lovely choice for first or middle placement.
Montague. The last name of doomed Romeo, Montague has an air of passion and courage in it. The name is originally French, but the British have most definitely claimed it - from Shakespeare to Wodehouse to Sayers, English authors have promoted Montague thoroughly. It has accessibility potential through the vintage nickname Monty, as well as the namesake character on Thomas the Tank Engine. Montague may raise a few eyebrows, but it more than stands on its own.
Alistair. This sophisticated, dignified name has an "airy" quality to it, but it's easy to imagine an Alistair inhabiting a dark manor, involved in some sort of romantic intrigue. The name is an English variant of Alexander, and could comfortably displace its more popular cousin. Alistair currently ranks at #391 in England and Wales, and like Algernon, could conceivably get popular here in the United States. Another, more dramatic alternative to Alexander is Lysander, which would also fit well in a passionate story.
Holmes. The most famous detective in Victorian England, Sherlock Holmes is known for prowling around gothic neighborhoods, solving impossible crimes. Though Sherlock might be a bit of a stretch, Holmes is a great literary name in itself. It's not far from Hayes or Hugh in sound, and it's been bestowed upon more than a few people, real and imagined. Holmes toes the line smoothly between mysterious literary honorific and accessible, wearable moniker.
Jasper. There's something about Jasper that speaks to dimly-lit alleyways and underground schemes - perhaps it's Jasper's recognizable sound with its mischievous namesakes. The name comes from a type of gemstone, but unlike Ruby and Pearl, Jasper is all boy. It has been rising up US popularity charts recently, probably due to the trend towards everything British, but its acclaim hasn't harmed its quirkiness one bit!
Thatcher. Maybe it's the aural connection to a thatched roof, but Thatcher seems like a perfect outdoorsy name to counteract dreary gothic interiors. One can picture a Thatcher exploring the moors in Wuthering Heights or befriending the raven from Poe's eponymous poem. As other occupational names have gained followings - Mason, Parker, Bailey - Thatcher will merge seamlessly from the moors to the playground. It's also nearly nickname-proof, and has enough gravity to withstand changing fashions.
Delora. The melodic sound and innocent look of Delora hides a darker meaning - it's originally from Dolores, Spanish for "sorrow". This deception adds mystery to an ostensibly suitable alternative for Laura or Dahlia. As for the literary connection: HP Lovecraft was raised by his aunt, Lillian Delora Phillips, and during his childhood was exposed to elements of Gothic stories that came out later in his horror fiction books. Indeed, the name Delora wasn't really used in the United States until the decade Lovecraft's work was published. I think that this name exudes the sense of secrecy and mystery.
Christabel. Originally coined in medieval times, Christabel gained familiarity in the nineteenth century through the poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge - a puzzling, fantastical poem that was never finished. The poem apparently influenced much of Edgar Allan Poe's writing - and why not, since the name is so enchanting. Christabel sounds like a modern amalgamation, but its history and literary basis is pure classic splendor.
Amabel. Another -bel name, Amabel never made the top 1000 in its history. Short form Mabel took over early on, but while Mabel is adorably vintage, Amabel has a delicate gravitas. Like the similar Annabel, the name was adored in the late nineteenth century, and lends itself to rhythm in poetry and prose. Edgar Allan Poe wrote "Annabel Lee" above his long lost love, but he might have chosen Amabel, meaning "lovable". The softness and solemnity in this name make it fitting for inclusion in a gloom-tinged list.
Olympia. Dramatic and powerful, Olympia conjures visions of goddesses and queens. One can picture a rich and influential Olympia ruling over a gothic villa. There have been a few notable Olympia's throughout history, but none so distinguished that the name belongs only to them. The sound is similar to Olivia or Cynthia, and there are quite a few nickname options: Ollie, Pia, or Polly, for example. A famous painting entitled Olympia shocked Paris in 1865, and choosing Olympia will definitely elicit a strong - but positive - response.
Isidora. The name of the tragic heroine of Melmoth the Wanderer, a Gothic novel, Isidora is a fascinating and gorgeous alternative to popular Isabella or controversial Isis. It's familiar, but just unique enough to make an impression. So far Isidora (or spelling variation Isadora) hasn't graced the top 1000, but its pretty sound and vague connection with darkness - see Isadora Duncan or Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events - will definitely help it to gain followers in the next decade.
Elinor. This spelling of elegant Eleanor saturates classic literature - from Melmoth the Wanderer to Sense and Sensibility to Inkheart, Elinor's abound. The name has a much more distinguished, noble air than the popular variation, but lends itself to the adorable nicknames Ellie or Nora. Still, a name this respectable would do well matched against a more outrageous choice - Elinor Christabel or Elinor Gregoria makes for a pretty but mystifying set.
Gregoria. A deviant alternative to sweet Georgia, Gregoria balances an aristocratic sound with an unusual, dynamic strength. Perhaps it's the rare double-g notes, or the middle two syllables that sound like "gory" or Edward Gorey, the neo-gothic author. However, Gregoria does have an intensity that can stop you in your tracks. Gregoria was also the name of a Byzantine empress - not a bad namesake at all.
Desdemona. The ultimate tragic name, Desdemona literally means "ill-fated". Even the sound of the name is desperate, desolate, and despairing. There have been very few real-life Desdemona's, but the name flourishes in literature: Shakespeare's Othello, Toni Morrison's Desdemona, Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex. However, the tragedy of the name might be a draw in itself - and who wouldn't love a dramatic middle option?