Boys should be powerful, furiously aggressive, and revered.
Girls should be pretty, happy, cherished and indulged.
That's the message American parents are sending with their baby name choices, based on a BabyNameWizard.com analysis of modern “word names.”
Photos: Getty Images
Word-based baby names like Thunder or Empress offer a unique window onto our culture, because they're the clearest signals in the usually complex realm of names. Every name from Aaron to Zora has its own place in our social world and sends its own messages. In most cases, though, those messages are hard to pin down. Not with a modern word name. When parents name a child Thunder or Empress, you have a clear idea of what image they want the name to project and what dream it embodies. The signals are spelled out before you.
That makes word names, and particularly new word-name trends, a stark barometer of cultural values and attitudes. In generations past, they followed predictable lines. Most of the familiar, traditional word names were given to girls, and celebrated either virtue (e.g. Patience and Faith) or natural beauty as an embodiment of the feminine ideal (Pearl, Violet). The late 20th Century updated the theme with some splashier and more diverse choices (Crystal, Ebony, Destiny), but the basic form mostly held true.
Then in the 21st Century, word names blew wide open. A revolution in baby naming obliterated the boundaries that used to restrain parents' choices. Over the past generation, baby namers have largely turned away from the old standard names in pursuit of impact and novelty. Word names are a rich source of both, and this time, nature and virtues are just the beginning. Any appealing word is fair game—for girls and boys alike.
This wave of new word names has entered a new world, one with a dramatically different conception of gender roles compared to eras past. One might expect, then, that the new names would break the mold of traditional gender stereotypes. One would be wrong. In fact, many parents are using their new creative freedom to push the old-fashioned images of "girl" and "boy" to new extremes.
A Close Look at the New Names
I reviewed tens of thousands of new, current names and identified 531 that appeared to be borrowed directly from common English words. Together, these word names were given to almost 30,000 American babies last year. (A name was considered "new" if it was scarce to non-existent in the 100 years before 1980, and was given to at least five boys or girls last year. Click to read more details about the study methodology.)
I coded the word names with 28 general categories of meaning, from "Colors" to “Courage," weighted for closeness of fit. Out of those 28 meaning categories, 11 leaned overwhelmingly (over 80%) toward one gender. Take a look at them:
Overwhelmingly Male Name Meanings: Power/Toughness, Furor, Exaltation/Praise, Speed, Animals, Military/Weapons
Overwhelmingly Female Name Meanings: Joy, Luxury, Love, Ethereal/Mystical, Beauty, Music
New names exclusive to girls include Allure, Paradise, Pristine, Lace, Happiness, Couture, Heiress, Fantasia, Tulip, Gracious, and Gorgeous.
New names exclusive to boys include Savage, Clash, Diesel, Thunder, Champion, Almighty, Chaos, Trigger, Danger, Power, and Rage.
Such new, eye-catching word names make up only a modest slice of America's total naming culture. But it's a growing slice, and a relatively diverse one. Pairs of siblings named Indigo and Fable, Trigger and Trooper, and Majesty and Messiah are likely to represent families of very different backgrounds and communities. And as strong signals, they both reveal and influence the cultures of those communities.
A strongly styled word name is more than just a fashion choice. It can shape a person's entire experience of the social world. Imagine meeting a person named Savage compared to a person named Tulip, or seeing each of those names on an email, or a resume, or a Tinder profile. The name creates a bubble of responses and expectations that will surround the bearer throughout life.
It also, of course, sends a message of values and expectations to the child herself/himself. We're looking at what thousands of girls and boys are told to be from the moment they take their first breaths.
Here's the complete table of word-name styles with their gender ratios:
|MEANING CATEGORY||EXAMPLE NAMES||PERCENT MALE|
||Diesel, Titan, Power, Wrangler||97%|
||Riot, Crash, Savage, Rage||94%|
||Supreme, Amazing, Messiah, Prodigy||88%|
||Dash, Blaze, Racer, Rocket||88%|
||Bear, Talon, Lynx, Hawk||87%|
||Cannon, Blade, Legion, Warrior||83%|
||Bravery, Valor, Brazen, Hero||75%|
||Summit, Champion, Winner, Victorious||71%|
||Canyon, Ocean, Granite, North||66%|
||Truth, Wisdom, Sincere, Logic||65%|
||Oak, Timber, Cypress, Alder||65%|
||Prophet, Blessing, Savior, Prayer||62%|
||Seven, Million, Billion, Infinity||60%|
||Fable, Poet, Legend, Saga||57%|
||Royalty, Sire, Empress, Pharaoh||56%|
||Journey, Believe, Future, Purpose||44%|
||Crimson, Indigo, Roan, Cobalt||39%|
||Loyalty, Gracious, Faithful, Goodness||37%|
||Solace, Unity, Harbor, Comfort||28%|
||Galaxy, Nebula, Meridian, Eclipse||26%|
||Lumen, Shine, Radiance, Brighten||25%|
||Tulip, Sorrel, Lilac, Yarrow||23%|
||Lyrical, Symphony, Cadence, Rhythm||16%|
||Gorgeous, Beautiful, Handsome, Pristine||16%|
||Imagine, Aether, Magic, Fantasia||12%|
||Adore, Heart, Allure, Forever||9%|
||Cashmere, Heiress, Fortune, Luxe||8%|
||Rejoice, Jubilee, Lively, Joyful||2%|
The Tip of the Iceberg?
This ranking may seem extreme, but there's reason to believe that it significantly underestimates the phenomenon. First off, not all of the names within a category are equivalent. Within the "animals" category, for instance, overwhelmingly female names include Gazelle and Sparrow; overwhelmingly male names include Lion and Bear. We are literally naming boys after predators and girls after prey.
What's more, my methodology was strict in excluding names that had more than a tiny history of past usage. That means that many word names that are currently experiencing an unprecedented surge of popularity went uncounted. The male dominance of the "Exaltation/Praise" category, for instance, doesn't even account for the 1,222 boys named Ace last year, vs. just 10 girls. The apparent evenhandedness of the "Reign" category doesn't reflect the most popular regal names, like King. 2,661 boys were named King, while only 234 girls were named Queen. In fact, every word name ranked among the 100 most popular baby names went uncounted, including the likes of Maverick and Hunter for boys and Autumn and Serenity for girls. Those four names alone were given to more than 18,000 babies last year.
The fact that boys are more likely to be named Steel and girls Lace may not be a surprise. More striking, I think, is the emotional tone these names set. It's not just that we like to picture our daughters as ethereal and our sons as powerful. It's that we apparently like to picture our daughters as happy, and our sons in a state of rage.
The most extreme, farthest apart categories of meaning names according to the gender ratios are Power and Joy. Can those really be opposites? And do we really want to deprive half of society of either?
Read More: The Baby Name State of the Union
It's not a secret that many of today's parents are choosing to steer away from tradition when it comes to naming their baby. But does that mean that the newest generation have little to no meaning behind their names? We don't think so!
Parents have shared the cute, inspiring, and personal connections behind their name choices in our Namipedia. Here are 11 sweet name stories that have us sharing a collective "awww!"
"I named my 3 year old Juliette after my very best friend. My friend, Julianna, and I have been friends since the age of one and we lived next door to each other up until high school. Ever since grade 2 she went by 'Jules' and when I found out I was pregnant with my 3rd girl we knew we wanted to honor her. We did not want them to have the same name because she now lives a few streets away and we hang out multiple times a week. So we went with Juliette and we call her Jules just like my best friend."
"During my parents' honeymoon at a lake cabin, they watched the sun come up over the mist on the lake and decided to name their first daughter (my older sister) Misty. I always thought her name was very sweet and romantic because of the beautiful story attached to it."
"My favorite book as a child was The Boxcar Children. I like literary references in names, but I don't really want to use the children's first names (Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny-either nicknames, or I already know young children with the names Henry and Violet). However, their surname is a more subtle nod to all of them; it feels very grandfather-ly and bookish to me."
"In 1948 Mom and Dad named me Evanne by combining the name of my maternal grandmother 'Eva' with my paternal grandmother 'Anne' to form 'Eva-Anne' or Evanne. Evidently a few new parents from my hometown, Seymour, Indiana, liked my name, and so, named their daughters Evanne, a compliment to Mom and Dad's creative naming!"
"I have a daughter named Halyn and her sister's name is Nylah. Halyn is Nylah spelled backwards so both names are the mirror image of eachother."
"I named my son Banjo (born 2012). His father and I decided on the name before he was even conceived because I am a banjo player and his father is a drummer. We are both great lovers of music and both enjoy the newer styles of bluegrass and bands like The Avett Brothers, who use a banjo a great deal in their songs."
"We named our son (b. 2012) Felix, and people keep telling us that they weren't so sure about it when we announced it, but that it's the perfect name for our smiley, friendly little guy. Then we tell them we picked it because it means happiness! It's turned out to be the perfect choice for our family."
"My husband and I always liked the name Bailey. He is a huge fan of the Chesapeake Bay and is a saltwater fisherman. He came up with the spelling on his own because he liked how it had 'Bay' in it and I thought it was sweet."
"I named my son Seneca after looking through a genealogy book from my mother's side of the family. There were several generations of male Senecas. In fact, in the mid to late 1800s, it was popular to name your child after famous Romans. I love the name, though most have never heard it, I know it's historic, not new and trendy!"
"I have a daughter named Delphine! :) I love its soft and tailored sound, and French vibe. I also love that its roots go back to Ancient Greece and Delphi, the place the ancient Greeks believed to be the birthplace of the world. The flower connection with delphiniums is fun. We live by (and love) the beach, so the connection to dolphins works for me too."
"My husband and I named our third child Ceili (with the traditional accents over the 'e' and second 'i') after one of our favorite memories. We were vacationing in Ireland on the lonely Dingle Peninsula at dusk, when we came across two hitchhiking girls. It turned out that they were delightful college-aged girls who were on the peninsula to study. They were trying to get to Dingle Town to a pub in order to attend a ceili, a big folkdance party--and they invited us! That night turned out to be one of the most fun nights we've ever experienced. The ceili was amazing, such a blast! Ceili reminded us of that wonderful night we spent in Ireland on the Dingle Peninsula."
Want to share your own baby naming story on Namipedia? Look up your child's name and add to the "Personal experiences with the name" section. (Free registration is required.) We can't wait to hear your story!
Imagine a land where names like Harriet, Evie, Pippa, Angus and Arlo roam. Sound like your kind of place? Then take a trip with me to the names of New Zealand.
The South Pacific nation boasts a dramatic landscape and one of the world's best-educated populations. Its official languages are English and Maori, and its naming style reflects a history of immigration from England, Scotland and Ireland. You'll find echoes of fashions far and near, such as Scottish names like Lachlan and Flynn that are also common in Australia, and free-spirited modern names like Bodhi and Indie that are popular in the U.S Northwest. Then there are the only-in-New-Zealand specials, including Maori names like Amaia ("halo") and Beauden, an homage to "All Blacks" rugby star Beauden Barrett.
The dominant style, though, is a quirky throwback charm. Storybook antiques like Matilda, Oliver and Poppy rule.
If you're a global name-watcher that may remind you of English name style, but Kiwis put their own spin on it. Their formal favorites lean toward the offbeat, with lots of unusual letters: more Xaviers and Hazels, fewer Alberts and Marthas than in England. And while storybook-cute names are popular in both countries, New Zealanders particularly favor energetic choices like Ruby and Indie, as opposed to mellower diminutives like Elsie and Freddie. The overall effect is old-fashioned but lively. (For a global match, the styles of U.S. states Colorado and Oregon come close.)
See for yourself. Each of the names below ranks among New Zealand's top 100, and is significantly more popular there than in the United States.