The changing seasons

Sep 8th 2005

Most name styles are open to parents' creative impulses. Flower names may start at Lily and Rose, but they extend out to Dahlia and Poppy--or Zinnia and Lotus. Even the Bible has some untrodden name territory like Jabez and Mehetabel.

But a few sets of names are locked down tight. There are only 12 months in the year, and the fair-weather months come at a premium. Springtime, naturally enough, is fertile ground for names, with April, May and June all popular selections over the past 150 years. Yet the months don't stick together in fashion the way they do on the calendar. Check out this extraordinary cycle:

By this every-50-years pattern, we're due for a new month to surge around the 2020s. The problem is, we've run out of Spring. One possibility is to start over at May, a name which seems due for a renaissance. Another is to branch out into more adventurous seasons. Sure, the symbolism of Spring is a natural for expectant parents: growth, promise, and fresh beginnings. Parents of girls in particular like the image of blossoms and tenderness. But you could make a case for Autumn, too. Any new mother can relate to the idea of welcoming a bountiful harvest after months of hard labor. The sounds of the Autumn months, though, are a hard sell. So my dark horse candidate is January, which is both the birth of a fresh new year and a lyrical name with a traditional nickname (Jan, as opposed to Sept or Oct.)

And there's one other possibility, which is already hitting its stride. In the past generation, parents have started to throw over the months in favor of whole seasons:

Summer and Autumn are still climbing, and Winter has time for a surprise strike by the '20s to come.

Reinventing the wheel

Sep 2nd 2005

Take a look at these pairs of related names. How are the names in column A different from column B?

A / B
Afton / Ashton
Alina / Alida
Elle / Belle
Katlyn / Kathlyn
Nyla / Lyla
Dasia / Stasia
Stephany / Stephania
Willow / Willa

A / B
Denzel / Denzil
Addison / Edison
Dorian / Florian
Garret / Garnet
Tanner / Turner

In terms of sound, each pair of names is close as close can be--only a single sound distinguishes between them. Yet in terms of popular usage, they're polar opposites. The names in the left column are all trendy new creations. Once rare or unheard of, they've emerged as common names over the past generation. The near-twins in the right column, meanwhile, are antique relics. They hit the top-1000 popularity charts consistently 80+ years ago but have since sunk into obscurity.

Each pair of names has its own story, why the old and new seem so close, yet culturally far apart. Kathlyn was a blend of Kathryn and Kathleen, while Katlyn is an offshoot of Kaitlyn. Denzil was a traditional Cornish name, whereas Denzel is African-American on the model of actor Denzel Washington.

As a group, though, the right-hand names could pass for a 21st-century classroom. The girls in particular seem positively voguish. ("Afton and Kathlyn, meet Lyla and Belle.") Yet even as parents rush to revive antiques like Isabelle and Ella, these names haven't been resurrected. Rather, they've been reinvented from scratch. There's a perfectly fine name sitting on the scrap heap, ready to be good as new with a little loving care. *Sniff*. Perhaps some thrifty--or rather, tradition-minded--parents could consider this an opportunity to reduce, reuse, recyle.

Stretching the limits

Aug 24th 2005

The standard length for an English boy's name is four to seven letters. That's the sweet spot for most of the popular classics, both old (John, Edward, Henry, Joseph) and new (David, Michael, Steven, Mark). As a group, these mid-length names maintain a very steady popularity over time and account for more than 90% of all boys. Styles change, but 4-7 remains a comfort zone where even new creations sound natural.

But name length does tell a tale. The effects of changing styles stand out most clearly at the ends of the length spectrum. Each generation has a distinctive pattern of very long and very short boys' names that speaks volumes about parents' tastes.

Take a look at the frequency of 2-3 letter boys' names since the 1880s:

And now the 8+ letter names:

In the early years of the graphs, pet forms like Joe, Sam and Gus show up strongly as given names. That's a window on an age when--despite our impression of stiff, buttoned-down ancestors--fun and informal names like Buster and Birdie were at their peaks. In the middle of the century you see parents withdrawing from both ends of the spectrum and sticking safely to the center. And the past generation shows a dramatic rise in long, multi-syllabic names...turf traditionally ceded to girls. (The girls' counterparts to Joseph, Henry and Edward, for instance, are Elizabeth, Catherine and Margaret.)

This "fancification" of boys' names is part of a general change in our approach to naming boys. Boys' names used to change slowly, but now they're just as subject to the whims of fashion as girls' names are. (Consider the case of Aidan.) So parents are turning to extra-long boys' names as part of the trend away from the average, toward names that stand out from the crowd.

Yet in one way, these long names seem to buck the trends. Parents today are inventing and importing new names at a furious clip, but the 8-letter-plus names look mighty traditional. It's hard to think of Benjamin, Alexander and Nathaniel as fashion-slave signs of the times. Even as parents strive for distinctive names, they try to keep one foot grounded. So we opt for the traditional, but bypass Bob and Jim for Nicholas and Sebastian. Or we get creative, but rein in the syllables with Cade and Tanner. Each style is a balancing act, inching away from the center without tipping into the land of the truly unfamiliar.