More on occupations, if not aspirations...

Jun 7th 2005

Last week I wrote about the use of high-status professional titles as names in the 19th Century. In fact, occupational first names are more popular today than ever before, with 14 of them among the top 500 names for American boys. But while the boys of the 1880s were anointed Kings and Admirals, 21st-century boys are being named for humbler stations. They are workers and tradesmen: barrel makers, goods haulers, stone workers. Which is to say, Coopers, Carters, Masons.

Here's a graph of 25 familar tradesman names over time:

Unlike the young Judges and Dukes, it's a fair bet these names aren't chosen to be aspirational. No parent of a Carter is dreaming of the day he'll be hauling around a cartload of grain. The occupations shape our impressions of the names indirectly, with several layers of meaning distancing us from the reality of the work.

First off, the fashionable trade names are generally familiar as last names. When you hear Cooper, Carter and Mason, they probably strike you as surnames as much as tradesmen. Those surnames also carry their own cultural resonance, from Gary Cooper to Jimmy Carter to Perry Mason.

Perhaps most important, though, is the fact that they just don't make barrels like they used to. Cooper isn't a likely career path today, any more than Tucker (cloth finisher) or Parker (gamekeeper). The implied physicality of the names is part of their appeal -- these are men of action! Yet that ruggedness takes the form of a rough-hewn romantic glow, born of the luxury of not having to actually do the jobs any more. Ever met a boy named Painter or Plumber? Modern trades are a little too real for comfort.

Rustic or modern, the fact remains that we're naming boys for the lower rungs of of the ladder -- Gunners and Riders rather than Generals and Commodores. A smattering of girls are getting into the act too, most notably Hunters and Taylors. But girls are also increasingly named Heaven, Miracle and Destiny. We're sending our girls skyward, and keeping our boys ever more earthbound.

Occupations and Aspirations

Jun 2nd 2005

What job titles convey power, status, and stature? How about this list:

Judge, Bishop, General, King, Boss.

Every one of those top dogs was a top-1000 name for American boys back in the late 1800s. Could there be any clearer statement of a country's dreams? In short, ambition was in.

It was the Gilded Age, when great fortunes were born. New parents of the time had grown up with Horatio Alger books...or, just as likely, had grown up across the ocean and come to America in search of opportunity. Why not pass on those big dreams to your kids in the most direct possible way? Thousands of boys were named with titles of leadership. Military officers, nobility, exalted professions -- any name that suggested that this boy can be something BIG. Take a look at the popularity history of military-rank names:

That's Admiral, General, Marshal, Commodore, Colonel, Major. Not Ensign or Corporal.

Perhaps you prefer the civil professions? In the contemporary comic strip Jump Start, there's a running gag about a boy who was named Doctor by a mom who dreamed big. It wasn't always a joke:

The nobility and aristocracy, meanwhile, were represented by King, Prince, Duke, Earl, and Squire -- Earl reaching its all-time peak at #21 in the 1890s.

There's a new wave of exalted names today. Heaven, Angel, Diamond and Destiny are all hits. Most of today's lofty names, though, envision the child reaching spiritual rather than professional heights. (Perhaps a sign of a shift away from material values, or perhaps just a loftier level of hubris.) It's al sonotable that the contemporary hits are girls' names. While we're naming more girls Princess and Miracle, "meaning" names for boys have taken a very different turn, which I'll talk about next time.

On to part 2!

Introducing the Hottest Name in America

May 26th 2005

Last time, I talked about the Top 20 hot list of names that rose most dramatically between 2002 and 2004. Then I charted the pop culture events that jump-started those names. But if you look closely at the chart, you'll notice I only listed 14 names. What are the other six? Meet them now:

Rubi -- Hot in two ways, as an alternate spelling of the rising hit Ruby and as Rubí, a Latina favorite that got an extra push from a 2004 telenovela.

Saniya, Janiyah -- Saniya is a Hindi name, used in the U.S. by both Indian and African-American families. Rhyming twin Janiyah is a new African-American variation on the theme that joins Aniya, Aniyah, Janiya, Saniyah, Shaniyah, Taniya and Taniyah in the top 1000. Which make the Aniyas runners-up to the Hottest Name crown worn by:

Cadence. And Kadence. And Kaydence. Incredibly, the top three fastest rising names in America are all spellings of the same name.

Cadence, the hottest name in America, has no celebrity bellwether. It's pure style, a sound and image that hits a perfect bullseye for a large segment of contemporary parents. Try typing Kaydence into Yahoo or Google image search -- it's like a national baby convention.

Breaking down the elements that make Cadence such a baby magnet: first, The "Kay" sound is hugely popular for girls, featuring in hits like Caitlin, Kaelyn, Kayla and Kailey. Cadence is also a feminine elaboration on the boy's hit Caden (or rather Caden, Caiden, Cayden, Kaden, Kadin, Kaeden Kaiden, Kayden). It's a meaning name (a cadence is rhythmic flow of sounds), a growing style led by names like Sierra, Autumn and Trinity. And it has a traditional name-like sound. With familiar nicknames (Kay, Cady) and echoes of classics from Candace to Florence, Cadence is a new creation that fits in easily.

Look for more young Cadences in 2005. And as the name becomes part of the sound of the times, its popularity could even rub off on other -ence names, currently an endangered species. Top contender: Patience.