When we talk about baby name style choices, we often present it as a philosophical divide: traditional vs. creative. That split may be selling traditional names short. Choosing a name with deep roots doesn't necessarily mean abandoning creativity. In fact, the many cultural threads of our past offer all kinds of surprises, with built-in texture and nuance that newly invented names can't match.
Perhaps it's time for a little rebranding effort. Just look at the produce aisle, where the quirky variety of the past is now celebrated. Next to the identical red spheres of modern tomatoes you'll increasingly find bulbous, multicolored specimens labeled heirlooms. We prize these once-forgotten old varieties for their highly individual flavors.
In that spirit, I present 63 "heirloom names." These names are all impeccably traditional, but far from conventional. For better or worse, they won't look like any other name on the shelf…or rather, in the classroom. Some may even have a little shock value. Their individual, classic-creative flavors are one of a kind.
Disney animation has brought us hit names like Ariel, Jasmine and Elsa. Younger sibling Pixar, meanwhile, has brought us Sulley, Lightning and Wall·E. The computer animation powerhouse may be a smash on the screen, but it has yet to hit its stride as a baby name style maker. Could the new Pixar film Inside Out change that? The answer hangs on two names with very different histories: Riley and Joy.
The story of Inside Out takes place inside the mind of an 11-year-old girl named Riley. It's an admirably realistic choice: Riley was the 58th most popular girl's name of 2004. As it happens, that was the same year I completed the first edition of the Baby Name Wizard book. I included a full entry for Riley in the girls' section, and quickly felt the wrath of parents of Rileys...male Rileys. No name in the book generated more angry letters. Mothers accused me of failing to uphold the traditional masculinity of their chosen name. But like a lexicographer adding "selfie" to Merriam-Webster's, I was just describing the existing usage. The number of girls named Riley had been rising for years, and by 2003 they outnumbered the boys:
At this point the name is so familiar for girls that it's unclear how big a bump the movie exposure will give it. What the film certainly could do, though, is strike a tough blow on the boys' side. Celebrities can wield tremendous power over androgynous names. Dakota was a cowboy name, four-fifths male, before actress Dakota Fanning's first starring role. Today, it's majority female. Similarly, actor Ashton Kutcher singlehandedly pulled the name Ashton back from the girls' side. With male Rileys already declining, this prominent usage -- destined for heavy replay in a million family rooms -- could redefine the name as feminine.
The Inside Out character Joy is named quite literally. She is the personification of young Riley's capacity for happiness. This reminder of the word's essence might just be the boost the name needs. Joy has been a staple of my "Why Not?" list of underused names. While most one-syllable meaning names like Grace, Hope and Faith have soared, Joy has remained stubbornly linked to its 1950s heyday. The movie character should get Joy some second looks, especially as a middle name where the short-and-sweet reign supreme.
This all depends, of course, on how deeply Inside Out connects with its audience. Early response has been strong, but baby name impact takes a lot more than a big opening weekend. Take Frozen, a film which grew and grew over time. It not only made Elsa one of last year's hottest names, but spurred jumps in unlikelier choices like Olaf, Kristoff and Hans. Inside Out, with its name lineup of Sadness, Disgust and Bing Bong, isn't going to cast as broad a shadow. A generation of little Joys, though, would be more than legacy enough.
Suppose you came across this list of names: Caylee, Breanna, Trevor, Brennen, Destiny, Aaden, Rihanna, Ashlyn, Devin, Jazmine. What group would you think you're looking at? My guess is that the first description that would come to mind would be "young." Very young. Even the most traditional names on the list, like Trevor and Devin, are extremely rare among older Americans; the more inventive choices are positively unheard of. So, we're looking for a blossoming of brand-new youth. A list of birth announcements, perhaps, or a preschool class roster?
In fact, I took that group from a list of names that have fallen the most over the past five-year period. Those "brand-new" names are already on the way out. Take a look at the right side of this graph:
Every name I listed has lost at least half its popularity in the last five years. Many were already in decline before that. Breanna, which ranked among America's top 100 girls' names for a decade straight, is down over 90% from its peak. Amazingly, the names of the 2000s now make up a passing generation.
The vanishing names include many of the elements which give this naming age its distinctive sound, like strong "ee" sounds, the -lyn suffix, and Aiden rhymes. What's taking their place? A -ya ending is now hot for girls in names like Arya, Cataleya and Freya. The "doer" suffix -er is rising fast for both sexes, moving beyond common surnames like Taylor and Parker to quirkier choices like Major, Sawyer and Juniper.
Here's a full roundup of all of the popular names which have lost at least half their popularity in the last five years. Many still rank in the top thousand, but they're giving ground to the next baby name generation.
|Adyson||Braden, Bradyn, Braeden, Braiden|
|Ashlee, Ashley||Brenden, Brendon|
|Breanna, Briana, Brianna||Cale|
|Cheyanne||Deven, Devin, Devon|
|Destiny||Jadon, Jaeden, Jaydon|
|Haleigh, Haley, Haylie||Jaylen, Jaylin, Jaylon|
|Jaden, Jadyn, Jaiden, Jaidyn, Jayden||Kale|