Baby name trends are one of the most sincere reflections of an era's tastes, values and dreams. So what does it mean that we no longer name babies after presidential candidates?
Once upon a time we would have expected this election to yield a bumper crop of baby Trumps and Clintons. Today the idea sounds excessively partisan, or even thoughtless toward the child. In generations past, though, it was routine. Win or lose, a major party nomination regularly turned political surnames into baby names.
I've tracked the election-year impact of top two candidates in every presidential election since 1884. The chart below shows the change in the number of boys given the candidate's name. Scroll down to watch the times change:
The disappearance of political homage names is clear. On the chart it appears complete by the 1940s, but I believe the real drought started a bit later. First off, the election year chart doesn't reflect a major Truman spike in 1945 when Harry Truman first took office, after the death of Franklin Roosevelt. (Read more: The Hottest names of 1946.) In the 1950s the name Eisenhower was too cumbersome to choose, but the given name* Dwight and even the nickname Ike did rise with President Eisenhower. The real zeroing out of presidential names, first and last, hit in the 1960s.
[* I chose to chart only political surnames because they're a purer signal of homage than given names. Can we really be confident that a William born in 1908 was named in honor of William Howard Taft? And what about the fact that Taft's opponent was also named William? But first names do show the same historical pattern – in many cases, even more dramatically. The election-year boosts to names like Grover (Cleveland), Warren (Harding) and Herbert (Hoover) would dwarf any of the bars on the chart above, while effects of more recent presidential first names are virtually nonexistent.]
As it happens, the 1960s also marked the start of the era of diversity in American baby naming. If you take a look at the shape of the starting graph in the NameVoyager baby name grapher, you'll see a downward slope beginning in the 1960s. That reflects an opening up of our naming culture: a decline in the classic English royal names, and increasing emphasis on standing out rather than fitting in. In theory, that should have made an unconventional politically inspired name an easier sell than in the era when John and Mary ruled the name roost. But parents didn't use their new freedom to choose names like Nixon.
I think the story here is an underlying shift in the very essence of naming. The driving factor behind baby name choices has shifted away from meaning and tradition, and toward style.
Consider that biblical names are also at an all-time historic low. By my calculations, the rate of babies named after their fathers with the suffix Junior has also plummeted over the past two generations. (The rate of later suffixes like IV remains strong, though. Those have more stylistic impact.) Meanwhile the rate of change in name trends has accelerated, and boys' names, which were historically much more tradition-bound than girls', are now thoroughly subject to fashion.
Today, even the most loving granddaughter won't name her baby after an unfashionably named grandparent. It's the same story for ardent political partisans. Add in a healthy dose of post-Watergate cynicism, and political names simply disappear from the equation. As we speak, Republican parents are choosing between Braxton and Ryker — not Donald — for their sons, and Democratic parents are choosing between Hazel and Maeve — not Hillary — for their daughters. And as usual, that's a phenomenon that speaks far beyond baby names.
Do you like your girls' names more short and snappy than long and lacy? We've rounded up a dozen names that pack their power into concise and upbeat packages.
The names below come from many angles: surnames, literary heroines, and crossovers from traditional boys' names. They range in popularity from the top-200 list to extremely rare. Many have a unisex style, but what they have most in common is a compact sound and snappy girl power.
Image via Antonia Giroux/Shutterstock
Scout. To Kill a Mockingbird introduced American audiences to a female Scout long before the name was ever written on a birth certificate: the first time the name was recorded for more than five girls was in 1992. With Atticus and Harper in the spotlight, Scout has gained more attention; it’s energetic and tenacious, as well as an occupational choice. Still, it’s been relatively unpopular - could Scout rise up the ranks in the next decade?
Ryan. Though it’s currently a favorite for boys, Ryan has quite a few traits that lend it to the other list: it sounds similar to trendy Riley; the “-an” ending offers a more feminine twist (even more so with the Ryann spelling); its current popularity level makes it unlikely that there will be multiple female Ryan’s in a classroom. If you’re looking for a name that crosses the gender divide with grace and poise, Ryan is an excellent choice.
Blake. We have actress Blake Lively to thank for popularizing Blake for girls in recent years; though the name ranked earlier thanks to Dynasty, it’s the popularity of Gossip Girl that brought Blake to the top 500. Other than pop culture cred, what are Blake’s top qualities? A short but polished tone, a few friendly variants (Blakely and Blakesley), and a meaning that can be personalized - its origins include Old English words for both “dark” and “pale.”
Indie. The buzzword of the 2010’s, Americans see “indie” everywhere - indie films, indie music, indie artisan craft beer. With so many more creators and artists able to produce their own work that ever before, why not celebrate that independent attitude? Indie can be a nickname for India, Indiana, or Indigo, but it stands just as well on its own as a bright and spirited option.
Dylan. Twentieth-century poets Dylan Thomas and Bob Dylan have given this Irish choice some literary credibility, boosting this name to #27 on the boys’ list. But “the order is rapidly fadin’”: Dylan has been rising up the feminine list through the past decade (party thanks to Drew Barrymore's character in Charlie's Angels). What makes this name viable for girls? Like Ryan, it feels unisex and modern - in actuality, the name was first recorded for girls in 1967. “The times they are a-changin’!”
Reese. Saying Reese puts chocolate in your mind and a smile on your face (try it in front of a mirror if you’re skeptical). It’s no surprise then that the name is euphonic - Greek for “sweet-voiced” - with its soft “r” and “s” sounds. Thanks to actress Reese Witherspoon, the name is now a permanent choice for girls; it ranked at #173 in 2015. It also has a lovely origin meaning - Welsh for “ardor.”
Merritt. Though it sounds like a modern virtue name, Merritt was originally an English surname. Its form is classic and refined, with double consonants and a resolved “-t” ending. Still, Merritt feels more merry and playful than stuffy. Spelling the name as Merit highlights its character, and similar-sounding Marit is actually a form of Margaret. This could work as a distant honorific choice, or just as a unique name with substance.
Joss. A diminutive of Jocelyn or Josephine, Joss no longer needs a longer form for credibility: celebrities Joss Stone and Joss Whedon have brought the name into the cultural zeitgeist. It’s concise and peppy, working well as an alternative to Jessie or Josie. Though it’s heard more often across the pond, it’s still rather rare in many English-speaking countries - only twenty baby girls named Joss were born in the US last year.
Shiloh. Popularized by the birth of Shiloh Jolie-Pitt, Shiloh has in reality been recorded for girls since 1969. It’s a pretty, Biblical name meaning “tranquil,” and has gained fans on either side of the gender divide. Shiloh works for all sorts of styles, from southern names to religious names to “ending-in-o” trends, and is still relatively uncommon.
Brett. Ernest Hemingway was ahead of the curve when The Sun Also Rises was published in 1926: his leading lady’s name is Lady Brett Ashley. While Brett for boys ranked highly throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s, it’s now in decline - making it a perfect time for the girls to claim it! Brett fits in with current faves like Brynn and Brianna, but it’s bright sound sets it apart. It’s literary inspiration wouldn’t make a bad namesake either - she’s smart, funny, and “damned good-looking.”
Teagan. Though it works well as a successor to Megan, Teagan is more than just a sequel: it comes from the Old Irish name Tadhg, meaning “poet.” While the spelling may have been anglicized, the rhythm and melody of this creative choice remain. The pronunciation varies based on region and accent - “Tay-gun,” “Tee-gun,” and “Teg-han” are all options used today.
Gray. With Scarlett, Violet, and Ruby in the top 100, it’s a wonder there aren’t dozens more color names waiting in the wings. Grayson and Grace help this particular name fit in on the playground - just Gray. It’s dashing and demure, sophisticated and unexpected all in one. Gray has also become a celebrity choice, giving it some attention, but don’t worry - only forty-five girls were given the name in 2015.
When it comes to baby name style, it's not just about where you start — it's where you finish. Name endings shape style and are a big part of the sound of their times. The 1960s were the age of Teri, Sheri, Keri and Geri. The 2000s gave us Aiden, Brayden and Kaden, along with Landen, Holden and Camden.
Where do names end up today? I looked at 40,000 names to calculate which three-letter name endings have risen the fastest in popularity over the past three years. Putting aside endings dominated by one fast-rising name (like -zra, which is all about Ezra) I zeroed in on five fresh sounds of the generation to come.
Hot names: Cooper (M), Harper (F), Juniper (F), Jasper (M), Piper (F)
The 1990s were the heyday of -ler "tradesman" names like Tyler, Chandler and Taylor. The crisper -per names have now overtaken them. Many are still trade-based surnames, but the botanical name Juniper points to way to broader possibilities. (Read more about the new generation of -er names.)
Hot names: Tobias (M), Elias (M), Matias (M), Matthias (M)
In the case of -ias, what's new is old—very old. The antique Grecian ending offers a sophisticated take on familiar name roots. This is a trend that spans multiple pronunciations, as heard in the English Matthias (mə-THYE-əs) and the Spanish Matías (mah-TEE-ahs)
Hot names: Aurora (F), Nora (F), Cora (F), Amora (F), Eliora (F), Eleanora (F)
This ending has a dual personality. In the form of Cora and Nora it's old-fashioned and sweet, but no-nonsense. In Aurora and Amora, it's romantic and even magical. Eleanora splits the difference.
Hot names: Rhett (M), Everett (M), Scarlett (F), Beckett (M), Emmett (M), Elliott (M, F)
The double-t trend has been rising for a decade now, and it's far from over. It's not just the look of the doubled letter that appeals, but the sound of a T after a vowel, closing the name with a snap. Similar-sounding names like Charlotte and Violet have risen too. (Read more about double-t names.)
Hot names: Maia (F), Kaia (F), Amaia (F), Gaia (F)
Names ending in -aya are on the rise as part of the "liquid" and "raindrop" names trends, but the -aia spelling is rising even faster. In some cases it reflects a name's roots, as in the case of the Greek Earth goddess Gaia. Most often, though, parents choose it for its trim and eye-catching style.