If baby naming is alchemy, I believe I've just brewed up a wee pot o' gold. I have a Magic Formula for finding appealing, fresh-sounding traditional names.
Yes, I'm totally serious. My bit of conjuring may not track down every single attractive name possibility, and it may be a bit quirkier with boys' names than girls. But it is a genuine formula for style, a purely quantitative recipe that yields classic names suited to contemporary tastes at all popularity levels.
That last item is what makes the Magic Formula special. It finds names that share an undeniable sense of style, whether they rank in today's top 20 or outside the top 1,000. And better yet, they're more likely than other names to stand the test of time.
I'll detail the alchemy below, but first see what you think of the results. Here is the list of names the formula yielded. (The only editing I've done is to cross off minor spelling variants of classic names.)
My Magic Formula screens for two attributes of name usage history: "timelessness" and "freshness." To qualify as timeless, a name must have been given to five or more babies in each year since 1900 and have a ratio of maximum to minimum usage (normalized to occurrences per million babies) ≤ 20. In other words, the usage history is long and steady. To qualify as fresh, the name's current popularity has to be a high percentage of its maximum (ratio of max/current ≤ 1.25). In other words, its heyday can't have already come and gone.
That's it. Simple, but remarkably powerful.
"How powerful?" you might ask. Do the names identified by this formula hold up over time? Does the timeless essence endure if a name becomes highly popular?
To find out I re-ran the formula, rolling back the clock to 40 years ago (1972 name data). Below on the left are the "Magic" names from that period that were also popular names, ranking in the top 100 for boys or girls. That makes them part of the sound of their times. Then, for comparison, I matched each of them with the name closest in popularity in '72. Take a look at the pair of lists:
|40-YEAR "MAGIC" GIRLS||40-YEAR GIRLS CONTROL GROUP|
|40-YEAR "MAGIC" BOYS||40-YEAR BOYS CONTROL GROUP|
Do you agree that as a group, the control group names sound more tied to 40-year-olds than the Magic Formula names?
In fact, 18 of the 21 names chosen by the formula still rank in the top 200 today, and all are comfortably in the top 1,000. Meanwhile only 7 of the 21 control names still make today's top 200, and 4 have left the top 1,000 altogether.
This bodes well if you're considering one of the more popular names from the current Magic Formula list, such as Charlotte or Samuel. The magic of "timeless freshness" lingers, even as fashion marches on. How's that for baby name wizardry?
Last week's column on "Venn diagram baby names" touched briefly on the name Kiara. As I looked into the history of this name, I found myself getting sucked in further and further. Kiara turns out to be a spot what I think of as name quicksand -- the points on the name landscape with tales much deeper than you'd imagine at first glance.
What caught my eye was a graphical cliff. Take a look at what happened to the usage of the name Kiara in 1989:
That single-year leap was so astonishing that I had to double-check my figures. For perspective, Kiara made almost the exact same popularity leap as the fastest-rising name of 2007, Miley...but it moved the same distance in one year that Miley did in two:
That's some incredible fashion mojo, doubling the pace of a name with megawatt style power and star power. Where did it come from?
Any guesses? I'll give you a minute...
OK, time's up. Kiara was a one-hit wonder band, a male duo from Detroit that scored a hit on the R&B charts with the song "This Time." The duo never repeated that success, and today they're little-enough remembered that they don't even rate a page in Wikipedia. But in baby name terms, they were bigger than Miley Cyrus.
It's all about the right name at the right time and place. R&B radio stations in the late '80s were playing to a largely African-American audience at a time when the letter K was hot, a long "e" sound was even hotter, and rustling names like Tanesha, Shamika and Lakeisha were about to yield to a smoother generation of Aaliyahs, Ayannas, and Janiyahs. Kiara hit the bullseye.
But our story isn't over yet. Let's shift our Kiara graph exactly one decade later and take a look at what happened in 1999:
Yep, that's a second Miley-sized leap for the same name. Here's a zoomed-out version of the whole sequence:
The source of the second massive popularity leap? A straight-to-video animated animal movie. Kiara was the name of a lion cub in The Lion King II: Simba's Pride.
This name inspiration is notable for being aimed squarely at young children. You might expect it to take some years for the target audience to grow up and name their own kids after the lioness of their youth.
Perhaps LK2's immediate impact in the baby name arena speaks to Disney's success marketing animated lion cubs to the adult market. But I'm going to take a different guess. I suspect that an unusually large proportion of Kiara's born in the last 14 years have older siblings. The film was in the VCR (1999, remember?), the name was in the air, and the whole family could get on board with the name Kiara.
p.s. Kiara rhymes with tiara. If you read Kiara as a two-syllable Irish saint's name (KEE-rə)...well, that's a patch of name quicksand for another day.
A perfect name is a balancing act. You have to consider both parents' tastes, the people or traditions you want to honor, and your sense of the name's place in the world. For most of us, the factors are many, subjective and ill-defined. We navigate the name landscape by feel, hoping that we'll recognize the right name when we find it.
For some families, though, that landscape looks more like a Venn diagram. These families draw circles around two specific, unrelated properties they're seeking, and hope for an intersection. You'll often see this when the two parents come from different ethnic backgrounds, both of which are important to them.
I was reminded of this recently as I read about the family of New York mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio. Mr. De Blasio grew up in his mother's Italian-American family. His wife, Chirlane McCray, is African-American. And their two children's names are a perfect strike at the fashionable heart of this Venn diagram of names:
Dante holds a lasting place in Italian culture thanks to Divine Comedy poet Dante Alighieri. Over the past generation it has also been a steady favorite of African-American parents, in various spellings.
Chiara is the Italian form of Claire. St. Chiara of Assisi was one of the first followers of St. Francis and the founder of a monastic order. The sound-alike name Kiara, meanwhile, is a popular African-American name.
The names perfectly reflect and honor the kids' dual heritages, in a way that should sound attractive and natural on both sides. When you can pull that off, you not only make all the grandparents happy but also demonstrate, subtly, how a diverse family tree can come together into a beautifully cohesive whole.
Some other points of happy intersection I've encountered (note that exact spellings and pronuncians can vary):
A comprehensive listing isn't possible because the potential Venn diagrams are endless. The Expert NameMatchmaker, with its multiple style preferences, is a good resource for many of the most popular combos. And if your personal Venn diagram is especially complicated, you might want to look at the more general category of "names without borders."
If you've found some particularly happy points of intersection, I'd love to hear about them. And chances are there's another Thai/Brazilian or Mexican/Norwegian family out there who will thank you for it.