Enter the Baby Name Pool!

Mar 27th 2014

Are you a baby name guru? Do you have your finger on the pulse of name style? Here's your chance to prove it. Enter the 9th Annual Baby Name Pool.

The Baby Name Pool is your chance to test your baby name acumen against hundreds of your name-loving peers. Just pick three names you think rose in popularity last year, and three you think fell. When the U.S. government releases its official 2013 name stats in May, I'll tally the results and present the top scorers to the world for fawning acclaim!

Be warned, the Pool is simple to enter, but tough to win. You might spot a hot new name anywhere, from your neighborhood playground to Bollywood. Even celebrity influence is tricky to predict. Not one Pool entrant last year chose the year's fastest-rising name: Cataleya, an assassin from the film Colombiana. Fast-falling names are even trickier -- quick, what names have you NOT thought about this year?

If you haven't played before, you can read more details and check out the fastest rising (boysgirls) and falling names of the previous year to get a sense of how name fashions operate. Then convince your friends and coworkers to enter and compete against you. This is an equal-opportunity contest, by the way; we've had male and female winners.

All entries must be received by April 22.

Ready to go? Fill out your ballot now

Feminine -O Names: The Hidden Trend

Mar 20th 2014

English is not a gendered language. We don't divide words into male and female, and no letter at the end of a word points to a sex. That holds true even among classic English baby names: Robert and Margaret, Thomas and Agnes, John and Ann.

Yet the -o and -a endings of other naming traditions have taken root, deeply. Take a look at the historical sex distribution in the U.S. of names ending in -a:

versus -o:

Surprisingly, the rise of androgynous naming hasn't changed this -a vs. -o divide. In fact, the male -o dominance in the United States has only gotten stronger over time. Compare a century ago vs. today:



A major factor in the -o distribution has been the rise of Spanish names, which tend to feature gender-specific endings. (In 1912, the two most common -o names in the U.S. were Leo and Otto. Today, they're Diego and Antonio.) Even beyond Spanish names, though, -o names have remained a tough sell for girls. The names Chloe and Cleo, for instance, offer the exact same set fashionable sounds in different orders. Chloe outpaces the feminine -o name Cleo by a factor of 30 to 1.

But there's more than one way to spell "o."

What about good old Joe? Or Roscoe, or Woodrow? These names end in the -o sound, but not the letter. Back in 1912, that didn't much matter; the whole category was masculine. Today, it's a very different story:

This dramatic change has happened mostly in the past decade. Willow, Shiloh, Meadow and Harlow are now hits for girls. Monroe has flipped from the boys' column to the girls', and Marlowe is poised to overtake the more familiar Marlo. Spelling and sound have diverged.

I think this trend highlights the boundaries of the modern movement toward androgynous names. The male history of -o names gives them a fresh sound for girls, and parents crave freshness. The echoes of masculinity also lend the names an appealing edge. But what most parents want is just the echo: a glimpse of the gender line, without crossing it. The target is the gray zone, rather than a flip from pink to blue. Balancing spelling against sound is one way to stay in that zone.


Postscript: Thanks to an astute reader comment, I realize I've actually undercounted this phenomenon by missing some significant "stealth o endings," including -ot as in Margot. Margot vs. Margo is a great illustration of how, in the past decade, spelling has driven the popularity of the "stealth o" names:


The Nickname Trap: How Popular Is Your Name, Really?

Mar 13th 2014

I recently spotted a potluck signup sheet and had to snap a picture:

It seemed an amusing coincidence that this group would include so many women with the same name. But then I started to wonder. Do they have the same name, really?

We traditionally think of Kate and Katie as forms of Katherine. Over the past 25 years, though, an American girl has been more likely to be named Kaitlyn (in one spelling or another) than Katherine/Catherine. Then there are all the other sources: the Kathleens, the Katrinas, the just-Kates. A flowering of parental creativity could have led to that remarkably uniform nickname list.

For parents who care about name popularity, nicknames like these can be "gotchas." Suppose you're considering naming your daughter Adelaide. You like that it's just on the outskirts of style. It's rare but familiar, old-fashioned but with fashionable sounds. If the name seems a little too much for a toddler, that's no problem, you can use Addie as an occasional nickname.

Five years later, your little girl is starting kindergarten. Just as you hoped, she's the one and only Adelaide in the school! Of course, by now she calls herself Addie...just like the two Addisons, an Adeline and an Adalyn.

Nickname popularity is nearly impossible to pin down statistically. Not every Addison goes by Addie, after all. What's more, nickname choices go in and out of fashion. Once you could expect to call a guy named William "Bill"; today he's more likely to answer to Will, Liam, or the full William. So how do you know if you're about to fall into the "nickname trap"? Read on.

Below are some nicknames that are becoming more popular than you might guess. If you're determined to choose a unique name for your child, you may want to avoid names that could shorten to any of these. On the flip side, you could treat a popular nickname as "safety valve" for an unconventional name. If the name Ajax turns out not to suit your son, he can always go by Jack. 

Ben. The classic name Benjamin is popular enough that you probably wouldn't expect Ben to sound unique. But you might at least expect it to be "all about the Benjamins." In the past few years, other Ben- names like Bentley, Bennett and Benson have skyrocketed. Take a look -- together they're catching up with Benjamin's popularity:

Bree. Aubrey, Gabriella, Brianna, and Aubree all rank among the top 100 girls' names. Then there's Brielle, Bria, Sabrina, Gabrielle, and Aubrianna. This nickname will be coming from all directions in the years ahead.

Cam & Cami. If you meet a grown man named Cam, you can safely guess he's a Cameron. But a little boy? A dozen different Cam/Kam names rank in the top 1,000 for boys (e.g. Camden, Kamryn, Kamari)...and ten in the top 1,000 for girls (e.g. Camila, Kamryn, Campbell).

Jack & Jax. These two names are very different in style, yet they sound enough alike to run afoul of the "classroom distinctiveness" test. Three Jack/Jax names rank among the top 100 names for boys (Jackson, Jack and Jaxon), and more Jax varieties are climbing (Jaxson, Jax, Jaxton, Jaxen).

Kate & Katie. As the photo above demonstrated, you'll meet lots of Kates and Katies of all generations. If you're focused on classroom distinctiveness, though, take heart: the combined "Kate" name sources are now at a historic low.

Maddie & Addie. Start with Madison and Madeline. Then get creative with spellings. Then take a little off the top to yield Addison and Adeline, and repeat. Here's a picture:

Max. Max makes a fine given name in itself, but don't judge its popularity by its rank. Twice as many boys get longer Max- names (Maxwell, Maximus, Maximilian, Maxton, etc.), and most of those go by Max.