Readers occasionally suggest that the modern era of name diversity, where the top of the popularity curve seems to be flattening, may not be as diverse as it seems.
What if what's really changed isn't the way we name, but the way we spell? Replacing John with Aiden, Aidan, Ayden, Aidyn, Aden, Aydin and Ayden could make for a statistical fracturing of popularity without any greater variety in spoken names.
Back in 2006, I tried testing that hypothesis. I compared the #1 combined-spelling name of the time, Aiden, with the last single-spelling #1 name, Robert. Here's the graph I came up with.
The bump on the right-hand side was the Aidens. My conclusion at the time: "No matter how you slice it, a #1 name just isn't what it used to be." The explosion of spellings was more a symptom of the movement away from traditional names than the cause of the stastical phenomenon.
Eight years later, I'd like to revisit that analysis and take it a little further. At the top of the boys' charts, little has changed. Jacob remains the #1 individual name (despite dropping steeply), and Aiden remains the leader when you combine spellings. And both names continue to be dwarfed in popularity by the hot names of generations past.
But let's think a little more broadly. A decade ago, I started calling our naming era "The Age of Aidens." That title went beyond spelling to encompass a whole rhyming family of Jaydens, Bradens and beyond. How do all of those rhyming names compare to Robert?
Aha! If you're willing to treat everything from Aaden to Zayden as one mega-name, you can approach the popularity of names of the past.
To make the comparison fair, though, we should let Robert have a name-sound family, too. Let's try the -aidens vs. the -berts:
The advantage tilts back to the Age of Robert. You'll get similar results comparing the Age of Aidens to other hot sound groups of the past, like the 1930s Age of Geralds, Donalds and Ronalds, or the 1950s Age of Larrys, Jerrys and Garys.
Yep, our parents, grandparents and even great-grandparents got swept up in name trends too. The difference was that they agreed on a small set of standard names to comprise a trend. The combined peak of the three names Gerald, Ronald and Donald reached higher than the combined peak of 33 -aiden names, with seven distinct pronunciations. That fracturing represents a combined explosion of name diversity, creative spelling, sound-driven style, and rejection of traditional name boundaries.
Put it all together and the defining characteristic of this naming era is parents' desire to feel that their child's name is distinctive.
Where parents of the past might have wanted a stylish, contemporary sound, they were willing to choose from a basic menu and share choices with their friends and neighbors. Today's parents make clear that they don't want their kids to share names. They're also more than willing to order from off the menu.
Let's say Donald was a "cup o' joe" name. We're still a nation of coffee drinkers, but a name like Kaedyn, given to 98 American boys (and 41 girls) last year, is more like a Starbucks order crossed with a custom ring tone. It's a venti double skinny vanilla latte that has to call out to you and only you.
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 (boys, girls) 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!
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:
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: