We all want our children to aim high and achieve their dreams. For some of us, though, high means leaping tall buildings and dreams mean conquering the realm of Asgard. Superhero and supervillain names are no longer pure fantasy. Each year, hundreds of American boys are given names like Kal-El (Superman's birth name) and Loki (Norse trickster, and bane of Marvel's Thor).
Superpowers aren't just for boys. What girls' names can read minds and transform matter — and do it with style?
That super-style requirement rules out anything too familiar. With due respect to classic characters like the Invisible Woman and Poison Ivy, their secret identity names, Sue and Pamela, are just too darned human to qualify. I've zeroed in on three name styles with superhuman punch. They're a mix of heroes and villains, monikers and aliases, but any could be usable for us mere mortals.
"OR": THE SOUND OF DANGER
Comics turn to the letters "or" for a sound that's both ominous and elegant. The ominous side often takes the form "mor," the word root that has powered villains from Moriarty to Voldemort. Some top choices:
Marvel's Enchantress bears a name of pure wicked beauty. Poised halfway between "amor" and "amoral," Amora turns the menacing mor into silken allure. Amora has been rising in popularity and is poised to break into the top-1000 names list.
This X-Men heroine is a charismatic mutant who controls the weather, and an African tribal princess/priestess for good measure. Storm's civilian name Ororo doubles up on the "or" power, but the super-name Storm is given to dozens of real-world girls each year while the human name has yet to catch on.
More Super ORs:
Faora/Zaora: A Kryptonian villain in Superman stories
Gamora: A super-fighter featured in Guardians of the Galaxy
Namora/Namorita: Namora, a hero of Atlantis in Golden Age comics, is survived by her clone Namorita
Many of the hottest super-names are words suggesting wild, mysterious power. Their meanings create instant atmosphere. The richest source of this style is the X-Men universe, as seen above in Storm. Other top choices:
The name of shape-shifting Mystique suggests a potent combination of glamour and mystery, while still sounding name-like on the model of French names such as Monique. Mystique's alter ego name, Raven Darkhölme, is just as shadowy.
Another mutant from the X-Men world, the sound of Rogue flies in the face of fashion but its bold meaning lures dozens of parents each year. Think of it as a female counterpart to the popular boy's name Maverick.
More Super Meanings:
Nova: A fiery, flying hero in the Fantastic Four universe
Phoenix: An alias of X-Men's Jean Grey and her daughter Rachel.
Sage: A super-brained, telepathic X-Men mutant
Valkyrie: The Norse warrior of The Defenders
Some names show their superhero bonafides with pure verve. A few high-energy options:
Marvel's mesmerizing assassin has a name that's literally electric. This super-spelling, with a k, is now more popular than Electra (which is more linked to the concept of an "Electra complex").
D.C. Comics heroine Zatanna is a stage magician with the power to conjure real illusions. She wears the top hat and tails of an archetypal magician, and the fishnet stockings and thigh-high boots of an archetypal comic book woman. The letter Z helps up the the voltage of a traditional feminine name form.
Jubilee: X-Men's teenage mutant
Maxima: Justice League alien with an impressive range of powers; frequently on the hunt for a male hero to sire a superbaby
More and more, you are your name. As our public interactions increasingly turn virtual, names are bearing a bigger burden of first impressions. That means they're bearing a bigger share of prejudice and snap judgments, too.
The latest evidence of this comes from a study that reveals racial discrepancies in the ride-sharing services Uber and Lyft. Researchers requested rides under different names, some typically African-American and some typically white. The presumedly African-American passengers faced longer waits and higher cancellation rates for the same routes. This pattern was based on the one and only piece of information drivers had about the passengers: their first names.
The ride-sharing study was fundamentally about racial discrimination, not names. The researchers just used names as a mechanism to reveal a pervasive and disturbing phenomenon. But in this case, I believe the mechanism is also a phenomenon in its own right.
Names have always sent signals about culture and identity. In the past, though, a name reliably came with context. People met face to face, or at least received some meaningful communication plus social cues like voices, addresses, handwriting and more. An Uber or Lyft passenger is stripped down to nothing but a first name. That focuses all of our human instinct to identify and assess one another, fairly or not, onto that single string of characters.
As these name-only interactions proliferate, the way we name children is changing too. I like to compare America's baby naming culture to an office dress code. In past generations there was an accepted uniform, or at least an expectation of a suit and tie. In that environment, nobody's outfit said much about them. Today there's no longer a baby name "dress code," and parents strive to make distinctive choices. In clothing terms, it's like an office where the coworker to your right wears a tuxedo, to the left is a toga, and across the aisle is a gown handcrafted from styrofoam cups.
In other words, our kids are entering this world name-first, with eye-catching names that speak volumes. Unlike clothing, these names can't be changed to suit different situations and audiences. What's more, the names speak volumes about the parents, not the kids. Our children head out into the world to make a lifetime of impressions, labeled with an emblem of their parents' taste and worldview.
The impressions today's names convey go far beyond black and white. Take a look at these names, all of which rank among the 100 most popular names for newborn American girls:
I'll bet that many of these names make a strong impression on you. Perhaps you can even form an image of the typical parents who choose each. You probably like a few of them, shrug your shoulders about others...and a couple of them absolutely set your teeth on edge.
The teeth-gnashing feeling is widespread today. That simply wasn't the case with, say, the top 100 girls' names of 1950. The range of styles back then was more constrained. No words newly adopted as names, no dramatic surname transfers, no aggressively antique names, and little creative spelling or androgyny. Parents surely had their preferences, but most of the names were broad-based hits, not linked to any particular demographic.
So today we have a new and growing realm of name-based encounters, and increasingly diverse and divisive names. It's a combustible mix. If name styles continue to fracture, we'll read more and more social information into every name. And with every new app, those names will gain new influence. The effects may not always be as stark as in the recent discrimination findings, but they'll affect each of us--in our likelihood to pick up a fare, to accept an invitation, or to swipe right.
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 the 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.