The 2017 Name of the Year is Harvey

Dec 13th 2017

I sometimes describe the Name of the Year as a time capsule in name form, and that's especially true of this year's choice. Unlike past selections, the 2017 NOTY Harvey points to two separate stories, both of which have sent shock waves through the year. The devastation of Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Texas and the torrent of accusations of sexual assault and harassment against Hollywood titan Harvey Weinstein were each horrifying in themselves. Each then proved to be just the beginning of something even bigger and more sobering.

Harvey Weinstein & Hurricane Harvey. Images: Wikimedia Commons

The fact that two of the year's biggest headline makers shared the same distinctive name was simply coincidence. But the coincidence made the name itself a story, one that continued to reverberate as the dimensions of the events became apparent. What's more, the impact of that name story depended on the specific name.

First, a quick primer on the name Harvey. Harvey comes from an old Breton name that crossed over to England with William the Conqueror. It was a steady American choice for generations, but started to decline in the middle of the 20th century and kept on sinking. The name's image gradually shifted from elegant to plodding. In the 21st Century, the trend finally started to turn around. Harvey became a hit revival name in England, and was starting to come back in the U.S. as well. Between 2010 and 2016, the number of American boys named Harvey rose by more than 300%.

Over the course of 2017, though, the name's identity – its social meaning – was transformed. Today, Harvey unfortunately stands as an emblem of both environmental calamity and the prevalence of sexual harassment. Its unsettling associations could prove hard to shake. Not only were the two Harvey stories themselves part of broader issues that shaped the year, but the sense of problems being more far-reaching than we had realized was itself part of the zeitgeist. The queasy "what next?" anxiety of waiting for yet another awful shoe to drop became the year's defining emotion.

Harvey is hardly the first baby name to be buffeted by forces outside its control. Last year, I wrote about the historically steep decline of the name Isis. Celebrity-inspired names can also plummet in popularity when bad publicity hits the star who sparked the trend, as we've seen with names like Kobe and Miley.

There's even an established pattern for severe hurricanes. If the storm name is reasonably fashionable, it's likely to experience a single-year rise in popularity, from the combination of wall-to-wall news coverage and deliberate homages by evacuee parents. A decline then follows, as the name continues to be linked with the storm and the suffering it caused. The usage of the baby name Katrina in 2005 demonstrates the pattern:

Harvey's "time capsule" essence comes from a double whammy of these effects. But here's a question: if Harvey is a time capsule of 2017, why isn't Andrew a time capsule of 1992?

Hurricane Andrew, a massive category 5 storm, tore apart South Florida in the summer of '92. It was the costliest storm in U.S. history to that point, and left dozens of people dead and hundreds of thousands homeless. But even before the hurricane, 1992 had been a rough year for the name Andrew. In March, Britain's Prince Andrew and his wife Sarah Ferguson announced their separation. Stories of their split and alleged misbehavior kept the names Andrew and Fergie in tabloid headlines all year long.

The combined lasting effect of the two stories on the name Andrew has been…well, not much. Take a look at the number of boys named Andrew in a 25-year-span surrounding 1992:

You can see that the name was a rising hit in the 1980s, peaking in 1987 and then starting to decline. That decline was temporarily slowed in 1992, the hurricane year, then continued apace until the popularity plateaued at roughly pre-surge levels. The historical curve is comparable to that of similar names like Matthew, and not notably "poisoned" by the events of '92. Today, Andrew still ranks #34 among all U.S. boys' names.

That would seem to bode well for the future of Harvey, except for one key difference. In the past decade, over three thousand American boys have been named Harvey. In the decade leading up to 1992, over three hundred thousand American boys were named Andrew. Andrew had so much history, so many cultural associations, that the year's news stories couldn't take control of it. It was too big to be poisoned.

2017's other devastating hurricanes, Irma and Maria, aren't likely to have much effect on baby names. Irma is too rare and out of fashion; it can essentially hibernate until the bad publicity blows over. Maria, the ultimate global classic name, is too firmly rooted for the news to budge it. Harvey, though, hits a vulnerable sweet spot. It's uncommon enough to be distinctive, yet fashionable enough to be sensitive to trends.

As it happens, that vulnerable position is precisely the spot that's most targeted by today's baby-naming parents. We don't want a name that's out of fashion, that people will wrinkle their noses at. Yet we also don't want anything so popular and familiar that our children will blend into the crowd. We want a name like the 2016 incarnation of Harvey: one that's considered appealing, but unusual enough for our kid to fully own.

As Harvey shows, a name you can own is, ironically, just the kind of name that's easiest for outside forces to steal. Storm and scandal are only two of the many possible culprits. A new celebrity could emerge and lay claim to the name, making your child sound like a namesake. Usage trends could flip the name's gender association. Such scenarios are most likely to hit emerging names at the cutting edge of style. The more fashion-forward a name it is, the more susceptible it is to the slings and arrows of naming fortune.



My thanks to BabyNameWizard readers for your thoughtful nominations, and best wishes for the year to come!




Not-Quite Surnames

Dec 7th 2017

The lure of surnames as baby names is that they can be fresh and familiar at the same time. A name like Harlow, Anderson or Landry comes with built-in roots and culture – and established spelling – even if you've never met anyone by that name. You couldn't just make up a new name in the surname style. Or could you?

In fact, we're seeing more and more new names that take their style cues straight from surnames. Take, for example, the -axton names. Paxton and Braxton are both well-known surnames with famous bearers (e.g. actor Bill Paxton and singer Toni Braxton), and both have become hit baby names. As they've risen, the names Jaxton and Daxton have followed in their wake. They're not well-known surnames, but are clearly built on the surname model. Both now rank among the top 500 names for boys.

Or consider Lakely. The surname Blakely has become an overnight hit for girls, encouraging parents to create this near neighbor. Then there are Brentley and Dentley, on the model of Bentley and Brantley. Treston, a la Preston. Kyson, a la Tyson. Brixley; Aceton; Rylan; Averley; Huckston; Kaylor.

Some of these names surely exist as last names, but they're very rare and have no prominent standard bearers. As baby names, they're not surname transfers. They're surname-inspired, names that couldn't exist if the surname style weren't so popular. We recognize that style in the names, even as we fail to recognize the names themselves.

Somehow, the style that's built off of familiarity still holds together when you strip the familiarity away. Could this work for other transfer name styles as well? Could we, say, invent new place names that aren't places? (Lennington?) Virtue names that aren't virtues? (Vality?)

It's just one more reminder that names are much more than their literal origins. Sometimes, style is meaning.



Fearless Names for Boys

Dec 4th 2017

Messiah, Odin, Maverick - what do these grand and gallant names have in common? All three names are the most popular they’ve ever been, indicating a trend among modern parents. Though each comes from a unique tradition, namers are drawn to the heroic sound present in each. Why not choose a name for your little boy that is sure to inspire courage and leadership?

If you’re a fan of this noble style, check out these fifteen fearless names that are currently flying under the radar. From historic warriors to literary giants to contemporary favorites, these choices exude valiance and excellence - and happen to be accessible enough to fit on a birth certificate.

Image: SASHAandLENKA/Shutterstock

Albion. The original name for the island of Great Britain, the name Albion comes from a combative son of Poseidon in Greek mythology. A few major figures in American history have worn the handsome name, and sweet nickname Albie makes it friendlier for daily use.

Magnus. Magnificent Magnus comes from the Latin for “great,” with dozens of royal leaders throughout history bearing this illustrious moniker. It’s similar to classic names like Maximus or August, but Magnus has a more unique and striking personality.

Zeno. Derived from the name Zeus - the king of the gods in Greek mythology - Zeno is connected to a few philosophers; one of them is possibly the first philosopher to address the idea of infinity. Energetic and masculine, Zeno still feels approachable despite its extraordinary history.

Evander. A name with two origin stories, dashing Evander is associated with both a Trojan War hero and an Old Norse name meaning “bow warrior.” Boxing fans may associate the name with Evander Holyfield, but it also works as a stylistic compromise between kind Evan and kingly Alexander.

Aurelius. While Anglophone parents have embraced Aurelia for girls, the masculine form of the name has yet to inspire such notoriety. Aurelius comes from a Roman family name meaning “golden,” and was worn by a venerated emperor in the second century. Nicknames such as Ari, Leo, or Arlo help this marvelous name feel more usable, too.

Roark. Since 1948, American parents have been naming their children after the infamous character Howard Roark from Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, who is meant to represent strength and integrity in the modern man. This surname choice has a one-of-a-kind sound that’s bound to make an impression - though its controversial connections may raise some eyebrows.

Florian. Though romantic Florian is especially popular in Europe, parents across the pond have yet to adopt this elegant name. A few royal and religious namesakes make Florian particularly compelling - one of whom is the patron saint of firefighters - and its form fits in with trendy picks like Dorian or Adrian.

Xerxes. A thoroughly noble name, Xerxes is actually the Greek form of a Persian name meaning “ruler of heroes.” A few real-life Xerxes’ ruled Persia, but the name has received more attention in recent years, appearing in literature and films. If the two X’s don’t deter you, Xerxes is an especially cool alternative to Xander or Xavier.

Sylvan. Sylvan’s unassuming sound is balanced by its etymological link to a Roman god of the forest, who was also known for his protective abilities. Distinctive Sylvan had a bit of popularity in the beginning of the twentieth century, and could make an excellent vintage choice.

Peregrine. From the Latin for “traveler,” the distinguished name Peregrine was bestowed upon a species of raptor loved by warriors and royalty. The first English baby born in the New World (while the Mayflower was docked offshore) was named Peregrine, and the Lord of the Rings series features a hobbit with the name, called Pippin for short.

Gawain. One of the most gallant knights of the Round Table, Sir Gawain was known for his compassion and chivalry. While Gavin is the more popular variant, beautiful Gawain has adorned prominent musicians, athletes, and politicians throughout the world. 

Rafferty. This Irish surname comes from a word meaning “flood tide” or “overabundance,” imbuing this roguish name with a kind of greatness. Darling Rafferty has a spirit all its own, along with an air of mischief - thanks to a few fictional characters - but it remains an accessible and uncommon choice.

Calix. It may appear to be a mix of lively Felix and biblical Caleb, but Calix comes from a much richer background - the name is a version of Callistus, associated with the Latin word for “chalice.” This luxurious option has been used continually in the United States over the past decade, but has never been given to more than 50 boys in a single year.

Theron. Another name with conflicting etymologies - some connect it to a Greek word for “hunt,” while others link it to a Latin word for “height” - bold Theron is one of the oldest names on this list, dating back to the fifth century BCE. This daring choice was fairly common among the American population at the turn of the century, but hasn’t ranked on the top 1000 since 1992.

Warrick. A variant of the English surname Warwick, Warrick fits in with modern Maverick and quirky Merrick - and could work well as an honorific for Warren. “Earl of Warwick” is one of the most prestigious titles in British history, giving this sophisticated name a feeling of power.