A few weeks ago, we looked at names inspired by the majestic beauty of the American Southwest. Today, we’ll be moving north and checking out names inspired by the Pacific Northwest - its urban areas, notable flora, and other geographic phenomena. If you have any information or names to contribute, please comment below!
Columbia. The largest in the Pacific Northwest, the Columbia River was named by American captain and explorer Robert Gray after his ship, the Columbia Rediviva. Columbia is a name that pervades much of the United States, branding towns and universities, boats and companies. It comes from the Latin columba, meaning “dove”. While the name was used briefly in the late nineteenth century, it’s incredibly rare today - only ten little Columbia’s were born last year. It’s patriotic, substantial, and feminine, an elegant choice.
Eugene. While Eugene is now often used as a go-to example for old-fashioned names, it’s certainly not without a few positive traits! It means “wellborn”, and stayed in the top 200 US names for boys for over 100 years. “A Great City for the Arts and Outdoors”, Eugene, Oregon was named after its founder, settler Eugene Franklin Skinner. Today, Eugene is known as a center of counterculture, both historical and current. The name might be a bit unexpected, but it can be worn well with nicknames - Gene, Gino - or in its feminine form - Eugenie and Eugenia.
Everett. Classic, accessible, and strong - it’s no wonder that Everett has been shooting up in popularity! Of course, similar-sounding Evelyn and Avery are also on the rise, so the trend may be due to an affection for sound over an affection for history. Everett, Washington is notable for being the largest public marina on the west coast of the United States, as well as hosting the largest building in the world (by volume), the Boeing Everett Factory. An early businessman in the area, Charles Colby, named the city after his son Everett - who himself was named after the American politician and orator, Edward Everett.
Helena. After years behind the shadows of sister names Helen and Ellen, beautiful Helena has begun to bloom once more. The origins of this name begin all the way back before ancient Greece, making it a bit difficult to define in terms of meaning, but many have associated it with “light” or the moon. Helena is also the capital of Montana, as well as the name of a national forest. The capital was named after two other Helena towns in Minnesota and Arkansas, replacing the original town title, “Last Chance”. Quite a few famous Helena’s keep the name visible today - Bonham Carter and Christensen, for two - but its lovely melody will endure long after its popularity wanes.
Huckleberry. This literary name is a mouthful, but that didn’t stop twenty-five sets of parents from naming their little boys Huckleberry last year. Even more have chosen the more amiable short form, Huck. The huckleberry is included on this list as the state fruit of Idaho, and the plant abounds across North America. There are quite a few fictional Huckleberry’s, from Finn to Hound to Ziegler, but hardly any real-life ones. The current trend towards unique names, however, may bring Huckleberry out of hiding; indeed, only in the last ten years has the name been multiply recorded on birth certificates!
Lark. Six states in the West and Pacific Northwest count the western meadowlark as their state bird, hence the inclusion of Lark on this list! (I will admit that the meadowlark is not technically a lark - Carl Linnaeus misidentified the bird, and the name stuck). The name Lark has been in use since the early nineteenth century, and only ranked in the top 1000 one year - #765 in 1885. It’s a short and sweet alternative to the more common Raven or the rather blunt Birdie. The lark is commonly associated with dawn and daybreak, as well as the idiom “happy as a lark” - not a bad simile at that!
Olympia. Regal, commanding, and feminine, Olympia is a name of the old world that could work well in the new. With Olivia and Sophia dominating the top ten, why not choose a rarer name that maintains their melody and gravitas? Olympia, the capital of Washington, was named in honor of the nearby Olympic Mountains (and bestowed upon a species of oyster found in the area, interestingly). Truly, the name can be found all over the world, imbuing a royal strength within its wearers. Too assertive for your little one? Make it more accessible with the nickname Ollie or Polly.
Opal. A gemstone found in the northwestern states of Oregon, Nevada, and Idaho, opals can present as dozens of different colors and patterns. They’ve long been associated with fortune-telling and magic, and they’re the birthstone of those born in October. Elegant and ethereal, effervescent and energetic - what lovely associations for such a classic name! Popular in the early 1900’s - it reached as high as #81 in 1911 - Opal left the top 1000 in 1961. However, the recent revival of Ruby and Pearl could help Opal jump back into the ranks. Time will tell if sparkling Opal will shine again!
Paisley. Since debuting on the top 1000 in 2006, Paisley has risen enough to become a top 50 pick. Why the rise to the top? It has the trendy “pay” (like Payton and Paige) and “lee” sounds, it’s associated with a pretty and feminine aesthetic, and it happens to be the last name of a country music star. Paisley is included here for a couple of reasons: there’s a tiny town (243 people) called Paisley in Oregon, and it’s the title of Paisley Caves, an archaeological site in Oregon that holds the oldest pieces of evidence showing human DNA in North America. While its sound and rank may seem flash-in-the-pan, Paisley will surely endure with its important historical associations.
Rainier. No, this name wasn’t included for its connection to the climate of the Pacific Northwest. Mount Rainier is the highest mountain in Washington State, and the highest mountain in the Cascade Range. It was named by George Vancouver (yes, that Vancouver) in honor of his friend, Admiral Peter Rainier, though the original Native American name for the mountain is closer to “Tacoma”. In the United States, Rainier has been used very little - many Americans associate it with the royal Monocan husband of actress Grace Kelly. Rainier can also be spelled Rayner or Rainer, and it’s an unexpected way to reach the handsome nickname Ray.
Do you know any men called Mike, Jim, Tom or Dave? Sorry, that's a silly question. Of course you do. Those are bedrock All-American guy names, and literally millions of U.S. men answer to them. So let's try this instead: do you know any toddlers named Mike, Jim, Tom or Dave? I'm guessing not, because the All-American nicknames are disappearing.
The dramatic nickname decline actually started in the 1970s. Previously, short nicknames had been routine choices as given names, but that style fell out of favor in a hurry:
The graph shows familiar one-syllable nicknames with nickname style. (That is to say, names that are typically perceived as short versions of a longer name.) For a name-by-name view, here are all of the examples that ranked among America's top 200 boys' names in in 1940, 1960, 1980 and today:
Yes, that's an empty column for the most recent year's stats. As stark as these charts are, though, they don't convey the full scope of the disappearing-nickname phenomenon. The 1970s decline phased out nicknames as given names. A second 21st Century wave is now eliminating nicknames as nicknames.
Most of America's millions of Mikes and Jims actually have Michael and James printed on their drivers' licenses. Even in the 1960s nickname boom years there were 13 Michaels born for every Mike. If All-American guy nicknames were only disappearing as full given names, the effect on everyday name culture wouldn't be so great. Their disappearance as everyday nicknames is what's truly transforming the sound of our times.
This is an effect I can't easily graph. No hard statistics track whether kindergartners introduce themselves as Tom or Thomas. But I see the phenomenon in action every day, and it's huge. To get a rough idea of the magnitude, I polled friends with children asking how many Michaels their kids knew, and how many of them went by Mike or Mikey. The responses from parents across the country suggest that only one Michael in ten now calls himself Mike. In my own childhood, the Mike rate approached 100%.
For a visual version of this anecdotal evidence, try running a Google image search on the phrase "Michael is a big brother." You should see a lineup of preschool boys and little babies. Then try "Mike is a big brother." That search turns out to be a nearly baby-free jumble.
So let's accept that Mike and friends are disappearing from the name scene. Does it matter? Most name styles do come and go; just ask any Elmer or Bertha, or even Todd or Tina. This particular style of nicknames, though, has occupied a unique niche in American society for the better part of a century. They're the names people trust.
Politicians and salesmen have learned to bank on their sturdy, friendly, relatable appeal, the naming equivalent of a handshake and a smile. The appeal extends to the personal realm too, even providing a boost in online dating. The nice-guy nickanmes are the names that draw people in and make them feel comfortable. And parents are totally abandoning them.
It may be that as tastes change, a new generation of names will come to symbolize friendly reliability. Perhaps Wyatt, Jeremiah, Jaxon and Mateo will be the 21st Century's handshake and a smile. Perhaps, but I doubt it. Nicknames, which greet the whole world like old friends, have built-in approachability. And just as importantly, part of what Mike and friends symbolize is consensus and common ground. Those qualities are notably lacking in today's naming patterns.
Back in 1960, Michael and David ranked among the top 5 names in every single state in the Union. In fact, they were #1 and #2 in more than half of states, a cross-section including such diverse locales as Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine and New Mexico. They were hits without cultural borders, appealing across racial, ethnic and class lines. When you hear of an American man named Michael or David, you assume absolutely nothing about his background. Consider this sampling of American Michaels and Davids born within 5 years of 1960:
Writer Michael Chabon
Businessman Michael Dell
Director David Fincher
Comedian David Alan Grier
Politician Mike Huckabee
Musician Michael Jackson
Athlete Michael Jordan
Designer Michael Kors
Writer David Sedaris
In the 1990s, Gatorade built a hugely successful advertising campaign around Michael Jordan with the slogan "Be Like Mike." The like/Mike rhyme was the hook, but the slogan worked in part because of the name itself. Mike was universal, relatable, achievable. It was as welcoming as Jordan's famous smile.
No 21st-century name approaches Michael and David's 20th-century reach. Today, Elijah is the #1 name in Oklahoma but ranks #42 in Massachusetts. Benjamin is #1 in Massachusetts but #38 in Hawaii. When New York City released baby name statistics broken down by race, the top 10 lists for black and white boys didn't share a single name in common. All of those Mikes, Jims, Toms and Daves now look like relics of the days when all of America watched the same three tv networks. The common ground—and the unassuming friendliness—they represented will be hard for any modern name to match.
Surnames as first names used to be the hallmark of preppy style. Brothers named Easton and Brantley conjured up school days at Exeter, sailing at Newport, and corner offices on Wall Street. Then a funny thing happened to the preps: they were invaded by cowboys.
Thanks in part to country music stars like Easton Corbin and Brantley Gilbert, surname style has started to shift from "prep school boy" to "good ol' boy." The new preppy cowboy style is one of the hottest name categories in America. But where do you turn if you want to capture that old-school prep school feeling?
Image via Shutterstock.com/ Tetiana Kovbasovska
The names below still hold onto the breezy, buttoned-down self-assurance of classic prep-school style. They range from popular (Carter) to rare (Collier), and from iconic preppy (Brooks) to quirky (Fielding). For the purest old-school approach, though, also try searching your own family tree. Celebration of family lineage is how preppy style came to be.
CLASSIC PREPPY SURNAMES