Antique or forgery?

Oct 5th 2006

When parents with a traditional bent look for a fresh baby name, they look to the past. Not just one generation back, but four or five to the time of the baby's great-great ancestors. That generation of names has lain fallow long enough that the names sound new again. The names also take on a patina of grace and charm from the bygone era they evoke.

These antique revival names are especially popular for girls, as you can tell by a glance at the U.S. name popularity chart. Names like Emma, Olivia and Ava are all in the top-10. This graph of the number of Emmas born shows the classic revival trend:

Emma was an old-time favorite that had all but vanished, so now it sounds sweetly old-fashioned. Or take Olivia, another staple of "retro" and "old-fashioned" baby-name lists:

Wait a second. Where's the antique part? We all know that Olivia is a great-great-grandmother name...right? But if you look at the numbers, it turns out that a baby girl was actually more likely to be named Olivia in 1950 than in 1890. Huh.

Well, let's look at Ava instead. A recent article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about the antique name cycle claimed: "Old-fashioned names like Ava, Milo, Hazel, Hugo and Clara are coming back."

How's that for an old-fashioned name? And that graph is a major year out of date. More Avas were born in the United States last year than in 1880-1980 -- the whole century combined. How can a name "come back" when it was never here to begin with?

Perhaps they're even more antique than my graphs can show--say, top hits of the 1840s. But no, a check of census records says otherwise. The unavoidable conclusion is that Olivia and Ava aren't real antiques. They were timeless but uncommon names that are suddenly, dramatically contemporary. So why do we hear them as old-fashioned?

More on this next time....


By Smeghead (not verified)
October 5, 2006 1:07 PM

Because of their link to celebrities who themselves have that cultural marker. Ava Gardner. Olivia ... um ... uh ... Newton-John?

The subsequent "revival" makes both those names' histories look flat and insignificant, but if you cut the spike out of the graph, they also look like they'd show postwar declines that are pretty significant relative to where their previous popularity was (Ava in particular, which drops off the charts altogether in the 70's). If they had rallied merely back to their original level of popularity, the graph would look more U-shaped, no?

By Melissa (not verified)
October 5, 2006 1:25 PM

this ones that you have studied.. all have a's on the end.. maybe its the sound that makes them seem old fashioned.. or a realtion to things of the past. I hear Emma.. which is closly linked to Emily.. Olivia.. Olive.. and for Ava.. I think of that song Ava Maria..

By Christiana (not verified)
October 5, 2006 1:56 PM

I'd agree with Smeghead - I'd say we link these to Ava Gardner and well, maybe Olivia Newton-John. And because they were adults in the 50's and 60's we somewhat assume they were more popular 20-30 years before when they were born. I picture Olivia as Victorian age (think Road to Avonlea and Sarah's Aunt Olivia). I really don't think of Ava as that old, though Eva I picture as more classic-hispanic so that one probably has more history. I see Ava as 1950's-ish (when exactly was Ava Gardner popular? Her career was from the 40's to the 70's with a few movies as laste as the 80's. She was born in 1922, died in 1990) I actually was surprised to see Emma as so popular in the late 1800s. I always assumed it was more of an old-fashioned feel than truly old fashioned. Shows how much I know.

BTW - the song is Ave Maria if you're talking about the Catholic classic.

By laura (not verified)
October 5, 2006 2:21 PM

Olivia de Havilland - maybe parents are thinking of Gone With the Wind in 1939 ...

By Laurie (not verified)
October 5, 2006 2:34 PM

...and along with Ashley, Vivian and Scarlett, GWTW names are in vogue somewhat.
When I go back 3 or 4 generations I get Marys, Catherines, Sarahs, Janes and Anns. Nothing earth shattering. It's actually my grandmothers - Hazel and Cecelia - that have the names that are a bit more retro sounding.

By Smeghead (not verified)
October 5, 2006 2:48 PM

(For the record, I was kidding about Olivia Newton-John for want of a celebrity from Ava Gardner's era.)

By Christina (not verified)
October 5, 2006 3:51 PM

Could be that other than Ava and Olivia are more coming into their own than being revivied? They were obviously used enough to be in the top 1000 names for the 100 or so years. They may just be now be coming into popularity.

By cec (not verified)
October 5, 2006 4:08 PM

Great post, Laura! I'm curious to hear your analysis!

It reminds me of one of your earlier posts about the fake-Irish names. Sounds like the fake-antique are the new fake-Irish.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

By Laurie (not verified)
October 5, 2006 4:21 PM

I don't think Olivia Newton-John is too far off the mark. Lots of kids, like myself, grew up watching Grease and listening to her music, and are now of child-bearing age. She may be the one that put the name in the back of our minds.

By Dana (not verified)
October 5, 2006 4:55 PM

Ava Gardner wasn't American though, was she? She was northern European (German?). Maybe Ava doesn't show up on the census records b/c there were lots of immigrant grandmothers who weren't born here named Ava.

By Christiana (not verified)
October 5, 2006 5:01 PM

Good point, laurie! And Olivia is better sounding than Sandy to me. Someone mentioned Olivia de Haviland she was pretty popular even outside of GWTW, so that could be an option. It's interesting to run Emily (number one name last year) in the Voyager, too. Its never had this much popularity. Same with Abigail, Hannah, and Isabella. To round out the "old-fashioned names" in the 10 ten, SAmantha isn't as high as it was 10 years ago, but still much higher than it was before the 90's. Ashley peaked in the 90's but was non-exsistant befoer the 60's. I'd say Madison is the only name in the top 10 that doesn't have the "old-fashioned" charm.

By Genevieve (not verified)
October 5, 2006 5:10 PM

Olivia to me is a Shakespearean name (Twelfth Night), and therefore has an old-fashioned air.

By Elizabeth T. (not verified)
October 5, 2006 5:19 PM

Hi Dana, Ava Gardner was born right down the road from me, in Smithfield, North Carolina. There's a museum dedicated to her in this area. I think that it's gotten a LOT more popular recently thanks to the upsurge in the name's popularity. How's that for marketing?

One name that confuses me is Ellen. I feel like it ought to be much more popular than it is (it's now in the 500s). With the popularity of Ella and all the -ella names, added to the popularity of girls' names beginning in "E" (Emily, Emma, etc.) and boys' names ending in -en, I can't understand why it's falling on the charts instead of rising. Any thoughts?

By ru (not verified)
October 5, 2006 5:41 PM

I agree that these names are certainly not 'revivals' and are not 'having a come-back', but to me (and probably other young people of child-bearing age nowadays) they qualify as 'antique' names simply by the fact that they've been known and heard of for over a hundred years. Especially when our friends are naming their kids unique and new (substitute 'made-up') names.

When choosing our daughter's name, I liked the fact that our grandparents thought it was old-fashioned even though her name has never been popular, even now (and it's on Laura's Timeless list). Just because a name didn't have a huge following way back when, doesn't mean it's not antiquated in our modern way of thinking.

By Christiana (not verified)
October 5, 2006 5:52 PM

Elizabeth - My thoughts on Ellen are that it's too plain for the trends right now. Each of the rising names that has that older flair are more lyrical (see the -a/-ah/ee endings, etc.) and more "romantic" if you will. Ellen will come back when the simpler, less frilly names return, in my opinion.

By Jamison (not verified)
October 5, 2006 6:12 PM

Ellen brings to mind Ellen Degeneris and she may not be seen to really embody the feminine ideals that appeal to parents.

By Liz (not verified)
October 5, 2006 6:46 PM

I'm strongly considering Ellen, as it was my much-beloved paternal grandmother's name. It does lack the same kind of feminine musicality as other variants, but it's a definite classic. You can also soften it with an Ellie nickname.

By AJ (not verified)
October 5, 2006 6:51 PM

I agree with Ellen as a bit plain, especially when it has sound-alike variants like Elaine that sound prettier and more sophisticated.

By Rachel (not verified)
October 5, 2006 7:20 PM

I just had to comment since my daugher (2) is named Ellen! She is named after my beloved grandmother and we've loved her name. It's uncommon but easy to pronounce. We thought we'd use Ellie, Elle, or Ella as a nickname but she is just 'Ellen'. We softened it with Mira as a middle name -- latin for 'wonder' and perfect after a rough pregnancy.

By Christiana (not verified)
October 5, 2006 7:21 PM

Liz - Elle might be another nn option for Ellen.

By OliviaAva (not verified)
October 5, 2006 7:46 PM

i have a 3 y.o. daughter named Olivia and i named her that because it is a name that will never go out of style. it is timeless and classic, not fake antique. i am due anyday with girl #2 and will name her Ava. Both girls are not named after any movie stars. I just like the sound and look of both names. Simply beautiful!

By Cheryl (not verified)
October 5, 2006 7:52 PM

I think there are different explanations for different names.

Olivia, for instance, sounds antique because of its general lack of use before recent times, and its similarity to the more hugely popular Olive (which still sounds like a salty green fruit to the modern ear.) Antique by proxy.

Ava may have some antique by proxy cache too. (Sounds akin to Ida and Eva and Ima and Ora). But I think it is more legitimately an antique. It had a bump in the 50s, presumably because of Ava Gardner. But if you disregard that, I think it might fit the pattern of its vowel-consonent-vowel kinfolk. What is actually surprising to me is that Ava is the most attractive to our ear DESPITE its popularity bump in the mid-century. Must not have been popular enough to seem middle-aged now.

Abigail, which a commentor offers up is undoubtedly a legitimate antique. I think its big popularity was pre-1880 though. Sounds colonial to me.


By Cheryl (not verified)
October 5, 2006 7:56 PM

I think if a general rule could be stated, it is that we are collectively agreeing on what sounds like an antique prototype. A few early trend setters pick a name that sounds like antique names sounded (or how we think they sounded, where is Mary?) and the chosen name just sky rockets to more popularity than it ever had.

Everyone is just skimming the same cutting edge and landing in the same place.

By Keren (not verified)
October 5, 2006 8:00 PM

Chritiana, I find it fascinating that you think of Samantha as an old-fashioned name - although looking at Laura's Name Voyager I see you're right, it was around although unusual in the 19th century. I'd alweays thought of it as a purely 1960s name (in the UK)

By Jen. (not verified)
October 5, 2006 8:13 PM

As a child of the 70s, Olivia makes me think first and foremost of "Sesame Street," not of my great great grandmothers (whose names included Bessie, Nettie and May Belle but also the much-lovlier-to-my-ears Alma and Naomi).

By Tansey (not verified)
October 5, 2006 8:13 PM

I found the graph for Emma amazing - in NZ it was a classic in the '70s along with Hannah, Sarah, Kate, Alice, Clare and Lucy. The trend continued in the 80's and 90's with Victoria, Caroline, Annabelle and Rebecca. Olivia was spot on - in the late 70's and early 80's there were plenty of them around in the preschools my children attended.
I'm out of the loop pretty much with no grandchildren as yet - my children's friends have Finn and Maia, Zeke and Angela, and Jackson and Elliot.
Samantha and Tabitha were popular for a period coinciding with the TV series.

By Michelle (not verified)
October 5, 2006 8:17 PM

Instead of Ellen, how about Eleanor or Evelyn? These names are being revived in my region.

By Cheryl (not verified)
October 5, 2006 8:30 PM

If my memory serves me correctly, Abigail is actual Biblical in it's origins, so it goes back pretty far!

Keren - I consider Samantha old fashioned because of a series of books for young girls where the Victorian era character was named Samantha (American Girl books). They're probably not as popular in the UK! :-)

I remember thinking that Olivia on the later years of the Cosby Show (Denise's step-daughter) was an interesting name. Surprising even. Not that it was so unusual, but that it belonged to a young girl (Raven Symone of That's So Raven and the Cheetah Girls now). Who knows why I htought it was an old lady name?

By Christiana (not verified)
October 5, 2006 8:31 PM

Oops - sorry above posted by me and I typed Cheryl to address my first comment. Sorry!

By RobynT (not verified)
October 5, 2006 9:43 PM

i agree with the people who say these "old-fashioned" names are being chosen just in contrast with the new-fangled, invented names. i always thought that with clothing and music trends, for example, each new trend was something that previously was considered completely awful. like after the fluorescents of the
80s, we had the neutrals of the '90s. and maybe like if hip hop and black culture are really trendy, then i would expect cowboy and a sort of "white trash" music and look to be popular after. (although this is sort of off since hip hop and black culture seem to be kind of on a long-term up.)

other than that, do you think the character olivia on law and order: svu is influenceing the popularity?

also, i have liked the name ellen for almost ten years. that was when i first heard of an actual person (as opposed to a character or celebrity) with the name and i guess it just sounded unusual to me (besides it being classic).

By Valerie (not verified)
October 5, 2006 9:50 PM

While we're on the subject of Ava, I have to say I'm not sure how most people pronounce it, never having met one. My mother always said Ay-va for Ava Gardner, but I know some others say A-va... and also some people say Ay-va for Eva, if they're Spanish/Italian. It all gets a bit confusing. What do you think?
If it's A-va, I really don't like the way it sounds, personally.

Interesting discussion though, which I'm enjoying. I really like the names our grandparents and great-grandparents possessed. My grandmother's SILs were Alice, Lily and May which I love. However, she was Hilda, which leaves something to be desired! My other grandmother and her sisters were Louise, Dorothea and Henrietta which I'm not so keen on.
Of the old-fashioned names I also like Flora, Violet, Rose (my middle name which I hated as a kid), Grace, Georgia, Beatrice, Josephine, Clara and Amelia. I believe those are all genuinely retro!

By Psyche (not verified)
October 5, 2006 10:01 PM

Valerie, in Spanish/Italian Eva is pronounced EH-va, not AY-va.

I pronounce Ava as AY-va, but I've read it's also an Iranian name (completely separate from the English Ava) which is pronounced as AH-va.

By Christine (not verified)
October 5, 2006 10:37 PM

Elizabeth- I wish Ellen would come back! I've become very tired of the delicate -a names of the momment. Ellen may come back, but not for a while. It was at its peak in the 1880's, but it was still hugely popular until it fell dramatically through the 60's and 70's. Expect this name to come back in anther sixty years or so, along with a whole new batch of Annes and Susans. Can't wait for that!

By Eleni (not verified)
October 6, 2006 12:08 AM

I think, for myself at least, that many of the names with "old-fashioned" appeal entered my consciousness through literature and popular culture.

I think, firstly, that novelists and other artists may have chosen names that were not, perhaps, the more popular names of the time in which (or about which) they are writing, but rather the sort of names that would express something about the characters they had created.

Names like Isabel, Charlotte and Olive remind me Henry James; Lily Sophy, Ellen and Grace make me think Edith Wharton; Cordelia, Helena, Viola, Olivia etc are Shakespearean to my ears. And so on and so on . . .

I associate the name Olivia, too, with actress Olivia de Havilland, who was in several really lovely classic films (The Heiress, based on Henry James' Washington Square, is among the best).

So, while these names may not all have been in the top 100, they have hung around in popular imagination.

By Eleni (not verified)
October 6, 2006 12:10 AM

Interesting, though, that one of my favorite authors of all time, Jane Austen, chose what must have been the most common of all names for her heroines: Emma, Elizabeth, Jane, & Anne.

Ditto with Emily and Charlotte Bronte, who called their heroines Catherine, Jane and Lucy.

By Eleni (not verified)
October 6, 2006 12:19 AM

Cheryl, I found your comment:

*I think if a general rule could be stated, it is that we are collectively agreeing on what sounds like an antique prototype.*

really intriguing. What is that prototype? Are we saying it's somethng like a name with a generally agreed upon spelling (as in, not kre8tive) which follows the vowel-consonant-vowel sound, and which was not popular in the 70's, 80's or 90's?

I'm just curious if you've detected some sort of formula that you find gives a name the semblance of "vintage" status.

By Jen (not verified)
October 6, 2006 1:32 AM

I was told to repost this on a more current thread, so here I go!
I was searching the internet for "Claudia" and I found this website! We're expecting our second child in April. My daughter, Cassandra Marie, is 4. We actually call her by her full first name. I've toyed with the idea of a "C" theme... If this baby is a boy, he'll be named Everett James or Everett William. As for girl's names, I'm liking Claudia, Annabelle, Dahlia, Charlotte, and Ava. Opinions on any of these names? Any suggestions?

By Abby (not verified)
October 6, 2006 1:33 AM

I think Ellen holds up much better for adults. CEOs named Ella? Not so much. Artists, maybe. (Fitzgerald) Ella is pretty, but cutesy, and to me it sounds like just a nickname. But I'm also kind of tired of the -a names.

My mom gave each of us a name that started with an E because her middle name started with an E, too, Edris. (Eeee-driis) Her fourth daughter would have been Bethany Ellen, as she loves to remind us all the time in hopes we'll use the name! (Not gonna happen.)

By Abby (not verified)
October 6, 2006 1:34 AM

And as for recycling these names - of course we do! Everything old is new again: fashion, furniture, appliances and yes, names.

By anon (not verified)
October 6, 2006 4:49 AM

We have an Olivia who just about to become a teenager. A babysitter of my childhood had spoken very warmly of her Aunt Olivia, and the pleasant associations stayed with me. In line at the grocery store several years later, I was shocked to see this former babysitter on the cover of a women's magazine. Turns out she was the daughter of Joan Fontaine...which made her the neice of Olivia de Havilland. Small world, no?

By Keren (not verified)
October 6, 2006 8:05 AM

Eleni when you said:
Ditto with Emily and Charlotte Bronte, who called their heroines Catherine, Jane and Lucy.

What about Chalotte Bronte's heroine Shirley? An early example of the surname to boy's name to girl's name syndrome I'd say.

Laura I wish you'd create a name voyager for the UK ( and lots of other countries while you're at it!!) it'd be so interesting to compare the trends. Emma and Samantha for example are definitely names for 30-somethings in the UK, not so much for babies.

By Maya (not verified)
October 6, 2006 10:22 AM

Very interesting conversation!

My 11 month old daughter is Violet Grace, which I loved for it's old fashioned sound/feel. To me it's also very feminine and strong.

Of course I'm always trying to think of baby names to go with Violet and am having a hard time finding something to match the intensity of Violet.

So far, I'm liking Ruby, Eva, Esme, and Olivia. It's funny to me how each changes the very feel of Violet when I say them together (Violet and Ruby, or Violet and Esme).

By Keren (not verified)
October 6, 2006 10:58 AM

Violet and Olivia look a little like they are anagrams of eachother..although I know they are not really.

I like Violet and Ruby together, sounds like a particularly lush paintbox. Then you could have a Scarlett, Indigo, Jet ummmm...

By Christiana (not verified)
October 6, 2006 12:29 PM

Jen - I like your selections over all. Annabelle is growing on me, but I read a book once where there was a not-so-nice character named Annabelle and they called her Banana-belle behind her back. Dahlia is my favorite because i love flower names. I also love the sound of Claudia, but I'm not crazy about it's meaning.

Got to agree with Abby on Ella being a younger name - someone suggested a few months ago that you should always try out the name with Chief Justice in front of it! I have a hard time hearing Chief Justice Ella Smith. I think it's a very pretty name, don't get me wrong. And I love it as a nn.

By (not verified)
October 6, 2006 1:15 PM

How about Iris Hope to go with Violet Grace?

By RobynT (not verified)
October 6, 2006 1:52 PM

Jen: With the current movie The Black Dahlia, that name strikes me as kind of dark and scary.

By Elizabeth T. (not verified)
October 6, 2006 2:10 PM

I don't know how Eva is pronounced in Italian, but in Spanish it is "Ay-vah." All "e"s in Spanish are pronounced like the long "a" in English.

By Sam (not verified)
October 6, 2006 2:38 PM


Another name that has that old-fashioned sound, and that I think is both strong and feminine, and also intense, is Scarlett. I love the name Violet, by the way. I just noticed both names end in 'let'.

By Delancey (not verified)
October 6, 2006 5:01 PM

I know this might sound silling.. but what about Tinka.. I think Violet and Tinka sound very good together.. I heard that name off off a movie.. and I think its really striking!

By Delancey (not verified)
October 6, 2006 5:02 PM

I know this might sound silly.. but what about Tinka.. I think Violet and Tinka sound very good together.. I heard that name off off a movie.. and I think its really striking!