Antique or forgery, part 2

Oct 13th 2006

Last time I talked about some popular "antique revival" names like Olivia and Ava, and how they're not truly revivals at all. Yet parent after parent, and writer after writer, insists that they are. In fact, an eagle-eyed reader might have spotted those names on the "Antique Charm" list in my very own Baby Name Wizard book. So have we all been duped by a bunch of forgeries? I don't think so. Olivia, Ava and their kin deserve their place on lists of old-fashioned names, and I plan to keep them there--because they feel old fashioned, and sometimes that's enough.

Imagine you walk into a furniture showroom and see a sale on a "colonial diningroom set." Would you feel cheated to learn it had been built after 1776? Of course not. In furniture, colonial properly describes a style as well as a history. In baby names, so does antique.

What are the ingredients of an antique-styled name? First off, it does have to have some genuine tradition behind it. A long history, though, isn't enough to create a feeling of antique charm. Here are just a few of the girls' names that were more popular than Olivia a century ago:

A. Amy, Christine, Carrie

B. Nancy, Bonnie, Sue

C. Kate, Sara, Leah

D. Zelma, Ollie, Elva

Group A sounds like sisters from the 1970s, Group B from the 1940s. Group C is timeless with a contemporary feel, and Group D...well, nevermind.

Olivia and Ava differ from those names--and real great-grandmas like Mildred and Myrtle--in the shape of their sounds and the shape of their histories. In keeping with our contemporary sense of elegance, they're heavy on the vowels with no consecutive consonant sounds. As for history, they remained consistently uncommon for a hundred years. That made them familiar enough to sound traditional, yet didn't stamp them into a generation like Nancy and Sue. And since few people actually knew any Olivias or Avas in person, celebrities were able to help root the names' images.

Take another look at the Olivia and Ava graphs from last week. You'll notice two tiny peaks: Olivia in the '40s, Ava in the '50s. That would be actresses Olivia de Havilland and Ava Gardner, born in 1916 and 1922 respectively. Doesn't each actress perfectly embody the contemporary image of her first name? Ava is the more sultry name, Olivia the more delicate (Olivia Newton John's "Let's Get Physical" notwithstanding.) Many of the antique-styled hits are also shaped by their use in literature--especially British literature, but chroniclers of the American upper classes like Edith Wharton and Henry James count too.

The result is polished antiques that evoke a past divorced from any unpleasant realities. Women are either charmingly sweet (Lily, Chloe) or flowingly romantic (Isabella, Angelina). Men are elegant gentlemen (Julian, Sebastian). Here's a popularity graph of the six antique-styled lovelies in this paragraph:

In the end, the actual history of these names hardly matters. They achieve their goal of conjuring up a classic, old-fashioned elegance. Compare siblings named Isabella and Julian to Devyn and Kyler -- they're a world apart. The "forgeries" may not be authentic great-grandparents, but their cultural meaning is authentically antique.


By Tansey (not verified)
October 14, 2006 4:02 AM

I thoroughly agree Laura - old fashioned elegance can't be surpassed. these names hold true whether for a baby, child, teen or adult of any age - something you can't always say about the Kylies/Niveahs/Shawneeahs of today.
It would be interesting to see what names have enduring elegance in other cultures.

By Abi (not verified)
October 14, 2006 9:31 AM

I love 'Julian'. It sounds classical, rather than 'grandpa' to me.

By Abi (not verified)
October 14, 2006 9:39 AM

I think that in Britain the most enduring name has been Thomas. I wouldn't imagine it has been out of the top ten in centuries, unlike John, currently at number 70 something.

By Ali H. (not verified)
October 14, 2006 9:39 PM

I just wanted you to know that Olivia has been used in family I know--mine!

My late maternal grandma's older sister--whose also dead--was given the name Martha Olivia when she was born 1/1/1905. She's buried as Olivia Turk.

By Abby (not verified)
October 15, 2006 12:11 AM

My grandfather's parents, born in 1879, were Ollie and Dewey - two names you've mentioned on here, perhaps not lovingly.

I don't think just any parents can pull off Julian - my husband and I included. I don't know how to describe why, but I just think so. Perhaps it's some unwritten stereotype personal to me? I don't know. But it is a lovely name for the right family.

By Dawn (not verified)
October 15, 2006 1:02 AM

Just got back from a bday party for a 1-year old. The children (all 3 and under) were Mason, Spencer, Brady, Chase, Thomas, and two Parkers (one boy, one girl). Spencer's mom said that there are 3 Olivia's in his preschool class. If nothing else, I'd stay away from top 10 names like Olivia and Ava for that reason alone.

By Emily (not verified)
October 15, 2006 3:05 AM

Maybe Olivia hasn't been used in the past as often as we have come to believe, but it has been used. Shakespeare used it in at least one play I know-- 12th Night and about 6 (early 1800s) generations back in my family there were girls with that name.

By Val (not verified)
October 15, 2006 4:23 AM

Abi, Sorry to disagree, but Julian? I know it is gaining in popularity but it is some how a little feminine to me and to make matters worse have you heard of "Trailer Park Boys"?

By Abi (not verified)
October 15, 2006 1:14 PM

No, I haven't. And I don't think it is feminine... it's just that it's feminine counterparts (Julia, etc) have become more popular than it, so people may get that impression. I know a few people called Julian and the name sounds noble and, as I said, classical (because of Emperor Julian) to me.

By Elizabeth T. (not verified)
October 15, 2006 5:14 PM

I just watched the movie "A Prairie Home Companion" last night and it reminded me of this post. I think one reason that radio show (and to a certain extent, the movie as well) is so popular is that it evokes a past American life that never really existed but that we all wish had. It's the idealized view of Victoriana American-style, without the racism, sexism, classism, etc. Names like Olivia, Ava, Lily, and Julian remind us of Henry James and Edith Wharton, but not the real stories written by those authors (if you've ever read them, you'll know what I mean), but the surface emotions we get when we think back on the era they represented. Maybe it's precisely BECAUSE they weren't mega hits in the era they evoke that they're so popular--they remind us a time we wish had existed without being encumbered by remembrances of actual people--and their foibles.

By HN (not verified)
October 15, 2006 6:33 PM

Hi all... great post Laura! I think you laid the framwork for this argument very well. So what do you all think, looking back through time, would be viable options for a list of antique names that would be still rarely used now? Is Audrey becoming popular anywhere? We are surrounded by Ella, Ellie, Mia, Grace, Bella, Kaylee, Kylie, Riley, Ryan, Connor, Abby, etc in my neighborhood.

By Ali H. (not verified)
October 15, 2006 6:49 PM

I mentioned yesterday that my grandma had a sister Martha Olivia, who went by her middle name. She also had an older brother, Richard Sebastian, named for their grandfathers--Richard Ferris and Sebastian Smith--my great-great grandfathers, born in the 1800s. I thought I'd pass that along since you a specific example of their names in the article. The other sisters were Estelle Marie[grandma], Bonnie Lauretta, and Dorothy Lucille, in case you're interested. Still, my point is these names are used in family, and not only affluent ones.

By Michi (not verified)
October 15, 2006 8:02 PM

HN - Ella, Bella, Grace, and Abby (if short for Abigail) are long-standing names with plenty of history, like Ava and Olivia and aren't on the level of Kylee or Riley at all.

By Abby (not verified)
October 15, 2006 8:54 PM

Agreed, Elizabeth T.

I don't think I'd name my daughter Lily and hope for her to grow into a Lily Bart. Sheesh.

And my Great-great-aunt was named Abby, not short for Abigail. So we're talking 150-175 years ago. Abby, alone, has been around awhile, too.

By Val (not verified)
October 16, 2006 2:26 AM

In the first section of this post I listed a few "antique" sounding names I thought might still be rarely used. I was surprised to find that some were indeed more popular than I had first suspected(Lucy, Amelia and Sadie were reported to be "Hot" by one reader).I like your sugestion of Audrey and wonder if Dora and Ivy are catching on anywhere.

By Val (not verified)
October 16, 2006 2:38 AM

Abi, about Julian, I was reminded today of how I used to very much like the name "Jolyon" from a book a loved called The Forsyte Saga. Funny, I guess it would actually sound a lot like Julian. Sorry if I was hard on this name, turns out it may not be too bad after all.

By Abi (not verified)
October 16, 2006 9:06 AM

Love The Forsyte Saga!

By Liz (not verified)
October 16, 2006 12:06 PM

Hi HN - I do think Audrey is on the verge of becoming popular. It was our girl choice, with the middle name Elizabeth, for our baby born this past spring. I really wanted to use it becuase I think it's such a lovely name - it's crisp and clean and neat sounding, and a refreshing change from the airy, delicate girl names ending in "a" these days. But we ended up with a boy, our little charmer Charles, whom we have given the quintessential nice guy nickname Charlie.

I recently learned that a colleague named her daughter Audrey (with Elizabeth as her middle name, and she definitely didn't know that it was on my list). Also since then I've noticed a character named Audrey on 24 from a couple seasons ago, and the "Audrey Hepburn pant" Gap commercials. I'm not sure I would call it "antique charm," but because of Audrey Hepburn it definitely has a vintage, classic feel to it.

By Olivia (not verified)
October 16, 2006 12:20 PM

Hi. An Olivia writing here. I have always liked my name because when I was the only Olivia in my school, but it was still a well known name so I didn't get weird looks.

People often assumed I was named after Olivia Newton-John because I was born in 1978, the year Grease was released. But, in fact my mother named me after Olivia de Havilland, a favorite actress of hers.

By Christiana (not verified)
October 16, 2006 1:13 PM

I always associate Audrey with Audrey Hepburn. And I think the Ava/Olivia connect to the famous actresses is going to make Audrey one of the next to rise in that category. As Liz mentioned Audrey is getting more attention in those GAP ads (which I'm sick of seeing already).

I have to agree with an earlier comment that the name Julian may be hard to pull off for some. It seems to me to either be a high-class name or perhaps even more popular in certain races (I can't picture a single white, middle class Julian, though I know of 2 wealthy ones and a couple of african americans with that name). Maybe it's only in this area that that name has that connotation or stigma. Or maybe I just don't know the right people. I hate when people pronounce it Jool-yan, though!

Ali - I don't think Laura is saying that these names haven't been used, but that they weren't as popular as we might have assumed. I would have assumed that Olivia was a more popular name in the 40's, for example.

By Stacy (not verified)
October 16, 2006 5:39 PM

I just found out a friend of a friend is naming his baby girl Nola. I was surprised when I typed it into the baby name wizard and saw that this name has been around awhile. Has anyone heard of this name or know anyone who has used this name recently?

By Valentina (not verified)
October 16, 2006 6:03 PM

Nola was the name of Scarlett Johanson's character in the recent Woody Allen movie "Match Point."

By lauren (not verified)
October 16, 2006 6:05 PM

Nola makes me think of the character Nola Darling in Spike Lee's first film, She's Gotta Have It.

By Jessica (not verified)
October 16, 2006 6:14 PM

Here in MN a lot of the antique sounding names are scandinavian. I keep hearing lots of babies with the following names:


By Eleni (not verified)
October 16, 2006 7:16 PM

Gosh, I hadn't realized how popular Olivia had become.

I'm going to a three-year-old's birthday party this coming Saturday, here in Los Angeles. His name is Emerson, his little neighbor sisters are Isabella and Olivia (three and just one, respectively).

I'm going to be sure and take note of the names of attendees and their siblings so I can report back to you all. I also love hearing from others which names are spreading like wildfire in their part of the country.

Trend-watching is really an interesting hobby, and for some reason naming trends fascinate me.
I suspect, though, that I'm in good company here!

By Tansey (not verified)
October 16, 2006 7:26 PM

I wrote an early teen novel some years ago and the main character named herself Annika - not a name I'd ever contemplated for anything before, but it fit her perfectly.
Nola is nice - certainly much nicer than Noleen, ugh!
Eleni - we'll be waiting with anticipation. I hope there are some truly unique names we can argue over :-)

By Angela (not verified)
October 16, 2006 8:44 PM

I believe many people use the word "Nola" when they are talking about New Orleans. (Short for New Orleans, Louisiana). I do like it as a name though, the first I had heard of it was in the movie "Match Point".

I have heard a few little Gretas too - one born in June in Chicago and another one here in Omaha, Nebraska. During my college years (late 90's) there was a character named Greta on Days of Our Lives.
As a member of a Mom's Club, I'm always learning the names of new babies. Lots of antique revivals around here with the girls, can't tell you how many Avas and Ellas I've seen lately! For boys it's a lot of the names that end in -en or -on, Carson, Caden, Jaden, Ashton, etc. Although theose antique revivals have history of being around for a long time, I'm afraid some will definitely be date-stamped 2000's because of the frequency of use. And same with the -en, is that ending going to be the -ene (Charlene, Darlene, etc.) of this generation?

By Abby (not verified)
October 16, 2006 9:00 PM

I think Asa is a biblical name, right? (I know a little boy named Asa, and his brother is Micah. Their mom told me their names are biblical.)

I know two cute boys named Lars and Wise. (Going with the Scandinavian thing above.)

And I LOVE Anika. Anieka? How do you spell it traditionall?

By Dawn (not verified)
October 17, 2006 12:10 AM lists
-Anika as Hindu/Spanish meaning very graceful/beautiful. The spelling Annika has N/A listed as the origin/meaning
-Annick as Russian meaning gracious
-Anneke as Scandinavian meaning little Ann

It sounds to me like the Scandinavian one makes the most sense - like it's a nickname for Ann.

Also, you all might not be familiar with Star Trek but on the Voyager series the 'hot' one, Jeri Ryan, who was referred to as Seven was originally named Annika before she was assimilated by the Borg. Dorky yes, but a pretty popular character:)

By Amy (not verified)
October 17, 2006 12:29 AM

How is this for an antique name revival? My four year old is Giles Augustine. I have noticed several Augustines/Augustins in our church's baptismal notices. At my son's preschool there are two Augustus in the class ahead of his. Plus, my 18 month old is Augusta Leigh. I met a women I knew from work, who told me her niece is an Augusta too. The nickname in favor seems to be Augie. Who could have forseen this turn of naming trends?

By Abby (not verified)
October 17, 2006 1:20 AM

"Also, you all might not be familiar with Star Trek but on the Voyager series the 'hot' one, Jeri Ryan, who was referred to as Seven was originally named Annika before she was assimilated by the Borg. Dorky yes, but a pretty popular character:)"

Are you related to my husband? Ha.

And I love Augusta, too. It's been discussed on here before! (But don't worry, I'm not going to use it! So I won't add to its popularity.)

By RobynT (not verified)
October 17, 2006 1:50 AM

I love Annika also. I've always liked Annie and... I guess it just sounded unusual to me...

About MN, Scandinavian names are common there right? I remember there being a Gretchen and like three Heidis on my floor--names I never knew in person before. I think Gretchen and Greta are variants of each other and also of Margaret right? (I learned this from taking German lit in college. Don't ask.)

I think it'd be intresting to look at the naming trends within specific races/ethnicities. for instance I heard Japanese started giving their kids "American" names during/after WWII. And did you all see the article in the NY Times about more immigrants keeping their names? Here's the link:
(via Angry Asian Man)

The Augie trend seems pretty out there to me. The names are just so long! There is one comedian/radio DJ named Augie T in Honolulu. I think that's about the only place I've heard it.

By Abi (not verified)
October 17, 2006 8:34 AM

Do immigrants to the US usually change their names? How odd.

By Christina (not verified)
October 17, 2006 12:16 PM

I can't speak for all immigrants, of course, but I have a friend whos from Tailand, as is his wife. They both go by an american name to make life easier. They are expecting their first baby in December (yea!) and they will give her(/him?) a Tai first name, and an American middle name. They'll probably call the baby by his or her American middle name around the house.

By Christiana (not verified)
October 17, 2006 1:37 PM

I like Augusta (sounds regal), but I'm not real crazy about "Augie" for a nn. Sounds odd to me. Love Annika. Reminds me of Pippi Longstocking (the girl was Annika).

Abi - Many immigrants in the olden days were forced to change their names if they were too unpronounceable, etc. at Ellis Island. Today many people who immigrate either change it or give themselves an american nn so they can fit in better. I went to college with a boy who had an unpronouceable Japanese name (you should have heard the teachers trying to call roll) who went by "Frank". (there was nothing resembling Frank in his name) Not everyone does it, of course. SOme one to keep thier sense of culture, etc. I worked with a man from Sweden. His name was Mathias (Muh-tee-iss). When he first arrived in America, he went by Matt. Later, he went back to Mathias when he realized it really wasn't that difficult to pronounce. He also made it a point to not get angry when people would pronounce it "Muh-thigh-iss, a more American pronunciation).

By rjmolly (not verified)
October 17, 2006 2:59 PM

My aunt is named Nola. She is around 70 years old. I remember hearing about Aunt Nola when I was younger and thinking that her name sounded "weird" and wasn't very pretty. My grandmother, her older sister, is named Ann.

By Jessica (not verified)
October 17, 2006 3:13 PM

2 things

1. on Minnesota: heidi and gretchen are also both quite common here.

2. On immigrants changing their names. My father, British, just became a citizen and at the citizenship ceremony all those becoming citizens were given the opportunity to change their names. About 50% of the people at my dad's ceremony changed their names. Men, in particular were likely to change their names to classic things like, bob, richard, william, etc. I think it has to do with being in business and getting tired of telling people how to pronounce their names.

By Valerie (not verified)
October 17, 2006 3:42 PM

Oh, Christiana, I love the name Mathias (I knew a French man with that name who pronounced it the same as the Swedish), but probably wouldn't use it for the reason you mention- I don't like the Anglo/American way of pronouncing it! Perhaps I'll just have to emigrate...
Oh, here's another name I love that's used in Europe sometimes: Marius! The Latin version of Mario. Behind the name says it's Ancient Roman, German, Dutch, Norwegian, Danish, French, English, Romanian and it's a "Roman family name which was derived either from MARS, the name of the Roman god of War, or else from the Latin root mas, maris meaning "male". Gaius Marius was a famous Roman consul of the 2nd century BC." I only ever met one man named Marius, but the name stuck with me.

By Lillie (not verified)
October 17, 2006 4:15 PM

A coworker of mine named his third daughter Nolah. It went well with with the other girls' names, both of which were two-syllable names, with the first syllable stressed, ending in -ah.

By Eleni (not verified)
October 17, 2006 4:17 PM

Interesting to hear that August (in all it's variations) is coming back.

I recently read that model Linda Evangelista gave birth to a baby boy named Augustine, and thought it was an unusual choice. I guess she is part of a larger movement. How funny.

By Lillie (not verified)
October 17, 2006 4:18 PM

Oh, and also: When I hear the name Nola, I think of the main prostitute in "Hustle & Flow." Incredible movie, but maybe not the best name association!

By Cathie (not verified)
October 17, 2006 4:23 PM

Based on Laura's Ava/Olivia analysis, Audrey seems ripe for a "comeback" too. Audrey Hepburn has that classic actress aura and the name has that "old-fashioned but not fusty" feel while not (yet!) being all over the playground. Plus it has that same -y ending as the ever popular Emily so it could be seen as a less common alternative. At the moment though I only know of one in our neighborhood.

I've heard Anika a few times and also know a Gretta. Have to admit they are not for me.

By Abi (not verified)
October 17, 2006 4:39 PM

On Audrey: this name sounds so incredibly old woman to me. I would cite it as the very definition of a 'fusty' name. In Britain calling you child Audrey would, I think, be considered a little odd.

By Valerie (not verified)
October 17, 2006 4:46 PM

I agree, Abi. When I've heard people in the US raving about Audrey, I just keep thinking it's really dull and frumpy (sorry to those of you you are fans)! Somehow it seems to have a different feel to Brits than Americans.
Also, I've met girls here in the US called Aubrey, which is definitely a (very old-fashioned) boy's name in England.

By Heather (not verified)
October 17, 2006 5:06 PM

I always think it is interesting to look at the names of Ava Gardner's siblings (she was 7th) to see the context of the name:

Beatrice (nn Bappie)
Elsie Mae

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

I knew a male Aubrey before I'd ever heard of a female - and he was a little boy! (Now probably 16 or so). Never really thought anything of it until now - never actually labeled it androgynous, it just was accepted to me. Guess it's the way you grow up.

I like the name Gretchen based on where I've heard it: Pacey's sister on Dawson's Creek that Dawson dated, Gretchen Wilson the country singer and on my pastor's daughter (it's one of those only-family-gets-it nicknames). Her real name is Bethany. But Gretchen itself sounds gross - wretching, hard sounds that really don't sound all that appealing next to all the little Emmas and Ellas running around. Sad. It's actually a pretty interesting name.

There is a high concentration of people of Scadanavian decent in MN, right? That's probably why there is so much popularity with Gretchen, Annika, Heidi, Greta up there.

Interesting that Audrey hasn't made the comeback in England that is has in America. I know 2 little girls named Audrey.

By Claire (not verified)
October 17, 2006 5:26 PM

I also know two Audrey's--both are around 3 years old. I also thought it was an "old-lady" name, until I've been charmed by these two little darlings. I'm in the Pacific Northwest (Seattle) and definitely think Audrey is making a comeback. The siblings of Audrey #1 are Alaina and Amelia. Audrey #2 has a brother named Tate.

By Christiana (not verified)
October 17, 2006 5:49 PM

Audrey 2 like in Little Shoppe of Horrors? :-)

Heather - very interesting about Ava's siblings. Guess her parents were trying to come up with something a little more original for number 7, huh?

Anybody notice the large amount of male traditionally hispanic names in the top 1000 this year? I was looking at the chart again this morning and noticed it. Jose, Juan, Diego, Carlos, Jesus, Antonio, Miguel, Alejandro all in the top 100. I've never been a fan of Jose and Juan, but I like all the others. (Maybe not Jesus,either - maybe I don't like hispanic J names?)

Also, my DH was incredibly impressed with the Voyager the other night when I left it up on my computer. He spent a good 45 minutes playing with it - and he's not really into names! He was just fascinated with it! He's a professional geek and was impressed by the programming as well. Good job, Laura!

By Michi (not verified)
October 17, 2006 10:51 PM

What about Alice? Is there a reason that you never really see it outside of literature? It's a simple, lovely name that no one uses, but every one knows. Or is it another one of those names that's popular in another form, like Alicia?

By Malinda (not verified)
October 18, 2006 3:15 AM

I grew up in a neighborhood with twin girls named Nanette and Nola (now they are about 45 years old). I have never heard either name used since.

Among our friends kids (ages 5 and under) there are 3 Olivias, an Anika, 2 Aubreys (girls) and an Ava.

Christiana, I laughed at your "professional geek" husband story. My husband (also a professional geek who doesn't care much about names) turned me onto voyager because he thought it was such a cool site.