The Generational Sweet Spot, Or Why Your Parents Have Such Bad Taste

Apr 22nd 2010

Your taste in baby names is shaped by many factors. If I had to point to just one, though -- one force that drives your opinions, that's impossible to escape -- it would be your generation.

That's obvious on the face of it. We all know that name styles change dramatically over time. When it comes to our own personal taste, though, it's hard to feel the generational influence. Here's how I usually describe it: the names of your own generation sound too ordinary, your parents' too boring, your grandparents' too old. But by the time you make it back to your great-grandparents' names, things start to perk up. You've never known a young Vivian or Julius, so those names sound fresh to you.

That places a style "sweet spot" at naming generations roughly 60-90 years older than you. But it also points to a second sweet spot at names 20-40 years younger than you. Those are the names that you and your friends name your children. Meanwhile you're turned off by names in middle, particularly your own age and 10-20 years older. So if you were born in the 1970s, you probably didn't consider '60s names like Sheila or Kent for your kids.

Now here's the kicker. That same generation of names that marks your style nadir is your parents' sweet spot. And those charming antiques you love? They're your parents' stodgy grandma names. Let's overlay some hypothetical curves:

Call the areas in green "argument zones."

Parents, this explains why your mother-in-law keeps suggesting names like Karen and Steve. Grandparents, this explains how your daughter could possibly consider a name like Julius (or Genesis) for a little baby. And to our youngest readers, prepare for your parents to totally miss the appeal of Conrad and Joyce. They don't have bad taste, honest. They're just products of their generation.


April 23, 2010 3:00 PM

david is my dad's name, and i quite like it. i would consider using it as a middle name someday in his honor (julian david comes to mind). i don't know if it is date-stamped. it isn't to me; to me it is pretty classic, but i know it was very popular in the 60s, so maybe some people feel it is.

April 23, 2010 3:10 PM

SarahC- Did Grandpa Roy have a ln that would work either in the first or middle spot? Using Thomas b/c it's your maiden name seems really nice - it honors your family which seems important to you and is a really nice timeless name. I think you should definately include Thomas in the name.

By hyz
April 23, 2010 3:14 PM

Sarah C, I'm not opposed to alliteration in general (actually, sometimes I really like it!) but for some reason Caroline with your LN sounds a bit bumpy to me, like all the soft/smooth sounds of the other syllables are very noticeably punctuated by the hard C speed bumps, or something. I think something like Cate C@vanaugh would work much better for me, since the rhythm is a little different. This is just NE fussiness, though--if that's the name that works best for you, I'd still use it. I also think Caroline Jean sounds sweet and classic, and I love the idea of her behind the mint julep stand, lol. What about Jane Caroline Cav... to honor Jean and Carol--you'd be altering both their names slightly to "update" them, so it would be fair, and I think Jane Cav... is very nice. I think Thomas should get extra points for being your surname, not demerits. I also agree that Thomas Roy is a fine name.

April 23, 2010 3:16 PM

Mirnada - I think Matthew, Daniel, Nicholas and David are all classic mens name. With the exception of David I can think of several little boys by each of those names. I know some here feel that Matt is tired but it continues to be used frequently. I would consider it but with a Mark I want to avoid another Ma- name.

By hyz
April 23, 2010 3:23 PM

Lucky, I just wanted to second emilyrae's comments on Azalea/Sal, exactly. I also tend to disagree with the "if we want people to call the kid X nn, we should just name them that." This may sound silly, but I think kids deserve a full name, and that it should be their option as they grow to continue to use the nn or not. I shudder to think if my grandparents had named my uncle just Dick or Dickie instead of Richard, or my aunt just Muffy instead of Margaret. As adults, Muffy has chosen to stick with her nn (go figure), but I understand that Uncle Dickie goes by Richard to everyone outside the family, and I can certainly see why, lol. Similarly, my mom was always called Angie as a kid, and hate hate hated it--she's definitely glad she has the full Angela to insist upon as an adult.

April 23, 2010 3:28 PM

SarahC I like your 'honoring parents' idea, especially since there doesn't seem to be any girl's name that you absolutely LOVE above all others and also because you went that route with you firstborn's name. I imagine both grandmas would be delighted! Caroline is a lovely name, currently being used quite well but not overly popular nationwide (#94 in 2008). You're fortunate to have two good names to work with. I like the sound of Caroline Jean C@vanaugh.

For a second son's name, I think James Thomas is a fine name and not at all questionable to use your maiden name as his middle name. In fact, quite the opposite in that it adds meaning to his name. James Edward is nice too, but isn't your first son named after your father-in-law too? How about James Roy C@vanaugh? Although James and Roy are both 1 syllable, James has a longer sound (1.5 syllables?) and with your three syllable last name, I think the names sound fine together. And how special that when you say or hear James Roy, you'll think of your late grandfather too.

I did a quick search for James Roy _____ and am further convinced that the names are a good combination. Here are some examples:

James Roy Newman (1907–1966) was an American mathematician and mathematical historian.

James Roy Hopkins (American, 1877-1969), artist

James Roy Andersen (1904-1945), brigadier general, U.S. Army

I think William John and James Roy sound well together, as do William John and Caroline Jean.

Best wishes!

April 23, 2010 3:47 PM

SarahC, I just read Hyz's suggestion of Jane Caroline and LOVE that combination! Too, I agree that with Jane Caroline BOTH grandma's names are altered just a little, yet the name would still be after both of them. I can't tell you how much my family loves our little Jane and her name!

April 23, 2010 3:48 PM

good point on nicknames as full names. i mean i guess that's what i was saying, but you articulated it better. a child may not *like* their nickname as they age, and they do deserve to have options if that is the case. i always found it rather tragic that buffy the vampire slayer's full name was buffy and not elizabeth. bad call, mrs. summers. i guess elizabeth the vampire slayer isn't quite as catchy.

also, i find it hilarious (in a good way) that you have an aunt muffy and an uncle dickie. they're just the kind of names wacky aunts and uncles *should* have!

By hyz
April 23, 2010 3:53 PM

emilyrae, yes, the names are pretty funny, and it's a big wacky family, so it works. My aunts' and uncles' response to Uncle Dickie wanting to go by Richard now is to taunt him by calling him "D1ck R1chard"--so he'll never escape the nn Dick with the family, but at least he can get a bit more respect from everyone else.

April 23, 2010 4:13 PM

Ooh, I have a serious soft spot for Jane. It's nothing like the other names we like, but it's so elegant and no-nonsense at the same time. I've never met a Jane who wasn't really kind, also. I have to confess, I prefer the one syllable with C@van... a little, too.

James or Thomas Roy is really growing on me.

By Edith Bouvier Beale (not verified)
April 23, 2010 4:17 PM

Aunt Muffie and Uncle Dickie? I had an friend in college with an Aunt Cladoris. You know: Like "Doris" with a "Cla-" in front of it. I'm sure that when her parents named her in the late 1940s/early 1950s they didn't think at all about that fact that her named sounded very much like an intimate female body part--they might not have even known the name for that body part, for all I know--but in this day and age it's hard to think of anything else. I almost choked when I was introduced to her at my friend's wedding. (I even checked the spelling on her place-card at the reception just to make sure I'd heard right. I had.)

It it had been me, I would have just gone by Doris.

By SarahC (not verified)
April 23, 2010 4:21 PM

Great ideas, guys, thanks! Yes, perhaps Jane Caroline could work. Having said that, my mom and I both have Elizabeth as our middle names and I always said I'd continue that trend, so that would make it Jane Elizabeth, which I think flows better than Jane Caroline.....or maybe still stick with Caroline Jean/Jane.

My husband's first name has a hard 'C' and I've never thought too much about the alliteration, although he's just a Chris so not as many syllables.

And as to my grandfather's surname, well yes indeed - it was that might work as a middle name instead of Roy. Of course then we're back to Thomas the Tank engine names (Thomas Gordon!). I think Thomas Roy could be a choice. Now that I've divulged every name in my family, hmmmm.

By Eo (not verified)
April 23, 2010 4:39 PM

Lucky-- I know, that "Craig" baby is a mystery, and I also wondered if it was a tribute name for someone in the family. The father's name wasn't Craig, I do know that.

Craig seems to belong with the dated "Scott" and "Chad". A more modern version of this kind of name is "Kyle", which as a boy's name I think has lost its freshness quickly. The way that some people seem to be trying to redeem it, is to bestow it on a girl, interestingly. I'm noticing lots more female "Ryan"s now too. But am afraid the novelty of that is wearing off also (see "Cameron"...

"Dave" and "Dan" did become tired-sounding, through over-use as nicknames-- yet the full "Daniel" and "David" are gorgeous classics I wouldn't hesitate to use. "Nicholas" also.
These full names have such a lustrous historical and literary pedigree...

You'd have to use the full name or come up with a dashing nickname-- "Dai" for David and/or Daniel?-- or use one of the older short forms of Nicholas like "Colin". Although, oddly, I don't think "Nick" as a short form is worn out, despite huge use. To me it has a timeless nonchalance, like "Johnny"!

By Amy3
April 23, 2010 4:51 PM

@SarahC, after reading all the other suggestions, I'll cast my vote for Jane Caroline or Thomas Roy.

@Lucky, I think getting the nn Sal from Azalea is perfectly doable, and would provide more options as she gets older. Does your partner like Azalea?

Re: David, I love this name (and even the nn Dave, which always seems approachable and friendly), but my husband would never have wanted to use it. When I mentioned ^^ all the Mikes and Jeffs I went to school with, I can't believe I left out the Davids! There were oodles of them!

April 23, 2010 5:03 PM

I was talking to one of my grandpa's friends about my favorite names. I'd say she's in her mid 70s to early 80s. Henry is the name my husband and I are set on right now, and when I told her she said, "We named the dog Henry" with a smirk and a really dry laugh. I could tell that she thought it was too old or just, outdated. I guess it seems like Brad to me. This is precisely why I wouldn't name someone Samantha. I've met more pet Sammies than Biscuits or Spots. Uh-oh, I just realized, what if I have a grandchild who names their daughter Samantha? Grandma's gonna have to zip her lips :D

I'm the "big reveal" type. I want to wait to know the gender and decide the name until after the baby's born, and I'm not sharing beforehand :) I just (personally) can't take the criticism that people love to give on baby names :) But I love the idea of sharing here.

April 23, 2010 6:26 PM

@ knp: Yes, I am infatuated with criminal minds :) Paget. Penelope, Matthew-Grey and Spencer are all due to my love of both names and Criminal Minds

By Air
April 23, 2010 8:12 PM

Interesting observation, most of the "names we'd hate to see come back" names are girls. No surprise there I guess. I still don't understand WHY male names tend to remain classic while female names ebb and flow with the trends.

For example - can you tell which two male names are my grandfathers and which two are my nephews? What about my nieces and grandmothers?

Robert, Robert, John and William

Avery, Martha, Gertrude, Logan

April 23, 2010 8:37 PM

My cousin ended up naming her baby Brett Arnett LAst starts with a B.

April 23, 2010 8:43 PM

i'm guessing grandparents: robert, john, martha, gertrude

nieces and nephewes: robert, william, avery, logan

April 23, 2010 9:07 PM

Alr-my guess is gpa Robert + Robert and nephew John + William. Nieces=Avery + Logan, Martha + Gertrude are gmas. But you didn't tell us how old an y of them was..very sneaky.

Goldenpig-Is this Brett a boy or girl? I like it because it's my 70's era naming style. WTG!

Lucky-I agree with others that pronounce Azalea with a Zail sound. I also think it wouldn't be a big stretch from Sal to Azalea. However, I do consider your partner's point valid. The only other name I can think of is from a while back on this board when Linnaeus had mentioned Salamander. Was it you we mentioned it to? I would never use a name like this for myself but given your tastes and your nn choice it kind of fits. Plus with all the talk of 70's names it reminds me a bit of Amanda so she could use Mandy as an alternate nn as she grew.

SarahC-I read through the comments of the others to you. I like Jane Caroline, Thomas Gordon, and even more so Jane Elizabeth. Let me also suggest adding a Y to Jane=Jayne. This is my mn and I love the extra class/style or whatever it gives to it. Jane seems too plain to my eyes. Btw, I didn't see your thoughts on the nn of CJ or other initial combo-are you into that sort of thing?

also Lucky-I am in central PA it is on my profile page along with my favorites (which may get updated because of all the wonderful names I'm being reminded I love in this thread)

By Philippa The First (not verified)
April 23, 2010 9:18 PM

I like Azalea too. It's unexpected but not crazy and definitely Sal could come from it as a nickname. Go for it! (Salamander, though, I really think not).

alr: that was a good point. Easy guesses.

I'm in the (sort of) same boat as SarahC in that I could use my last name as my baby's first name, since he will have my husband's last name. Trouble is, my last name is Scott! One of the very 70s names we've discussed that would be painful to revive.

I polled my 9th graders today about what I should name the baby. They suggested Aidan, Jayden, Dylan, Alejandro and Javier.

April 23, 2010 9:33 PM

i actually really like scott. i know i'm not supposed to and i don't like most of the names that are from the same era, but i just really like it. it and clean and crisp. it's very different than most of the names i like, but i don't know...i just do. i don't associate it with the 70s though. to me, it's earlier than that.

April 23, 2010 9:49 PM

Alr, you're right about girls' names changing in fashion faster than boys'. However that gap seems to be narrowing as parents are becoming more creative with naming their sons. If the males you mentioned had been named Robert, Stanley, Noah, and Aiden you probably would have had better luck guessing (with the last one being the most likely giveaway).

By SarahC (not verified)
April 23, 2010 9:55 PM

@zoerhenne - not a huge fan of 'initial nn' like CJ, no.

April 23, 2010 10:37 PM

emilyrae, your comment about Scott sent me to Wizard to check out which decade it's most associated with: "Style: Surfer '60s" and "Scott was the granite-jawed man of the '60s". I think it would make a good mn today, especially if Scott is a family surname.

By Philippa The First (not verified)
April 23, 2010 11:04 PM

Patricia: Scott is the middle name we've chosen. I just don't know if I could bump it up to first name status. No good nicknames is a downer. As is that 70s/80s aura. It's very Craig/Keith/Jeff/Mike/Brett to me.

April 23, 2010 11:14 PM

Scott's not so bad. Not as timeless as Thomas but still nice. Definately worth considering at least in the middle spot. I found it interesting to learn that the fn Scott derived from the surname Scott which of course means "a Scotsman."

April 23, 2010 11:19 PM

oops, Philippa posting at the same time as you. My hairdresser did use her maiden name for her son's first name - Grant. I wonder if it wouldn't be too confusing at times. We refer to my parents as grandma last name/ grandpa last name (not when we're with them, just to clarify which grandparents we mean when speaking to the kids about them.) Also, I know when I'm with my sister's family, dh and I will sometimes round up our own kids by calling our last name (but we have more kids to round up than most). Seems like it could be confusing.

By Guest (not verified)
April 23, 2010 11:40 PM

I think there is a point to this. I, born in 81, grew up with a slew of Jessica's, Jennifer's, Joshua's, Matthew's, David's, etc. My husband, born in 82, did as well. Personally, I have always like "classic" names such as Joshua, Matthew, Jessica, Claire, Charlotte. etc. When coming up with a name for our son we wanted to go with something not made up, something pronounceable. We are not to keen on the made up names. I suggested many names and my husband would say, "no, I grew up with lots of those." Finally I told him that, yes, we grew up with lots of those names, but how many little kids do you know with those names. We could think of only a few! So while we, as parents, may not like the "common names" remember they are only common to us and may not be too our kids. Our son ended up being Aaron Matthew. We joke that he is going to the only Aaron is a sea full of Jackson's and Jayden's.

By Guest (not verified)
April 23, 2010 11:53 PM

SarahC: I LOVE the Juliet. We were considering that for our girl name. I also like Caroline. For a boy I like both Ryan and Matthew....actually I like the way they sound together- Ryan Matthew. We ended up with a boy and went with Aaron Matthew.

Cathie: I have a theory as to why names like Horace and Doris and such don't work. It's because at that time/era those were the "pop culture" names. That's why certain names still sound fine, i.e. James or Claire, but other names don't. NAmes that have exploded currently- such as Jayden or Jackson-will sound strange in 20 years.

April 24, 2010 12:05 AM

@ Sarah C - You have had lots of wonderful suggestions but I think that Caroline Jean is wonderful. I like the aliteration. I am also likeing Jane Elizabeth, as it flows so nicely. While I do love both Juliet and Gretchen I think for sentimental reasons I'd go with either Caroline Jean or Jane Elizabeth.

For boys I think Thomas Roy or Thomas James is lovely and incorporates your maiden name which is sweet. I'm also likeing James Roy or James Thomas. Lots of lovely choices so don't panic!

I actually quite like both Scott and Craig! I wouldn't use them myself but I'd like to see them on a little kid soon. Most of the 70s/80s female names I'm not fond of. Though we had a diverse group of friends, many of my childhood friends have currently popular names such as: Adele, Emma, Olivia, Gemma - so they seem like 'mum' names to me now :)

April 24, 2010 5:11 AM

ER2005: I think people will definitely come around with Beatrice. I do think Bea is a cute NN, definitely not necessary, but I wouldn't be surprised if friends and others started to use it.

By Rayne of terror (not verified)
April 24, 2010 7:41 AM

My husband and I went with our great uncles' and grandfathers' names. But of course we picked Henry & Quinino and skipped Ray & Marvin. We also considered some Boomer girl names like Nancy, but only have boys.

The only name my parents out & out despised was George. We tried several permutations of Lawrence on for size, Lorenzo, Lawren, Lars, but the nickname Larry (my dad's name) killed it for us. It didn't help the case that none of the Lawrences in my family like their name, except my brother who uses his middle name. He has always gone by his middle name where I made the switch from Jennifer/Jenny/Jen to my middle name Rayne at age 18.

My grandmother Ruby Jean hated the name Ruby. All the girls in my generation - late 70s - love it. My mom jokes that Grandma Jean sent my dog Ruby to me from the grave to keep me from using the name she hated so much on a child.

An interesting naming thing in my family is that my great uncle Joseph Marvin had another brother named Joseph and they went by their middle names.

April 24, 2010 9:24 AM

I too would like to use Lawrence. It's my dad's name, who I'm named after, and dh's and fil mn and its a great saint. But Larry kills it and the other nns don't win me over either. And as much as my dad would like us to name a kid after him he's not totally comfortable with his name either. I've even toyed with the idea of using Laurence for a girls mn but think he might realize were saying his name is too awful for a boy. =(

By Guest B (not verified)
April 24, 2010 3:30 PM

Linnaeus - I was recently with some twenty-something Germans who were discussing how unfortunate a girl named Birthe was for having such a dowdy name, so I think it's unappealing everywhere.

SarahC - haha, but Alfie would sound good with William!

Guest - I love Aaron Matthew. I see your point about the names not being common to the children, but on the other hand, maybe worse than having a common name is having a "mom" or "dad" name, Not that I think this is the case with an Aaron, but it might be with say, a Crystal.

another Laura - Why not use Lawrence as a middle? I think it gives a nice classic yet not so textbook feel to a lot of names, like maybe.. Simon Lawrence.

By Allison (not verified)
April 24, 2010 4:13 PM

I was born in 1987, and while I think Brittany and Tiffany are as annoying as anything, I wouldn't mind seeing a revival of some popular names on my great-grandchildren (if I'm lucky enough to meet them). I like Sarah, Lindsay, Heather, Megan, Amy, Lauren, and what I refer to as the "Katie" names -- Katherine, Kathleen, Caitlin. These names are boring to me because they were so common when I was in school, but they're not bad names.

However, my name is one of those popular 80s names - Allison - and I'd much rather have an Alice or Alix as a namesake!

By Jillc (not verified)
April 24, 2010 4:47 PM

re: Larry -- I know a baby Corm@c Larry (mn after his grandfather). It always makes me smile.

I was contemplating the interesting naming snapshot currently represented on my fridge:

marriage announcements: M@rgot and Josh, Kate and Rich
graduation: Ashley, Bryce
new babies: Ella, Edison

April 24, 2010 7:18 PM

My parents tastes seem to have evolved to keep up with current trends. They had a Jennifer and a Jacob in the beginning and end of the 80s, all completely without awareness that these might be popular names, and the names they suggested to us now for grandchildren included Emma, Olivia, Ava, Sophie, Henry and Josephine (which is very popular locally if not nationally). In all cases, they were quite sure that their suggestions were very original, and the actual popularity data was met with shocked surprise. Somehow, they seem to have moved right along with the trends... I think that next year for the baby name pool I should just survey my mom about names she likes, and the ones that aren't massively popular yet are probably going to be on the verge of explosion. :)

Met a 3-year-old Sequoia at the park yesterday - very charming on a little girl!

By Pip
April 24, 2010 8:06 PM

New baby alert(s):

Two of my husband's old art school colleagues recently had the following:

Morg@n @ugust3

What's interesting is that they're both _boys_. Completely bucks that whole "girls appropriating boys' names" trend that was recently discussed!

April 24, 2010 8:43 PM

Wren on a boy? That is surprising to me. I had a female student named Wren years ago and thought it was charming.

New babies:
--Mattia (boy, born to my Venezuelan cousin and her Italian husband; they live in Venezuela)
--Adelaide R0se, sister to Am3lia L0uise

April 24, 2010 8:43 PM

@Rayne of Terror - I do love your name. My MIL is a Lorraine and I have wondered that if I was to do a middle name of 'Raine' it would be a nice way to honour her. She is calle Rainey by some of her siblings.

@Another Laura - I think you could consider Lawrence as a middle name. I know a couple of small children with Lawrence as middles (in honour of family members) and it is charming and avoids the nn problem!

@JillC - love those announcments, really does show the naming trends!

@philippa - I would have picked Wren as a girl too! Very interesting. Oh and I love Morgan August. I only like Morgan on boys so pleased to see it used that way here :)

By Kristen R. (not verified)
April 24, 2010 8:46 PM

Oh, I am just DREADING what my kids will name their kids!

April 24, 2010 9:41 PM

Brett is a little boy

April 24, 2010 10:34 PM

GoldenPig-I love Brett on a boy but had to ask to be sure. I met my first female Ryan the other day at my DS's school club. I think I will always ask about gender unless I am face to face from now on.

Kristin R-Right now I am too! At age 6 my DD believes that Crystal and Flower are the most perfect names for her girls "when she gets old enough". I'm not sure she has finalized her boy name list yet though.

By Zannejude (not verified)
April 25, 2010 12:28 AM

We found out that our baby, coming in September, is a boy (no Clothilde this round).

When I polled my nieces for naming suggestions (they're 7, 5 & 2) I got: Henry, Jack, Cameron and Mark. We won't use any of those, but it was fun to hear what they like.

I have a new nephew named Eben (eh-ben) and was shocked to see the name discussed here because I thought it was so unique. It has a great meaning "stone of help."

April 25, 2010 9:43 AM

I understand having to ask about gender... there is a little girl in my niece's day care (5) who is named Campbell... never would have guessed that as a girl

April 25, 2010 10:02 AM

New baby alert- MINE!! 3 weeks early!
Max Noble Byderman was born on Friday morning 1t 12:09 AM. He surprised us all, but luckily the one thing we had ready was his name. Max is a swet little baby who I think is going to be very handsome. Thank you all for the advice over the past year to come up with his name. I'll try to catch up and post for others when I settle in to having two kids under 2.

By Alizarin (not verified)
April 25, 2010 10:48 AM

Ok, I just HAVE to share my point of reference for the name Petronella that was mentioned earlier in the thread, because I swear I did not even realize that this was an actual name that real people gave their children.

When I was in Catholic grade school, I was taught by an ancient nun named Sister Petronella who regularly fell asleep in the middle of lessons. To this day, my family refers to her as "Sister Citronella Candle". I would definitely have a hard time meeting anyone with this name and NOT thinking "Sleepy Citronella". :o)

April 25, 2010 11:22 AM

cabybake-Wonderful news! Welcome to our "family" Max!

By Eo (not verified)
April 25, 2010 11:56 AM

Congrats cabybake, on your new baby Max. His full name just sings! I missed the story of how he acquired the middle name "Noble"-- how distinguished. Can someone enlighten me?