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.


By AndiK (not verified)
April 30, 2010 8:50 PM

This relates back to the conversation on synesthesia. I was reading The Golden Road by L.M. Montgomery (the author of Anne of Green Gables, The Blue Castle) yesterday, and a character called The Story Girl "said that everything had colour in her thought; the months of the year ran through all the tints of the spectrum, the days of the week were arrayed as Solomon in his glory, morning was golden, noon orange, evening crystal blue, and night violet. Every idea came to her mind robed in its own especial hue."

Which makes me wonder if L.M. Montgomery had synesthesia...

By AndiK (not verified)
April 30, 2010 8:58 PM

Or another explanation: according to the wikipedia article on synesthesia, it was studied in the late 1800s, early 1900s...and The Golden Road was written in 1913.

Just thought it was interesting to stumble on that excerpt in The Golden Road after the talk of synesthesia here. :)

April 30, 2010 11:20 PM

Tavish is a very rare name in Scotland -- only 1 baby boy was named that in 2009. (There were 4 named Dougal.)

April 30, 2010 11:56 PM

Oh I am behind again....

Re Bell as a surname. This is my family surname and we always got ding-aling jokes as opposed to 'belly' comments. So I don't think it's much of an issue (for us at least).

Re months - I love January (g), August (b), September (g), October (g/b) and November (g). I would consider using any of them and August is near the top of my boys list. I love January Jones as a name and she totally pulls it off.

May 1, 2010 10:15 AM

Speaking of months, I think there are very few that could not be attempted to be used by some.
December-?? maybe for (b)
It seems like most of them are more suited to be girls names. I like July pronounced more like Julie. I think its a cute respelling.

May 1, 2010 3:21 PM

re: Tavish. Becky, I think the challenge is how to write the vowel sound you're describing. In the US, there seems to be ah and ay, but in the UK we also have a flat 'a' sound, as in cat, apple, which is different from how a lot of people in the US pronounce cat and apple (sigh)! And this is the vowel I've heard used for Tavish, Patrick, Sally, the UK.

I met a woman last night with a cute baby whose name was Aine@h, pronounced Ah-NEE-ah. She volunteered that her other daughters were Aria and Ashlyn. However, she pronounced Aria ah-REE-ah, which I should think is going to be a challenge for that child growing up, as she'll have to correct everyone... Anyway, I don't normally like kr8tive names, but the little girl was so sweet that Aineah grew on me!

May 1, 2010 4:51 PM


I say Aria like aah-REE-aah. It could be an accent thing

May 1, 2010 5:21 PM

Valerie-I would also say Aria as Ah-ree-a but the Aineah would be Ay-nee-ah as that's what AI does (makes a long sound). So I think SHE will have more problems than Aria but maybe she won't live in the US either.

By Emilie (not verified)
May 1, 2010 6:09 PM

Just wanted to chime in with emilyrae to say that I'm a 34-year-old Emilie (with a creative spelling no less!) and my name has served me very well. Then again, I think of Emily as a "mom name" because I went to school with 7 other girls named Emily/Emilie/Emilee (yes, there was even an Emilee back then!). I actually think the name Emilie is quite beautiful and kind of hate that it became so popular that it now seems overused.

May 1, 2010 7:43 PM


I hope I didn't offend you - it sincerely wasn't meant to. I normally associate a name with the age of the people I come across with it. Because most of the Emily/Emma's I've come across are between 1 to 20 yrs in age, that's what comes to my mind initially. I wasn't saying that it's a bad name at all.There are also many people who feel differently than I initially do, as how else would the name have its popularity!

I think how names 'age' & what's a 'grown up' name differs with different people.Example, Piper to me ages very well because I've only ever come across it on adults.Or to me Julie ages just as well as Julia. On most forums,my name would be regarded as not aging well, yet I've gotten complements on it all of my life. By the way, I in no way have a problem with the name Emily at all. I do think it has a sweet sound & I do completely see your & emilyrae's points.

By Emilie (not verified)
May 1, 2010 7:47 PM

Not at all! Just giving my perspective - I think a lot of depends on, like you said, the people you've come into contact with that have a certain name.

May 1, 2010 11:44 PM

oh, no worries! no one thinks you're mean. :] your point of view totally makes sense.

you could always tell people it's the french spelling (as it is) and start pronouncing it ay-mee-lee. :]

May 2, 2010 6:43 AM


It is interesting to see what you both have said about your name. I'm really glad that your name Emilie/Emily has served you both so well. A lot of times people complain about their names & aren't happy with their name.

By Emilie (not verified)
May 2, 2010 2:34 PM

@emilyrae: My French is terrible, but it's true that my mother found the name in a novel she was reading while pregnant that had a French woman in it named Emilie!

By me and my people (not verified)
May 3, 2010 1:22 PM

This is why you are the Name Wizard.
I have been thinking about this concept for such along time but couldn't quite articulate it the way you have. I love the science of naming, and I do believe it is a science, thank you for giving us name fanatics an outlet for our obsession.

By JessicaM (not verified)
May 7, 2010 12:17 PM

Does anyone else out there cringe when they realized they've given their baby a super-common name? Sorry kids!

By Guest (trizia) (not verified)
June 8, 2010 10:39 AM

To namedaftermygrandmother.

Families used to like to keep names going with the first son named after his father in many cases.
My father's name was James, as was his father's, and his father's before him. I have a brother and a nephew also called James. There is now also a great-nephew called Jack, which is what our family has always used as a shortening of James. So five generations of eldest sons all called James, and a step sideways to a Jack.

June 12, 2010 8:38 PM

My grandma was mortified when I announced Callen as my son's name. To this day(two months from birth), she calls him Alan, Michael, or Joseph.

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By Qov (not verified)
October 7, 2010 2:57 PM

I don't think I was more than ten when I realized that people named Agatha, Mabel, and Ida were always people's grandmothers, and made the leap to realize that when I was old the grandmothers would be called Karen, Jennifer and Christine.

I'm intrigued by the commenter who wonders if "name freshness" is a relatively recent concern. I'm sure there have always been waves of popularity in naming (or avoiding naming) after public figures, and I can imagine a thousand-years-ago Saxon mother refusing to name her child Edgar because of the memory of a particular Edgar who pushed her in the creek.

By Julie66 (not verified)
May 5, 2011 6:22 PM

Phyllinda? For some reason it makes me think of fellatio, as do a whole host of names that begin with the letter F.

July 21, 2011 1:57 PM

I just found you and your research (Thanks to NPR) and am reading past entries now. My husband and I [Disclosure: We are white, raised Catholic, Americans (that's USA)] named our daughter Nirmala and call her Nirmal for short. We love her name. My MIL refuses to call her anything but "the baby". She says that we have doomed her for a life of ridicule and that Nirmal will run away from us and hate us for naming her a name that "no one [my MIL] knows" has. Well... two years have passed, I have calmed down to the point that I am now passive-aggressively writing on your blog and looking to you to learn the current trends. But it seems that maybe my MIL's generation had it differently than the one my daughter will grow up in. I would love to read more about this issue. Is this really happening to only me? Can one person be such a bigot to ostracize her one grandchild over a name? Are people still like this in these times? My husband and I were completely shocked when we found out how my MIL feels and after speaking with her about have made no progress. She recently said to my husband that she is looking forward to the day Nirmal comes to her crying about her name and then my MIL can say she tried to tell warn us. Umm? Really!?

September 16, 2013 8:47 PM

For what it's worth, I think part of the whole diversity/modification over generations also comes from modifiers in both social positions and how they're perceived. I've heard a baby's name being 'Justice' and thought 'Damn, what kind of egotist names their baby that?' I can say to myself 'It's just a name!' but it really does define how people see you when you grow up with one (certainly by the time you and your peers' emotional and psychological boundaries are being tested, say by mid to late adolescence). What about the kid whose last name is 'Power'? Or even one like 'Wainwright' or 'Pennysworth'? The latter two I might think, were it a body in an Obituary: 'Oh, great, another rich snob bites the dust.', whether or not the person is actually wealthy or particularly unpleasant in the attitude department. I've heard last names like 'Metropolis', and I think, 'What kind of person is going to start that?'

The point I'm making with all this is that such names, or such emotional, social, and personal associations with them and the people they've been given to, are going to change over the years, even if we discount the generational overlap that's caused by the 'blending' of the boundaries between groups of living humans because of the increased lifespans available to the bulk of humanity (even compared to a hundred years ago). Who was alive a hundred years ago, and still are today? Quite likely more than a few great-grandparents, maybe even some lucky grandparents. How about an elder relative, teacher or friend you knew in your youth, if they're no longer amongst the corporeal living?

If we assume that change in that way sticks with someone, how are we not to assume that someone born steps of, let's say, 30 years on and on along the way do the same. We also know in hindsight how history and perceptions of groups of people, either racially, culturally, in religion or wealth- even royalty is fair game for the subject of conjecture, perhaps for the reason the 'god-king/queen' system died in the last century, for the most part- have modified and been modified by the passage of time or events of history. The names came with them, as is to be expected more often than not, but the perceptions and allusions attributed to them were almost all changed, at least in some small way. Do we have a lot of people with the surname of Hitler in the public eye now? Or were many newborns given the first name of Adolf after the end of World War II? That's just the tip of the iceberg. So much has changed, and so much will continue to change!

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May 14, 2015 7:28 AM

I'm amazed to read about parents or grandparents making demands about baby names. It certainly didn't occur to my husband or me to do so.

Our daughter did tell us before one of her kids was born that his middle name would be a town in her home state (Maine). I suggested Mooselookmeguntic and Norridgewock... But only in jest! Of course she didn't use either of those, but chose the town she'd been born in (duh!). 

June 13, 2019 7:20 PM

I know this is a very old post, but I had to share - I just overheard my daughters (9 and 6) discussing beautiful names: Laloo, Mildred, and Ermengard. I'm ridiculously excited to actually see the naming turnover that I already knew existed :)