The Antique Name Illusion: In search of the Next Ava and Isabella

Jun 2nd 2011

Like optical illusions, naming illusions are surprisingly powerful. You can see one working its magic in this excerpt from the official Social Security Administration announcment of the top baby names of 2010:

"A recent trend in the top girls names is a return to names that were popular in the early to mid-1900s.  Names like Isabella, Ava, and Chloe, which had disappeared almost completely from the top 1,000 girls names, have surged in popularity in recent years, which suggests a trend in naming newborn girls after their grandmothers."

The SSA, the very keepers of our nation's name data, were taken in by the "antique name illusion."

Faux antique names sound like living embodiments of a bygone age. They take you back to the time when they were all the rage, when flocks of little Avas and Isabellas trailed behind fashionable young ladies in shirtwaists and high-button shoes. And yes, that image is an illusion. The names existed back then, but they were heard only occasionally and were far from typical. None of them ever cracked the top 200.

To put the old-time usage of Isabella, Ava and Chloe in perspective, here are some groups of names that were more popular in the early 20th century. I doubt any of them will conjure up those high-button shoes.

Mid-century sound: Janet, Peggy, Ellen, Lee, Carol

'60-'70s sound: Amy, Leslie, Sara, Christine, Jennie

'80s-'90s sound: Shelby, Jewel, Callie, Amanda, Katie

"You mean those were actually popular?" sound: Elva, Virgie, Alta, Mittie, Ollie   

Or to put it visually, compare this historical graph of three names that are genuine antique revivals, Emma, Grace and Amelia...

...with the graph of Isabella, Ava and Chloe:

Together, the SSA's three "grandma" names are 40 times as common today as they were in the early 20th Century -- meaning there's no chance their popularity comes from being named after grandma. (Or great-great-grandma. Today's typical new grandma was born in the 1960s.) Rather than emissaries from the real past, Isabella and friends represent an imaginary past. Like much fiction, this alternate history keeps a foothold in our world but spins something more exciting and stylish than mundane reality.

The SSA's faux-antique faux pas got me thinking more about the nature of this imaginary past. If it's such a rich source of attractive names, can we explore it and mine for more? Perhaps Isabella, Ava, Chloe and their kin can point the way.

Statistically speaking, those names do have a historical pattern in common. They were used in past eras, not often but at a slow, steady rate for a generation or more before declining. That gave them enough time to acquire a coating of antique-style dust without becoming so common as to sound hokey or boring. In other words, part of their appeal is that you don't have a great-grandma by that name, you've never known a great-grandma by that name, but you do have the impression they're out there.

Are there other names that fit that description? I looked through decades of old stats to find names with untapped faux-antique potential. Could one of these be the next Chloe or Ava...or better yet, a stylish but uncommon choice for your baby?




By hyz nli (not verified)
June 7, 2011 10:43 PM

Chimu, I'm behind and late in getting to this, but it's a rather nice problem to have lots of names you and DH both like, instead of none, at least! I think Astrid Cordelia is a lovely combination, and flows very well together and with your LN, so that gets another vote from me. If I were picking from your lists for myself, but assuming the LN was Worth, my favorite combinations would be:

Zinnia Delphine
Zinnia Mathilde
Zinnia Juliet
Astrid Zinnia
Astrid Juniper
Elodie Juniper
Elodie Zinnia
Elodie Delphine

in that order, I think. Zinnia is my personal favorite of your first options (could you tell, since it shows up in 5/8 combos above?). I think it's different and unusual without being strange at all, sounds lovely and strong, and the three syllables go nicely with the 1 syl. LN. Astrid is just a great name, can't go wrong with that, so that comes next for me. I like the sound and feel of Elodie, and again I like how its 3 syl.s sound with your LN.

If you would bump some of your middles to firsts, I also really love Juniper Xanthe or Delphine Xanthe.

With the names on your list, I have a hard time picking a set of 3 (i.e. 2 MNs) that I really like, because I want a short and simple option to put in there for flow, and there isn't one. (Zinnia June Delphine Worth? Astrid Juniper Mae Worth? etc.) The best I can come up with is combining 3 of the 2 syl. names, like Astrid Xanthe Delphine? But it still sounds a little long and cumbersome/listy to my ear.

Anyway, you have a lot of great choices, which I understand is your problem, but that's also a reason to stress a little less about it--remember that you will love any name from this list you pick. So try to go with your gut a little and not feel too much regret about the lovely names you don't use--we'd all be like the Duggars if we wanted a shot at using all the names we love! (and yes, I fantasize about that sometimes--no names left behind! even my guilty pleasure names and flights of fancy could be matched to a child! quiverfull movement, here I come! lol.)

June 8, 2011 12:14 AM

Oh dear Chimu! It is late here and I am on the laptop so I can't narrow down your choices for you one by one right now so the morning will have to do. However, I can sympathize with your struggle. With my boy I had complications. I went in thinking one name and after seeing such a little thing in distress couldn't give him the long name I was thinking. Plus it didn't suit him at all. We named him a shorter one that was the last one we had discussed and liked. However, with my dd it took nearly a week to name her. I again had complications and she a little jaundice so the hospital stay was a bit longer luckily. I had a notebook of combos. I think there were about 5 fn's and about 4 mn's but they all went together for way too many combos in all. I just kept saying them over and over. I ran through the initials to make sure I didn't have any weird combos I hadn't thought of. I asked my mom and hubby. I looked at the baby A LOT! In the end it all worked out. I do have a bit of regret but I'd probably still have it if I had picked another name as well.

June 8, 2011 12:20 AM

@YANG - thanks, it's helpful knowing someone else went in with a similar number of names and didn't have too many problems! We have always said that we would take up to a few days to name the baby after we meet her so I'm not in a rush to pick something now. I think my main issue is either picking the 'wrong' name (whatever that is) or regretting not picking something.

As hyz says though we can't pick everything we love!!

Oh I'm due in a week (39 weeks today), so I guess any time now....

Hyz, thanks for those thoughts. I really like Zinnia too. I like too many things though :) Elodie is really growing on my as a first name option. The pronunciation will get butchered but I don't think it would fuss me too much. Oh to be having quads and get to name them all!

I was also having trouble coming up with a double middle name that works. If I use something like Nell or June I can get it sound OK but while I like those names I don't want something in there for the sake of it. At this stage I think we will end up going with 1 middle unless I can get a really good combo. I mostly just wanted an excuse to use another name I like but I'm not sure it's going to happen.

By Yet Another Guest (not verified)
June 8, 2011 12:28 AM

@Chimu - I promise you won't pick the wrong name. If anything, you'll pick the perfect name and later look at the list and see how many 'wrong' ones there on it!

I'm going to go back to your list and see if I can find any double name combos that seem to sing to me.

Also, Elodie wasn't even on my radar until you brought it up and I'm strongly considering putting it on my list! It is a great name. I love Astrid, too, but can't use it, so I'm also rooting for that one!

Finally: 39 weeks!! How exciting. Can't wait to read the announcement here. :)

By Yet Another Guest (not verified)
June 8, 2011 1:22 AM

@Chimu - Going over your names again and looking for that magical three name combination, I feel like to get the right rhythm it would be best to have 2-3-2 syllable matches. You have a lot of three syllable names, but not many two syllable names. My choices are:
Astrid Zinnia Xanthe
Astrid Juniper Xanthe
Astrid Cordelia Delphine
Astrid Elodie Delphine
Astrid Juniper Delphine

It's funny, but while I really love the idea of Xanthe as a middle name, I think the Delphine combos are stronger. Xanthe maybe shouldn't be with another mn? I hope this helps.

Oh and I just said to my husband, "What do you think of Elodie?" and he answered, "Like [friend]'s daughter?" D'oh! I had forgotten about her. So that's off the list, I guess!

June 8, 2011 7:31 AM

@zoerhenne, I do remember your story of changing your son's name after he arrived. I can totally see myself picking something off the list I wasn't expecting. It seems so much easier when you are picking hypothetical names for hypothetical children! I think we will just have to try out the names on here and see what works. I guess even though I'm a wait and see the baby before naming them kind of person, I'm a bit worried I'll just think she will look like a baby and be hard to attach a name to :)

@YANG - actually Astrid Elodie Delphine and Astrid Cordelia Delphine were 2 combos I had come up with as well. For some reason I also seem to think that Delphine works well. While I like Xanthe and Zinnia as middles they are definitely harder to pair with things! I do seem to like 3 syllable names, hence why I was also having problems.

Bugger about the friend's daughter being an Elodie! Oh well, you have lots of lovely names on your list still.

By Mom of Kayna (not verified)
June 8, 2011 10:32 AM

Ahh.. my grandma (born in 1915) was named Wilam / and went by Billie. My other grandmother was Dora which I think will not be in the same bucket thanks to "Dora the Explorer".

Conrad, Fletcher & Pierce would be high on my list for boys as well.. love the sound of them! It will be interesting!

By Genie Apple (not verified)
June 8, 2011 12:32 PM

@Chimu, good work finding so many wonderful names!
From the list you pointed out earlier, I noticed that not many people commented on my absolute favourite name: Eirlys. I'm completely in love with this name, and I think it's beautiful. Although I understand that many people will be unsure as to how to pronounce this name at first, I think it's one of those names (like my own - which is extremely uncommon) that people naturally pronounce right, even if they are uncertain. It has never bothered me that my name is usually first read out with a question mark included, especially as it is invariably followed by a comment on how lovely or unusual my name is - I'm sure you're daughter wouldn't mind either. I like Delphine as a middle name, for Eirlys and your other suggestions. I also particularly love Astrid, Zinnia and Elodie, in that order.

@lopsidedfr0ck - I like Conrad a lot, it does sound distinctly European, but is easy to pronounce and familiar. Anton is my all-time favourite name, and so naturally I think it's a fantastic choice. Although my German heritage probably contributes to my love for this name, I don't see it as a 'foreign' name, and again it is easy to pronounce and spell internationally, which is great.

By EVie
June 8, 2011 3:36 PM

Chimu - Do a tournament bracket! Even if you don't end up using the winner, it's a fun exercise.

I personally like the idea of going into the hospital with a list of choices and then waiting to meet the kid before making the final choice. But I can see how 7 x 8 choices is overwhelming. If I were you, I would probably try to narrow it down to 7 first-middle combos, without any duplication in the firsts. So you could narrow it down tournament bracket style to figure out the best possible middle for each first name, like so:

Astrid Cordelia VS. Astrid Xanthe => ?

Ariadne Delphine VS. Ariadne Juniper => ?

With repetition in the middle names being fine, since the first name is the more important choice.

My choices would be: Astrid Cordelia; Ariadne Delphine; Cordelia Xanthe; Allegra Juliet; Elodie Juniper; Xanthe Mathilde; Zinnia Eirlys; Eirlys Cordelia

zoerhenne - Don't worry, I understood what you meant! I was just responding to the fact that so many others were saying the same thing, and pointing out how the demographics of the readership of this blog can explain it.

re: the ads - Alas, I did try to click the x in the corner to close it, but instead of closing, it just opened another window leading to the website being advertised. That happened multiple times. And then my browser freaked out and crashed. Stupid tricksy ads. But it hasn't come back since, so good.

By Yet Another Guest (not verified)
June 8, 2011 9:33 PM

I would be all over a tournament bracket for you, Chimu! Great idea, EVie. You could do March Madness style with the eight names with two different middle names on either side of the bracket. If I was more tech savvy, I'd make one up and have a link so we could all play at home.

If I ever have to host a baby shower, I'm totally doing this as a game.

@EVie - On my screen, the ads have two little x's. One on the right hand corner which increases the ad, and then one on the left hand side which kills the ad. I clicked on the the right hand one about a dozen times before noticing the other one.

By Kern (not verified)
June 8, 2011 9:58 PM

I was also going to suggest a bracket for Chimu. The brain has a hard time picking between 8 choices but can usually decide which of two it likes best, so that might help you.

I'm weighing in late, but just wanted to give you my personal plug for Ottilie as a MN. O is a great middle initial! Good luck on delivery and I can't wait to hear what you pick.

And one more vote for the '60s grandparents thing freaking me out. I'm pregnant with my first, born in '74, and my parents were born in '41 and '46....

June 8, 2011 11:20 PM

I had a bunch of 3 name combos for you but then my computer started going nutso and I wasn't able to post them. Here are just a few that we can all play along with bracketing for you in this last week. Good luck w everything btw :)
#1:(4 choices)
Astrid Cordelia Delphine/Astrid Cordelia Xanthe
Astrid Zinnia Delphine/ Asrid Zinnia Elodie
Astrid Juniper Eirlys/ Astrid Juniper Allegra
Astrid Eirlys Delphine/Astrid Eirlys Xanthe
#2:(3 choices)
Cordelia Juniper Delphine
Cordelia Ariadne Delphine
Cordelia Juniper Xanthe
Cordelia Juniper Elodie
Cordelia Allegra Delphine
Cordelia Allegra Xanthe
#3:(2 choices)
Ariadne Juniper Xanthe/ Ariadne Eirlys Xanthe
Ariadne Juniper Cordelia/ Ariadne Cordelia Delphine
#4:(2 choices)
Xanthe Aridane Delphine/ Xanthe Cordelia Delphine
Xanthe Cordelia Juniper/ Xanthe Ariadne Juniper
#5:(3 choices)
Allegra Juliet Delphine/ Allegra Cordelia Delphine
Allegra Cordelia Juniper/ Allegra Juniper Xanthe
Allegra Xanthe Delphine/ Allegra Elodie Delphine
#6:(3 choices)
Elodie Juniper Delphine/ Elodie Zinnia Delphine
Zinnia Cordelia Xanthe/ Zinnia Juliet Xanthe
Zinnia Cordelia Eirlys/ Zinnia Cordelia Delphine

then from Group #1 remaining Choose 2
from 3+4 together Choose 2
and Group #2+5+6 together Choose 3
After that Choose 1 from remaining Groups 1,3,4
and choose 1 from remaining 2,5,6 groups
and you have 2 solid names to pick from in the end :)

ETA: in the end for me it was
Astrid Cordelia Delphine vs.
Allegra Juniper Xanthe
(and I like the nn AJ)
Elodie Zinnia Delphine was a close 3rd.

By Dave (not verified)
June 8, 2011 11:44 PM

Laura - please get a page just for people looking for naming advice for their kids. Your blog posts and the initial reader comments are usually thoughtful and insightful, but I believe every thread on this site gets hijaked by someone looking for naming advice for their yet to be born.

That's generally my cue to stop reading the comments as I don't want to wade through that junk. Please get a spot on this site dedicated just for folks who want naming advice for their yet to bes so comments on a post can stay on topic.


By Heather A. (not verified)
June 9, 2011 9:16 AM

I agree with Dave, for those of us who are interested in reading the comments relating to Laura's post, it does get a bit tedious wading through all the "What do you think of FN MN?" A separate space specifically for naming advice would also be helpful for those readers who are particularly interested in getting and giving advice on their baby naming dilemmas.

By canne04 (not verified)
June 9, 2011 9:41 AM

My great grandmother pronounced hers the same way as your grandmother!

By canne04 (not verified)
June 9, 2011 9:49 AM

Oops, I apparently misunderstood how replying worked!

Regarding TM's question about pronouncing Ione as "eye-own" or "eye-own-ee", my great grandmother pronounced her name as "eye-own", but more recent pop culture references have pronounced it the other way.

June 9, 2011 10:28 AM

Heather A and Dave-I apologize. I am one of those who has littered the board with responses to what should I name? I can see where it would get a bit overwhelming for some of you. I'm sorry I got carried away.

By Yet Another Guest (not verified)
June 9, 2011 10:57 AM

As much as I love the posts (and I do, Laura, so much!), my favourite part of the comments is the baby-naming pleas for help. I guess because I'm in that boat right now, too. I wasn't aware that it was offensive or bothersome to others at all.

I can't imagine one of the original posts getting over 100 comment without the "hijacking", and isn't that partly how the ad-revenue works? Hits per page?

By hyz nli (not verified)
June 9, 2011 11:50 AM

Ditto to Yet Another Guest! The topic of having different threads comes up every so often, but I think the majority of people appreciate the more organic conversations here, and do really enjoy the real life naming questions. I know I do!

By mk (not verified)
June 9, 2011 12:42 PM

I have to agree with Dave and Heather. The baby naming responses are not offensive, but they can be a bit overwhelming after a while. It would be nice if there was a separate section for them. I think it would be more helpful for those seeking advice as well, as all their questions could be in one section (rather than appearing in different blog comment sections).

Not a huge deal though.

June 9, 2011 1:26 PM

Coll, the Spouse is indeed a name enthusiast. Probably to a lesser degree than me (she doesn't read baby name dictionaries from cover to cover for fun) but I think she qualifies. She's thought about names forever, and looks through the alumni magazines to see what people are naming their children (and occasionally pets). That makes it so hard to reject a name she loves, because I know she's been carrying the names around with her for many decades, too.

June 9, 2011 3:29 PM

EVie: I think the X on the left closes it rather than the plus in the right corner. This tricked me also!

June 9, 2011 11:04 PM

The issue the baby naming questions being mixed in with other blog posts does come up every now and then and most people like it the way it is. Sometimes we find ourselves on an interesting tangent because of someones query but I can see it would be annoying for those who want to only talk about the blog or related issues. I know sometimes if I"m busy I skim some of the requests for name help but usually I really enjoy them and find that the comments on the blog post have petered out after a few days so there isn't much else to talk about for those of us who spend way too much time here!

Given it was my name help request that has largely cluttered up this past thread I do apologise but I'm glad there are such helpful people here or I"d be stuck!

@Genie Apple - I'm glad you like Eirlys, it hasn't had too much feedback so it's nice to hear something :) My husbands initial response to it was that it 'was a bit tricky at first but really nice' which is why he wanted it on the list when I suggested it.

The tournament bracket idea had crossed my mind too! So I might just do that. we can always play this name or that name tournament style once the baby arrives, I think narrowing it down one at a time is probably much easier than looking at a whole huge list.

Zoerhenne, I"ve added all your 3 name combos to the list so I"ll have a look at them and see if any stand out. Poor hubby is getting a bit overwhelmed with names but he is being a pretty good sport about it. He did suggest rolling a dice to pick one off our list so he may like the tournament style option! If I make sure I like all the names in it (which I do) then the outcome should be good for all concerned.

By Jacquirenee (not verified)
June 10, 2011 12:52 PM

My five-month-old daughter's name is Edith, which is a genuine antique name, and my grandmother's name. Her full name is actually Edith Pearl, Edie for short, and we get so many compliments on it!

By Sil (not verified)
June 10, 2011 7:52 PM

Amusingly, my little niece (18 mos) Izzy is actually named after two of her great-grandmothers (her middle name is the genuinely retro Yvonne).

June 20, 2011 12:15 AM

I have always loved older names. We named our son Miles Henry, but if he was a girl I was going with Ava Wren. Now that Ava is so popular, if we have a girl next we will go with Clementine LaRue. If it's a boy, we haven't decided yet.
I love the name Linus, but my husband won't go for it:)

My family and my husband's family names of Great Grandparents are some common, some uncommon:

Girls names:
Mava Beatrice
Sylvia Berdetta
Grace Adeline
Carmen Eunice
Helen Virginia

Boys names:
Harry Barnes
Frank Kermit
Lida James
Frank William
Jennings Dodd
William Henry
Joseph Paul

By J&H's mom (not verified)
June 22, 2011 12:07 AM

I pop in only rarely these days, but I very much enjoy having the name queries mixed in with the general convo.

I'm addicted to all things baby naming and love to see those that folks are considering. It all seems very much, "on topic," to me.

There are sites that are strictly for baby naming, but quite frankly, they're much less thoughtful places, with lots of polls along the lines of, "Should I name my baby Tuna, Albacore, or Brooklyn. Please only say helpful things." No offense to anyone considering any of those three!

I think those seeking advice here, by nature, are more genuine, and genuinely open to feedback. My two cents anyway.

By Anya (not verified)
July 1, 2011 6:45 PM

My brother's name is Anton, and he's 5. But he's not in the US, so I guess that doesn't count:)

By Guest *Kat* (not verified)
July 10, 2011 9:27 AM

I really like the name Cora.

(My husband thinks it sounds like an old lady--He likes Joslyn; but I don't want to name a kid "Little Goth")

July 12, 2011 4:02 PM

My great aunt was Ione also. And she also pronounced it "I Own" like your grandma.

July 12, 2011 4:03 PM

I had a Corabel in the family (great great great aunt) and my cousin's wife just had a Coraline (which i think is extremely cute).

By Jesi (not verified)
August 5, 2011 3:07 PM

I love the idea of the "faux antique" names. I'm in the search for a name for my second daughter and would like to find something in this category. My first daughter's name is Adalyn (Ada after my great-grandmother and Lyn after my middle name). Names in consideration are:

Corynne/Corinne (pronounced with an accent more on the last half of the name)

Would love to go with middle name Belle or Rose(family names). Any other suggestions along those lines??

By Agnes (not verified)
September 27, 2011 8:32 PM

Actually my grandma and my great-grandma (born in the 19th century) were called Isabella. OK, not in the USA, but in Europe Isabella/Isabelle/Isabel were pretty common names. Maybe that's why these names have the vintage feel. So they are not fake antique at all.
Just because a name doesn't hit the TOP200 in the US, it does not mean it does not exist.
It is just better to do a little research sometimes before we publish an article...

By laURENs (not verified)
October 10, 2011 3:02 AM

My great great grandmother was named Mary Isabella. She was born around 1850. I am thinking of using the name Isabella for my daughter. Not only was she the name of a grandmother, it is a beautiful name.

May 19, 2013 10:05 AM

I love that you talk about the antique name illusion, and it amuses me because my name, Emma, is really a prime example of an old lady name made new! When my parents were planning on naming me, they informed my biological grandmother, who told them snottily (she wasn't very nice) that "Emma is an old lady's name. Don't you dare name your child Emma!". Luckily my parents were clearly future-minded, as about five years after I was born there were tons of little girls being named Emma! 

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October 28, 2014 5:39 PM

I can't help but notice that the y-axis is not labelled. Are the data there the absolute number of namings of the children, or does the graph give the number relative to the general population?

There are seven+ times the number of people on Earth now than in 1804.  A ratio would give a more true comparison - but I can't tell if that's what's been done here or not.