British Baby Names vs. American Baby Names

Aug 6th 2011

What makes for a British baby name? A simple answer might come from the official list of the most popular baby names in England and Wales, which was released last week. Those stats show Olivia, Sophie and Emily topping the charts for girls, Oliver, Jack and Harry for boys. None of those name should sound too surprising to an American observer. All but Harry rank among the U.S. top 100 names, and Harry has the British double-whammy of a prince and a boy wizard in its corner. So far, expectations confirmed.

But then there's the #4 boy's name: Alfie. That name is virtually unknown in the U.S., given to only 6 American boys last year. (Other boys' names tied at 6 include Jagjot, Ifeanyichukwu, and Awesome.)

Is Alfie a blip on the radar, or a sign of a major style divide? What kinds of names define British vs. American baby name style?

I decided to look for the differences statistically, in the same way that I track the differences in U.S. naming from one year to the next. I normalized the 2010 name frequency data for England and Wales (E&W) and the United States (US) to occurrences per million babies born, to allow direct comparisons. Then I applied my standard Baby Name Wizard "Hotness formula," a calculation that balances percent change with the absolute number of babies affected. The result is a ranking of the "most British" and "most American" names. And yes, there are consistent differences in naming style.

To American ears, E&W names are overwhelmingly cute. My guess is that's not what the typical American expects. My chapter on "English" names in the Baby Name Wizard book described a style based on Americans' literary imagination, not geographic reality. Deep down, Americans kind of wish English people would be named Nigel and Victoria and live in a Masterpiece Theatre production. But take a look at the names that define real E&W name style today:

Most British Baby Names, 2010

RANK BOYS GIRLS
1 Alfie Maisie
2 Olly Poppy
3 Archie Ellie-May
4 Harry Imogen
5 Kenzie Lily-Mae
6 Finlay Ffion
7 Barnaby Darcey
8 Ollie Freya
9 Freddie Bethan
10 Osian Ellie-Mae

Meet the kids, Ellie-May and Ollie! Not so much Masterpiece Theatre as Beverly Hillbillies, eh? But those represent hot name styles in England today. Not only do two spellings of Ollie make the top 10 most-British list, but if I expanded the list the next three girls' names in line would be Lily-Rose, Lilly-May and Lily-May.

The hyphenated girls' names are, admittedly, a bit of a statistical cheat. The U.S. doesn't allow punctuation in name stats. But the run-together versions like Elliemae are overwhelmingly British, as are the individual names Ellie and Lily. And anecdotally, in my nine years in the baby name business no American parent has ever approached me with a dilemma like "Ellie-Mae vs. Lily-Mae."

On the boy's side, cute diminutives have never been less popular in the U.S. This used to be a land of nicknames, overrun with Billys, Jimmies and Tommies. Today that's William, James and Thomas, thank you very much. Oh, you'll meet a fair number of young American Williams called Will or Liam, but little Billy has become scarce as both nickname and given name. In England & Wales, though, Billy is the #101 boy's name, a little behind Bobby and just ahead of Frankie. Lifelong boyishness is now the English way.

Looking beyond the diminutives, you'll notice the list features Welsh names like Osian, Ffion and Bethan. This is, after all, a list based England and Wales. (The individual country lists only run 100 names deep, insufficient for this analysis.) Freya is a Norse goddess name that's hot throughout Scandinavia as well as the U.K. Darcey is a feminized form of the surname Darcy (as seen in Pride and Prejudice). The great English ballerina Darcey Bussell is one prominent bearer.

That leaves just Imogen, Barnaby and the Scottish import Finlay to hold up the image of formal, quirkily classic English names. As for Nigel and Victoria, prepare to be disillusioned: both are twice as common in the U.S. today as in England.

To be continued, with the Most American Names next time...On to part 2, Most American!

 

 

Comments

51
By UK caller (not verified)
August 8, 2011 4:59 PM

Wow - this is a great post.

As I'm British I love watching the debate, although I find the names suggested skewed majorly by including Welsh names, which are localised.

Alfie is a character in a book which was read by a lot of mums when they were little by Shirley Hughes - see for example http://www.amazon.co.uk/Alfie-Annie-Storybook-picture-books/dp/0099750309/ref=sr_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1312836954&sr=1-4 and it is also worth knowing that Alfie Moon is a character in the major UK soap opera 'Eastenders', so it is a very well known name with positive associations.

I'd be interested to know whether the fortunes of the name Harry have followed Prince Harry's (or Mr Potter's, for that matter...)

52
August 8, 2011 5:36 PM

How do you feel about terribly ethnic names? Jagjot might sound weird to you, but would it seem more normal if you saw that his parents looked either Indian or vaguely Arabic? If you knew they listed their religious affiliation as Sikhism?

And Ifeanyichukwu is an eyeful. I wouldn't even know how to turn it into a mouthful. But, I'd look at the name differently if it was a family name and his parents came from Nigeria. It must be an American-mobility-mindset thing.

I mean, my president's name is Barack Hussein Obama II. The people at Harvard and Columbia saw his name and didn't toss aside the application. His name most likely topped every resume he ever submitted, but he still managed to get hired and accumulate an impressive work history. So, I feel like those 6 boys named Ifeanyichukwu have a chance.

But not those 6 boys named Awesome. If a little boy named Awesome was playing with a toy stethoscope, I could see his teacher saying "Maybe you'll drive an ambulance one day," instead of saying "Maybe you'll be a doctor one day."

53
August 8, 2011 5:58 PM

I think it's more a matter of the sheer rarity of the names. Jagjot, Ifeanyichukwu, and Awesome are names that are just plain rare in America--they're the sort of names that aren't even heard of, much less off the radar of most Americans. And I wouldn't be surprised if there's an ethnic component to Awesome, too; certainly names like Superman, Goodluck, Money, and Enough see use in specific cultures worldwide. Awesome, being a positive word, might fall in that group too, I'd wager.

The clash in Awesome would occur because most Americans don't want the name to suggest too strongly a specific quality; if you present the quality first and foremost, people start assuming the opposite quality. Many people imagine Chastity to be anything but. And pity poor Tiffany, who, by virtue of having the name connected with a luxury goods company (and a perfectly reasonable surname, I might add), is unfairly saddled with a lower-class reputation. Awesome could, unfortunately, fall in the same trap. But I don't know enough about the name to say conclusively whether it's ethnic or not.

54
August 8, 2011 9:02 PM

I mean, from my maternal grandmother's father's side I have ancestors named Thankful, Patience, Remember... no Temperance Brennan, though. "Awesome" sounds like a less humble version of a Puritan name.

I guess I'm wondering because I might want an ethnic name, in particular a Jewish name. Would a weird name seem more okay to you if there was a religious or family reason?

Our first child's name is H@nn@h, which is a family, scriptural, Hebrew, and palidromic name. All things I like. In school and around my extended family she's called han-ah. (I converted.) Around other extended family and our congregation she's called hah-nah, sometimes even the formal, guttural chah-nah, which sounds a little like the hocking and spitting of phlegm.

Our newest addition's gender is unknown. The only girl names I have that fit all my rules is Ad@. Eve and Ar@ are also family names, but the Hebrew name for Eve would be transliterated "Chavvah" and there is a Hebrew root that is pronounced like Ar@, but Ar@ is a legitimate Arabic name, not a Hebrew name.

The only boy names that fit all the rules is As@. I also like the family names J0n@th0n, N@th@n, and N@th@niel paired with the Hebrew name "N@t@n" or "N0ss0n," though "N0ss0n" is more Yiddish. N@m@n is a non-family names that kind of fits. Also, when I converted/married, I changed my middle name to S@b@h, which is the first two syllables of my maiden name and can be interpreted as "converted" So, I thought it might be neat if I had a son I named "S@b@s," but it means "old man." And, like N@m@n, it might be too weird.

My husband likes Eve, our daughter likes Ar@, but wants the middle name to be Bell@. I like both As@ and Ad@, but know if I use any of the "A" names-- Ad@, Ar@, or As@ then I won't use any of the other "A" names in the future. I especially like J0nath0n, but as it's my husband's name he's afraid it's arrogant to name a child after himself. And his middle name is his father's name, so he's not sure what the boy could get called besides "Jonny" or "Nathan."

I also really like the name Ruth, and my husband really loves his kvatterin (kind of like a "godmother"), Ruth, who has remained very active in his life. I also have an aunt and a cousin named Ruth. My mom had wanted to name me Faye, Sybil, or Corinne, and I know it would thrill her if I worked one of those in.

55
By Juli (not verified)
August 8, 2011 10:19 PM

On the topic of Ursula and Anya: "anya" means "mother" in Hungarian, so it's absolutely not a name for a child in my book. (It's pronounced roughly AH-ñah, with n-tilde like in Spanish.) I never really cared for Ursula in English, but I've always loved the Hungarian version: Orsolya (roughly OAR-show-yah). My stepmother-in-law is Orsolya, and she uses Ursula in English -- I think she enjoys the rarity of the name in the U.S. (That, and nobody ever has any trouble spelling it.)

56
August 8, 2011 11:02 PM

Lipsis--

Another palindromic Hebrew name is Abba (as in Abba Eban). Abba of course means 'father.' Abba is also palindromic in Hebrew, as is Asa. Is your husband Ashkenazic or Sephardic? The two have different naming traditions, so it would be helpful to know which would apply.

57
August 8, 2011 11:24 PM

Ashkenazic, but he's not as into it as me. I'm probably a typical Gentile Jewish convert that way. For instance, he'd be happy having a boy named Barry who had the Hebrew name Baruch. He's not as concerned with having the names be the same.

I think I have the same problem with Abba that Juli has with Anya. But I know a Russian woman named Anya, and I think it's lovely that her name means "mother." She's a wonderful mother. But I met her when she was 19, and I would have thought it was funny to know that's what her name meant. Especially since all the old ladies in the congregation were always pushing her to have a baby.

58
August 9, 2011 2:56 AM

If you know a Russian woman named Anya, her name does not mean 'mother.' Anya is the Russian diminutive of Anna which is ultimately derived from Chana, that is, the same name your daughter has. Chana/Hannah/Anna, etc., is usually translated as 'grace.' Juli was citing the meaning of Anya as mother in Hungarian. Hungarian is a Finno-Ugaric language, like Finnish and Estonian, and has nothing to do with Russian which is Indo-European. In any case, Anya is ultimately derived from Hebrew via Greek and then Russian.

Since the Ashkenazim have the custom of naming newborns after deceased relatives, the traditional procedure would be too choose the deceased family member you wish to honor, and then give the child that person's name. The name that matters is the shem kodesh, usually known as the "Hebrew" name, although some of the acceptable names (of which there are about 150) are not Hebrew, but Aramaic or, rarely, from another language, e.g., Mordechai is Persian and Moshe is Egyptian. The shem kodesh can be registered as the legal name, or a vernacular name (in this case, the vernacular name would be English), the shem kinnui, can be chosen for use on the birth certificate. The shem kinnui can be any name, but frequently it is related to the shem kodesh in some way, usually similarity in sound or meaning, and, of course, it can simply be an English form of the Hebrew name.

Thus, in your example, Baruch is the shem kodesh and Barry the shem kinnui, the two related by sound. Another option for Baruch would be Benedict or Bennett which is a form of Benedict, in this case the names are related by meaning. Or little Baruch could have the name Jayden on the birth certificate just because his parents liked it, with no relationship to Baruch which continues to be the child's real name. And, of course, the birth certificate name could simply be Baruch.

So if you want to follow Ashkenazi tradition, your first step should be to choose the deceased relative you wish to honor and go from there. I would avoid naming the child after a living relative, although it is acceptable to have several living relatives with the same name named after the same person. So two cousins could easily have the same name, both being named after the same deceased great-grandparent. The great majority of Ashkenazic Jews follow this naming procedure, even those who are non-observant and largely assimilated and who follow very few other traditions/laws.

59
August 9, 2011 3:08 AM

I am agreeing with Linnaeus's post very much. Jagjot and Ifeanyichukwu are much more names that I would approve of than Awesome, or any other more familiar but cutesy or very creatively spelled name would be. Jagjot and Ifeanyichukwu, while clearly very unusual, are enough outside my cultural context that they don't have any value judgements or class associations for me, besides guessing Indian and Nigerian (which I am not at all sure of, so I apologize if those instinctive nationality assignments are incorrect). They are very much blank slates that kid would be writing on. Meeting an Awesome, on the other hand, would make me assume they either had a colossal ego or were a stoner, or if I knew it was actually their given name, would cause me to have a few uncharitable thoughts about their parents... and I would assume lower-class background. I would perhaps have a harder time taking the Awesome seriously in spite of my attempts not to let a name bias me since a name is usually not a reflection of that person's own choices, but rather those of their parents. I really like Linnaeus's point about the potential for Awesome being an ethnic name in its own right, though, and I would try to keep that very much in mind if I meet an Awesome someday.

As a former (and likely future) teacher, I often encountered unusual "ethnic" names on course rosters and I didn't really think anything at all of it, besides assume that the student might likely be either an immigrant from a particular region or born to immigrant parents from said region, or otherwise having that particular heritage further back on their family tree. (And also doing some internet espionage to see if I could make a better stab at pronunciation on the first day, since a lot of students feel uncomfortable correcting their professors.) Granted, a name that labels as "child of immigrants" might not be as neutral as a name like John but to me that could just as well be a child of high powered business or academic immigrant parents as a child of working class immigrant parents... or anything in between, really.

I do think that if you are having a child in a country that you plan to continue to reside in for that child's growing up period, it's worth it to consider pronunciation issues and how unusual the name will be for then growing up (might not be much at all if you are living in a community with many other people with a similar naming background). Assuming I'd be living in my current community but had a background that made Jagjot a meaningful choice for me, it would for me pass those tests (cool trendy sounds, straightfoward to remember, pronunciation at least seems intuitive, more trendy nickname possibilities like Jagger). If I were considering Ifeanyichukwu, I would want to have a good nickname and mnemonic lined up for my son for use with people, and a shorter middle name that would have a sufficiently different style to give my child flexibility if he decided the name was too challenging to use on a daily basis with the world at large for some period of his childhood. Awesome, on the other hand, I would not be capable of using in the first name slot under any circumstances.

I admit I might engage in a tiny bit of internal eyerolling when an infant is presented to me by what appear to be very WASPY parents with "It's Tibetan!" smugly following their child's name, so my feelings about "ethnic" names on people who don't appear to have any connection to that ethnicity can be different, but that's a very blurry line because defining what constitutes an ethnic name is hard.

But, I generally approve wholeheartedly of weird names, and Lypsis, I definitely think that ethnic names are absolutely lovely choices. I am greatly intrigued by your naming dilemma. How strongly do you feel about the palindrome requirement? I think palindromic names are neat but I would be wary of entering into such a highly restrictive theme if you think you might run out of palindromic names that also meet all of your other criteria that you really love as names, before you are done having children.

And I had to laugh at your daughter's lobbying for Ar@ with middle name Bell@ - of course!

My favorite is Ad@ - not because it meets all the "rules", but because the Countess of Lovelace is such an awesome association for me, and I think it is familiar and on-trend in spite of being more unusual than your daughter's name. I think Eve is another excellent choice that works well with Hann@h, and I like that it has entirely distinct sounds.

60
August 9, 2011 3:55 AM

I think whether Ursula is perceived as an ugly name or as a cutting-edge hip sexy/danger name really depends also on geography. U-heavy names like Pearl and Beulah are ones I hear on the playground here in hipsterville, and they are regarded as very cutting-edge of coolness, but I know they would viewed as anything OTHER than fashionable in other parts of the country.

So, while I think the point being made about social contexts in middle school are very valid, it's worth considering the actual area that you are living in, and how much Ursula would stick out. If a little Ursula had a Zelda and a Pearl (and a Mira) in her class, which if she totally WOULD if she were living where I am, then Ursula would not have anything to worry about in terms of her name making her childhood particularly difficult. Not to say that it wouldn't be used for teasing in some way, but in my immediate household i can say that having a top 5 mega-hit name in no way exempts you from elementary school name teasing.

Obviously, your child's geographic/social surroundings will change when they go out into the world, but by then they will be interacting with adults who I agree with previous posters are less likely to be judging a name like Ursula in a negative way.

But PennyX, you can absolutely tell your husband that his fashionable/cool sense is spot-on from where I'm sitting. Zelda has I think a lot of very similar issues as Ursula (some currently very unfashionable sounds, one dominant 80s pop culture association, older literary background) and I have witnessed that receive a lot of very genuine-seeming "what a super-cool name!" from random other parents. Granted, no one is going to (or should, anyway) say, "I've always disliked that name!" to a parent introducing their kid, but the reactions to Zelda seemed VERY positive, certainly more so than any other name reception I've witnessed. I was obviously delighted to meet a little Zelda, but I was surprised that others were so very enthusiastically raving about it as well. I think you'd get a similar response out of Ursula, here... but I think CarlyM's point is well made, which is that you wouldn't get that response on many other playgrounds.

61
August 9, 2011 3:38 AM

Emilyrae: we just bought the crib letters, though I have yet to paint them, so I think we're very much committed to the baby joining us in the next few months being a Rupert, scandal or not. Thanks for the encouragement, though! The feedback here was really helpful!

And yes, Chimu, I really should have known better than to mention a name to a relative before it being attached to an actual live outside-the-uterus baby. I was trying to get a sense of whether it was too close to Robert, a name of a cousin that I'm not particularly close to, but I should not have said anything. But, my mother will get over it - besides her being over the moon excited about this baby, it serves her right having a grandson named Rupert for having had such a not-tactful reaction to the name in the first place.

Miriam: interestingly enough, Rupert is a protagonist of Jilly Cooper's novels, which are what I would regard as sexually scandalous (each one seems to push the envelope just a bit further). I wonder if her choice of name was at all influenced by that association from D.H. Lawrence. In any case, I enjoy his naming style very much!

62
August 9, 2011 3:55 AM

@lipsis How about Natan for a boy? Israeli form of Nathan.

I agree with the Canadian poster who says that Alfie, Charlie etc are seen as sexy/laddish as well as cute. I think the trajectory goes cute baby- sexy young man - friendly and approachable old man. Nicknames are fine in top jobs - we have a prime minister and deputy called Dave and Nick.
My neighbours have a classic English family: Rosie, Ted and baby Beatrix.

63
August 9, 2011 4:58 AM

I mentioned some of the Ursula debate to my husband, and he expressed vehement scorn to any energy being spent worrying about whether Ursula would provoke schoolyard teasing or even what other people think about the name. I countered that the kid herself would be "other people", but he didn't buy that argument. He said he's never personally known of anyone who hated his or her name. I wonder if it's more common with women than men.

It's true that we're likely to live among a bunch of other creatively named kids. Probably around more Hazels, Matildas and Delilahs than Kaylees and Madisons.

Given his argument in favor of Ursula, it seems like he wouldn't have a leg to stand on in opposition to Simon.

64
August 9, 2011 8:29 AM

I agree with CarlyM about Ursula and that people on this (and some of the other name forums) have a much more open -- and broader -- thinking about names than most people do. (Though I often wonder how many would actually name a daughter some of the very unusual names they like -- in the abstract.) Ursula is a 'strange' name to many people, with a sound that's not especially appealing. The name certainly wouldn't fit in with other girls' names where I live in the the Midwest. On the other hand, I too love Anya and Mira/Miranda and find them very usable in the US circa 2011.

65
August 9, 2011 9:01 AM

Regarding Amy3's mention of class structure and baby names, it's interesting to compare the top names in E/W overall with those that were the most popular names in 2010 Telegraph birth announcements. Alfie made the Telegraph list too, although it ranked much lower (38-44) than on the E/W list.

Here are the 2010 Top 10 Telegraph names for boys:
1 Henry
2 William
3 Thomas
4 Oliver
5 George
6 Edward
7 Charles
8 Alexander
9 Harry
10 Oscar

and the ONS (the government's) 2010 Top 10 for boys in E/W:

1 Oliver
2 Jack
3 Harry
4 Alfie
5 Charlie
6 Thomas
7 William
8 Joshua
9 George
10 James

Bigger difference in baby name popularity between the entire E/W population and the Telegraph set can be seen further down the Telegraph list, where Hugo, Maximilian, Felix, Wilfred and Alfred (there's "Alfie"!) all made the Top 25, while ranking below the Top 100 on the ONS list.

http://britishbabynames.typepad.com/blog/2011/04/telegraph-births-2010-boys.html

66
August 9, 2011 9:19 AM

For girls, these names were the most popular in 2010 Telegraph birth announcements:

Sophie
Isabella
Charlotte
Isabel
Olivia
Florence
Alice
Amelia
Poppy
Annabel
Matilda

While the ONS statistics show that these were the overall most popular girls names in E/W in 2010:

Olivia
Sophie
Emily
Lily
Amelia
Jessica
Ruby
Chloe
Grace
Evie

Girls' names that ranked in the Telegraph Top 25 but below the Top 100 for all of E/W: Beatrice, Jemima. Other Telegraph favorites that ranked below the ONS Top 100: Flora, Arabella, Clementine, Georgina, Honor, India.

http://britishbabynames.typepad.com/blog/2011/05/telegraph-births-2010-girls.html

67
August 9, 2011 9:19 AM

For girls, these names were the most popular in 2010 Telegraph birth announcements:

Sophie
Isabella
Charlotte
Isabel
Olivia
Florence
Alice
Amelia
Poppy
Annabel
Matilda

While the ONS statistics show that these were the overall most popular girls names in E/W in 2010:

Olivia
Sophie
Emily
Lily
Amelia
Jessica
Ruby
Chloe
Grace
Evie

Girls' names that ranked in the Telegraph Top 25 but below the Top 100 for all of E/W: Beatrice, Jemima. Other Telegraph favorites that ranked below the ONS Top 100: Flora, Arabella, Clementine, Georgina, Honor, India.

http://britishbabynames.typepad.com/blog/2011/05/telegraph-births-2010-girls.html

68
August 9, 2011 9:47 AM

PennyX:

If you're in a Hazel/Matilda cluster as opposed to a Kaylee/Madison cluster, then Ursula will do fine.

69
August 9, 2011 10:30 AM

lucubratrix,
yay for rupert! congrats on buying the crib letters; i always thought decorating a baby's room would be fun.

also, it's interesting that you compare ursula to zelda, because i've loved both of them for quite some time and always thought they went well together. in my brain i may one day have four children named linus, casper, zelda, and ursula--ha! (i also love more conservative names, just for the record--i'm equally excited about names like julian and charlotte.)

patricia,
interesting point about people liking unusual names in the abstract, but not using them in real life. i think that happens fairly frequently, right? i mean doesn't pennyx herself (potentially) fall into that catagory? someone may like an unusual name, but then chicken out because they're afraid of the repercussions of sticking out and being different. right? "chickening out" is obviously too harsh (i don't think pennyx is "chickening out"--she's just trying to consider all of the factors, which is smart), but hopefully you get what i mean. but i don't think that someone liking a name in the abstract but then failing to use it in real life necessarily makes the liking any less genuine.

along those lines, didn't someone here consider naming their daughter isadora (after a grandfather), but then end up going with isabel? (that's not a criticism--i think isabel is gorgeous!)

pennyx,
definitely doesn't have a leg to stand on in regards to simon!

full disclosure regarding ursula:
since several people have mentioned how people here are more open to usual names than the general populace, i thought i'd contribute some info to that. as i like the name, i have mentioned it to a few people (not many, as i am nowhere remotely near having chldren). all people are roughly my age, anywhere from 23-27, and they aren't "name people."
1) one woman very strongly disliked it, and upon my telling her the meaning (which i love), said, "bears are fat and they kill people." (tactful, i know.)
2) one man enthusiastically said (and i actually didn't bring the name up--he was talking about someone he knew with the name) that he thought it was "about the coolest name ever."
3) a second woman said that, when i initially mentioned it, her response was negative, but after hearing me talk about it, she had come around and now saw its merits/didn't dislike it.

regarding having an usual name on top of being an oddball child:
i actually knew a child like this in grade school. her name was ardith (and to top it off, her last name was n!b3rt!), and she was a bit of an oddball (thinking back, she actually reminds me really strongly of luna lovegood). i just checked the name out on the ssa data, and i actually didn't realize just how uncommon it was. depending on what part of the school year she was born in, there were either 8 ardiths that year or <5! and to think that one of them was in this podunk indiana town! anyway, we were actually sort of friends (not my closest friend, but we were at least friendly). i can't recall her being blatantly picked on (for her name or any reason), but i know that everyone did think she was very strange, and i think that her name added to that aura because none of us had ever heard of it before. on the other hand, i later ran into her at an academic competition in high school (her family had moved while we were still in elementary school), and she was very pretty and surrounded by friends, and apparently very well adjusted (i remember being a bit stunned at the time..."guess you're not an oddball anymore!"). anyway...thoughts on the name ardith?

70
By Beth the original (not verified)
August 9, 2011 11:12 AM

Names like Ardith and Ursula are, to me, a double-edged sword. If the kid is gorgeous and cool, they are a marker of her not needing to fit in -- I once knew a gorgeous Agnes. But if the kid is plain or awkward, the names kind of contribute to that general aura.

It's a bit like feminism in the 1980s as I experienced it. You weren't supposed to wear makeup or feminine clothes. So if you happened to be ravishingly beautiful in the first place (or a classic butch, and I mean that as a compliment) you looked great. But if you were in any way plain, not being able to enhance your looks made you even plainer.

I have no idea why some names seem so changeable from pretty to ugly or vice versa. I guess being "on the edge" means you can end up either cutting-edge or falling off a cliff.

71
August 9, 2011 11:21 AM

Ah, poor Agnes. Victim of Anglicization. The names comes to English from the French, where it's pronounced... Anya.

72
August 9, 2011 11:47 AM

I like Ardith more than Edith. I had a teacher tell us about a name/beauty pageant study where they took the young women who had previously placed highest in a pageant and put them up against the same young women they had previously competed against, only this time they stripped the "winners" of their "pretty" names (which, as I learned about this in middle school, included names like Heather and Jessica) and gave them "ugly" names (like Ethel). None of the previous "winners" placed.

I should like Ursula. I like Ursa, Ayala/Ayla, Isla, and Sula. I should like Ursula. I don't know what's holding me back. I'm in my thirties. It better not be Disney's overweight sea-witch. Maybe I'm not as evolved as I pretend, though. I saw "linus, casper, zelda, and ursula" and thought "Peanuts, ghost, video game, and Little Mermaid."

73
August 9, 2011 12:00 PM

linnaeus,
ha. oh the irony.

lipsis,
regarding the study: dang! that's nuts.

regarding "peantus, ghost, video game, and little mermaid":
oh, i'm definitely aware of that connection! if i were to have this fantasy sibset, yes, they would all have ties to cartoon characters. that was not at all intentional, but i don't at all mind it (although, out of the four, ursula does get a pretty raw deal!). i like the names enough that i want them to start being things *other* than these characters. i understand that zelda and ursula have some unfashionable sounds, but i to my ears, linus and casper sound very on trend, and it's really surprising to me that they're not more common. are people really held back by peanuts and the friendly ghost? i guess they must be, but to me it is a non-issue.

but again, i'm nowhere near having kids, so perhaps it's easy for me to say these things.

74
August 9, 2011 12:07 PM

One more thought about Ursula:

What's wrong with the sea witch? The character's awesome. She's confident, clever, has oodles of unique charm without requiring standard beauty tropes... She's great. She's a perfect example of the Villain Name working out great. Perhaps the name is just off-trend enough.

Perhaps I'm biased. When I first saw Little Mermaid, Ursula reminded me of a close family friend who pretty much looked, acted, and sounded like her--only without the tentacles and evil. In any case, I think you could do a whole lot worse in life than end up like the sea witch.

Plenty of Disney villains aren't nearly as charismatic or likeable. There wouldn't have been an animation renaissance without Ursula.

I mean, heck, do we see a little Caribbean crustacean when we hear the name Sebastian?

Ursula's great. Own the reference.

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By CarlyM (not verified)
August 9, 2011 12:17 PM

emilyrae:

I tend to agree with what you wrote. Someone's name certainly doesn't change how I feel about them as a person. I absolutely don't think that a different name would mean that that person would have less friends, or opportunities in the business world.

But the name is sill attached to a person. Not all names grow on me. So there are some names that whenever I hear then, I just cringe a bit inside. And I wouldn't want to give my child a name where most people in their head were thinking, "Wow...how unfortunate that they have that name."

For example, on another baby name forum I go on, a regular poster has a son named Dragoon. It has special meaning to them. But I can't help feeling that most of the time when he is introduced to someone, in their head they will think "What an unfortunate name."

If most of the general public were to have a generally negative reaction to the name (and I'm not saying this is true with Ursula, mine is only one opinion) even if I loved it, I wouldn't name them that.

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August 9, 2011 12:53 PM

You know, I'm not at all surprised by that beauty pageant study. But I guess that's the thing. I don't think my husband or I want to use any names that instantly, primarily make someone think "pretty". It's just too reductive. I don't know. I'm really torn. CarlyM, I totally get what you're saying about wanting to avoid a name that most people don't like. That's exactly what I've been grappling with. But on the other hand, it's very easy to choose Isabel, Emma, Amelia, Olivia, or Sophia. Everyone would love her name and she'd be sure to fit in. I guess Simon is a riskier name for a boy than Jack or Owen, too. Maybe for both names, I'm trying to evoke some qualities that aren't automatically attributed to that gender. Ursula sounds strong and powerful to me, and Simon sounds thoughtful and a little sensitive.

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By 4BoyMomma (not verified)
August 9, 2011 12:58 PM

I am a Brit living in the US South. I am not surprised by any of these names. and my fellow boy mum friend who still lives in the UK must be ahead of the curve as her 6 year old is Alfie. I believe there was a character on the popular Eastenders soap named Alfie too.

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By mk (not verified)
August 9, 2011 1:30 PM

PennyX: If you and your husband love Ursula then use it. I'm actually a bit baffled by the worries about playground teasing. I knew an Ursula growing up and no one thought twice about her name, and this was in the 80s where most of us were Jennifers, Sarahs, etc. I now know a young Ursula as well. Maybe I'm just used to it, but to me it's a regular name, not unusual, and I like it a lot more than many names being used today by parents trying to be "unique" or "hip".

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By EVie
August 9, 2011 1:39 PM

I actually really like Ardith! But then, I find myself very partial to the combination -ar- (Clara, Charlotte, all sorts of Mar- names for both boys and girls, Sarah... I also really like Ara, by the way, for the poster who was considering it). I also prefer Ardith to Edith or Judith. It sounds kind of like it should belong to a character in a fantasy novel.

I know of a young Agn3s—a VERY pretty little girl, fortunately, so I think she will carry it well. I've never heard the explanation for the choice (and felt weird asking...) Her siblings have quite traditional-but-on-trend names, so it may be a family name.

PennyX - I like Simon very much, and I agree that it's a thoughtful and sensitive name. I actually think that a Simon will have much LESS trouble with his peers than an Ursula—it fits in much better with current styles (that -n ending...). I also think that letting your husband have Ursula in exchange for Simon is very fair.

I can see the parallels between Ursula and Zelda, but I think in today's climate they will get very different responses. Zelda has that trendy Z-, whereas a U- beginning is distinctly untrendy. The video game is a more positive reference than the sea witch (after all, Zelda was a princess). And among a certain set, I think that Zelda Fitzgerald is a very glamorous association (the Roaring 20s! Flappers! Jazz! Expatriates! The literary elite!) Perhaps Ursula Brangwen has some similar associations, but to understand those, you have to have read the books, which I'm sure most people these days have not. (I have, but I couldn't stand them, so maybe that explains some of my bias—I found all the characters in Women in Love to be totally obnoxious and self-absorbed).

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By EmRo (not verified)
August 9, 2011 2:03 PM

Put me in the "Ursula grows on me" category and I'm sure it would be even more so with a cute kid attached to it.

Dragoon is...interesting. It seems to have a lot to overcome. I was recently reading the Girl with a Dragon Tattoo books and one of the characters first name is Dragan. I'm not sure how it's properly pronounced (dragon or draygan?)but I love the look of it written and the meaning is "precious". Pretty sweet!

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By Yet Another Guest (not verified)
August 9, 2011 2:14 PM

My issue with playing the game of whether "most people" will hate a name is that I don't think we can ever know. I'm the one who cringes on the inside when I hear a Jayden and I just heard a friend of an acquaintance who named their child Madison and I was surprised. Those names are still very, very popular, but they make me scratch my head and cringe a little on the inside.

But then, I love the name Agnes. It would be on our list but we're avoiding A names this time as the first two have A names. I really like Ursula and Hazel, too!

Also, I don't think a kid is going to be picked on because of his or her name. It may be used as a way to be picked on, but the name won't be the reason, just as part of the weapon. If a kid is going to be picked on, kids pick on him or her regardless.

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August 9, 2011 2:52 PM

lipsis,
i do not have the depth of understanding of your name requirements that some posters here have, but i did want to tell you that i love both eve and ada.

carlym,
i do understand what you're saying. it would be so sad if people cringed internally every time they said your name. :/ i think i just do not feel that i personally have that problem, although others might. if a person i like has a name that i dislike, i just...adapt, i guess. the name sort of molds itself to the person, and i don't think anything of it. now, granted, i don't think i've been tested by any names that i *really* dislike (things like princess or precious); perhaps i would never be able to adjust to that and would always be grimacing inside my head. (right now i'm thinking about a certain scene in friends, where phoebe meets a woman named precious and can barely bring herself to say her name out loud--ha!)

however, all of this is pretty contingent on my liking the person. if someone i DISliked had a name i disliked, i don't think i would adapt the way i described above. i would just hate the name all the more!

EVie,
i don't actually dislike ardith, but to the 3rd graders in rural indiana, it was So Weird. :] and i agree: definitely sounds like a character in a fantasy novel!

regarding zelda and ursula:
point taken about zelda having the trendy z and the more positive pop culture character. but on the other hand, i would argue that ursula is the more "normal" name. despite the fact that some people may not love ursula, i think most people would recognize it as "a real name." no one thinks that disney made it up just for their villain. zelda, on the other hand, i think is more universally zelda-the-video-game-character to a lot of people because a large chunk of people are blissfully unaware of zelda fitzgerald.

for example: i mentioned to my friend that i liked the name zelda, and he looked at me and flatly said, "that's a video game character."

"no, no," i assured him, "it's an actual name. you know...like zelda fitzgerald."

::cue condescending and pitying look:: "i think you mean ELLA fitzgerald."

ha! so i think that ursula might have the advantage in at least this way, that more people understand that it is a traditional (and therefore "serious" name) and not a video game character. so i guess they both have different things going for them, as far as the mainstream is concerned. but as i say, i enjoy them both.

pennyx,
i'm sorry because i'm sure you've already told us, but why doesn't your husband like simon? or does he think it's "just fine"?

ditto yet another guest:
i knew twins in high school named ashley and brittany. their very on-trend names did not save them from being unpopular and outcast.

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By Kallie (not verified)
August 9, 2011 2:53 PM

Agnes is a Catholic saint's name, so for traditional Catholic families looking for more unusual/fresh but also saints' names, I think it's right on trend. (The mini-trend among those families also definitely includes names like Cecilia, Blaise, Benedict, Dominic, Kateri, or Ambrose.) What are that family's other traditional-but-on-trend names?

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By Amy3
August 9, 2011 3:43 PM

@emilyrae, your Zelda/Ella Fitzgerald story was hilarious! Thanks for brightening up my afternoon.

85
August 9, 2011 4:10 PM

Emilyrae: Your anecdote about the Ella/Zelda misunderstanding cracked me up. I love that he was being so patient with your "ignorance" ;)

I think my husband thinks Simon is a little too nerdy. He's said that a Simon "would get beat up". Again, it's the male equivalent of the Ursula issue, so ultimately I don't know what he'd say with a real boy to name. This is the guy who wanted to name his son Camille, mind you. He's not exactly the most consistent person in the world...

86
August 9, 2011 4:16 PM

I also happen to like Agnes, Agatha, and Claudia, so I guess I like some clunky names. We also considered Althea for a little while.

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By Coll
August 9, 2011 4:23 PM

Love the Ursula/Zelda connection. I definitely feel the same vibe from them, though Zelda is more aggressively hip and Ursula is more jolie laide (like my adored Agnes and Cornelia-- two names I find ravishing that are totally divisive--people either love them or hate them. My husband unfortunately falls into the latter category).

PennyX, I share your association of sensitivity and thoughtfulness with the name Simon, which is one of the reasons why we've chosen it if Baby October is a boy. I'd like to a have son with a classically masculine name who is nonetheless kind and considerate of others and brainy and polite. Am I putting too many expectations on someone who hasn't been born yet? My husband loves the name, too, but I have no idea why! He doesn't share his impressions of names beyond "I like that" "That's okay" "That's horrible" or "I REALLY like that." Simon and Josephine fall into the REALLY like category, but the reasons he likes them and not, say, Ambrose and Isadora are lost on me.

And how's this for putting the cart before the horse: this baby isn't due for two more months, but since we decided on names so many years ago, I've started considering choices for second children! Right now I've got Arthur, George, and Alistair on the boys' list and Nell, Paulina/Polly, and Georgianna on the girls' list. Thoughts on pairings of any of those with Simon or Josephine?

PennyX-- good luck with the 2ww. They are miserable. I haven't shared much of our story before this (hoped for) baby, but I do understand some of what you are going through and I truly hope your wait ends happily this month.

88
August 9, 2011 4:39 PM

I could see a man seeing Simon as "nerdy." It contains the same soft, breezy sounds that typify the "modern femininity" discussed right here. I had noticed myself that adding plosives to names made them feel more "manly" to me. It's also why a lot of men have a dislike of Oliver and Elliott. (Yes, Elliott ends with a plosive T, but do we really say the plosive, or just let it glide into a soft landing?)

I find Claudia takes on a very different quality when spoken in Spanish or German: "Cloudy-a". It's a lot more fun that way.

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By UK caller (not verified)
August 9, 2011 4:55 PM

If you want to hear the more unusual side of what British families were naming their children in Victorian times, see the clip here, which is part of a very funny educational BBC series for children in the UK:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QMp_xGeQ2v0

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By EVie
August 9, 2011 5:24 PM

Love that Horrible Histories clip—hilarious!

Speaking of Victorian names, I'm in the middle of reading John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman (set in the Victorian era), which features a character named Ernestina. That strikes me as something that might appeal to people who like both Ursula and Josephine.

Coll - I love your use of the phrase jolie laide—it's perfect! I also absolutely love Arthur, Alistair and Nell. Georgiana I prefer with one n (like in Pride & Prejudice). All those names would go with with Simon & Josephine, I think—they've all got a rather Victorian feel to them as well (or maybe I just have the Victorian era on the brain right now).

Linnaeus, I agree that Claudia is nicer with the Continental pronunciation. I have a Swiss second-cousin Claudia who says it that way.

emilyrae - I too laughed at the Zelda/Ella mix-up!

PennyX - perhaps someone else on the board referred to schoolyard teasing with Ursula and I missed it—but if that was coming from my post, I should clarify. I wasn't talking about the "neener neener, your name looks like urine" type of bullying. I was talking about something more insidious—closer to what emilyrae and Beth described, a general aura of awkwardness that the name feeds into. But hopefully your Ursula would be able to carry it like emilyrae's Ardith.

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August 9, 2011 9:18 PM

Oh I love the name Hazel! My husband's great-grandmother is named Hazel, and her Hebrew name's R@zel. I thought it was beautiful, and I don't think she has much longer to live, so I thought it was a great choice. Then my husband said a firm, resounding "No!" When I pried, he said she was a homophobic racist. I felt so deflated, saying that was a shame because I really like her name. (See, I'm reacting strangely to names.)

I really like Simon. I immediately think of both Simon Cowell and the Simple Simon nursery rhyme. Two very polarized opposites, proving (I think) that it's a name that can be manipulated by the personality of the boy/man who holds it.

All this Zelda talk inspired me to do some quick traipsing through the inter-webs to find out more about her life. What do you think I found? Lo and behold! Princess Zelda was named after Zelda Fitzgerald. The game's creator, Shigeru Miyamoto, said she was beautiful and famous and he liked the sound of her name.

As far as Agnes goes, I knew an Agnes growing up. I really liked her nickname Aggie. I went through a New-Agey phase in high school where I wanted to have a daughter some day named Agate, so I could call her Aggie.

What do you think about letting an older sibling affect your name choices? I have two cousins with little girls named Madeline because their older sisters watched the animated series of the same name. I know a little boy named Thomas after the tank engine. Though I kind of liked him getting named Thomas since his older brothers and sisters were named K@yla, Alyss@, and Austin, and Thomas seemed like neat deviation.

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By Also ZR (not verified)
August 9, 2011 11:44 PM

Wow so much to comment on-

PennyX-I find Ursula to match very closely to Zelda. I also find that names like Sophie and Isabella on newborns make me cringe. I find myself saying in my head "oh okay another one-let's move on". Simon is great for your boy name.

emilyrae-I like your sibset :) I think it would be cute to decorate their rooms with the characters they were named after. Also, if I ran across them in high school I would suspect them to all be good friends with one another.

Lipsis-I am not familiar with traditions of Jewish names other than what Miriam supplies this board with. However, on the biblical sounding palindromic end of things how about the slightly made up Sarras. Sarah and Hannah go well together. You could alter your conditions and begin to do names that end in -ah or alter the name to be palindromic. I would say it to be pronounced as either Sar-rah (with a bit of a slurred/silent S on the end) or Sair-rahs (with more of a drug out S). For boys, I think the idea of Natan works well. If you alter to the ends in -ah theme I pick Josiah. And lastly, re siblung contributions, I think its cute and sweet and all but maybe take the consideration and modify it by keeping the same meaning or using it as a middle name.

Coll-Simon and Josephine are hits for me. For the sibset, I pick either Georgianna/Arthur or Paulina/Alistair. Nell and George seem a different feel to me.

Re feelings about peoples names: in my son's class is a Hollis. I've been told this is a girls name but it just feels so BOY to me. I at first upon seeing the roster thought she WAS a boy only to meet her and learn differently. Still though (because not close friends) I have to consciously remember that its a girl). Speaking of which, this years rosters come out in a few weeks.

Met a family today-from Toronto-Alexander and Thomas. Do Canadian names trend like the E/W lists or American lists does anyone know?

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By Jane 6 (not verified)
August 9, 2011 11:54 PM

I've never heard of the name Ardith before. (How is that possible? I *read* name books falling asleep at night... maybe I've just read over it?) I love the sounds in it. Is it a real name, with history? Because I agree, it sounds like Tolkein.

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By Yet Another Guest (not verified)
August 10, 2011 12:47 AM

@ZR - Canadian lists skew towards American, mostly. There is no national list, but data is collected provincially. This is the site for the province I currently live in for 2010: http://www.vs.gov.bc.ca/babynames/baby2010.html
and from where I just moved: http://www.servicealberta.gov.ab.ca/Alberta_Top_Babies_Names.cfm

Those are the only ones I check as I'm closest to them, but the Quebec one is quite different, for obvious reasons. http://www.rrq.gouv.qc.ca/Interactif/PR2I121_Prenoms/PR2I121_Prenoms/PR2SPrenoms_01.aspx

You'll find that names in the Maritimes are more Irish and Scottish, but I believe that is more because of tradition and heritage than looking to them now. (I could be wrong, so please feel free to say so Maritimers!)

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August 10, 2011 2:09 AM

Many years ago I knew an Ardith. She would be in her 70s now, so the name has been around at least that long.

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By Yet Another Guest (not verified)
August 10, 2011 3:20 AM

Sorry, the Quebec link doesn't work because of a timeout. Start here: http://www.rrq.gouv.qc.ca/fr/enfants/Pages/enfants.aspx and click on "Banque de prénoms" and you should be able to figure it out from there.

I was looking at the Alberta listings for 2010, and there were no Alfies, Jagjots, Ifeanyichukwus, and Awesomes, there was one Furious and one Courage for boys. I thought those were interesting as we don't often see those sorts of names for boys (in the strain of Prudence, Patience, Mercy etc.). There were also one Ollie, one Archie, one Harry, four Finlays (8 Finleys), and two Kenzies. The rest on the boy's list didn't show up.

Anyway, this will soon get boring if I go through all the names and lists, so I'll stop now.

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August 10, 2011 6:45 AM

I also agree that Ursula and Zelda are a good match. They bring out the best in each other in my opinion.

PennyX - Simon reads very differntly here in Australia. I grew up with a few Simons and they were all pretty masculine. It's a fairly normal name here, but isn't used on too many new babies at the moment.

Coll - I like Simon and Josephine! My picks for siblings would be Alastair and Georgianna. I like Nell but would use Penelope and nn her Nell.

Re Anges and Agatha. I'm very fond of both of these names but didn't seriously consider them because I think they are in the 'tough to pull off category'. I worried they would be better on a kid who is likely to be one of the pretty/popular crowd.

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By Amy3
August 10, 2011 8:32 AM

@Coll, love Simon and Josephine. My fave sibling names are Alistair and Nell (but like Chimu I'd use Penelope with Nell as a nn).

Re: Agnes and Agatha, I love these, too, but wouldn't use them irl. Growing up I had a dog named Agatha (nn Aggie) so that's right out. Agnes is a bit too daring for me, plus my husband thinks anyone named Agnes would "grow up to be sad." I agree these are names more easily used if you know you're going to have a beautiful kid (like Jennifer Connelly!).

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August 10, 2011 10:25 AM

haha, i'm glad everyone enjoyed the ella/zelda story. i'm afraid i might have sounded a little huffy when i informed him that, no, in fact, i DID mean zelda fitzgerald.

jane6,
my understanding is that ardith is a traditional name, just super uncommon. i think that it is hebrew. it shows up on name voyager in the 1900s and peaks in the 1930s (ranked 521). so far, the main examples on wikipedia are: the middle name of a playboy centerfold (born in 1931), and the first name of the plaintiff in the court case rankin v. mcpherson (took place in the 80s, but it looks like she was born in 1961 or 62).

pennyx,
regarding simon: haven't we run across husbands with that attitude on here before? it sounds familiar. in my opinion, it's just a matter of not understanding what is currently fashionable. maybe a simon would have been a geeky name a few decades ago, but no more. as laura says somewhere in the baby name wizard, "elegant gentleman are in." simon is currently ranked 251, which isn't common, but it certainly isn't unheard of. and it fits in perfectly with other "elegant gentleman" names that are currently very stylish and well-used (julian, sebastian, oliver, miles...). in other words, simon won't get beat up. he'll fit in very well with his peers. i think people just aren't aware that what is stylish has shifted. and maybe men are extra sensitive to the idea of "geeky" names? to me, simon is very intelligent sounding. and i love that long 'i' sound (or broad 'i' or whatever--someone on here once tried to explain why the concept of "long" and "short" vowels was defunct, but i'm afraid i was a poor student).

coll:
alistair! love that name. i'm also coming around to arthur. and i like nell, but as a nickname for something longer (penelope is great, but i think nell can be short for lots of things, right?). i think i could also get behind georgiana (but i also prefer one 'n,' as EVie says, as in P&P). i was won over to the nickname georgie by georgie henley, the adorable little girl from the chronicles of narnia movies (i just looked it up, and her first name is georgina).

zoerhenne,
maybe instead, i'd decorate ursula's bedroom with photos of ursula andress. juuuuust kidding. :]

oh, and i'm with you: hollis is all boy to me(name voyager shows that it has been historically male). the ssa numbers say that there were 47 girls and 86 boys named hollis in 2010.

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August 10, 2011 10:52 AM

I worked with a Hollis once who was in her late '40s. It took me by surprise, too. Must have been unusual for when she was a baby.