More Names, or Just More Spellings?

Apr 3rd 2014

Readers occasionally suggest that the modern era of name diversity, where the top of the popularity curve seems to be flattening, may not be as diverse as it seems.

What if what's really changed isn't the way we name, but the way we spell? Replacing John with Aiden, Aidan, Ayden, Aidyn, Aden, Aydin and Ayden could make for a statistical fracturing of popularity without any greater variety in spoken names.

Back in 2006, I tried testing that hypothesis. I compared the #1 combined-spelling name of the time, Aiden, with the last single-spelling #1 name, Robert. Here's the graph I came up with.

The bump on the right-hand side was the Aidens. My conclusion at the time: "No matter how you slice it, a #1 name just isn't what it used to be." The explosion of spellings was more a symptom of the movement away from traditional names than the cause of the stastical phenomenon.

Eight years later, I'd like to revisit that analysis and take it a little further. At the top of the boys' charts, little has changed. Jacob remains the #1 individual name (despite dropping steeply), and Aiden remains the leader when you combine spellings. And both names continue to be dwarfed in popularity by the hot names of generations past.

But let's think a little more broadly. A decade ago, I started calling our naming era "The Age of Aidens." That title went beyond spelling to encompass a whole rhyming family of Jaydens, Bradens and beyond. How do all of those rhyming names compare to Robert?

Aha! If you're willing to treat everything from Aaden to Zayden as one mega-name, you can approach the popularity of names of the past.

To make the comparison fair, though, we should let Robert have a name-sound family, too. Let's try the -aidens vs. the -berts:

The advantage tilts back to the Age of Robert. You'll get similar results comparing the Age of Aidens to other hot sound groups of the past, like the 1930s Age of Geralds, Donalds and Ronalds, or the 1950s Age of Larrys, Jerrys and Garys.

Yep, our parents, grandparents and even great-grandparents got swept up in name trends too. The difference was that they agreed on a small set of standard names to comprise a trend. The combined peak of the three names Gerald, Ronald and Donald reached higher than the combined peak of 33 -aiden names, with seven distinct pronunciations. That fracturing represents a combined explosion of name diversity, creative spelling, sound-driven style, and rejection of traditional name boundaries.

Put it all together and the defining characteristic of this naming era is parents' desire to feel that their child's name is distinctive.

Where parents of the past might have wanted a stylish, contemporary sound, they were willing to choose from a basic menu and share choices with their friends and neighbors. Today's parents make clear that they don't want their kids to share names. They're also more than willing to order from off the menu.

Let's say Donald was a "cup o' joe" name. We're still a nation of coffee drinkers, but a name like Kaedyn, given to 98 American boys (and 41 girls) last year, is more like a Starbucks order crossed with a custom ring tone. It's a venti double skinny vanilla latte that has to call out to you and only you.


April 7, 2014 12:30 PM

Great article, Laura!

I am a classic girl and just never understood the interest in the trendy/new names... mostly from fear of how they will be perceived for years to come. My guess is in 15 years the age of Aidens will come to a close and these names will all feel super dated. I worry over the first impressions someone with a very unusual spelling will have to deal with. Some spellings come across as ignorant since they don't follow spelling rules. K and C are not interchangable, likewise with I and Y. I anticipate a wave of children changing their names to the most recognized forms the day they turn 18. :)

Love your site!

April 10, 2014 10:59 PM

And the great irony is that, with all these different spellings and the desire of parents to have their children be perceived as distinctive and special, apart from all the other kids through a name, none of them are special or individual at all.