The Trend That Has Quietly Taken Over Baby Names

Mar 24th 2016

A small, elite group is quietly taking over American baby names. Not Hollywood celebrities, not Wall Street bankers…vowels. The letters a, e, i, o, u and y have become the most dominant force in modern baby name style.

Of course, vowels have always been powerful. They're an essential ingredient in every word and every name, the glue that holds it all together. Over the past generation, though, they've risen from supporting players to star attractions. Vowels make up a much greater proportion of American baby names than ever before.

This trend holds true for boys and girls alike, across all name styles. In the historical graph below, you'll see the ratio of vowels to consonants in all names given to American babies. The ratio reflects actual name usage, so if 50,000 girls were named Jennifer in a particular year, the name Jennifer would count 50,000 times in that year's tally. The top orange line represents girls' names and the bottom green line boys'.

The first thing you'll notice is that girls' names have always featured more vowels than boys' names. The biggest driving factor in this difference is name endings.  An -a ending is the classic feminine name marker, and diminutive endings like -ie are mostly female as well. Hard consonant endings, meanwhile, typically point toward the masculine. (Try thinking of a girl's name ending in -rd, or -k.)

Looking at the trend, the concentration of vowels has risen dramatically for both sexes since the 1980s, with both currently hitting new all-time highs. On the boys' side, the rise in vowels is unprecedented. Boys' names used to change more slowly than girls', and the boys' graph reflects this with a century of stable vowel usage. Then in the past generation, everything changed. Boys' names became just as subject to the changing winds of fashion as girls', and that meant more vowels.

For perspective, take a look at the dotted gray line on the graph. That line represents the vowel/consonant ratio in typical English text, like a book or newspaper. Historically, boys' names have always been heavier on consonants than common text. Now, for the first time, they're lighter.

The trend would be even more dramatic if we looked at distribution of vowels throughout a name. Parents prefer to insert vowel sounds between consonant sounds, rather than allowing consonants to mass together and gain strength. The only boy's name in today's top 10 with consecutive consonant sounds is Alexander. Compare to Robert, George, Charles, Edward, Frank and Walter a century ago.

The movement toward vowels isn't absolute. It's easy to find examples of new consonant-packed hits, like Harper and Jackson. But it is a style trend of extraordinary scope. It encompasses other big trends I've identified, like liquid names and raindrop names. It's the engine in the background propelling traditional names like Olivia, Isaiah and Abigail to new heights, and making Aria, Aiden and Ava some of the fastest-rising names of their generation. At the same time, it has sped the decline of classic English names like Margaret and Richard, and kept Mildred and Walter from enjoying the same kind of antique revival as Amelia and Oliver.

Incredibly, a megatrend like this can shape a whole generation of names without any parents deliberately favoring it.  If you like classic names, or unisex names, or cowboy names, you know that and you target the style. But millions of parents didn't start their name hunt by saying "let's hold down the concentration of consonants." Vowel dominance isn't a style in itself but a secret sauce that makes one name sound a little bit better than another. It might have started with just a couple of stylish sounds, or a desire to move away from the familiar English standards. Then it developed its own momentum, as the sound of vowels increasingly represented the fresh and contemporary. Now it quietly guides your choices within your own sense of style, whatever that style may be.



March 25, 2016 11:51 AM

I really feeling like I am part of this group, it's a good group to be in ! But it's funny I noticed this trend in my own list earlier

March 30, 2016 3:40 PM

how about Ieuan for vowel-dominance?  just another celtic version of John (along with Euan, Ewan, Ewen, Evan, Sean, Shawn etc   Pronounced Yai-yan, with the stress on the first syllable.    

I think it's got something, though you have to feel sorry for a little Ieuan learning how to spell his name

May 2, 2016 4:19 PM

Definitely followed this trend with my kids, born between 2006 and 2015, just calculated their vowel to consonant ratios and it goes .6, .75, 1 (boys) and then my daughter last year has twice as many vowels as consonants!

May 25, 2016 12:49 AM

Curlew -- My nephews middle name is Ieuan. They had to get his birth certificate fixed because the registrar read it as Ievan.