What’s in a name?

You have probably heard by now of the latest survey of baby names, finding that the most popular names of last year were Jacob and Isabella.  But this article by Laura Wattenberg goes deeper, surveying the history of naming customs and noting, among other things, the impact of the internet in making parents think that they have to find an absolutely unique name, or at least a unique spelling.  A sample:

In the 1960s, a new cultural emphasis on individuality started us down the path we’re on now. More and more, parents wanted their children’s names to stand out, not fit in. Fewer and fewer children were given names in the top 25, and as the years went on, the No. 1 name in the country represented fewer and fewer babies. (While the ’70s powerhouse Jennifer seems ultra-common today, it never came close to the heights of earlier No. 1 names John and Mary. As for Jacob and Emily, they wouldn’t have even cracked the top 10 in John and Mary’s heyday.)

Then, in the mid-1990s, two forces turbocharged the dramatic diffusion of American baby names that we’ve seen over the past decade. The first was the Internet. Online life altered parents’ basic concept of name individuality. People started to think about names in the context of unique usernames and e-mail addresses. A century ago, one Amelia Jenkins might live a few towns from another Amelia Jenkins, and they would neither know nor care. But on the Web, we’re all next-door neighbors. Prospective parents of an Amelia Jenkins now type the name into Google or Facebook and freak out. They find dozens of Amelia Jenkinses. The name is “taken.”

The second big change came courtesy of Michael Shackleford, an actuary in the Social Security Administration who in 1997 took it upon himself to tally up and publish online a list of the most common names on newborns’ Social Security number applications. In past generations, parents were left to guess (often unsuccessfully) at name trends and popularity. Now, there is an official ranking.

The result of all this has been a sort of reverse arms race, with parents across the country desperate to make sure that their chosen name doesn’t come out too near the top. Half a century ago, 39 percent of all babies born in this country were given a name in the top 25. Today that number is down to 16 percent. The trend cycle is speeding up, too, as parents patrol for the new and the different, staying alert not just to a name’s current popularity but also to which way it is trending. Names rise fast, but they also fall fast. Miley/Mylee was one of the fastest rising names of 2007 and 2008; by 2009, it was one of the fastest fallers.

In eras past, name choices were aimed at an audience of family or community. We named babies after relatives, for instance, to honor them and to please those who loved them. Today, we leave the homages to middle names and approach naming more like an exercise in branding: We’re trying to position our new entry to give it the best possible advantage in life’s marketplace. That means standing out.

Yet a funny thing happened on the way to uniqueness. We may like the idea of distinctive names, but our tastes are as alike as they ever were. Even parents with different name sensibilities are influenced by the same underlying name fashions: Vowels, especially long vowels, are good — think Owen and Ava. The -n ending is also good, as in Kaitlyn and Mason. But clusters of consonant sounds are bad. (Sorry, Gertrude and Herman.) . . . .

So what happens when the irresistible desire to be different meets immovably similar tastes? You end up with those six names that rhyme with Aidan in the top 100 names of the 2000s, and 38 of them, from Aaden to Zayden, in the top 1,000. The irony is that classic English names such as George and Edward, Margaret and Alice — the names that used to be standard-bearers — all have distinctive sounds. They aren’t prisoners to phonetic fashion; each of them sounds instantly recognizable. Contemporary names, by contrast, travel in phonetic packs. More than a third of American boys now receive a name ending in the letter N. (In decades past, the most popular boys’ names were more evenly split between a number of endings, including D, L, S and Y.)

Call it lockstep individualism. Instead of a classroom with two Williams and two Jameses, today we have one Aydin, one Jaden, one Braedon and one Zayden — not to mention a Payton, a Nathan and a Kaydence. In our rush to bless our children with uniqueness, we’ve created a generation that sounds more alike than ever.

via Your baby is unique, but her name isn’t.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Partizan

    Had a conversation about this a while back. After looking at last year’s list of top baby names, it is interesting to note that traditional boy names are still very popular. Michael, John, Alex, etc. are all still top 10 names. The craziness begins when you go to the girl side.

  • Partizan

    Had a conversation about this a while back. After looking at last year’s list of top baby names, it is interesting to note that traditional boy names are still very popular. Michael, John, Alex, etc. are all still top 10 names. The craziness begins when you go to the girl side.

  • Lisa

    Freakanomics mentioned a study and attributed names to the lower and middle class trying to keep up with the upper class. Apparently every few years the rich people try to set themselves apart by following a new baby name trend and the names become known with being successful so everyone else starts naming their babies the same. Interesting book!

  • Lisa

    Freakanomics mentioned a study and attributed names to the lower and middle class trying to keep up with the upper class. Apparently every few years the rich people try to set themselves apart by following a new baby name trend and the names become known with being successful so everyone else starts naming their babies the same. Interesting book!

  • http://capnsaltyslongjourney@blogspot.com Dave

    As a teacher I tend to observe names children have. This year, oddly enough, I have one class with three girls who have the same first name and three boys who have the same first name (It’s not the same name for boys and girls, though I have had “Jordan” both male and female in one year). Two of the girls with the same first name have the same last initial. Christian parents tend to favor Bible names, with lots of Rebekah (never saw that spelling thirty years ago) and a recent influx of Jacob, Joshua, and Josiah. I think I’ve only had one Jane in the past ten years. I can’t recall ever having a Mary. What ever happened to the flower names for girls?

    I teach on the Internet so I don’t see my students’ faces except in the occasional picture. I’ve had numerous times when students have corrected me on their gender. I’d never get “Frank” or “Randolph” as girl names, nor would I pick “Sue” or “Barbara” as a boy name.

    Quite a society we live in.

  • http://capnsaltyslongjourney@blogspot.com Dave

    As a teacher I tend to observe names children have. This year, oddly enough, I have one class with three girls who have the same first name and three boys who have the same first name (It’s not the same name for boys and girls, though I have had “Jordan” both male and female in one year). Two of the girls with the same first name have the same last initial. Christian parents tend to favor Bible names, with lots of Rebekah (never saw that spelling thirty years ago) and a recent influx of Jacob, Joshua, and Josiah. I think I’ve only had one Jane in the past ten years. I can’t recall ever having a Mary. What ever happened to the flower names for girls?

    I teach on the Internet so I don’t see my students’ faces except in the occasional picture. I’ve had numerous times when students have corrected me on their gender. I’d never get “Frank” or “Randolph” as girl names, nor would I pick “Sue” or “Barbara” as a boy name.

    Quite a society we live in.

  • http://womanofthehouse-blog.blogspot.com/ womanofthehouse

    I wish parents would think more about what it will be like for their children to grow up and live as adults with “unique” names. I can’t believe some of the names parents are saddling their kids with.

  • http://womanofthehouse-blog.blogspot.com/ womanofthehouse

    I wish parents would think more about what it will be like for their children to grow up and live as adults with “unique” names. I can’t believe some of the names parents are saddling their kids with.

  • fws

    this is more obvious here in brasil. almost everyone seems to have a name ending in “on”. as the sound on “only”. and there are others named harley davidson, adolf hitler, frank sinatra….

  • fws

    this is more obvious here in brasil. almost everyone seems to have a name ending in “on”. as the sound on “only”. and there are others named harley davidson, adolf hitler, frank sinatra….

  • Orianna Laun

    The joys of picking baby names. We went through that before our child was born. The book we used for starters had normal and not so normal names. One sidebar suggested adding a D in front of a given name to make it more unique. Other sidebars were unisex names, Zodiac names, and names to avoid (Adolph being the first on the list).
    We considered Biblical and family names as well. We wanted to have a “normal” name–one that wasn’t “foghornable” (as defined by the radio program Garage Logic. The name we went with didn’t make the top ten for this year, and we have had many comments on a nice, old-fashioned name. (The middle did make the top 10, but that’s okay.)

  • Orianna Laun

    The joys of picking baby names. We went through that before our child was born. The book we used for starters had normal and not so normal names. One sidebar suggested adding a D in front of a given name to make it more unique. Other sidebars were unisex names, Zodiac names, and names to avoid (Adolph being the first on the list).
    We considered Biblical and family names as well. We wanted to have a “normal” name–one that wasn’t “foghornable” (as defined by the radio program Garage Logic. The name we went with didn’t make the top ten for this year, and we have had many comments on a nice, old-fashioned name. (The middle did make the top 10, but that’s okay.)

  • Louis

    My children have Biblical and Roman names. But in general I think that the author makes an excellent point – one that goes far beyond baby names –

    In our rush to bless our children with uniqueness, we’ve created a generation that sounds more alike than ever.

    Absolutely.

  • Louis

    My children have Biblical and Roman names. But in general I think that the author makes an excellent point – one that goes far beyond baby names –

    In our rush to bless our children with uniqueness, we’ve created a generation that sounds more alike than ever.

    Absolutely.

  • http://Sermons.WattsWhat.net Rev. Jonathan C. Watt

    We named our daughter Miciah (a feminized version of an OT prophet, 1 kings 22). Her name *always mispronounced in public forums. It is pronounced Mick Eye Ah (we usually us a bit of guttural flair on the ck). We chose the name because we were looking for a biblical name that was unique. We haven’t started a trend primarily, I think, because no one wants a name that is never pronounced correctly. So our daughter has the curse of a unique mispronounced name.

    She has a friend named Siouxzee. This is a common name with a unique spelling. I found it fascinating and rather liked it.

  • http://Sermons.WattsWhat.net Rev. Jonathan C. Watt

    We named our daughter Miciah (a feminized version of an OT prophet, 1 kings 22). Her name *always mispronounced in public forums. It is pronounced Mick Eye Ah (we usually us a bit of guttural flair on the ck). We chose the name because we were looking for a biblical name that was unique. We haven’t started a trend primarily, I think, because no one wants a name that is never pronounced correctly. So our daughter has the curse of a unique mispronounced name.

    She has a friend named Siouxzee. This is a common name with a unique spelling. I found it fascinating and rather liked it.

  • http://lutherama.blogspot.com Dr. Luther in 21st Century

    I have noticed a surge in unique spellings for common names that resemble user name spellings. I can hardly wait for the day when I have a kid in confirmation named “k@1yn”. Call us sheep, but our kids have Biblical names.

  • http://lutherama.blogspot.com Dr. Luther in 21st Century

    I have noticed a surge in unique spellings for common names that resemble user name spellings. I can hardly wait for the day when I have a kid in confirmation named “k@1yn”. Call us sheep, but our kids have Biblical names.

  • Winston Smith

    I knew a Micah once, named, of course, for the Old Testament prophet.

    I wonder whether he has gone through life constantly correcting people who think his name is “Michael.”

    “No, not Michael, it’s Micah. M … I … C … A … H …”

  • Winston Smith

    I knew a Micah once, named, of course, for the Old Testament prophet.

    I wonder whether he has gone through life constantly correcting people who think his name is “Michael.”

    “No, not Michael, it’s Micah. M … I … C … A … H …”

  • Kandyce

    My parents gave all of their children names that start with the letter K. They really didn’t intend to do so when they started having children, but it ended up that way. When I was a child, having a name that started with a K was unique, and now, in an effort to make traditional names that start with a C more unique, K’s are ubiquitous. Well, at least my parents were ahead of the trend. And by the way, having a “unique” spelling is frequently annoying, and having people compliment the spelling of your name is also annoying. My parents chose the spelling, I didn’t.
    (I do like my name, I just dislike always having to spell it out)

  • Kandyce

    My parents gave all of their children names that start with the letter K. They really didn’t intend to do so when they started having children, but it ended up that way. When I was a child, having a name that started with a K was unique, and now, in an effort to make traditional names that start with a C more unique, K’s are ubiquitous. Well, at least my parents were ahead of the trend. And by the way, having a “unique” spelling is frequently annoying, and having people compliment the spelling of your name is also annoying. My parents chose the spelling, I didn’t.
    (I do like my name, I just dislike always having to spell it out)

  • http://Sermons.WattsWhat.net Rev. Jonathan C. Watt

    We gave all our children 2 middle names. It started because we couldn’t decide who to name our first after. It was a compromise that stuck.

    Joshua Patrick Everett Watt
    Miciah Natalie Jean Watt
    Hannah Kristine Marie Watt

    Poor kids now have a problem every time they fill out a form that only allows one middle initial!

    What unnecessary trauma hath we wrought.

  • http://Sermons.WattsWhat.net Rev. Jonathan C. Watt

    We gave all our children 2 middle names. It started because we couldn’t decide who to name our first after. It was a compromise that stuck.

    Joshua Patrick Everett Watt
    Miciah Natalie Jean Watt
    Hannah Kristine Marie Watt

    Poor kids now have a problem every time they fill out a form that only allows one middle initial!

    What unnecessary trauma hath we wrought.

  • Kelly

    Winston @12: Our son is named Micah. We do occasionally get people who do a double take: “Michael?” We didn’t think it was THAT exotic! :o )

    But really… everyone is naming their kids after Twilight characters now??? After, presumably, naming them after Miley Cyrus a few years back?

  • Kelly

    Winston @12: Our son is named Micah. We do occasionally get people who do a double take: “Michael?” We didn’t think it was THAT exotic! :o )

    But really… everyone is naming their kids after Twilight characters now??? After, presumably, naming them after Miley Cyrus a few years back?

  • Kelly

    Sorry, that should say “Winston @10.”

  • Kelly

    Sorry, that should say “Winston @10.”

  • Brenda

    We had two rules for our kid’s names…Boys got ‘K’ names(following my husband’s family ) and the girls got family names with two middle names.
    Kenneth John
    Konrad Hall
    Sarah Effie Louise
    Crista Ann Marie

    Our kids’ in naming their children have so far kept the ‘K’ for boys:Kade. Kristian,and Kasen… but the the girl’s names are culture/literature driven… an Addison, an Elanor (specifically Tolkien-est), and Evalyn

    In our larger family we have:
    Grandpa Kenneth
    Kent
    Karl
    Keith
    Kenneth
    Konrad
    Kyle
    Kevin
    Kyle*
    Kody*
    Kole*
    Kade
    Kristian
    Kasen
    Koen*

    The stars indicate three stepson’s that came pre-named, and one new son of that line… He is KB15

    wife of KB2

  • Brenda

    We had two rules for our kid’s names…Boys got ‘K’ names(following my husband’s family ) and the girls got family names with two middle names.
    Kenneth John
    Konrad Hall
    Sarah Effie Louise
    Crista Ann Marie

    Our kids’ in naming their children have so far kept the ‘K’ for boys:Kade. Kristian,and Kasen… but the the girl’s names are culture/literature driven… an Addison, an Elanor (specifically Tolkien-est), and Evalyn

    In our larger family we have:
    Grandpa Kenneth
    Kent
    Karl
    Keith
    Kenneth
    Konrad
    Kyle
    Kevin
    Kyle*
    Kody*
    Kole*
    Kade
    Kristian
    Kasen
    Koen*

    The stars indicate three stepson’s that came pre-named, and one new son of that line… He is KB15

    wife of KB2

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    I was named some 300 years ago. I got a weird name, and I enjoy it. But names shouldn’t be unique just to be unique, there should be meaning behind it if there can’t also be tradition. That is my take on it.
    Sadly my son was named 300 years ago to. No choice with the first name. But Magnor, an Old Norse name ripped from the pages of Icelandic Sagas meaning fighter, is masculine and right.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    I was named some 300 years ago. I got a weird name, and I enjoy it. But names shouldn’t be unique just to be unique, there should be meaning behind it if there can’t also be tradition. That is my take on it.
    Sadly my son was named 300 years ago to. No choice with the first name. But Magnor, an Old Norse name ripped from the pages of Icelandic Sagas meaning fighter, is masculine and right.

  • Joe

    Bror – I was wanted to ask, how is your name pronounced?

  • Joe

    Bror – I was wanted to ask, how is your name pronounced?

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    Joe,
    Just like it is spelled, except if you are in Sweden you get to roll both rs and make it sound a bit more like what it means, brother.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    Joe,
    Just like it is spelled, except if you are in Sweden you get to roll both rs and make it sound a bit more like what it means, brother.

  • Louis

    Then there are regional / national differences:

    My named is pronounced in the proper French way (silent ‘s’). In SA, that was no problem. But over on this continent, I constantly get called “Lewis”. Or, if the hear it and write it down, they write “Louie”. Arrgh!

  • Louis

    Then there are regional / national differences:

    My named is pronounced in the proper French way (silent ‘s’). In SA, that was no problem. But over on this continent, I constantly get called “Lewis”. Or, if the hear it and write it down, they write “Louie”. Arrgh!

  • JoeS

    We are very happy with the only name we could agree upon; Gideon. Sure it ends with an N, but it is both rare and very familiar, though most people think “Gideon Bible” before they think “fought the Midianites with 300 men” though one person, when I told him about that, thought I was referring to Sparta at Thermopylae.

    I have an uncommon last name, so I only had to worry about names that started or ended in S, but my sister married a Brown, so they felt in necessary to avoid very common names (especially Charles or Robert…)

  • JoeS

    We are very happy with the only name we could agree upon; Gideon. Sure it ends with an N, but it is both rare and very familiar, though most people think “Gideon Bible” before they think “fought the Midianites with 300 men” though one person, when I told him about that, thought I was referring to Sparta at Thermopylae.

    I have an uncommon last name, so I only had to worry about names that started or ended in S, but my sister married a Brown, so they felt in necessary to avoid very common names (especially Charles or Robert…)

  • MikeR

    If anyone’s interested in perusing trends for specific names, check out: http://www.babynamewizard.com/voyager

  • MikeR

    If anyone’s interested in perusing trends for specific names, check out: http://www.babynamewizard.com/voyager

  • http://Sermons.WattsWhat.net Rev. Jonathan C. Watt

    It occurs to me also that my wife has a rare name. Waunita. Her’s is usually misspelled with a “J” (and then an “ua” instead of “au”) and people are always surprised to find out I’m *not* married to a Hispanic lady.

  • http://Sermons.WattsWhat.net Rev. Jonathan C. Watt

    It occurs to me also that my wife has a rare name. Waunita. Her’s is usually misspelled with a “J” (and then an “ua” instead of “au”) and people are always surprised to find out I’m *not* married to a Hispanic lady.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    We named our son Simon mainly because I’d always liked the name, but it has many other pluses as well. It is a Biblical name, but not in an over-the-top way (some Biblical names, especially Old Testament ones, just seem to be from a different American subculture than mine). It’s a name everyone knows, considers familiar, and knows how to spell, and yet there aren’t a ton of Simons around. It’s an old name, obviously, but it doesn’t make him sound like an old man. Ironically, we ended up giving him a common name that gives him a fairly unique name.

    But he got the same middle name shared by me, my father, my grandfather, and so on.

    In contrast, my name (also my handle here) was very popular in the 60s and 70s, but not so much now. If you meet a Todd, he’s probably in his 30s or 40s. So these trends have been going on for some time.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    We named our son Simon mainly because I’d always liked the name, but it has many other pluses as well. It is a Biblical name, but not in an over-the-top way (some Biblical names, especially Old Testament ones, just seem to be from a different American subculture than mine). It’s a name everyone knows, considers familiar, and knows how to spell, and yet there aren’t a ton of Simons around. It’s an old name, obviously, but it doesn’t make him sound like an old man. Ironically, we ended up giving him a common name that gives him a fairly unique name.

    But he got the same middle name shared by me, my father, my grandfather, and so on.

    In contrast, my name (also my handle here) was very popular in the 60s and 70s, but not so much now. If you meet a Todd, he’s probably in his 30s or 40s. So these trends have been going on for some time.

  • http://spaceagelutheran.blogspot.com/ SAL

    My Daughter’s name is Hadassah (from Esther 2:7).

    I suppose that’s a bit odd for a Lutheran but I liked the sound of the name and my wife thought the example of Hadassah was relevant to situations our daughter will face in America.

  • http://spaceagelutheran.blogspot.com/ SAL

    My Daughter’s name is Hadassah (from Esther 2:7).

    I suppose that’s a bit odd for a Lutheran but I liked the sound of the name and my wife thought the example of Hadassah was relevant to situations our daughter will face in America.

  • J

    SAL @24.
    You gave your daughter a beautiful name, but you did so because your wife expects Lutheran-targeted American pogroms?

  • J

    SAL @24.
    You gave your daughter a beautiful name, but you did so because your wife expects Lutheran-targeted American pogroms?

  • Catherine

    I love my name, as it’s quite classical but not as popular as say, Megan or Melissa or Amber in my age group. I went by Kate throughout grade school (which mightily confused people on the proper spelling of Catherine), as opposed to the sixty thousand Katies running around. Then when I hit college, I found people are incapable of spelling Catherine in either of the two most common spellings.

    I’ve found people trying to spell my name as Kathryn, Catharine, Katherin, Cathrin, and my “favorite”, Katharynne.

    Sorry people, my parents are plain and boring and I’m not unique. Even less unique when you realize Catherine is my mother’s middle name. :D

  • Catherine

    I love my name, as it’s quite classical but not as popular as say, Megan or Melissa or Amber in my age group. I went by Kate throughout grade school (which mightily confused people on the proper spelling of Catherine), as opposed to the sixty thousand Katies running around. Then when I hit college, I found people are incapable of spelling Catherine in either of the two most common spellings.

    I’ve found people trying to spell my name as Kathryn, Catharine, Katherin, Cathrin, and my “favorite”, Katharynne.

    Sorry people, my parents are plain and boring and I’m not unique. Even less unique when you realize Catherine is my mother’s middle name. :D

  • Kandyce

    My oldest sister’s name is Kathryn, but we’ve always called her Kathy, so I must confess I am not confident in the correct spelling of her name. I also have sisters named Karen and Katrina, and if you love name origins and meanings like I do, you will know that all three have the exact same origin and meaning. My parents were admittedly not interested in things like that.

  • Kandyce

    My oldest sister’s name is Kathryn, but we’ve always called her Kathy, so I must confess I am not confident in the correct spelling of her name. I also have sisters named Karen and Katrina, and if you love name origins and meanings like I do, you will know that all three have the exact same origin and meaning. My parents were admittedly not interested in things like that.

  • http://www.hempelstudios.com Sarah in Exile

    I wonder, also, with the influx of immigrants there is a more unique mix of names in the classroom. When my husband’s father came here from India, he didn’t go by his given name at work or socially. Everyone called him “Bob.” We wanted to honor our daughter’s heritage, but gave her a name that is very phonetic and pronounceable for both Indians and Americans. Win-win?

  • http://www.hempelstudios.com Sarah in Exile

    I wonder, also, with the influx of immigrants there is a more unique mix of names in the classroom. When my husband’s father came here from India, he didn’t go by his given name at work or socially. Everyone called him “Bob.” We wanted to honor our daughter’s heritage, but gave her a name that is very phonetic and pronounceable for both Indians and Americans. Win-win?

  • MikeR

    Nevaeh (that’s heaven spelled backwards) was the 34th most popular girls name in 2009. I think this was mentioned in Revelation somewhere as a sign of the apocalypse.

  • MikeR

    Nevaeh (that’s heaven spelled backwards) was the 34th most popular girls name in 2009. I think this was mentioned in Revelation somewhere as a sign of the apocalypse.

  • http://Sermons.WattsWhat.net Rev. Jonathan C. Watt

    I remember now also an acquaintance who named his son George. It used to be a popular name but now not so much. What makes this name unique is that he married a Japanese woman. They wanted a name that reflected both cultures and George sounds like Jee-O-gee. Which is a common Japanese name. As I think, his name may have been Geogie, and the just called him George. At any rate, an interesting “behind the name.”

  • http://Sermons.WattsWhat.net Rev. Jonathan C. Watt

    I remember now also an acquaintance who named his son George. It used to be a popular name but now not so much. What makes this name unique is that he married a Japanese woman. They wanted a name that reflected both cultures and George sounds like Jee-O-gee. Which is a common Japanese name. As I think, his name may have been Geogie, and the just called him George. At any rate, an interesting “behind the name.”