Saturday, June 20, 2009

Baby names and popularity

I've always liked the name Stella. To me it's pretty, unusual, but familiar and easy to spell and pronounce - pretty much the perfect name. In the last few years, though, I've seen signs that it's becoming more common, and lately it has moved to my "great name, but too fashionable" list (others to move over to that list in the last five years include Emma, Sophia, and especially Olivia, which I loved before anybody else did.) Stella is clearly not in the same league as those stars yet, but it is on the rise, and since names that I think are pretty and were unusual have a way of taking off and hitting the top ten, I will probably stay away from it.

(For those who don't know me as well: no, there is no actual baby anywhere on my horizon that needs to be given a name. That has never stopped me from analyzing these things down to a hair's breadth.)

Since I have now returned to the field of caring for and entertaining small children (which seems to be my ground state) I have a great opportunity to observe recent name trends in action. As expected, I've run into lots of Isabellas and Sophias, your standard run of semi-androgynous girls (Madison, Addison, Presley, Riley), and a whole slew of boys with names that rhyme with Aiden. I've also met exactly one Stella. This got me thinking. Stella, at the moment, is a different kind of name from Madison and Presley, from Isabella and Sophia. It's the kind of name that name-conscious parents will recognize as attractive and fashionable, but isn't ubiquitous. Now, as I mentioned before, names like this are in grave danger of becoming ubiquitous in another couple of years (others in this class, currently, are Amelia, Lila, Nora, and Violet) but surely they can't all go supernova, right? What happens to the names that stay in that golden ground? How are they perceived, as the children grow up?

I turned to the naming trends of my own generation, and tried to think of names that might fit that description: names that had fashionable flair, but didn't become the Next Big Thing. I had trouble thinking of any that might fit. Vanessa, maybe? I turned to the SSA name rankings, an ever-present help. Stella was ranked 186 this year; it jumped from the 600s into the 200s a few years ago (a warning sign that a name may go supernova.) What names were ranked around the high 100s in 1981, the year I was born?

Morgan. Bonnie. Priscilla. Marissa. I was surprised - for the most part, these were names that I'd encountered once at most among my peers. You do have to adjust for demographic... most of the kids I knew growing up were white, middle-to-upper-middle-class, and churchgoers. It's not surprising that I didn't know any Ebonys (#178) but knew a number of Hannahs (#190). Even taking that into consideration, though, I had expected the names at this rank level to be more common. My own name, Virginia, ranks 159, and I've only ever met two or three my age.

The good news is, this greatly expands the ranking range I'll allow myself to look in when it comes to naming my own children. I don't mind them encountering a handful of other kids with their name; what I want to avoid is, first, always knowing somebody else who has their name, and second, having a name that solidly dates them to their generation.

My strategies (because who doesn't like to strategize about challenges that are nowhere on the horizon yet?) are as follows:

- On principle, avoid names ranked in the top 75.

- Search alternate versions and spellings to get a name's "real" popularity (in my year, Kristin and Kristen ranked 31 and 38, but taken together their percentage would put them in the top 10; if you add in Christine, Christina, and Christy with all their variant spellings, they're right up there with Jennifer).

- Watch for leapfrogging popularity. Olivia went from 123 to 50 in three years. Emma went from 151 to 81 in four. Ava went from 180 to 82 in just two years. These popularity jumps do telegraph themselves.

- Stay away from names that have been a) used for a popular TV character; b) given by a celebrity to their child; c) used for the fictional child of a popular TV character.

- Be aware of the "flavor" of popular names in your own demographic. I peg Stella, Amelia, Lila, and Violet as rising stars in mine partly because they have popped up more and more on a very name-savvy message board I frequent, but also because they reflect the flavor of the current hot names: they're classic, feminine but not frilly, and before they became popular they struck people as very old-fashioned.

It's just occurred to me that I've used all girls' names in this discussion. The reason is simple: I like girls' names better. But if (by some odd chance) you're reading this hoping to glean some wisdom to use in naming your son, I have one crucial piece of advice: don't, please don't, name him anything that rhymes with Aiden. We've got enough.*

*Don't believe me? In the top 100 for 2008, there are more Aidens, Jaydens, Braydens, Kadens, and Haydens than there are of the top four boys' names combined. There are more -aydens now than there were Michaels in 1981. I agree it's a pleasant sound, masculine but not rough, fitting well with the strong but sensitive men we want our sons to be, but the market is now saturated. If we don't stop now, half of our sons' class lists are going to rhyme.

1 comment:

Leah said...

Hey Lady, what do you use to figure out old rankings (or current ones, for that matter)? I'm curious about my name and a few others. I'm with you on not minding if my child occasionally meets others with his or her name; I just don't want it to be a constant. I don't have many names selected for girls, but I don't know the status of rankings for my sons' names (Peter, Henry, Christopher, Andrew, Joseph). By the way, I'm not a particular fan of Stella. It's too cutesy or something. I like many of the other names you mentioned, though. Fun post, friend.