Sunday, May 20, 2012

What's in a name? Depends on the year.

When my son was born in 1977 I wanted a name that was solid and unmistakably male, popular, and easy to spell. So I chose David. (Sally's brother's name is David, so that also counted toward my decision.)

When I worked for a large school district at the first of every school year I walked down the halls of  elementary schools and on cork boards outside the kindergarten or first grade classes the teachers would post the kids' names. I could see what the most popular names were five or six years previously. Now I go online and look them up. They give us a pretty good idea of what's hot right now. People haven't a lot of imagination. If not naming the kid after a family member, they pick a name from a movie, pop or television star.

According to a web site with popular names, "David" was number four in 1977, right behind Michael, Jason and Christopher, and just ahead of James, Robert and John.

(I'm speaking strictly of American lists of popular names.)

Of those names, only two are still in the top forty thirty-five years later. James comes in at number 13, and Michael at number 15. Why in the world would great names like David, Jason, Christopher, Robert or even John (arguably the most common name in the English language) have fallen off the list? I have no answer for that, except that names go through fads and phases. This year we have Mason, Liam, Ethan, Noah, and Jacob as the top five, none of which were even on the list in 1977.

Going back to the year I was born, 1947, James, Robert, John, William were the top four, joined by number 5, Richard. Richard had dropped to number 20 in 1977, and is off the top 40 list for 2012.

David may have dropped off the list, but he's still my number one son!

Sally (also not on the top 40 for 2012...or 1977 or even 1947) and I wonder sometimes what happens to names. The girl names we grew up with were Linda, Patricia, Barbara, Sandra, Carol, Nancy...if you look down the list of top 100 names for 1947 the names are virtually all gone from today's lists. When our generation had our children our kids got the popular names of that era, and when they started having their own babies they went to their own popular names list.

There isn't one girl's name on the 2012 top 40 list except for Elizabeth that appears on the top 100 from 1947. Linda was the most popular girl name for the decade of the 1940s, having replaced Mary, which had ruled unchallenged as most popular girl's name for at least the first forty years of the century.

In 1977, when we Baby Boomers were still in our late twenties and early thirties and still having children, names we chose for girls at that time were names like Jennifer, Melissa, Amy, Jessica and Heather. Elizabeth, bless her, is in the top 20 of that list, coming in at number 13. It's the only girl's name to be on all three of my lists.

Flashing forward from the year of my son's birth to the birth years of his girls, 2006 and 2007, he named his older daughter Isabella, which hadn't appeared on a list of the top 1,000 girl's names before it came back in popularity, and has hovered at or near number one ever since. His younger girl, Gabriela, has missed the cut for top 40 in 2012.

David said he got the name from actress Isabella Rossellini, but there's really no telling why a name grows legs and takes off. In the case of Isabella some have speculated it's because of the Twilight series of books, where Isabella is the name of the main character.

I miss those names I grew up with. I miss Steve, Mike, Bill, Rick, Kenny or Scott. Who'd have ever thought that Steve would drop off the list of popular boy names? Or Bill? Incredible. I miss names like Patty, Peggy, Margie, Linda, Kathy...and have pleasant associations with all those names. Yes, I understand it's because of my familiarity with them, having grown up with them.

There is a tendency—wrong-headed, I think—to use variant spellings on names to make a child unique. Spelling a familiar name differently may not work in the way the parent intended, especially if the person having that name goes through life having to spell it for everyone. Naming your child something unusual or difficult to pronounce may cause a hiring manager to put their résumé to the side. It's sad but true that prejudice, even prejudice caused by nothing more than a name, may affect a child's future.

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