Home > culture/society > Baby Names Over the Years: The Good, the Bad, and the Nauseating

Baby Names Over the Years: The Good, the Bad, and the Nauseating

Thursday, August 23, 2012, 22:04 EDT Leave a comment Go to comments

Unborn baby name tagDon’t ask me what got me thinking about baby names today. But whatever it was led me to do some online poking, and before I knew it I was on a Social Security Administration web site checking out what American parents have been calling their newborns for about the last 130 years.

When I was growing up back in the dark ages of the 1960s and ’70s, kids had decidedly boring names. My elementary school classmates had names like Jimmy, Susan, David, Patty, Paul, Karen, Diane, Tommy, and Anthony. OK, so David was mostly known by the nickname Mookie (rhymes with kooky), Mary Ann was known as Mimi, and Anthony went by Chip to distinguish him from his father, after whom he was named. And I’m pretty sure every girl’s middle name was either Ann/Anne or Marie, and not just the compound-name girls like Mary Ann and Anne Marie. I know, yawn. The most interesting names among my peers were Clive (pronounced like cleave), who was of Chinese ancestry, and Lois, whose name seemed very exotic to me because the only other Lois I had ever heard of was Lois Lane from the Superman comics.

Since then, it seems that names have become a little more, shall we say, complex. And the “in” names are changing faster than they used to. I took some time this evening to compile the the top five boys’ and girls’ names for each decade since the federal government began keeping track in 1880. Since the 2010s are just underway, I included each of the years 2010 and 2011 as well. You’ll find the list after the jump. I have bolded the names that broke the top five for the first time. If you don’t see what you consider to be a popular name on this list, remember that these are merely the top five for each period. At the web site, you can look farther down each list, where the chances are you’ll find the name you’re looking for.

1880-89 1890-99 1900-09
John Mary John Mary John Mary
William Anna William Anna William Helen
James Emma James Margaret James Margaret
George Elizabeth George Helen George Anna
Charles Margaret Charles Elizabeth Charles Ruth
1910-19 1920-29 1930-39
John Mary Robert Mary Robert Mary
William Helen John Dorothy James Betty
James Dorothy James Helen John Barbara
Robert Margaret William Betty William Shirley
Joseph Ruth Charles Margaret Richard Patricia
1940-49 1950-59 1960-69
James Mary James Mary Michael Lisa
Robert Linda Michael Linda David Mary
John Barbara Robert Patricia John Susan
William Patricia John Susan James Karen
Richard Carol David Deborah Robert Kimberly
1970-79 1980-89 1990-99
Michael Jennifer Michael Jessica Michael Jessica
Christopher Amy Christopher Jennifer Christopher Ashley
Jason Melissa Matthew Amanda Matthew Emily
David Michelle Joshua Ashley Joshua Sarah
James Kimberly David Sarah Jacob Samantha
2000-09 2010 2011
Jacob Emily Jacob Isabella Jacob Sophia
Michael Madison Ethan Sophia Mason Isabella
Joshua Emma Michael Emma William Emma
Matthew Olivia Jayden Olivia Jayden Olivia
Daniel Hannah William Ava Noah Ava

What I find interesting is the degree to which the girls’ names have changed much more frequency than boys’ names. I suspect that one big reason is the tendency of men to want to pass on their names to sons, a desire women for the most part have not acted on with daughters. The older boys’ names are names you would find among boys even today. Nobody would find it strange to meet a young schoolboy today named Michael, John, or Charles. When newer names have cracked the top five, they have hung around much longer. (I predict one exception will be a top-5 name of the last two years, Jayden. Where did that one come from, and when will it go away?)

The naming of daughters seems to follow a different pattern, one where trendiness is the order of the day. For that reason, names that were considered hip in decades past now sound hopelessly dated. Nobody names their girls Barbara or Margaret or Helen any more. Likewise, in 40 or 50 years, kids will hear names like Madison and Isabella and Ashley and picture wrinkled old ladies with bad dye jobs.

But just as in fashion or decorating, baby name trends are cyclical. For the last decade or so, Emma has been in the top five for girls, as it was back in the 1880s. Similarly, if you look farther down the lists, you’ll see that Sarah, Ava, and other recently popular girls’ names are the same names our great-great-grandmothers might have had. I find some of those old-fashioned names charming, as opposed to other recently popular names that come across as too sickeningly adorable to have to hear after a big lunch.

By way of example, some parents have discovered that they can make their daughter’s name “unique” by substituting a “Y” where an “I” would ordinarily be. I know people who did this and saddled their girls with names with two or three Y’s. In fact, one of my Facebook friends and former co-workers recently decided that her own name, Kimberly, wasn’t precious enough, so she began spelling it Kymberlie. Yikes!

Then there was the girlfriend of an old neighbor of mine, who had a daughter (the girlfriend did, not the neighbor) who was about my son’s age, around kindergarten. The little girl’s name was Amanda, which always made me think of I Dream of Jeannie‘s Amanda Bellows and her wind-resistant bouffant hairdo. Then one day I heard the mother call the daughter in for supper. “Amanda Danielle, time to eat!” Amanda Danielle? Why would anyone burden their offspring with such a mouthful?

Personally, I think the world would be a better place to live if parents stopped using their kids’ names to out-cute each other. Because when those kids with the trendy names become adults, their names are going to be about as trendy as flocked wallpaper and avocado green appliances. Which is to say, Eeeewwwwwww.

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