Oh no!
It looks like you aren't logged in to the Ethel community. Log in to get the best user experience, save your favorite articles and quotes, and follow our authors.
Don't have an Online Account? Subscribe here

The Changing Name Game: Madison and Parker Have Edged Out Barbara and Susan

How to tell someone's age by their name.

Comment Icon
names, changing, old name, young name, illustration
Mark Butchko
Comment Icon

Celebrities often pick baby names that make our heads turn, like Beyonce’s daughter Blue, Gwyneth Paltrow’s daughter Apple and Rachel Griffith’s son Banjo. Kim Kardashian and Kanye West named their children North, Saint, Chicago and Psalm. Everyone has an opinion on whether such names are weird or cool. But would most people be inspired to use colors, foods or even cities and directions to identify children?

All new parents want to give their offspring names that will be strong and ensure confidence. It may be that they want distinctive names, yet has the creation of standout names gone too far? Or, are things actually going full circle and returning to more familiar names? Both are true.

“Popular names reflect what's going on in the popular culture of the time,” said Cleveland Evans, professor emeritus at Bellevue University and a former president of the American Name Society. The Great Big Book of Baby Names is Evans’ guide to help parents choose from lists of classic, traditional or unusual names.

Popular culture seems to influence every generation’s naming trends. Evans notes that during the 19th century, names like Ida, Edith, Bertha, Maude and Arthur became popular after characters in poems or novels. Some of these names continued in popularity in the early 1900’s, including the names of our parents and their friends. These monikers like Gertrude, Sylvia, Morris and Irving, as well as Herbert, Herman, Hubert and Harold, may seem dated and better left to the older generation.

Michelle Napierski-Prancl, a sociology professor at Russell Sage College, personally experienced the impact of popular music on the naming of infants. In 1965, the Beatles released their song “Michelle,” and that year her name entered the top 20 list on American birth certificates for girls. In 1968, it was the second most popular name, but slipped to 263 in 2018. “As someone growing up with this name, my teachers and coaches would always sing the chorus to me,” she said.

In the middle of the previous decade, the success of the Broadway show Hamilton and its historical tale likely contributed to the popularity of Alexander, George and Eliza, demonstrating the intersection of musical and political influences on baby names. “Before television, radio or movies, people drew on politicians as a source of names in ways that are not as prevalent today,” said Robert Urbatsch, associate professor of political science at Iowa State University. “I doubt people care about the incredible number of Americans who named their children after William Henry Harrison, the ninth president.”

Parade magazine compiled lists from Nameberry, the Social Security Administration and BabyCenter and found the top boys’ names for 2020 were Liam, Noah and William. The top three names for girls were Emma, Olivia and Ava, modern yet old-fashioned as well.

As each generation seems to have its own trends, many retirees can often guess the age of a fellow boomer by their names. There are Susans, Barbaras, Judiths, Lindas and Janes to name a few. Their male partners and friends are often Richards, Roberts, Freds, Alans, Stephens and Anthonys.

What names did these parents choose for their children born in the ’70s? Nursery schools abounded with Jennifers, Matthews, Chads, Justins and Brians. And when these GenXers had their chance to name offspring, they welcomed Mason, Reiley/Riley, spelled any which way, and Chloe. Let us not forget the onset of gender-neutral names like River, Madison, Dylan, Parker and Skyler. “I went to school with boys named Paul, Mark and Richard and girls like Kathy, Debbie and Donna,” said Steven Safirstein, a new grandfather. “I’m OK with the new names young parents use nowadays, but I hope the kids with unique names don’t suffer growing up. I was taken by surprise when my son and daughter-in-law were considering a name like Odin or Thor from their favorite comic books.”

Alas, like many things in life that seem to cycle back, names from previous generations like Sophie, Max, Harry, Margaret, Rose and Hazel, can now be heard on playgrounds. While some celebrities continue to balk at the traditional, others stick to the mainstream. Carrie Underwood’s son is Jacob, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s daughter is Nicole and Quentin Tarentino named his son Leo.

New Jersey grandmother Linda Evans noted, “When I had my daughter in 1979 and named her Sarah, my mother warned that I was burdening her with an old-fashioned name. But Sarah always liked her name, even after finding it was prevalent among her classmates. I’m happy to see that the name has been rejuvenated.”

Editor's Picks
Why I never grow tired of these flicks.
, June 13, 2024
From lip balm to sunscreen, we’ve got you covered.
, June 13, 2024
These picks are deeply fascinating page-turners.
, June 13, 2024