I was supposed to be a boy named Michael.
As the youngest of six children born in fewer than eight years, by June 1958 when I was due to arrive, my parents were hoping their troupe of three girls and two boys (whom they assigned traditional names of Mary Pat, Maureen, Madeleine, Bill and Paul) — would become a symmetrical gender-split of three to three with a new baby boy.
Out came a baby girl they named Michele.
Decades before ultrasounds and prenatal gender “reveal” parties announcing a child’s gender with pink or blue balloons and cupcakes with pink or blue frosting, parents counted on intuition and shape of the baby bump — large and round believed to be a girl; more oblong and sticking out straight, a boy.
The parents of many of us in the generation born in the 1950s and 1960s in the United States clung to traditional family names. Androgenous last names like Carter and Parker often became first names — a trend that has accelerated over the years. My oldest son has my last name as his first; his last name is his father’s.
Today some strong old-fashioned girl names are making a comeback. The most popular baby girl names for 2023 include classics like Ava, Emily, Eleanor, Hazel and Grace. Other vintage chart-toppers this year are Aurelia and Ophelia.
Some boomer generation names, like Mary, Jennifer and Michelle (thank you, Paul McCartney, for validating my name in the Beatles’ 1965 classic), are not seeing a revival.
Names are critical not only to individuals and families but to communities and the wider culture.
“Your name is your outward face to the world,” says psychiatrist Jean Kim. “Some classic names are coming back, such as nostalgic names like Charlotte ... A name has always been a cue to identity," Kim says, "and now perhaps they will be less trendy and more timeless.”
Among timeless girls’ names that rank among the most popular now are those with a melodic flow, ending in the letter A — Sophia, Isabella, Amelia, Ella.
Counter to the shift back to traditional names, in the past few years there has been a “shift to individualization in given names through such strategies as unorthodox spellings and the creation of new, innovative names,” according to The Oxford Handbook of Names and Naming.
Those born in the '50s and '60s may see that trend as ongoing. Late rock superstar Frank Zappa named his oldest child Moon Unit in 1967, followed by siblings Dweezil, Ahmet and Diva Muffin. The late Michael Jackson, born in 1958, named his children Prince, Paris and Blanket, now Bigi. Actor Gwyneth Paltrow and then-husband Chris Martin, the Coldplay lead singer, are parents to Apple and Moses.
“It is such a momentous occasion to name a new human life,” says Shalini Shankar, professor of anthropology and Asian American studies at Northwestern University and author of Beeline: What Spelling Bees Reveal about Generation Z’s New Path to Success.
“Naming has become so much more diversified in younger generations, unlike Gen X, when everyone was named Jennifer or Jessica,” says Shankar. The 2008 song, “27 Jennifers” by Michael Doughty is a reminder of that name’s popularity.
In her research and personal observations, Shankar found, “People who come from other parts of the world with phonetic systems that are difficult for English speakers often want to find names that are easier to pronounce.”
In the Black community, names have honored traditions, though they change with the times.
Jennefer Witter is founder and CEO of the Boreland Group Inc., a firm that focuses on woman- and minority-owned businesses. She says naming shifted after the airing in 1977 of the popular TV miniseries “Roots,” based on the 1976 Alex Haley novel.
“In many Black families there were names in the '50s, '60s, '70s that were traditionally Anglo names like Karen or Michelle," she says. After “Roots,” more African-sounding names began to appear.
Some of today's most popular names for Black baby girls, like Ada, Latifa and Jamila have African roots.
In 2022, researchers from the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Chicago sent 83,000 job applications to more than 100 of the largest employers nationwide. They found that résumés, of individuals with Black-sounding names were called back 10 percent fewer times than those with white-sounding names.
“There is implicit bias when you hear a name,” Witter says. “Within seconds you are creating an image of this person. ... All these misperceptions can impact people of color.”
For transgender individuals, a distinctly gendered name change is a sign of pride and ownership — think Bruce Jenner becoming Caitlyn. “When they rename themselves, it’s the ultimate act of reclaiming identity,” Kim says.
A rising trend for more than a decade is the unisex baby name such as Tyler, Wyatt, Jayden and Rowan, which, according to Kim, “is safe in a way; you are not able to be pigeonholed." Joanne Rowling in 1977 sold her first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, as J.K. Rowling, because her publisher suggested she would have more sales without a female-sounding name. To that end, 19th-century French novelist Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin published her books as George Sand.
For anyone who may believe that the art and science of naming babies is fickle, researchers at the University of Washington and Ohio University reveal in a 2022 study published in the Journal of Evolutionary Human Sciences that name choices can be related to months, seasons, climate and geography.
Examining names from 1910 to 2021 collected by the U.S. Social Security Administration, those researchers found the names April, June and Autumn consistently popular for girls.
“I think by the time they are adults, people either embrace their name and the history behind it or they change it,” says anthropologist Shankar. “Very few people remain ambivalent about it.”
As for my own name? Yes, I love Michele (spelled with one “l” because my mother did not want my name to have “hell in it.”) I would have loved to give a daughter my name but didn’t have the chance. Great news is I have three wonderful adult sons — Weldon, Brendan and Colin. My youngest son’s middle name is Michael. So we come full circle.
What's YOUR favorite old-fashioned girls' name? Let us know in the comments below.
The Old-Fashioned Girls' Names That Are Making a Comeback
Here are the vintage chart-toppers for 2023.
I was supposed to be a boy named Michael.