“What in Thy Name?”—The History and Geography of Girls’ and Boys’ Names
Several fascinating historical patterns in girl’s names emerge from these data. According to Reuben Fischer-Baum, the author of the Jesebel.com post,
“the recession seems to have put a temporary damper on creative baby naming. In 2007, eight different baby names made the map—including less-traditional names like Addison, Ava, and Madison—and all carried at least two states. By 2012 the map has just five names, and 47 states went with either “Sophia” or “Emma.” A yearning for simpler times?”
At the first glance, the oil crisis and the subsequent stock market crash of 1973-1974 seem to correlate with the unprecedented homogeneity in the most popular baby girl’s name: all states at the time went for “Jennifer”. However, this pattern represented a continuation of the rising popularity trend for “Jennifer” that actually began earlier: this name topped the list in 31 states in 1970, 43 states in 1971, and 47 states in 1972. All in all, “Jennifer” remained the most popular girl’s name for fifteen years, despite the ebb and flow of the country’s economy. Nor does the pre- and post-9/11 data confirm the pattern identified by Fischer-Baum. In the period from 2000 and 2004—before and after the events of 2001—each year five names carried at least one state—except in 2002, when six names appear on the map.
The changes in the popularity of various names do seem to correlate with cultural factors. The two names that were most popular through the 1960s, “Mary” and “Lisa”, are old regal English appellations. The name “Mary”, which goes back to the Old Testament (derived from the Hebrew Miryām ‘sea of bitterness, sea of sorrow’), saw its popularity peak in the United States in 1880s (the charts on the left from BabyNameWizard.com show the popularity in the US). Its frequency decreased only gradually over the next six decades and it was still the most popular name as late as 1961.
In 1962, “Lisa”, newly abbreviated from “Elizabeth”, supplanted “Mary” as the most popular name nationwide. The Swinging Sixties, a cultural decade that many historians define as beginning in 1962-63, was no time for the long and ceremonial “Elizabeth”. Throughout the 1970s, “Lisa” remained in the top-10, but eventually lost popularity. A similar fashion for “Lisa” is apparent on the other side of the Atlantic: in the United Kingdom, this name began to gain popularity during the 1960s and by 1974 was the fifth most popular female name.
The tendency for choosing newly popular names continues throughout 1970s and 1980s, a period characterized by economic upheavals and the transition of the geopolitical hotspot from Southeast Asia to the Middle East. In 1970, “Jennifer” emerged as the most popular girl’s name, replacing “Lisa”; it retained that status for the longest period of any given name, 15 years. Of Celtic origin, “Jennifer” is a Cornish version of Guinevere (Gwenhwyfar in Welsh); until the 20th century, it was largely a regional name. Although George Bernard Shaw used it for the main female character in The Doctor’s Dilemma, “Jennifer” did not appear in the top 100 list for baby girls in Britain until 1934, more than a quarter of a century after Shaw’s play was first staged. In the UK, “Jennifer” never reached the same heights of fashion as it did in the US: its record popularity in Britain was #11 in 1984, by which time it already began to give ground to “Jessica” in the US. According to the Wikipedia article on the name “Jennifer”:
“though its popularity is often attributed to the use of the name in the novel and film Love Story, Jennifer was already the number three name given to baby girls in the United States in 1969, the year before the book and movie were released.”
The late 1980s and the early 1990s—the period that saw the end of the Cold War —is the time when “Jessica” became the most popular name, with the exception of the two-year period when “Ashley” briefly overshadowed it. (Originally a male name, “Ashley” was the most popular girl’s name for only two years, although it was a runner-up for six years prior to that.*) Probably of Biblical Hebrew origin, “Jessica” is the name of Shylock’s daughter in Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice. In England and Wales, the age of “Jessica” ascendancy trails that in the US by about 15 years, as its height of British popularity was reached in 2005.
The last name to retain its top ranking for more than a couple of years is “Emily”, which crowned the charts from 1996 through 2007. With roots in ancient Rome, this name has been hugely popular in the English-speaking world over the past two decades, ranking at or near the top in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand. Its cultural associations include Emily Dickinson, “evoking images of a woman who is both beautiful and smart”, as noted in a May 2008 Associated Press article.
From 2008 on, the most popular names began to replace each other at a faster pace: “Isabella” and “Sophia” were most popular for two years each, and “Emma”, whose initial popularity peaked in the 1880s, made a comeback, winning the top ranking in 2008.
What gives a certain name mass popularity is typically the appeal of some cultural figure, real or more often fictional, carrying that name. For example, “Madison” was originally a male name meaning ‘Maud’s son’ that turned into a surname; as a female given name, it was virtually unknown before 1985. Madison first appears on the map of most popular names in 1996, when it won three states: Utah, Oklahoma, and Kansas. Its popularity continued to grow and by 2002 it has become the second most popular name, carrying twenty-two states in the Plains, the South, the Mid-Atlantic, and the Midwest. The popularity of this mane is evidently due to the 1984 movie Splash, in which Daryl Hannah plays a mermaid who picked up English from watching television all day and chose her name from a Madison Avenue sign.
A somewhat similar story can be told in regard to the name Michelle. It briefly rose in popularity in selected states starting in 1967, when it emerged as the most popular girl’s name in Colorado. By 1969, it was the second most popular name after “Lisa”, carrying twelve states. Michelle’s popularity then continued to wane until it disappeared from the map of most popular names in 1972. Its brief surge in popularity is due to the eponymous Beatles song, which was written in 1965 and won the Grammy Award for Song of the Year in 1967. As “Michelle” became one of the most popular Beatles song in France, it would be interesting to see if it had an effect on name fashion in that country.
The geographical patterns in name choices are instructive as well. Surprisingly, the most fashionable names tend to first rise to the top of the charts not in the states that are commonly regarded as cultural leaders, such as New York, California, or Massachusetts. Quite the opposite is true: top names generally gain popularity initially in states such as Nevada (“Lisa”, 1960), Utah (“Jennifer”, 1969), Alaska and Maine (“Jessica”, 1980), Louisiana, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Indiana (“Ashley”, 1983), Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Connecticut (“Emily”, 1993), Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, and Vermont (“Emma”, 2002). However, the West and New England are the two region that are most likely to stand out from the rest of the country as forward-looking and experimental, choosing names that do not necessarily sweep the country. In 1960, names such as “Susan”, “Donna”, “Lori”, “Julie”, and “Karen” win the top spots in these states. In 1961, “Lisa”, which won the top spot in Nevada in the previous year, spreads across the entire West and most of New England, as well as Kansas, Oklahoma, Indiana, Tennessee, and Hawaii, in preparation for its accent to the national top ranking in 1962. “Mary”, however, continued to be popular in many states, except in the West and New England, through 1964; it was still the most popular name in Alaska as late as 1966 and in Mississippi as late as 1967.
Other regional patterns include the popularity of “Angela” and “Kimberley” in the South in 1970. “Angela” remained fashionable in such Southern states as Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee, and the Carolinas in 1971 and in Mississippi and South Carolina in 1972. Many Southern states tend to pattern distinctly from the rest of the country, choosing “Amanda” in 1979, “Ashley” in 1983, and “Brittany” in 1989 and 1990. In contrast, “Emily” virtually never made it to the top in the South during its twelve years of nationally ascendancy, with the exception of Georgia in 1999 and 2003-2005, and the Carolinas in 2005. Likewise, “Sophia”, the most popular female name nationally in 2011-2012, never made it big in the South, nor did the male name “Oliver”, which has become wildly popular in much of the rest of the country in the past few years.
More diversity is apparent when it comes to boy’s names according to the maps from Nick Mom (reproduced on the left). While only five girl’s names occupied the top position in at least one state in 2012—Sophia, Emma, Olivia, Isabella and Ava—twelve boy’s names did the same: Jacob, William, Liam, Mason, Alexander, Benjamin, Michael, Elijah, Noah, Ethan, James, and Jaden.
Parents in England, Wales, Scotland, Australia, and elsewhere in the English-speaking world have their own preferences for names (the maps on the left are reproduced from MindfulMum.co.uk). Interestingly, in the UK more geographical diversity is encountered in the popularity of girl’s names than boy’s names. Generally, Welsh parents fancy “Oliver” for boys and “Lily” for girls. The latter is also most favorite name with parents from southern England and the North East. In the Midlands, the most popular girl’s name is “Amelia”, in Yorkshire & Humberside and in North West it is “Olivia”, and in London it is “Isabella” (an American import, perhaps?). As for boys names, only three made it onto the map: “Jack” in the North East, “Daniel” in London, and “Harry” elsewhere—the only name to retain its popularity from the traditional trio of “Tom, Dick, and Harry”. (In the U.S, “Harry” does not even make it into the top 100 list.)
In Scotland, more diversity is found in the geography of both boy’s and girl’s names than in England: “Jack” is popular in some areas, as are “Alexander”, “Logan”, “James”, “Charlie”, “Harry”, “Daniel”, “Lewis”, and “Connor”. As for girls, the popular choices include: “Sophie”, “Isla”, “Olivia”, “Ava”, “Lily”, “Jessica”, “Amy”, “Emily”, “Eva”, and “Hannah”.
In Australia, four girl’s names and three boy’s names take the top slot in one state or territory each. “Ruby” is popular in New South Wales and Tasmania, “Olivia” in Victoria, “Charlotte” in Western Australia, South Australia, and Queensland, and “Chloe” in Northern Territory. As for boys, contrary to the jokes, “Bruce” is not among the most popular choices. “Jack” is the winner in Victoria, South Australia, Queensland, and Tasmania, “William” in New South Wales and Northern Territory, and “Noah” in Western Australia.
The final set of maps shows the most popular male name by country; note the popularity of “John”-variants in Iceland, Ireland, Portugal, and Lithuania; of “Luke”-variants in France, Norway, Switzerland, Austria, Slovenia, and Croatia; and of “George”-variants in Greece, Bulgaria, and—unsurprisingly—Georgia. In Russia and Ukraine, versions of “Alexander” are most popular.
*As a male name, the frequency of “Ashley” dropped virtually to zero around the turn of the twentieth century and rose again in the early 1980s.
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