Sorry, Gert, not your year againWill Vivian go va-va-voom? Is Olivia over? Had enough Jacobs? Parents-to-be look to 'namerologists' for the next hot monikers
By Bonnie Miller Rubin
Tribune staff reporter
Published May 19, 2007
When the Social Security Administration announces its ranking of the top 1,000 names for baby boys and girls just before Mother's Day, Laura Wattenberg rolls up her sleeves and goes to work.
A mother of two from suburban Boston, Wattenberg is a self-confessed name geek who wants to know more than just whether Emily and Jacob are No. 1 for the umpteenth time.
Are old-sounding names like Isabella, Ava and Sophia -- all in this year's top 10 -- running out of steam, poised to be replaced by "new" old names, such as Ethel, Lois and Blanche?
"It's an exercise in fashion, values and fortune-telling," said Wattenberg, 37, who spends weeks entering the new name information into her master database. "Eighty years from now, the names we choose will be the sound of a generation, the stamp of an era."
The annual list was the brainchild of a Social Security actuary who hoped to bring more citizens to the agency's Web site. It has fueled a mini-industry that some dub "namerology," though the academic term is onomatology or onomastics.
Like analysts studying the market in search of the next sizzling stock, "namies" scrutinize the rankings and thrive on the thrill of discovering the next big thing or stumbling upon an amusing oddity. (This year, No. 152 for girls is Lucy; for boys, it's Ricardo.)
The interest goes far beyond expectant parents. The "Today" show even arranged for a live unveiling of this year's list by the Social Security commissioner, a first since the list debuted in 1997.
What particularly intrigues people like Wattenberg is what causes some names to heat up and then just as inexplicably to cool off. Why should a relic like Grace, all the rage in the early 1900s, suddenly be dusted off for the 21st Century?
Cleveland Evans, a psychology professor at Bellevue University, said girls' names often go through a 100-year cycle. (Boys' names, while also subject to fads, tend to be more stable over time.) Parents tend to avoid the names from the generation of their grandparents or great-grandparents because they bring "gray hair and wrinkles" to mind, Evans said.
But when that generation is no longer around, suddenly the names sound dewy fresh to parents -- sometimes puzzling their older relatives who find the names more suited to a nursing home. The cycling may explain the current fondness for Sophia and Emma, which last had a heyday in the 19th Century. It also may be why Sadie (now at 157) and Vivian (223) may be ready for stardom.
It's still too soon for a chestnut like Betty, however. The name, which crested in the 1930s, still conjures up an apron-wearing, cookie-baking image. But in another 20 years, pre-schools could be filled with a whole new batch of Bettys -- and the Debbies, Barbaras and Nancys will be right behind them.
Many of today's parents find that as hard as they try to choose a unique name, they fail.
Jennifer Thanos of Roselle was born smack in the middle of a Jennifer explosion in 1973, which included two of her close friends. "We just called each other by our last names -- and still do, even though we're all married," said Thanos, a hospital development director.
Her stepmother, now in her mid-50s, endured the same problem. With five Lindas in her 5th-grade class, circa 1961, the teacher arbitrarily chose one girl to retain her Linda-ness and forced the others to go by their middle names. For an entire year, she glumly answered to Patti.
Thanos was determined it would be different with her daughter. Torn between Ava and Mia, she obsessively checked Web sites to make sure the names weren't overexposed. When a maternity nurse said she had witnessed a recent Mia mania, that sealed the deal.
Now Ava is 2 years old -- and her name is No. 5 on the popularity list.
"Ava has had this meteoric rise, which really makes me cringe," Thanos lamented.
Stanley Lieberson, a Harvard University sociologist and author of "A Matter of Taste: How Names, Fashions and Culture Change," said the recycling of names is accelerating. Reasons include the migration from rural areas to cities, because a feeling of anonymity can drive a desire for uniqueness.
The increasingly diverse American society plays a role also, as race and ethnicity strongly affect naming patterns. (The top 100 boys' names include Diego, Juan, Angel, Jesus, Miguel and Alejandro.)
Although names are often influenced by pop culture, Stephanie Thompson insists the Maddox bandwagon currently rolling through her Park Slope neighborhood in Brooklyn has nothing to do with Angela Jolie's little boy. (The name has surged by 1,000 percent in the last three years).
"Most people I know just like the way it sounds," said the marketing writer. "You hear it -- and then it just lodges in your brain and stays there."
When her own son was born in 2004, she chose Oscar, a name that has risen to No. 118. While friends immediately embraced it, her parents laughed. One of her mother's friends even asked: "How could you do that to a small child?"
Thompson, 36, knew Oscar was old-fashioned, but because the playgrounds weren't teeming with them, she came to the name with no perceptions, positive or negative. "It just seemed new."
Of course, just because a name is antique doesn't mean it will stage a comeback. Gertrude, for example, is old but has remained on the shelf.
"Too many consonants packed together," Evans said, noting today's preferences for the lilting final "ah" sound found in seven of the top 10 girls' names.
Because of a confluence of trends, Wattenberg thinks Vivian is on a fast track. There's no clash of consonants, and it ends with the hugely popular "N." (Hayden, Ethan, Morgan.)
But what really gives it an edge? "The 'V' -- which is soaring" along with all the other exotic, end-of-the-alphabet letters, she said.
The Social Security list (ssa.gov/OACT/babynames) isn't perfect.
It ranks different spellings such as Hailey, Haley and Hayley separately, diluting a name's true strength.
More names, business
Even allowing for multiple versions, parents are choosing from more names than ever. In the 1980s, a typical book might be "5,000 Names for Baby"; now, titles tout 100,000 names.
Wattenberg has parlayed her hobby into a business, writing a book titled "The Baby Name Wizard" and developing an addictive Internet tool showing how names rise and fall in popularity (babynamewizard.com/namevoyager).
With all the options, making a choice is creating unprecedented anxiety for parents, who want to be original but not overly so. ("The trick is to choose a name that is unusual -- but not to the point of ridicule," said Thanos, citing Gwyneth Paltrow's daughter Apple.)
"The most remarkable thing is what they're not choosing," Wattenberg said. "The classic English name stock that has stood for centuries is suddenly disappearing. Nevaeh [heaven spelled backward] is now more common than Mary.
"Doesn't that say it all?"
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Name influences, from TV to Old Testament
Some observations, gleaned from experts.
Addison is at an all-time high (No. 27) as a girl's name, which some attribute to the popularity of the TV show "Grey's Anatomy." But nobody was giving babies that name when the fictional physician, age 39, would have been born.
Jack is big in blue states; Jackson in red.
There is no correlation between biblical names and the parents' level of religious observance. Old Testament names abound for boys, but feminine options are rare. So when a girl's name gets a foot in the door, it zooms to prominence. First it was Ruth, then Deborah and now Hannah. Sarah has remained in the top 100 for most of the last century.
Of all boys born in England between 1550 and about 1800, about half were given one of three names: William, John and Thomas. Half the girls were Elizabeth, Mary or Anne.
In their book "Freakonomics," Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner noted that 40 percent of African-American girls born in California in the 1990s received a name that not 1 in 1,000 white girls received. They also noted that the parents of a Tennyson tended to have more education (15.6 years) than parents of a Chastity (10.6).
The only two names experts say are officially dead: Bertha (it has come to symbolize size) and Adolph (for obvious reasons).
-- Bonnie Miller Rubin
And, while we're at it, the Social Security Administration has unveiled its top baby names for 2006.