Say Goodnight, Grace (and Julia and Emma, too)
By DAVID LEONHARDT
New York Times Published: June 24, 2011
When the Social Security Administration released its annual database of baby names earlier this year, there were plenty of grabby little details. Isabella and Jacob remained the most popular names for the second straight year — Jacob has been the No. 1 boy’s name since 1999 — while Iker, Crew and Zuri each cracked the top 1,000 for the first time. But a closer look at the database reveals several deeper trends.
The nostalgia wave among girls’ names appears to be over. About two decades ago, an entire generation of girls’ names — those from the late 19th and early 20th centuries — started coming back into fashion: Grace and Emma, Julia and Anna, Ella and Hannah. Nothing like it had ever happened before. Individual names obviously came back into style. But an entire era’s never had. Now the nostalgia wave, which peaked in 2004, is ending. Emily fell 41 percent between 2004 and 2010, Sarah tumbled 49 percent and Hannah 54 percent. The lack of recent Jane Austen movies has probably played a role.
Girls’ names are more diverse than ever. Andrew Gelman, a statistics professor at Columbia and an amateur name-ologist, argues that many parents want their boys to seem mature and so pick classic names. William, David, Joseph and James, all longtime stalwarts, remain in the Top 20.
With girls, Gelman says, parents are attracted to names that convey youth even into adulthood and choose names that seem to be on the upswing. By the 1990s, of course, not many girls from the 1880s were still around, and that era’s names could seem fresh again. This search for youthfulness makes girls’ names more volatile — and increasingly so, as more statistics about names become available and parents grow more willing to experiment in an attempt to get out in front of the curve. The 1,000 top girl names accounted for only 67 percent of all girl names last year, down from 91 percent in 1960 and compared with 79 percent for boys last year. Similarly, the most popular first letter for boys’ names is J, as it was for much of the 20th century. The most popular first letter for girls is the once-obscure A, thanks partly to rising names like Avery, Arianna and Ava.
Brevity is in. Names grew longer for most of the last century until about 20 years ago, also the start of the nostalgia boom. Since 1990, the average length has fallen to 5.9 letters from 6.2, a significant change given how little the average tends to move. The one name that may best embody recent trends — a long 19th-century girls’ name that rose and then fell — is, fittingly enough, Victoria.