So, FILLYJONK TOTALLY BROKE THE COMMENTS THREAD on the “Three Things” post yesterday, which would be an only slightly less egregious offense than when she broke feminism, except she did it by bringing up a topic I love talking about: names. All is forgiven.
I’ve been unhealthily fascinated with names since I was a small child — to the point where it’s probably something else I could use for the Eight Weird Things about Me meme. Where other children had one imaginary friend or none, I had an army of them, mostly because I liked giving them all names. And I swear, half the reason I started writing fiction as soon as I could write was that I liked imagining what a girl named Diane or Jasmine or Mildred would be like. As I said in that comments thread, the Baby Name Wizard’s Name Voyager, which allows you to type in a name and see its popularity in the U.S. since the 1880s, is one of my very favorite internet toys. The blog that goes with it is a massive time suck for me, and I have also lost countless hours of my life to Baby’s Named a Bad, Bad Thing, the Utah Baby Namer, and iVillage parenting threads about names.
I am not a parent. I might never be a parent. Even if I do become one, I can tell you with absolute certainty that I will not be having 10 or 12 kids, which is how many I’d need to fully satisfy all my naming urges. So I might as well stick to dogs. But I can’t stop reading these sites and wondering what I’d do.
And the thing is, while some actual parents fail to consider that a name like FluffyBunnyBooBoo (perhaps I exaggerate) might be cute on a 2-year-old but less cute on an adult trying to get a job, I obsess over the tiniest details, without even having a kid to name. I am currently in love with the name Louisa, for instance — but I know that some people would pronounce it Loo-WEEZ-a, while others would say Loo-WEESE-a — even I sorta go between the two, though I tend toward the latter — and that’s the kind of thing that could drive a kid fucking bonkers by the time she’s twelve. I worked with a Scottish girl named Katie one summer. Given that we had the same name, you’d think I’d know a little something about pronouncing it, right? Nuh-uh. I, in all my ignorant Americanness, say something that sounds like “Cady”; she, in all her GENUINE BRITISH GLORY, said, KATE-ee, and insisted that the rest of us pronounce that goddamned T like a T or just not speak to her. (As if Americans have the time to go around enunciating our Ts. I mean, really.) It prevented us from ever truly becoming friends.
So Louisa’s out, for my imaginary daughter.
The more interesting question is, why am I suddenly in love with the name Louisa — and, to a lesser extent, Louise? There were few names I despised more than Louise when I was a kid, even though I had a grandma figure named Louise whom I adored. In fact, it was probably because of that; it was an old lady name. But you know what else was categorically, utterly, seemingly irretrievably an old lady name to my ears when I was a kid? Emily. And Emma. And Sophie. And Abigail and Madeleine and Ruby and Ella and Olivia. Henry and Jack were absolutely old men. Now, I just named half your kid’s first-grade class, didn’t I?
The cycle of old-lady names turning into little-girl names is nothing new, but the lightning-fast, global communication today allows recycled names to catch on and saturate a hell of a lot faster than they ever did before. I love all of the names I just listed, but if I got pregnant (pleasegodno), I wouldn’t use any of them now, because they’re way too common. If one wants to choose a “classic” name now — which is definitely the way I swing — one needs not only to go back 100 years but to find out what’s happening in baby names today. ‘Cause if you thought of it, chances are, a zillion somebody elses did.
A dear friend of mine has an almost 8-year-old daughter named Mikaela. She was named for her father, Michael, and my friend spelled it with a k, thinking the name “Michaela” would be so unfamiliar to most people, they might not know how to pronounce it. Yeah, not so much, as we all know now — but as someone who didn’t have kids, didn’t know many people with kids, and wasn’t a name-obsessed freak like me (nor had she met me yet), how was she supposed to know that Michaela/Mikaela/McKayla was already spreading like wildfire? That one seemingly came out of nowhere — until you think about the fact that Michael is an unflaggingly popular boy’s name, but Michelle was played out by the ’90s. So it makes perfect sense that a shit-ton of people would go looking for a new way to feminize Michael at exactly the same time. But then, only a freak like me would think of that. (From the thread that inspired this post, I get the impression there are other freaks like me around here, and I can’t wait to hear from you.)
A few years ago, I was in love with the name Grace for an imaginary kid. My sister, who worked in a preschool, said, “Scratch that. It’s about to go trashy.” As someone who’s been working with little kids for about fifteen years, my sister has seen first-hand, repeatedly, the class-association trajectory described in Freakonomics: upper-class people start using a name that sounds old-fashioned or stuffy; a few years later, middle-class people start using it because now it sounds upper-class; a few years after that, everybody is using it, and that name gets pegged to A) a particular era and B) the lower classes, so it goes out of fashion. (Think Brittany between the late ’70s and late ’90s.)
“It’s about to go trashy” may not be the most kindhearted thing my sister ever said, but it was dead-on. If you don’t have kids, or work with them, you might not even think of Grace as an especially popular name — I only know one person with a daughter named Grace, so to me, it still sounds fresh. But it was number 17 for U.S. girls in 2006. It’s been in the top 20 for the last few years. Grace is already over, for all intents and purposes.
Shit like that fascinates me.
And betting on which “old lady” names are about to become little girl names again is more fun for me than a day at the races — though it does take a lot longer to get the results. As I just said in the other thread, I think Violet’s ripe to go seriously viral. It’s from the right era, it’s a flower name that sounds fresher than Lily and Rose, which are already damn near played, and it’s got a celebrity baby (Affleck/Garner) going for it now. In 2003, it was number 597; in 2004 it was number 590 — and then by 2006, it had shot up to 261. I think it’s gonna crack the top 100 by 2009, for sure. Which pisses me off, because it was my grandmother’s name, so I thought it would be a good retro name to use for a long time, but by the time I get around to having kids, if I do, it’ll probably be well on its way to trashy.
Then there are the names that will almost certainly never return. Grandma Violet’s middle name was Myrtle. Flower name, right era, and… no fucking way is that making a comeback. But in the 1890s it was ranked 28, and it was in the top 100 until the 1930s. How the hell did Myrtle sound like a good idea to so many people for so long? The name Ida was ranked even higher than Myrtle in the 1890s. So was Gertrude. Bertha was number 12. What the fuck was that all about?
And the most fun ever is trying to figure out which names sound waaaaay too moldy to ever return in any serious way right now, but probably will anyway. Smart money’s on Beatrice, sez me. It only just cracked the top 1000 in the U.S, but the princess kicked it off in the U.K. ages ago (though I’m not holding my breath for Eugenie), and new parents are finally almost too young to immediately picture Aunt Bee when they hear the name — which is actually really pretty, divorced from such associations. Next, I would bet on Edith, Mathilda, Mabel, and Harriet. Edith, if you force yourself not to think “Bunker,” is a pretty cool combination of feminine and tough, plus a good fill for the hole left by Judith’s more recent spike and downfall — and old-fashioned E names have been coming back like mad since Emily kicked things off. Also, Edie is cute, and fits right in with the more popular Evie and Maddie. Speaking of which, Mat(h)ilda has the Ledger/Williams baby going for it now, plus the nickname Mattie — which, to Americans, is basically identical to Maddie (see Katie controversy above) — just when people are finally getting sick of Madeleine and Madison. Mabel and Harriet are shots in the dark, but they’ve both appeared in fresh contexts on TV in the last ten years (Mad About You, Studio 60), and they’re both names that start to sound cool to me when I say them over and over, which is the only real test for this. Ooh, and a friend of mine had a Winifred last year — that’s nowhere near the top 1000 right now, but seriously, if one person thought of it, you can bet a lot of others have or are going to. Finally, as I said on the other thread, I have a gut feeling that even Agatha has an outside chance of at least getting into the top 1000 again — though not Agnes.
Let’s meet back here in 2030 and see if I’m right about all that, okay?
So now, the big question: if I were having a baby right now, what would I call her? (If you haven’t already picked up on this, I don’t give a rat’s ass about boy names. Also, I tend to assume all babies are girls until they’re born, so I can’t even imagine having a boy.) I would want something old-fashioned but not too musty, likely to gain in popularity enough not to sound downright weird in the kindergarten classroom of tomorrow, but also unlikely to crack the top 100 names any time soon. Think… well, Louisa. Alice would be far and away my favorite, except that if I got knocked up any time soon, the father would be Al; if he were out of the picture, I’d definitely go for Alice, but since I don’t even know if I want kids yet, I’m not going looking for a dad with a more convenient name. Yet. I also recently decided Vivian and Rosalind were my two favorite names, then read an article in Slate by a guy planning to name his twin daughters Vivian and Rosalind; since at least one other person had the same thought at the same time, I’m betting both of those names are coming back, though I don’t see them getting super-popular. They’re still in the running. Ditto Amelia — though I’m pretty sure that’s about to explode into Madison-esque ubiquity — and Cecelia, though I don’t much care for “Cece” (as in C.C.) as a nickname.
Oh, and speaking of that, I cannot WAIT for the trend of refusing to let tiny children go by nicknames to die. I love nicknames. I am totally that asshole who will saddle a person who doesn’t have or want a nickname with one of my own choosing, because nicknames? ARE AWESOME. You will note that my imaginary daughters up there would actually be known as Lou/Lulu, Al/Allie, Viv, Roz, Millie (which reminds me, I’m also warming to Millicent, though I think that still belongs in the “too musty” category at the moment), and probably “Ceece,” which I find preferable to “Cece.” (Though if I were to use the name Cecelia, I would acknowledge that “Cece” is inevitable and get over it. It’s one thing to, say, correct people who call me Kathy instead of Kate. It’s another thing to stubbornly refuse to admit that you opened the goddamned door to a completely obvious nickname, even if you don’t like it. And yes, numerous mothers of Michaels who cringe when they’re called “Mike,” I am looking right at you.)
Over to you now, readers. What are your favorite names? What names can’t you stand? What names were you shocked to discover are currently popular? What names do you think will tip from musty to cool in the next ten years? The next twenty? Where do you weigh in on nicknames?
If this thread doesn’t have 150 impassioned comments by this time tomorrow, I’m going to be very disappointed in you all.