In the book, “A Matter of Taste”, the author Stanley Lieberson talks about the dynamics of evolving trends in names, cultures, and fashion.
This month, the Baby Center published its trend list of 2019’s most popular baby names. For years, “Noah” had been in the name of #1 for boys, and it took a long climb to “Liam” to take it off its perch. Similarly, “Sophia” had dominated the girls’ roost until “Emma” claimed the #1 spot. In the meantime, if you look a lot farther down the rankings, you will see a bunch of younger, dark-horse names that are steadily gaining prominence.
That’s how the titles are going. They’re – in success, experiencing a time of domination, and then declining. “Emma” and “Liam” are going to be hot for a bit, before unexpectedly… they’re not.
But why is it so?
EVEN THE SCHOLARS CAN’T FIGURE IT OUT
Social scientists and scholars have been confused by this for decades, and the short-but-unsatisfied conclusion is that nobody really knows. Yet there are some interesting hints here!
One clear thing is the power of pop culture. Parents get suggestions for titles from their favorite actors and characters in blockbuster novels. Or even pop culture: in her paper “Brandy, You’re a Fine Name: Popular Music and the Name of Infant Girls from 1965-1985,” Michelle Napierski-Prancl wondered whether there was any connection between top songs and the names of female infants. Indeed, it seems like when Kool and the Gang’s song “Joanna” reached the Billboard Hot 100 Chart in 1984, Joanna’s name was shot in fame.
The same thing happened to “Rosanna” after Toto’s name song in 1982. Also those more unconventional names saw a spike in the aftermath of a hit single. The names “Candida,” “Windy” and “Ariel” were so unpopular for babies that they never cracked the top 1,000. But after songs with such names became hummable hits in the 60s and 70s, all of them immediately appeared on top baby-name charts.
THE SENTIMENTS BEHIND NAMING
As per “A Matter of Taste”, in the early days of the Puritans immigrating to America, Americans preferred to choose biblical names such as “Ichabod” and “Samuel;” later, they shifted to “moral attributes” such as “Faith,” “Mercy,” and “Standfast.” But in the late 18th century, the American Revolution started to flood headlines with accounts of rebels battling for independence from Britain. So American parents kept calling their children “George Washington,” “Thomas Jefferson,” “Washington Irving,” and “Martha Dandridge,” the maiden name of George Washington’s wife.
After General Richard Montgomery was killed in the Battle of Quebec in 1775, American parents swooned about the tale and, it seems, his name. One of the Reverends in Connecticut, not only called his new son Montgomery, but also, at his baptism, dressed the boy in military blue, “with a black feather on his cap and a mourning token.”
Politics may have even more nuanced effects on the naming of infants, as pointed out in “A Matter of Taste”. A pair of psychologists noticed the long-standing stereotyping of Western Americans as extremely autonomous and asked if it had any impact on baby naming. Sure enough, parents in Northwestern states like Montana, Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Wyoming were the least likely to choose common baby names in the world. In the meantime, another analysis showed that certain parents tend to use their child’s name as a marker of political partisanship.
Behind all the cultural changes in titles, some success seems to be driven by pure prosody. All of a sudden, the parents gloom on a name merely because, at that moment, it just sounds fascinating.