The Emotional Impact of Baby-Naming Then and Now

Flower Names Go In and Out of Fashion. Image by Janet Cameron

Flower Names Go In and Out of Fashion. Image courtesy of Janet Cameron (used with permission).

Steven Pinker, in his book, The Stuff of Thought, says, “Naming a child is the only opportunity that most people get to anoint an entity in the world with a word of their choosing.”  Most people prefer to choose a name already in circulation rather than creating a naming word from scratch, although other people are adventurous to a sometimes alarming degree.

Pools of Names in Circulation

Pinker explains how names follow current fashion trends and, therefore, reveal people’s approximate ages, gaining meaning through association with the generation or status of individuals.

The name “Sheldon” originated from around the 1940s, and since then, like the popular boy’s name, “Murray” has sunk into obscurity.  Today, Murray and Sheldon are both probably over sixty, middle-class and Jewish, along with a few others – for example, Irving, Sidney, Maxwell and Herbert.

Most of the above will have partnered women called Barbara, Susan, Deborah and Linda, along with a selection of Janets and her diminutives, Jane, Jan, Janelle and Jannette.

Older senior citizens are often called Edna, Ethel and Bertha. Flower names, like Rose, Violet and Daisy fell into decline in the 1970s, but later, Lily and Jasmine began to “bloom.”  Diminutives of boys’ names, like Roberta, Paula and Freda diminished in popularity, while, more recently, Erica, Michaela, Brianna and Stephanie came back into fashion.

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Also, floating around in the name pool from time to time, there may be surnames appropriated as forenames, for example, Morgan, Mackenzie and Cameron

Names are also stolen from other languages, such as Siobham, Natalia and Diego.

There has been a recent surge of names from the bible, especially Jacob, Joshua, Rachel and Sarah, but Pinker says people who name their children after biblical characters are often no more religious than anyone else.

Names have always, and still do, follow trends.

The Dynamic of Baby-Naming – Lessons from History

Pinker says that communities often have similar reactions to the names in the name pool. “In some societies, babies must be named after saints or ancestors.”  The turnaround of names is far greater for girls, as, unlike boys, they are not normally named to continue the lineage.  Therefore, it’s a little harder to date boys’ names than it is to date girls’ names.

So what happens when a number of people, who have carefully chosen an “original” name, suddenly find it’s not so original after all, and lots of other children in their child’s school or nursery have been similarly dubbed?

A sociologist, called Stanley Lieberson, examined these trends in his book A Matter of Taste, when he discovered that the child he and his wife had named Rebecca turned out to be one of many rather than the “one-off” he’d hoped for.  So, what does make a name rise and fall in popularity?  Are there influences in the community we are unaware of?

The Attraction of Celebrity – Is it Real?

Lieberson gives the example of “Marilyn” Monroe in the 1950s.  Around the time of her popularity, there were a large number of young women named Marilyn.  However, after a while the name began to fall into decline. Lieberson  points out that when Norma Jean first appropriated the name of Marilyn for herself, it had already been gaining in popularity in the name pool. Although people believed that its subsequent decline was due to people being anxious about naming their child after a sex-kitten, in reality, the name had already passed its peak as Marilyn, the film star, reached hers.

Pinker concluded that it was extremely difficult to pin down the part played by cause and effect.

On the other hand, certain names caught on from literature and the media. Wendy was born in Peter Pan. Darren erupted from the 1960s series, Bewitched, while Madison came, fully-formed, from the 1984 film, Splash.

Thinking Outside the Name Pool

Frank Zappa called his kids “Moon Unit and “Dweezil.”  Rachel Griffiths named her son “Banjo.”  Penn Jillette dreamed up the name of “Moxie Crime-Fighter.” Bob Geldof fathered “Little Pixie”, “Fifi Trixibelle” and “Peaches Honeyblossom.”

George Foreman, the boxer, called all his five sons, “George.”  That’s one way to make sure your kids won’t feel too special!

Also, a problem for the boys, a number of common male names were later appropriated for females: Beverly, Dana, Evelyn, Gail, Leslie, Meredith, Robin and Shirley were originally all masculine names. Oh, and, of course, the poor guy immortalised by Johnny Cash in his song, “A Boy Named Sue.”

These names, appropriated for girls, were no longer macho, and fell into disfavour.

Most Special of All

What’s the most special baby name of all? Possibly all the little girls in America who were, around 2006, named Nevaeh.

That’s “Heaven” spelt backwards. Brilliant!


Pinker, Steven. The Stuff of Thought. (2008). Penguin Books.

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