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The Tradition-Shattering Names of Rural White America

November 6, 2019 laurawattenberg 9 Comments

The Tradition-Shattering Names of Rural White America

November 6, 2019 LauraWattenberg 9 Comments
Photo of LeClaire, Iowa at dawn
LeClaire, Iowa. Credit: Ericnotderek

It has become a familiar part of America’s modern political narrative. The white, small-town experience is portrayed as the most traditional American experience. Some elevate it as an ideal, the model for returning the nation’s culture to an earlier, prouder time. Others see it as just one element of a broad, rich tapestry of equally authentic American experiences. Then there’s the perspective of baby names. According to names, white rural life is the least traditional corner of American culture.

That’s the surprising conclusion of a review of name traditionalism across America. White, rural areas appear to have strayed the furthest from classic American naming.

To measure traditionalism, I compared current name choices within each of the continental US states with nationwide naming trends 60 years earlier, in 1958. That year has been cited as a prototype by Americans who wish to turn back the culture clock with a white, small-town model. I based my comparison on boys’ names, since they are the best marker of traditionalism. Fleeting fashion has long been more dominant on the girls’ side, making whole generations of names swing in and out of use. To see the effect, take a look at the top names of 1958:

#1 Michael Mary
#2 David Susan
#3 James Linda
#4 Robert Karen
#5 John Patricia
#6 William Debra

All of the boys’ names still rank in the top 100 today; none of the girls’ names do. And that’s just the beginning. Incredibly, not one of the top 100 girls’ names of 1958 remains in today’s top 100. The fashion shift away from the likes of Linda, Susan and Debra has been so complete that it’s not terribly meaningful to ask who still uses those names. The boys’ names, though, still paint a meaningful picture of a “USA Classic” style. It’s a style that’s rooted in English heritage, but recognizably American.

Which states hew closest to that model today? The answer turns out to be something of a mix, with a heavy dose of both the conservative deep South and the liberal urban Northeast. It’s perhaps the only measure on which Mississippi and Massachusetts come out equal. But when you look at which states diverge the furthest from USA Classic style, the pattern is unmistakable. Here are the 10 least-traditional naming states, and for comparison, their ranking in a composite measure of “white and rural.” (The latter is based on high non-Latino white population and low population density.)

South Dakota#1#5
North Dakota#3#2
West Virginia#6#10
New Hampshire#9#14

The two top-10 lists share 9 out of 10 states. While the small total birth population of these states could lead to more variable name data, population alone doesn’t appear to determine the results. Tiny but non-rural states like Delaware and Rhode Island scored higher on traditionality, and very large states tended to score like their smaller demographic matches. Nor does the name list closely track geography or income or political leanings. It’s the combination of white and rural that most clearly marks the break with tradition.

What does it mean to abandon the names of 1958? Name trends reflect culture and values. Here are some key elements that distinguish the names of 1958 from today:

Conformity/Consensus. The 1950s were a peak era for name consensus. The top 40 names for boys and girls in 1958 accounted for about half of all babies born. For a little illustration of what a narrow range of style that represented, for boys it ran from #1 Michael to #40 Mike. Since then, name individuality and diversity have exploded. Last year the top 40 accounted for just a fifth of babies, and it took the top 230 for boys and girls to cover half.

Single-Gender Names. An American baby born in 2018 was twice as likely to receive a unisex name as a 1958 baby. (“Unisex” for these purposes is defined as a gender ratio of no more than 3:1 in either direction.) What’s more, the 1958 numbers rest heavily on that era’s fondness nicknames as given names. The hit name Terry, for instance, which can be short for either the masculine Terence or the feminine Theresa, single-handedly accounted for a quarter of 1958’s unisex total.

English Christian Tradition. About 20 core names like James and Elizabeth form the bedrock of English Christian naming tradition. In 1958, those names accounted for 15% of American babies born. In 2018, just 3%.

That’s the naming style that’s being abandoned. For a look at what that means in concrete name terms, here are the current top boys’ names in West Virginia, an emblem of rural white America, and New York, an emblem of urban diverse America.

#1 Mason Liam
#2 Liam Noah
#3 Elijah Jacob
#4 Grayson Lucas
#5 Owen Ethan
#6 Lincoln Michael
#7 Jaxon Joseph
#8 Easton Matthew
#9 Noah Mason
#10 Wyatt Alexander

This pattern of white rural names runs counter to another cultural narrative as well: that African-American names are uniquely non-traditional. The ever-increasing creativity of white naming garners less attention, in part because of style. Many of the creative, modern names in places like West Virginia and Montana are short and follow familiar surname-like patterns, so they may not individually stand out. But that doesn’t make them any more traditional.

Last year’s West Virginia name stats tallied 52 boys named Ryker, 24 named Gunner and 13 named Briar, but not a single Peter. Among girls, there were 70 Paisleys, 44 Kinsleys and 24 Serenitys, but not a single Mary. Name trends like those suggest that the culture of rural white America is no throwback. It’s something entirely new, and moving in its own direction.


Namerology founder and "Baby Name Wizard" author Laura Wattenberg is a globally recognized name expert, known for her scientific approach to understanding name trends and culture.

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  • Kelly November 6, 2019 at 5:24 pm

    This is an interesting subject! I have some thoughts based on my (crude) research I’ve done over the years:

    I’ve noticed an inverse relation between a region’s surname diversity and given name creativity, which is understandable in finding a balance between distinctivity and anonymity with the full name. In states like MA that are not necessarily super-diverse racially but have people from numerous different ethnic backgrounds (and thus surname pools) one generally has less of a worry about mistaken identity with having a common first name since there are fewer people in their area with their last name. By contrast, in states where one surname background dominates (in many cases that’s the typical WASP surnames, but in cases like MN and the Dakotas it’s “anglicized Scandinavian” surnames) one tends to look for more creativity in the given names. (This helps explain Utah’s notoriety for creative naming, since the Mormon background has led to it being one of the least surname-diverse states.) In terms of African-American naming, since many of them have typical Anglo surnames having a large AA population has little effect on an area’s last name diversity.

    It’s also understandable why this would affect boy’s’ names more than girl’s, because 1) Men are much less likely to change their last name later on then women (making the first-last name correlation less relevant if the last name is likely to change) and 2) The greater traditionality with boy’s names means that the top male names (taking all age groups into consideration) are more common than the same-ranked girl’s names.

    I’ve also noticed that in general the same parts of the country that are more creative with names aren’t as afraid to continue using unisex names for boys once they’re common for girls (as I’ve noticed with my own name based on the stats over the years – in much of the “rural West” Kelly is almost a true unisex name, while oddly enough despite their high Irish population a male first-named Kelly in Massachusetts would be a relative rarity).

    • LauraWattenberg
      LauraWattenberg November 6, 2019 at 6:27 pm

      That’s fascinating, Kelly! I’ve never tracked surname diversity across the country. But I’m curious about what you mean by name “creativity.” Baby names in the relatively small, homogeneous states tend to be more concentrated, with more duplicates likely. They’re just concentrated with names very different from past generations.

      • Kelly November 6, 2019 at 8:23 pm

        Good point Laura. What I meant was when a parent asks “how many people will have this same full name?” there would probably be fewer Mason Browns than Michael Browns and fewer Jaxon Smiths than Joseph Smiths (when you take all age groups into consideration).

        One other clarification about MN/ND/SD – I actually meant anglicized Germanic/Scandinavian last names.

        By the way I remember you (Laura) saying that your unmarried* name was Miller so you grew up with a fairly “anonymous” full name – it would be interesting to see if your parents had still named you Laura or would’ve gone more offbeat if there were a greater concentration of Millers where you grew up (assuming you grew up in the same or a similar place where you live now). *As a questioning non-binary person I mildly dislike the term “birth name” as a gender-neutral synonym for “maiden name” like you used (unless you truly want the name at birth irrespective of name changes due to other reasons like adoption, gender change, etc.), since if phrased inaccurately on a form could have the unintended consequence of forcing a transgender individual to unnecessarily “deadname” themselves. “Unmarried Name” is a term I heard that is gender-neutral and only applies to marriage-changed last names.

        • LauraWattenberg
          LauraWattenberg November 6, 2019 at 9:34 pm

          Thanks, that kind of terminology is constantly evolving and I certainly want to be on top of it where names are concerned! “Birth name” seems to me to have different implications when applied to given names vs. surnames. I’m not sold on “unmarried name” as an alternative for surnames, because it fails once you move beyond the case of marrying once, changing surname, still married today. E.g. a lot of people who change their surnames upon marriage keep the new names after a divorce. They’re unmarried, but still need a way to refer to the surname they grew up with.

          • Kelly November 6, 2019 at 10:43 pm

            It’s not so much the use of “birth name” in this context that bothers me, it’s that when women complain about the term “maiden name” on forms and ask that it be replaced with “birth name” without clarifying that it should refer only to LAST names, creates a “deadnaming” situation for transpeople that did not exist before. A real-life example with major implications was the Form I-9 that employers use to verify employment work eligibility. All of the pre-2013 versions had a “Maiden Name” field, and because of complaints about the sexism of the term, changed it to ask for all “Other Names Used” – which created a situation where transpeople now had to deadname themselves to employers making them more vulnerable to discrimination. (The next version, after transpeople and activists for them voiced their concerns, changed the field to “Other Last Names Used” to ask only about former last names.)
            I don’t know if it’d gain ground or not, but in other languages I’ve seen what would be the translation of “single name” be used to refer to a pre-marriage last name. It would be unwidely as a general term, but for example some states on the birth certificate form that the parent completes when a child is born, asks for the parent’s “last name prior to first marriage” – which like “unmarried name” or “single name” is exclusive of names changed due to marriage and inclusive of names changed for other reasons (which is the intent because they want the pre-marriage last name for more identifying information but not for it to apply to other kinds of name changes).

          • A Silver Spork November 7, 2019 at 1:33 am

            (I can’t seem to respond to Kelly’s comment, I guess the thread ran out of nesting.)

            I’m also nonbinary, and legally changed my surname along with my given name and gender marker earlier this year. (Fiance and I decided to mash together names from up our family trees to make something that’s meaningful to both of us. It made for fabulous SEO.) When it comes to given name, saying “my deadname” is pretty clear to those who know about trans people (an ever growing number), but I’m still not entirely sure how to talk about the surname. Deadsurname, bachelor(ette) name, That Very Long Trainwreck I Inherited From My Father and Abandoned At First Opportunity… I have no idea.

            And I just looked up “alternatives to maiden name” and one thesaurus told me to use “patronymic” which, wow, those are seriously not the same thing at all.

  • R November 7, 2019 at 6:31 pm

    Hey Laura, this looks like a typo you might want to correct:

    Incredibly, not one of the top 100 girls’ names of 2018 remains in today’s top 100. 

  • Nicwoo72 November 12, 2019 at 4:57 pm

    I bet Utah just missed being on this list of it didn’t make it. It has a bit of a “stereotype” in this very topic.

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