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The 3 Biggest Baby Name Trends of the Decade

December 30, 2019 laurawattenberg 10 Comments

The 3 Biggest Baby Name Trends of the Decade

December 30, 2019 LauraWattenberg 10 Comments

Name trends can sneak up on you. They move bit by bit, shifting your expectations along the way. As time goes by, you might even forget that Penelope used to sound old-fashioned instead of trendy, or that you marveled at your first sighting of Jaxon-with-an-X.

Here’s your reminder of how name fashion has evolved in the past decade. These three trends have changed American baby naming during the 2010s, and will shape the sound of the American public for decades to come.

Out-of-This-World Girls
The three fastest-rising baby names of the entire decade have a lot in common:

#1 Daleyza (F)
#2 Kehlani (F)
#3 Cataleya (F)

All three are elaborate, celebrity-inspired girls’ names—and not one of them is based on any traditional name from any European language. The name Daleyza was created by singer Larry Hernandez and his wife; Kehlani is the name of an American singer; Cataleya was the lead character in the film Colombiana. Looking at the next 20 top risers, you’ll find more girls’ names along similar lines.

Khaleesi
Dalary
Zhavia
Kataleya
Zendaya
Ainhoa
Daenerys
Elowen

All of these multisyllabic creations step away from traditional American name sources. Some step into the world of fiction, or past earthly boundaries altogether. Cataleya/Kataleya, which earns two spots on the list, is a fantastical action hero, while Khaleesi and Daenerys refer to Game of Thrones’ “Mother of Dragons.” The most traditional names on the list are Ainhoa, a place name borrowed from Basque, and Elowen, a modern Cornish name that echoes Tolkien-esque fantasy names like Eowyn.

The names’ sounds and spellings make it clear that the departure from the everyday world is deliberate. With their complex rhythms, unlikely letter pairs like ZH and AE, and high Scrabble values, they cast off the limitations of naming tradition. The message is “anything but ordinary.” Notably, parents mostly took this ornate route to the message for girls.

The Raindrop Generation
The emergent sound of the 2010s decade was smooth. Vowels took the lead and consonants slimmed down to aerodynamic proportions, eschewing sharp edges or hard stops that would impede their flow. Hit names as classic as Amelia and as contemporary as Armani were built on this model, with no consonants but l, m, n, r, w and y. One of the hottest styles was “raindrop names,” smooth, glossy miniatures.

In prior American history, no “raindrop” name ever ranked in a decade’s top ten names for boys. In the 2010s raindrops swept the top spots, with #1 Noah and #2 Liam. They were far from alone. Take a look at the popularity of ten hot raindrop* names over the course of the decade, rising from 16,000 to 64,000 babies per year. (* Note that the s in Isla is silent.)

Graph showing rising popularity of names including Liam, Luna, Mila and Leo

“Meaning” Names Spoke Boldly
For some names, meaning is style. In the 2010s, the rule of thumb for meaning names was “the bolder, the better.” Parents chose names to make their kids stand out, stand above, or make a statement.

The fastest-rising word-based names of the decade were exaltations like Legend (M), Royalty (F),and Messiah (M). The hottest category of homages was rock star names like Axl (M), Hendrix (M), and Bowie (M). Previously rare but mighty mythological names like Atlas (M), Odin (M), and Titan (M) entered the mainstream, and in brand-driven names, firearm tributes like Remington (F, M), Ruger (M), and Wesson (M) continued to rise.

Whether staking out cultural territory or just demanding our attention, these names don’t hold back. As with the otherworldly girls’ names, they reject the ordinary. But with this mostly male category, parents are pushing beyond human boundaries. In the process they’re redefining the nature of names, bringing the baby naming enterprise ever closer to the process of building a brand.

A Glimpse Ahead?
Together, the trends of the 2010s have worked to break down our preconceptions about names. Statistically, stylistically and conceptually, the notion of a “normal” name eroded. Parents broke down that barrier eagerly. When singer Fergie named a son Axl in 2013, you could practically feel a wave of delighted realization: “Oh! We can actually do that!”

The decade’s otherworldly names broadened our ideas of where names come from, while the bold word names broadened our ideas of what a name can be. But even the raindrop names subtly undermined convention. Noah was the first #1 boy’s name ever to end in a vowel, let alone the typically feminine-marking “a” sound. We enter the 2020s with boys’ names, for the first time, as trend-conscious as girls, and a growing group of parents targeting names with no predefined gender association.

The trend forecast seems to point to a wide-open 2020s. Baby namers, though, are a contrary breed. Don’t be surprised to see the beginnings of a counterwave, as the plainest and most traditional names become the most nonconformist style statements. Anne in 2029, anyone?

LauraWattenberg
LauraWattenberg

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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10 Comments

  • Nicwoo December 30, 2019 at 6:23 pm

    *The Brand* factor I think is a big force. Great post! It made me think back, two of my three kids were born in the ‘00’s and one in ‘10’s. Though I didn’t have boys I had one picked out for each and weighing that untouched as a time capsule I can see the shift in raindrop boys; now I know three Liams and two Noahs all about age ten and younger in a pretty small sample. It’s gained convention.) My third girl is already in that counterculture of small classic— I figure if it doesn’t fit now in a cluster of peers it just will become forefront interestingly when she’s in some time of life!)

  • Jamie December 30, 2019 at 10:30 pm

    To latch on to a detail: is fast-rising Mila being pronounced “MY-la” or “MEE-la”? I can see either or both–although my money’s on “MY-la,” echoing Miley and the thousand and one names that rhyme with Miley, and also Milo which is on the same list here.
    (“MEE-la” is a minor character in Star Trek DS9, and was the first thing I thought of, but probably isn’t a big influence on anyone. She’s an elderly reptilian woman who appears in two or three episodes. Not exactly a namesake.)

    • Namerology
      Namerology December 30, 2019 at 11:23 pm

      Great question! While both pronunciations would be fashionable, and MY-la would rhyme with Isla and Lila, the MEE version is more common on the model of actress Mila Kunis. (Kunis was born in Ukraine, and Mila is a short form of her given name Milena.)

      • Jamie January 6, 2020 at 6:28 pm

        …I learned something today!
        (About how to pronounce Mila Kunis’ name, I mean.)

  • nedibes
    nedibes December 31, 2019 at 9:19 am

    Another trend that is maybe implicit in “nontraditional” is an increasing willingness to borrow names from other cultures and “ambiguously ethnic” pretty young female celebrities. Kehlani is a variant of the traditional Hawaiian name Kalani (or maybe Keilani or Kailani), given to a non-Hawaiian but also non-white little girl who grew up to be a famous singer; Zendaya was apparently coined from a Shona word, for another mixed-race future celebrity; Cataleya is a variant on the tropical orchid Cattleya, popularized as a name for a Colombian character played by mixed-heritage Zoe Saldana; Zhavia is a variant of the primarily African American name Zavia, now associated with a white singer who sports dreadlocks, sings R&B, and recently played Jasmine in a cover of “A Whole New World” for Disney’s Aladdin soundtrack. There were probably good reasons for all of the original names here, but I suspect many of their recent namesakes are an update on the taste for the “exotic” that in the past led parents to choose French or Italian names.

    At the other end of the gender spectrum, Bowie is an interesting crossover name: It can be a celebrity namesake, but I suspect a lot of parents are also (or instead) choosing it as a weaponized name, for the vicious-looking Bowie knife. It’s not a firearm, but I think in the same genre.

    • LauraWattenberg
      LauraWattenberg December 31, 2019 at 2:53 pm

      @nedibes There certainly may be some Jim Bowie/Bowie knife faction to the Bowies, but the name has spiked dramatically since David Bowie’s death so it seems to be mostly a rock name right now. On the “ambiguously ethnic” origins of some of the girls’ names, I struggled with that in the write up. E.g. the character name Cataleya is a twist on the cattleya orchid, but cattleya isn’t a given name in any language I’m aware of. And a million websites confidently call Kehlani’s name Hawaiian, but that just seems to be based on resemblance to various Hawaiian names. I haven’t found any source suggesting that her parents considered the name Hawaiian. And Zhavia is attributed to every ethnic source imaginable! Just for starters, here’s the hilarious Google-highlighted search result for “zhavia name origin”:

      According to a user from New Jersey, United States, the name Zhavia means “Gift of God”. A user from France says the name Zhavia is of Arabic origin and means “The life or Alive”. A submission from Bulgaria says the name Zhavia means “Alive” and is of Russian origin.

      In a way, the most interesting thing is how determined people are to root invented names in established naming traditions. We want it both ways, new and creative AND traditional and meaningful.

      • A Silver Spork January 1, 2020 at 5:44 am

        If Zhavia is Russian, then it’s been corrupted to the point that I and my relatives (native Russian speakers) don’t recognize it! Proper rendering of “alive” in the Latin alphabet would be zhiva (for the feminine form) – and in fact Zhiva does show up as a name (masculine, though, the language has changed a lot since then) on a dictionary of old Russian names: http://heraldry.sca.org/names/paul/z.html

        It’s possible that some parent made it up out of Russian recently, but it’s unlikely that it happened in Russia: the naming culture is EXTREMELY conservative, it’s basically social suicide to name your baby anything other than one of the ~500 traditional, well-established names.

        • karolyn
          karolyn April 28, 2020 at 12:46 pm

          AH! To see Paul’s Slavic SCA name lists posted in 2020 warms my heart.

  • Evie
    Evie December 31, 2019 at 10:21 pm

    I’m really surprised to see Elowen on that list. It’s a name that I’ve had my eye on for a few years now, but its overall numbers are still so modest (156 births in 2018, still not in the top 1000) that I would never have pegged it as one of the decade’s biggest risers. I guess a lot of the other names that had big one-year leaps then had big falls later in the decade, vs. Elowen which has been rising slow and steady from nothing?

  • Nicwoo January 6, 2020 at 6:19 am

    Okay so besides my typo! -I don’t always love a small phone keyboard with the addition of autocorrect in general. I’m still thinking about “origin” and “name meaning” mentioned in the comments. Wouldn’t that make a good post? If I go to say, a popular naming site even suggested by Google as a good SEO source, I have come to find the meanings for names seem austere but really could be totally from the clear blue or a stretch when I compare with a resource I think is more “established.” What a phenomenon… I’d love to have more information since it seems like there is something missing.

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