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Naming in Hard Times

April 21, 2020 laurawattenberg 2 Comments

Naming in Hard Times

April 21, 2020 LauraWattenberg 2 Comments
Photos of a Depression breadline, a WWI "keep calm and carry on" sign and a 2020 "stay home" alert sign
Signs from the Great Depression, WWII in England, and the 2020 pandemic

What will baby names look like for the rest of 2020? It’s a deeper question than it may seem, because names are more than just fashion statements. They’re reflections of parents’ attitudes and obsessions, hopes and dreams. That makes names a barometer of a nation’s state of mind—especially in a crisis.

Looking back through history, you can see the impact of momentous events recorded in baby names. Some name responses are straightforward tributes, like naming a baby after a fallen hero. Others are subtler emotional responses to the challenge of their times. Here are three common ways that baby namers respond to the trials of history, and how they might play out today in a world paralyzed by pandemic.

Names as Commemoration

A time of crisis colors every thought and every action. For many expectant parents, that makes an “ordinary” baby name feel insufficient. They address their extraordinary circumstances directly with names of tribute and commemoration.

During World War I, hundreds of American boys were named Pershing, Ferdinand or Foch after US commander “Black Jack” Pershing and French Supreme Allied Commander Ferdinand Foch. In 1932 and ’33, in the depths of the Depression, the number of babies named Franklin and Roosevelt soared in honor of the newly elected president and the hope he represented in a time of darkness.

Even battles and crises themselves have been commemorated in names. Names of major WWI battles like Marne and Verdun were relatively common during the war. In 2005 the name Katrina briefly spiked up in the US in the face of devastating Hurricane Katrina. Most of that name surge happened in the areas most directly affected by the storm.

What names, though, would pay tribute to the current coronavirus crisis? Corona is a natural possibility, and on the face of it a reasonable name with its Latin meaning “crown.” (Corona last registered in America’s baby name statistics in 1980, on the heels of the #1 song “My Sharona.”) Psychologically, though, it doesn’t fit. Parents simply don’t name their children after diseases.

Mass tributes to public figures seem equally unlikely. In the decades since Watergate, Americans have largely abandoned the practice of naming children in honor of living leaders and heroes. Nor does the current crisis offer obvious central figures to honor. That’s not to say that the moment lacks heroes. They are legion, but they are mostly local and their names will never be widely celebrated. A tribute to those fighting the pandemic is likely to take a more general form, extolling a virtue or perhaps a profession they share.

Names as Inspiration

When a nation is called to rise to a challenge, baby names follow. In England during World War II, in the years of the Blitz and mass evacuations, inspiration was the order of the day. That translated to a 50% rise in the English popularity of names like Victor and Faith. Victoria, a name of both inspiration and patriotism, rose by 200%. England even saw small but sharp spikes in rare, ultra-bold names like Valiant, Victory and Liberty. Meanwhile, the use of gentler virtue names like Grace, Constance and Patience plummeted, down a collective 39%.

American names saw a similar surge of inspiration and defiance following the 9/11 attacks of 2001. The baby names Liberty, America and Justice doubled in popularity, as statements of principle in name form.

A new crop of inspirational meaning names is sure to flower in the coming year. In an emergency that demands patience, prudence and self-discipline more than valiance from most Americans, parents’ choices will be telling. Look for more names with an optimistic spirit and future-focused gaze. Names like Hope, Star, Promise and Dream fill the bill, as does the 1960s favorite Dawn.

Names as Escape

In uncertain times, we look to security in most areas of life. Safe investments, comfort foods, and a year’s supply of toilet paper are our steadying anchors. But baby names are different. When it comes time to choose a name, storm-tossed parents let loose and dream.

During the Great Depression, for instance, baby names were anything but depressing. If you look at the changes in American naming between the end of the Roaring ’20s and the low point of the Depression, boy’s names became fun and adventurous and girls’ names glamorous and sophisticated. Which is to say, baby names went to the movies.

Faced with a grim daily reality, Depression-era parents flocked to escapist fare at the cinema and their name choices followed. To perceive the trend, though, you have to put aside your 21st-century style sense and travel back to the early days of talking films. The fastest-rising girls’ names included chic Hollywood favorites like Carole (as in Lombard), Marlene (Dietrich) and Joan (Crawford and Blondell). Top risers for boys were a mix of star-inspired names like Gary (Cooper) and Ronald (Coleman), and fun, lively nicknames like Bobby, Jerry and Jimmy. All of them reflected dreams of a more carefree life for the new generation.

We still dream today and we still take fashion ideas from Hollywood, but names like Jerry and Joan are no longer the sound of glamour and adventure. Today’s parents are more likely to dream big, even beyond the realm of mere mortals. Many recent name trends have been sparked by characters with special powers from fantastical worlds, such as Luna from Harry Potter and Arya from Game of Thrones.

With this year’s big releases largely postponed, parents may dig deeper into beloved franchises for names like Anakin (Star Wars), Eowyn (Lord of the Rings) and Neo (The Matrix). The new arena of video game-inspired names (such as Atreus from God of War) is also poised to grow during this stay-at-home crisis when virtual adventure is the only kind available. While we’re all feeling so limited, what could be a more appealing image than to become an unstoppable hero?

The Final Factor: Fashion

However parents approach crisis naming, they filter it through their generational sense of style. That should hold doubly true today in an era when name fashion reigns absolutely.

In the past, tradition dominated baby naming. The scattering of history-inspired names were chosen against a steady background of classic names and family namesakes. For instance, the #1 baby names in England in the 1940s were exactly the same as in the 1930s: Margaret for girls, John for boys. Today, style statements dominate. An English girl is now more likely to be named Sapphire or Anaïs than Margaret, and a boy is more likely to be Oakley or Leonardo than John.

What’s more, parents are less willing than ever to sacrifice their fashion sense to pay homages. No amount of admiration could convince today’s parents to name their babies after Ferdinand Foch. What parents will do today is go to daring extremes within the stream of style. For instance, the trend toward exalted names has not only made hits of the names King and Prince, but also boosted the likes of Pharaoh, Empress and Supreme.

Put it all together and you have a recipe for an adventurous naming year. In the early stages of the crisis the impact on names has probably been modest, as parents settled on choices before the pandemic fully took hold. But as the year goes on, expect to see an explosion of creativity. Even in lockdown, even with resources scarce, baby name choices remain wide-open and free.


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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  • Nicwoo April 22, 2020 at 7:40 am

    I stuck with traditional names partly inspired from the family tree precisely because the inundation of choice (as inspiring to set sail with a new family member can be) was too overwhelming. You described the urge perfectly and everyone can have felt it though!
    And you mention a change of procedure after watergate and you also mention the movies, which prompted me to think there are a few lessons in that now too. For example, I know a pre teen Atticus (wonderful boy) who after we learned our Americana fictional hero had another dimension… how many years later? And I know of a little boy named Kylo (Star Wars) who in this latest installment is now BEN. I won’t say any more about that in case! So there’s a little more risk, perhaps a new phase, in how much people are inclined to will another installment in our entertainment and quick click world? You’ll never know when a creative revisit or reboot will happen and put a new spin on a specific, intentional pick in fiction too!

  • holey
    holey May 4, 2020 at 4:53 am

    A few thoughts:

    I’ve noticed some light deification Anthony Fauci. Anthony has been declining steadily in use for the past couple of decades, but is still well within the top 100. Maybe it will see a bit of a bump.

    In keeping with your Star Wars mention, maybe Han will trend, with the frequent mentions of Wuhan giving it some subconscious support.

    A joke, but: Charmin?

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