Some quick notes on themes emerging from the new national baby name statistics.
1. Masculinity Through Word Names
Over one thousand names made their all-time debuts in this year’s name stats, 500+ each for boys and girls. Common English words appeared three times more often among the boys’ names. I suspect there’s a reason for that.
In the current naming era, parents of boys are seeking creative style statements more than ever before. But despite society’s evolving ideas on gender, parents still draw the line at boys sounding “girly.” How can a creative namer feel confident in a masculine social identification for a name with no usage history? One answer is tough-edged sounds, like “space cowboy” names such as Jaxx and Zedd. Another is tough-edged meanings, like Dominance. Yes, five American boys were named Dominance last year.
A sampling of other word names in this year’s boys’ stats that have never been given to girls:
2. Star Wars Is Immortal
2019 saw the controversial endings of two powerhouse media franchises. The TV series Game of Thrones and the latest Star Wars film trilogy both hit their grand finales, and both left large swaths of fans fuming. The result, in 2020 baby-name terms: Game of Thrones names plummeted, and Star Wars names soared.
The top GoT baby names, Arya and Khaleesi, ranked among the 25 fastest-falling girls’ name of the year. The number of babies named Tyrion and Daenerys fell by almost half, and less common names like Cersei disappeared altogether. The only GoT name that rose last year was Tormund, a Norwegian name that was buoyed by a fad for all things hard-core Nordic. (See Fjord, above.)
In contrast, the Star Wars name Kylo was the second-fastest-rising boy’s name, behind only Kobe, a memorial to late basketball star Kobe Bryant. The name Anakin was the #18 riser, its biggest leap ever. That’s particularly notable given that the character Anakin (aka Darth Vader) barely appeared in the film, or indeed in the entire trilogy. Apparently, Star Wars fans were just energized. The names Rey and Leia rose for girls as well.
The lesson from Game of Thrones seems to be that when it comes to fan loyalty, you have to stick the landing. But Star Wars remains immune to all fandom rules. Across up-and-down decades, through good times and Jar Jar Binks, the Force remains eternal.
3. There’s a New “EE” Sound in Town
In 2006, Nintendo introduced an innovative movement-based game platform called the Wii, pronounced like “whee.” Video games weren’t the only things that changed. Baby-naming parents, who had already saturated every other “ee” sound with names like Kailey, Kaylee, Kaeli and Kayleigh suddenly had a new option.
We can now say that the ii was no mere flash in the pan. The spelling has continued to grow, and last year 132 different “ii” names were given to 5 or more boys or girls in the US. Compare to the pre-Wii days for a portrait of change.
4. The Top of the Girls’ Charts Looks Strangely Familiar
The 10 names at the top of the girls’ popularity chart in 2020 were exactly the same 10 as the previous year, with just a small shuffling in order. But that’s just the start of the story—or perhaps I should say the non-story. “Breaking News: nothing to see here.”
In this case, non-news is noteworthy. New names come and go faster than ever before, and the top 10 accounts for a smaller fraction of babies than ever before. Yet a handful of antique-styled names ending in -a have settled in at the top of the girls’ charts and show no signs of moving. Olivia, Emma, Ava, Sophia and Isabella have all ranked in the top 10 for at least 15 years straight.
The top boys’ names, meanwhile, have been churning more steadily. For instance, the “big 5” -a girls were the exact top 5 a decade ago. The reigning boys’ names of that time: Jacob, Ethan, Michael, Jayden, William. Only the ultra-classic William remains a top-10 name today.
There are two facets to names remaining at the top of the rankings. They must stay popular, and new hits must fail to challenge them. No new girls’ style is achieving the same kind of popularity as the big 5. In fact, the two biggest new hits the past decade has produced are Amelia and Charlotte, which seem like the part of the same style family. Even as a drive for distinctiveness transforms the sound of American names, the biggest point of consensus remains light, sweet, classic names for girls.
That seems ironic for previous generations where male names staid and females were more creative, based on objective wording, and seen as more “frivolous” because of the continued aversion for anything broaching feminine pattern.