Take a moment and think of a Southern-style baby name. Chances are, you’re thinking of a name that conjures the past. The popular image of Southern name style is grounded in nostalgia, not in the region’s actual tastes. Today’s South does have a style all its own, but it’s a style that mostly looks forward, not back—with a few intriguing exceptions.
A Nostalgia Reality Check
I set out to find the real sound of the South by aggregating the baby name statistics of the five core “Deep South” states: Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina. Then I compared names’ popularity in that region with their usage in the United States as a whole.
The result was a fashion reality check. Names that rank lower in the South than the rest of the country include Scarlett, Roy, Daisy, Mae, Clementine, Duke, and even Dixie. Lee is most popular in Connecticut and Nebraska, Dolly in California and New York. And nobody anywhere is named Bubba.
These names are all staples of “Southern” style lists, based on a cultural shorthand that’s heavily influenced by pop culture. That kind of shorthand is powerful; image is a big part of what gives each name its unique impact. But the nostalgic vision of Southern style fails to connect with the real South precisely because of its nostalgia. By and large, the more old-fashioned a name sounds, the greater the chance that its popularity tilts North.
A New Sound, a New Look
Real Southern style today is about creativity. New baby names are crafted from place names, surnames, inspiring words, and trendy sounds. And their spelling is up to parents’ imaginations. Some samples from the 100 most-Southern popular baby names:
As you might guess from that final list, the South has a favorite letter. K is just the seventh most common initial for American baby names, but in the South it’s a force to be reckoned with. A full third of the most-Southern names start with K. Many are creative spellings like Kannon, Khloe, and Kash.
These trends hold for Black and White Southerners alike. A few names on the most-Southern list are chosen predominantly by one group, like the African-American favorites Jaliyah and Tahj. But the large majority of the names are popular with families of all races in a pure regional style.
The Big Exception
Amidst the “kreativity” of the most-Southern list, two names stand out like sore thumbs—arguably the two least creative names in the English language. John and Mary both rank near the top. What’s more, a handful of other core English royal names like William, James and Anne also lean Southern.
These ultra-traditional choices might seem to undermine the whole idea of creative, contemporary Southern naming. But the trend doesn’t extend in the ways you’d expect if these names reflected a broader traditionalism. For instance, if parents were following the traditional practice of naming children after grandparents, you’d expect names like Michael, David and Jonathan to be huge. In fact, those names and most of the other big hits of their era are less popular in the South than elsewhere. The trend is limited to a specific set of names.
I think this is a sign that a couple of classic but unmeasurable Southern name styles still live on: “good ole” nicknames and double names. The traditional names still popular in the South are the ones most often used in pet forms, or with middle names to form a double-barreled whole. Think Billy, Ricky, John Robert, Mary Grace, Jimmy Ray, Annie Jane. Names like these don’t show up in statistics because they’re about day-to-day usage choices, not legal names. But the fact that the most nicknameable classics lean Southern while nickname-challenged classics like Paul and Mark lean Northern points to this pattern.
It seems fitting if this is the one nostalgic Southern style that endures. It’s the one that gives parents the most room for creativity, beyond even the name that’s printed on the birth certificate.
Another interesting dive into the local American naming style that focuses on the Deep South. I also recognize some of those names similar to your previous article regarding Alaskan local styles. Furthermore on contrasting this article with the 2019 version of BNW, I found that…
Khloe is a local style in Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi.
If Khloe had a male counterpart of being local in 3 states, Bryson would be. Bryson is local in Georgia, Louisiana and South Carolina.
Collins is unique to Alabama.
Kingston is notable in South Carolina.
Londyn is unique to both Georgia and Mississippi, while its variant London is common in South Carolina.
Paris is unique in Georgia.
Kinsley is unique in Louisiana.
Messiah is also a local name for boys born in Georgia and South Carolina.
Similarly, Journee is local in Georgia and Louisiana for girls born in the Peach and Pelican States.
For the classic names, William reigns in locality in Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina, and his sidekick Mary is doing the same at the same extent as Khloe in Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina. While John holds still as a local name in Alabama, Mississippi, James only holds one place in Alabama.
I think this article does give us a template on what the new Southern name is supposed to look like, and without a doubt, all the examples given on creative takes on places, last names, words that evoke inspiration and following the trends (especially the Letter K, which is the center of the room of Deep Southern naming) gives us a better perspective on the local naming style in the five states mentioned, and perhaps, there could be more new names joining the original names from BNW’s 2019 edition and form a squad that is about being creative with a dash of the good old days.
I’ll be also curious on the rest of the names on the list and see if I can also do the math myself on which one of those names is the most popular in whichever state. The name atlas can still come in handy given that Jaliyah is popular in Mississippi and Louisiana, and Tajh is more unique to the latter state.
Are names like Billy and Ricky really popular? I’ve lived in the south my whole life, and I’ve never met a child with that type of name! The rest of the list rings very very true to me, including the double names (a specific trend I’ve noticed is girls with surnames as the second name – think Mary-Clark or Sara-Finley) and the classics. But for all the young Williams, Jameses, and Marys I know (a lot)… not one goes by Billy, Jimmy, or Polly (I know a couple Mollys, but I don’t know if they’re legal Marys). I do, however, live in the suburbs of a city with a lot of non-locals, so maybe that one particular trend is more in other areas?
A fair question, and it’s hard to measure. But if you try those nicknames on our US name map — https://namerology.com/ultimate-map/ — you’ll find that their usage as full names is mostly Southern. For an interesting comparison, look at the maps for exact matches of Willie vs. Will.
The double names with a family surname is a great point, I should have mentioned that!
It actually looks like my entire state is lower than the surrounding states on most of those kinds of names! I don’t know why, but that’s fascinating.
I teach in the deep south, and I have encountered a couple of the “good ole” nicknames among my (young adult) students. I’ve had a Bobby and two guys who go by Jimmy in class in the last few years. Not huge numbers, but I’m not sure there are *any* young Jimmies in other areas. Two more thoughts:
-It’s common for southern families to keep naming traditions going for generations. Young Roberts and Johns may be named not exactly after their fathers (John Jr) but after their grandfathers or great-grandfathers. A lot of young namesakes have quite out-of-fashion names for this reason (think Gordon, Roscoe.) If they go by “Trey” or “Trip” almost no one will know that they are actually John III. Junior, III, IV markers may show up in the name data, so it’s probably a testable hypothesis.
-Don’t forget the initial-nickname style! Young Robert John may go by RJ. (In theory, if you want to call your kid RJ, you could also name them Romulus Jax–but it seems like the default is to choose simple, familiar names in their style.)