A rough year highlights the resilience of a classic name
A wrap up of some of the biggest news stories of 2022:
- Britain’s longest-serving monarch, Queen Elizabeth, died after a 70-year reign.
- Britain’s shortest-serving prime minister, Elizabeth Truss, resigned after 7 weeks in office.
- High-ranking Republican congresswoman Elizabeth Cheney lost her re-election bid after serving on the January 6 Committee.
- Once-celebrated biotech entrepreneur Elizabeth Holmes was convicted of fraud and sentenced to prison.
Quite the flurry of high-profile blows to a single given name. Yet because the name was Elizabeth, the trend went entirely unnoticed. It’s a tribute to the unique strengths and weaknesses of a truly timeless name.
The Great Survivor
The biblical and regal classic Elizabeth ranks #14 among all American girls’ names today. That ranking may sound unremarkable, but check out the name’s historical peers:
In fact, more Elizabeths are now born each year than all four of those names put together.
A name like Ann, or even Mary, now comes across as a bit retro: a back-to-basics fashion statement. Elizabeth, though, remains essentially unchanged. It’s formal but flexible, and utterly timeless. Several English boys’ also names fit that description, including James, Thomas and William. But for girls, Elizabeth stands alone.
One of the ways Elizabeth maintains its timeless image is through nicknames. Nickname options go in and out of fashion over time, aging like the portrait of Dorian Gray while the full name remains ageless. The multiple nicknames also help obscure the name’s commonness. For instance, few would even notice that politicians Liz Cheney and Betsy DeVos are both Elizabeths.
The full name’s distinctiveness helps too. Similar-sounding names blend together in our minds and tend to go in and out of style together. Elizabeth looks and sounds like nothing else, so other names can’t drag it down.
The Bulletproof Name
We often call classic names “safe” choices from a style perspective. Parents who choose names like Elizabeth feel confident that everyone will be able to pronounce them, nobody will laugh at them, and they will never go out of style.
The name “safety” that helped Elizabeth emerge unscathed from 2022’s media storm unscathed is a different sort. It’s not just about avoiding fashion risks. It’s more like the naming equivalent of alarm systems and bulletproof glass. Timeless classics are the names best protected from thieves and vandals.
Ask anyone named Elon or Kanye how they felt about names in the news in 2022. Or ask anyone named Miley before Hannah Montana hit about Miley Cyrus, or anybody named Alexa about Amazon. Names can be highjacked. Names can be damaged. The social meaning of your own name can change in ways that are utterly out of your control.
What would it take to hijack the name Elizabeth? Could any news story stand up against centuries of queens and saints, writers and actors, politicians and pioneers? The name is virtually unstealable, because it doesn’t belong to any one woman to begin with.
That’s the tradeoff of name “security.” The more a name belongs to you—the more distinctive and unusual it is, the more it feels a personal calling card and style statement—the more vulnerable it is to being taken over. Elizabeth’s bulletproof status comes via a lack of uniqueness or individuality. For most parents today, it’s too high a price to pay. For some, though, the strengths of timelessness will still appeal. And for individuality, hey, there are always nicknames.
This is an exciting write up! I used it for that very reason, conventions and flexibilities. In naming my kids I thought it a huge ask so I chose for as many nicknames as possible with each, so they could find what fits. Since I really felt that approach you “Bette” I used “Elisabeth” too.