Here’s a quick exercise for you – find someone older (or younger) than you, and ask them to list the first ten names for boys and girls they can think of. You do the same. Different strokes for different folks aside, chances are the two girls’ names lists will vary much more than the boys’ names lists.
Turns out, that reflects reality – since 1940, the most popular girls’ names have changed more significantly than boys’ names have. The ten most popular girls’ baby names from 1940 (see below) have all fallen out of the top 100. Three names – Betty, Carol, and Shirley – aren’t even in the top 1,000 anymore. You can see that boys’ names have also changed dramatically, but not quite to the same extent.
One theory is that girls’ names have changed so much because women’s roles have changed so much, which seems to hold some merit. Girls’ names like Shirley or Betty evoke an era – an era when traditional gender roles were unquestioned, and when it was still OK to think that women shouldn’t vote or drive. Fortunately, those days are (mostly, we’re getting there) over now, but those once-popular names still carry the weight of what it meant to be a woman at the time. As such, we have to consider that it might not be accurate to say that those names have fallen in popularity, but that they have become distinctly stigmatized. Many parents don’t want their girls to be associated with that time in the past.
It’s not likely to be something that parents actually think about in those terms. More commonly, we label those names as “old,” something I’m sure many young people named Betty, Shirley, and Carol take umbrage at. But, that idea – that those names are “old” – likely comes from the changing roles of women in society. That’s supported by trends in boys’ names. Yes, some names have become less popular, and we have a new set of popular names now, but very few boys’ names feel “old” in the same way certain girls’ names do. That’s because the male population never had such a dramatic shift in social role. Not to say that the men of today are seen the same way as the men of the 1940s were, but it’s safe to say the generation gap there is much, much smaller than it is for females.
You can’t discount the effect of popular culture, either. Names of celebrities or characters who become popular at a certain time can create shifts in naming by themselves – just consider the veritable uptick in babies named Bella (Isabella), Edward, and Jacob in the past few years. In fact, with the Internet causing a media overload and the increasing amount of entertainment consumed in the nation, you would expect the effect to only increase from here on out – and yes, that means the word “trending” is perfectly applicable for baby names, as the Daily Mail post linked above points out.
In other words, gone are the days when you were named after your grandfather or grandmother. Just be prepared – someday, you might have to tell your son or daughter they were named after a sparkly vampire. Or, you could lie. That works, too.
Statistics via findmypast.com, taken from publicly available Social Security records.