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What’s in a name?

Breanne Gilpatrick and Maria Puente USA Today

The ‘80s are back. The 1880s, that is.

The nation’s birth rate peaks in September, and many new parents will pick names for their newborns that were equally popular in the Victorian era. One-fourth of 2004’s top 20 names also were in the top 20 in 1880, according to the Social Security Administration’s baby name database, which records the names of Social Security card applicants born after 1879.

But it takes about four generations for the old to seem new again. “The women with the name die out, so the name is not connected to old women, it’s merely an old name,” says Stanley Lieberson, author of “A Matter of Taste: How Names, Fashions and Culture Change.”

Your mother’s name? That’s old. Your great-grandmother’s name? That’s vintage. This is why when Julia Roberts chose Hazel for her daughter, it sounded dated to people in their 40s. To twentysomethings, it was a variation of Hailey, and the name became cool all over again.

But it takes more than good timing. Some factors that determine a name’s popularity:

Traditional is a perennial favorite

Just like little black dresses and navy blue blazers, some names are classics. Mary, Katherine, Elizabeth, William and Joseph never go out of style: They’ve all been in the top 100 for more than a century.

What’s the key to staying power? A variety of nicknames, for versatility. It may say Elizabeth on her birth certificate, but a girl can go by Liz, Lizzie, Eliza, Lisa, Beth, Betsy, Bette or the hipper Ellie and Bethany.

Sounds like a good name

Sometimes a name just sounds right. In the ‘80s, everyone wanted names starting with “J” (Jessica, Jennifer, Jason, Justin, Jonathan). Lately, vowel sounds have been on parents’ lips: Half of 2004’s top 20 girl’s names start with vowels.

Vowel names like Ella, Eva and Ava for girls and Ethan, Emmett and Eli for boys are finding their way onto more birth certificates every year, says Pamela Redmond Satran, co-author of “Beyond Jennifer & Jason, Madison & Montana.”

Another popular sound for boys: names ending in “-aden,” as in Cayden. There were more than 30 variations of them in 2004.

So what are the next big sounds? Names starting with O, like the already popular Olivia and the steadily climbing Oscar, which ranked at 123 last year, Satran says.

And the long “I,” as in Isaac, says Cleveland Kent Evans, president of the American Name Society. “In another 10 years, we’ll see Ida.”

Some just like to be different

The days of multiple Ashleys and Susans are fading: Today’s parents want names that stand out.

In 1880, the top 20 boy’s names were given to more than half of all boys born. Today, it’s less than 20 percent. The top 20 girl’s names covered 14 percent of girls born in 2004, compared with 34 percent in 1880.

Reasons for this: smaller families and a modern emphasis on uniqueness.

“If you’re only going to have one or two kids, it kind of focuses your attention on finding the name that is ‘perfect,’ ” Evans says.

And this is the one time parents don’t want their child to fit in.

“They don’t want to have a child who’s in a kindergarten class with another child with the same name,” Evans says. “It’s almost like it’s a form of child abuse.”

When all else fails, go custom-made

In today’s name game, individuality is the mother of invention.

An unusual name or spelling isn’t enough for some parents. More are settling on names they’ve made up, playing with syllables, letters and sounds until they find a winner. Aidan gives birth to Zaden. Mariah is twisted into Zariah. Kyan, made famous by Kyan Douglas of “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” is likely a tweak on Ryan, Evans says.

And more parents are creating “word names,” Satran says. That’s a name derived from an object, idea or place, such as Gwyneth Paltrow’s daughter, Apple. “People are looking for a color, a bird, a fish, a feeling that embodies something they care about.”

Most are too offbeat to make the top 1,000. One exception: Nevaeh, or “Heaven” spelled backward, which ranked at 103 last year. It’s a variation on such spiritual words as Destiny, Trinity and Miracle.

Flexibility has its own appeal

Call it equal-opportunity naming: It’s getting harder to tell which name belongs to which gender.

The trend toward unisex names escalated in the 1980s as parents who grew up with feminism began having children, Satran says. They gravitated toward names like Taylor, Addison, Morgan and Riley.

But though parents will adopt boy names for girls, it generally doesn’t work the other way around, Satran says. In most cases, the female version takes over, becoming far more popular than the male version ever was.

But the switch isn’t inevitable: Drew, Dylan and Ryan, though not unheard of, just haven’t taken off as girl’s names.

Other names have stayed popular for both genders – such as Jordan, which could be the result of celebrity influence. “Michael Jordan’s aura went a long way toward keeping the name masculine,” says Laura Wattenberg, author of “The Baby Name Wizard.”

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