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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Name that baby

Gwyneth Paltrow went to the extreme with her baby's name – Apple.  
 (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Samantha Critchell Associated Press

NEW YORK – What’s going to happen to Michael?

Will he go the way of Jennifer and Amy, fading out of the spotlight, or will he learn a lesson from Matthew, who avoids the headlines but always turns in a solid, consistent performance?

Either way, Michael is at a turning point: After more than three decades as the top name for boys, Michael is not on’s top 10 list of most popular names. It slipped to No. 12 on the 2005 list and has stayed there.

Most people who track trends know that children are pretty good arbiters of what’s hot, what’s not and what’s next. It turns out this all starts on the day they’re born, as the names they are given often fit into larger social and cultural trends.

When the colonists arrived on U.S. shores, they purposely spurned classic English names in favor of biblical ones. In the 19th century, literature served as a source of inspiration – hence the popularity of Ida, a princess in a Tennyson poem. And beginning in the 20th century, people have named their children after movie stars and TV characters.

So, what’s up with Michael, which reigned supreme as a boy’s name for 50 years?

Linda Murray, editor-in-chief of the BabyCenter Web site, says too much publicity about how popular the name was led some parents to avoid it. “What’s happening is that boys’ names are loosening up, getting more creative, and I only expect to see more of that,” she said.

Michael is still second on the Social Security Administration’s 2005 name list, the most recent one available. The Social Security list registers first names that appear on birth certificates. Many children, though, actually are called nicknames or their middle names.

Murray thinks her list of a database of 374,522 names accurately reflects cultural trends because it ranks names by sound, not spelling, so all the Kaitlyns and Catelyns are counted together. Together, the 45 spellings of Mackenzie made it the 27th most popular name, while the Social Security list ranks the most common spelling of Mackenzie as No. 50.

Also, Murray says, the government’s 2006 list won’t be out for several months, and parents have become so concerned with not naming their children with a popular name, they want to know what to avoid.

“People are looking for something unique. They don’t want a name on the top 10 list, so they dig down,” Murray explained.

Still, today’s top names – Aiden for boys and Emma for girls – aren’t as overwhelmingly popular as the top names from a generation ago, when it seemed everyone had multiple Michaels and Jennifers or Jessicas in their class.

“Somebody has to be No. 1, even if there are fewer of them. We’re choosing from a much broader range of names than we used to,” Murray said. “There’s a lot of volatility of the list. … There’s a lot of movement in the top 10 from year to year and even more in the top 100.”

A hot new entry is Nevaeh – heaven spelled backward – which came from nowhere to surge ahead to No. 89, says Murray. That fits in with an overall increase in spiritual, though not necessarily biblical, names. There are more babies named Blessing, Eden and Zen than you’d think.

Addison, a girl’s name, is one of the quickest rising stars, jumping 57 spots to No. 26. It’s worth noting there is an Addison on one of TV’s biggest hits, “Grey’s Anatomy.”

And, Brayden, just a slight tweak on Aiden, is a boy’s name that is increasingly popular (No. 15) but hasn’t yet peaked. More than 40 percent of boys’ names on the BabyCenter list end in either an “an” or “en” sound.

“Aiden – it’s a surprise to me, too, that it’s No. 1, but there was a character on ‘Sex and the City’ and he was the best boyfriend Carrie ever had. I think that might have something to with it,” Murray said.

New parents don’t like to admit it, but chances are their name choices were influenced by pop culture or the media, according to Lesley Bolton, author of “The Complete Book of Baby Names” (SourceBooks).

Both Murray and Bolton cite Reese Witherspoon as an example. There aren’t a lot of little Reeses running around, but the name Ava wasn’t even on BabyCenter’s top 100 list when the daughter of Witherspoon and estranged husband Ryan Phillipe was born in 1999. In 2006, though, it was No. 3.

Bolton also points to the re-emergence of Emma as a popular name after Jennifer Aniston’s character gave birth to one on “Friends.”

But even celebrities can go too far. It’s unlikely Gwyneth Paltrow’s daughter Apple will spark a boom in fruit monikers.

Names in the news are another factor, Bolton notes. “Katrina – it’s what’s on our mind right now, and all names have an association. We won’t see a lot of Katrinas over the next few years, but it will be considered cool and retro decades from now.”

Using names to honor relatives is a time-honored tradition, and Bolton expects this to be a strong trend in 2007, especially names of grandparents and great-grandparents. “They’re names that have stood the test of time, everyone knows them and can spell them, but they’ve been off the bench for so long that there is a little bit of individuality,” she said. In 2006, for example, Abigail was No. 9.

With names skipping a generation or two, it’s more than likely that today’s kids will romanticize Jennifer and Linda, former No. 1 names that their parents (many of whom are Jennifers and Lindas) are consciously avoiding, added BabyCenter’s Murray.

Women also seem to be moving away from hyphenating their names when they get married, leading some to use their maiden names as first names for their children, she added. That might explain some of the Logans and Ryans.

Naming patterns also follow long-term trends, according to J. David Hacker, a history professor at New York’s Binghamton University, who has studied U.S. first names from the Colonial era through 1920.

“There was a revolution in naming patterns in the Colonial period, especially in Puritan New England, which very consciously turned to the Bible as a source of forenames,” he said.

In 17th- and early 18th-century America, 90 percent of first names were biblical, versus 50 percent in England during the same period, where names linked to royalty were more popular.

After the Revolutionary War, though, the U.S. naming pool was largely secularized. Working from census records, which use the names people are known by, not their formal names, Hacker found that in 1780, two-thirds of U.S. male names came from the Bible, while that number dropped to under 20 percent in 1920.

Girls’ names vary more widely across generations, though Mary had a lock on the top spot in the early years the way Michael did more recently. Hacker thinks “that in the 18th and 19th centuries, male names were taken more seriously, while girls names were driven more by fashion.”

Among immigrants in the early 20th century, some purposely looked for classic American names for their children, while others who tried to hold on to their heritage, Hacker said.

Among today’s parents, BabyCenter’s Murray noted that there is a theory – discussed in the book “Freakonomics” – that some try to choose names that sound successful “as a way to give their children a step up in life.”

Whatever factors influence name choices, a BabyCenter survey last year of parents found that most, 82 percent, like their own name.

“In the end, it becomes a part of you,” said Murray, adding: “Sure, the Apples go through a stage where they want to be part of a group, but then they usually decide they can’t imagine themselves as anything else.”