Sunday, November 16, 2014

How Baby Names Are Getting Longer

In my latest Nameberry post, I look at how U.S. baby names have grown over the past century — especially in terms of syllables. Names like Mary, Ruth and Grace have given way to Sophia, Olivia and Isabella.

The numbers don't really account for nicknames, of course. (My name is officially three syllables, though I only use one of them.) But it does speak to America's changing tastes. Names that were once considered perfectly acceptable birth-certificate material now feel clipped (or as one commenter eloquently put it, "unfinished").

Sophie is a good example. Most Americans would see that as the nickname version of Sophia. But a century ago, Sophie was more common than Sophia as a given name.

Some of this is due to the growth of America's Spanish-speaking population. It's natural that they would prefer Spanish name suffixes ("-a," "-ia") over English and French ones ("-e," "-ie," "-y"). But I think the preference for, say, Isabella over Isabel transcends ethnicity. Same for Olivia over Olive.

It goes back to this idea of names feeling unfinished — something that hits home for us. Is Lucy an unfinished name? Some people might think so. Should it be Lucia or Lucille or Lucillia (yes, Lucillia is real).

As I noted before, the British take the opposite tack, preferring nickname-y options (Harry, Jack, Alfie) over more formal-sounding versions.

I'm not sure which approach is better, but Americans should probably realize that their thirst for longer names is based on modern tastes — not some historic authenticity.