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What’s in a Name?

Last week the Social Security Administration released two lists: The Ten Most Popular Names for Girls in 2013, and The Ten Most Popular Names for Boys in 2013. The list comes out annually just before Mother’s Day.

Choosing baby names can be a nerve-racking experience. Once upon a time, it was a relatively simple affair for Europeans. In the very early days, a child was named for the saint whose day it was. May 30 – St. John of Arc.  August 28 – St. Augustine of Hippo. (I suppose you could call him “Gus.”) Alternatively, kings often reused names. The French had no fewer than 18 kings named Louis.

Protestant Reformers, in their zeal to remove all references to the Catholic Church, excised both the saints and their names. Girls were named after positive attributes – Purity, Chastity, Patience, or Prudence. Boys might get Concord or solid biblical names like Jacob, Abner, or Nathan. I think the boys got better name game results.

Families often kept names alive to remember or honor other family members. If a child died in infancy, his or her name was often given to the next newborn. Seems a bit creepy. Likewise, sons named after fathers and grandfathers; daughters after a favorite aunt.

So, I wondered if there was any relationship between the top ten boys and girls’ names in the 1940’s with those of 2013.

The top ten names for boys during the 1940’s – a decade coinciding with U.S. involvement in World War II and its aftermath were:

James, Robert, John, William, Richard, David, Charles, Thomas, Michael, and Ronald

 The names shifted around in their rankings, but most remained popular into the 1980’s, notwithstanding “hippie” children’s names like “River.”

 William, for example, was a name associated with will, desire, and protection – all attributes espoused by William the Conqueror when he took over England in 1066.

“Sweet William” Flowers
Courtesy of Louise Docker
Creative Commons Attribution
Wikimedia Commons

Alternatively, William is also associated with a small flower called “Sweet William.” And, of course, the present heir to the British throne is Prince William.

In 2013, the top ten names for boys were:

Noah, Liam, Jacob, Mason, William, Ethan, Michael, Alexander, Jayden, and Daniel

 Baby Name Fashion has changed since the 1940’s. Bruce Lansky, something of an expert on baby names, suggests parents want their sons to be kinder and gentler, but also notes that biblical references continue to be popular because they imply good character traits. I guess that’s like Puritans naming their daughters Prudence in the hope the child would fulfill the name.

 What about girls? In the 1940’s their top names were:

Mary, Linda, Barbara, Patricia, Carol, Sandra (my personal favorite), Nancy, Sharon, Judith, and Susan

Last year’s most popular names:

Sophia, Emma, Olivia, Isabella, Ava, Mia, Emily, Abigail, Madison, and Elizabeth

Lansky suggests we give girls names we think are attractive and elegant.

Judith with Head of Holofernes
Hans Cranach
US Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

I’m somewhat sorry the name Judith fell off the Top Ten list. What could be more marvelous than naming your daughter after a woman who seduces an enemy general, gets him drunk, and cuts off his head?

Hmmm. Perhaps “Sophia” is a more acceptable choice, after all. Not only does the word refer to wisdom, it conjures up the image of the still iconic actress – Sophia Loren.

Sophia Loren, 1959
Paul A. Hesse Studios
US Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons



Featured Image: Baby Smiling at Camera, Courtesy of HH Crawford, Creative Commons Attribution, Wikimedia Commons.

Bruce Lansky, also known as the “King of Giggle Poetry,” has published several books on baby names, including The Very Best Baby Names.  For more information, see

Top Ten Names for 2013. Social Security Administration.

Sharon Jayson, US TODAY, May 9, 2014.

Behind the Name.

Author Sandra Wagner Wright

Sandra Wagner-Wright holds the doctoral degree in history and taught women’s and global history at the University of Hawai`i. Sandra travels for her research, most recently to Salem, Massachusetts, the setting of her new Salem Stories series. She also enjoys traveling for new experiences. Recent trips include Antarctica and a river cruise on the Rhine from Amsterdam to Basel.

 Sandra particularly likes writing about strong women who make a difference. She lives in Hilo, Hawai`i with her family and writes a blog relating to history, travel, and the idiosyncrasies of life.

2 thoughts on “WHAT’S IN A NAME?

  1. Thanks, Sandra, for the name reference. When I was a little girl, I didn’t like my name but feel better about it now. (Would still like a different one). The 1940 list of names is most interesting – it not only lists my name but also my sister’s name and that of my 2 best friends (twins Sandra & Sharon) from high school. All of us born in the 40s. Judith in the Bible had a lot of gumption – what were my parents thinking?!

  2. I didn’t like my name either. Perhaps that’s why we often give ourselves nicknames? Thanks for commenting.


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