In 1920, hemlines were short, whiskey illegal, and girls were named Mary. Or, at least 1 in 17.52. Other names that year, almost as fashionable, were Dorothy (1 in 33.95), Margaret (1 in 44.42) and even Ruth (1 in 47.65).
But by 1950, when booze was legal again, but hemlines down, Mary dropped to second place (1 in 26.87),nudgedout of the #1 slot by Linda (1 in 21.87). Also newly popular that year were Patricia (“call me Patty,” 1 in 36.7 girls could have said) and Barbara—meaning that 1 in 42.32 girls born in 1950 might have received a new namesake doll on their ninth birthday (the creator of the Barbie doll, Ruth Handler, had a daughter named Barbara—not to mention a son named Ken).
In 1970 Mary had her last hurrah as a top ten—she was #9, claiming 1 in 95.36 girls, just above Tracy and just below Tammy. After that, Mary faded away, to just 1 in 599.5 by the time 2008 rolled around. Not the best odds, but a better reception than Dorothy received—after 1920, that name went into freefall, and by 2008, the odds of a girl named Dorothy were less than one in 7,875. Another 1920s name, Margaret, fared slightly better. The odds of a modern-day Margaret are 1 in 1,125—still far short of 2008’s #1. That honor went to Emma, which was written into 1 in 110.6 birth records last year, followed by Isabella (1 in 111.8), Emily (1 in 119.4), and Madison (1 in 122).
But if girls’ names have been on a rollercoaster this past century, boys’ have been on a gently undulating teacup ride. True, some of the old favorites from 1920, like Charles (1 in 38.89 in 1920), George (1 in 40.95), and Edward (1 in 54.79), have faded away, but most have held on. The odds of a William in 1920 were 1 in 21.95—it was the second most popular name then, and in 2008, it was still in the top 10 at # 8: 1 in 118.5 boys in 2008 were named William.
The name John, #1 in 1920, dropped to 20th most popular in 2008, and the odds dropped from 1 in 19.34 to 1 in 163.9—but again, not bad. James made the top ten in 1920 (1 in 22.96), 1950 (1 in 21.13), 1970 (1 in 30.84), and 1985 (1 in 53.65), and Michael has ranked first or second every single year since it hit first place in 1954 (the odds of a Michael in 2008? 1 in 106).
Even through the later part of the century, as their sisters’ names careened through the baby name books, boys’ continued their modest trends. A few new names came and went—Gary enjoyed a brief period in the spotlight around 1950 when 1 in 53.92 boys were so named, but then it dropped away to fewer than one in 3,195 by 2008. Most boys’ names, once in favor, more or less maintained their popularity—like Alexander, Joshua, and Matthew, which respectively appeared on 1 in 116.7, 1 in 113.6, and 1 in 124 birth certificates in 2008.
One theory to explain the gender differences is that women’s names, much like women’s attire, are meant to adorn, inspiring more variety (Should I wear a skirt? A long skirt? A-line? Pencil? Mini? With heels or those flats with bows?). Men’s trouser lengths, on the other hand, have changed comparatively little over the past century—and so have their names. A girl with an unfashionable name might be perceived as less attractive, intelligent, popular, and fun. Too unusual a boy’s name can seem a little unmanly—and less successful.
The bigger question for the sociologists is why names are subject to fashion. Until recently, family tradition and religion dominated the naming culture. Now, however, divided and disparate families span the continent, religion long since gave way to a secularized society, and technology has opened an entire world’s worth of exotic names for the expecting parent—Chloe and Isabella might be the hottest trend here, but they’re old hat in Greece and Italy.
The most visible influences on names are external social and political events—though such things don’t always affect naming fashions in the most predictable way. Elvis, for example, never really experienced much popularity, even in the height of Presley’s career—nor has Harry benefited from J.K. Rowling’s success. On the other hand, the recent popularity of Barack is hardly a coincidence.
There are limits on these influences, however, for which all generations may perhaps be thankful. Bono has not appeared in any of the top 1,000 names in the past century and so far, neither has Moon Unit or Fifi Trixibelle.