Name Trends of the 1880s: Everything old is new again

By Arika Okrent, mentalfloss.com

The Social Security website has data on the thousand most popular baby names for boys and girls going back to 1880, when John and Mary came in first. A look at the old lists shows that the most popular names are always changing, but some of the naming trends have been around for longer than it might seem. Here are 11 naming trends of the past.

1. IMPORTANT TITLES

The current list has some names that carry a grand sense of importance (Messiah, King, Marquis), but the 1880s and 90s also had its grand titles in the 200 to 400 range of ranked popularity. For the boys, there was General, Commodore, Prince, and Major. For the girls there was Queen, which hovered around the 500 mark until the 1950s.

2. CITIES & STATES

Cities as names are not a new thing, however. Boston was a boy’s name in the 1880s. Dallas and Denver have been around since the 1880s, as has Cleveland (though it peaked in popularity during the presidency of Grover Cleveland, so perhaps should count as a president name instead.) Some of our state names come from women’s names, so it is expected that states like Virginia, Carolina, and Georgia should be represented on name lists. But other state names have made the list too. Missouri made the girl’s name list from 1880 until about 1900 and Indiana, Tennessee, and Texas also showed up a few times as girls’ names in the 1800s.

3. WEIRD SPELLINGS

People have been coming up with their own spellings for common names for a long time. Some alternate versions of names that are more than half a century old are Hellen, Margarett, Julious, Deloris, Kathrine, Elizebeth, Benjiman, Peggie, Sharlene, Syble, Dorris, Suzan and Lawerence.

4. THE ‘Y’ SPELLING

Recent years have introduced names like Madisyn and Madyson, where a ‘y’ replaces another letter, but names like Edyth, Kathryne, Alyce, Helyn, and Franklyn have all made the lists of yore. In the 1920s, it was fashionable to get the look of an inside-name ‘y’ by adding an ‘e’ to names already ending with ‘y’ as in Rubye, Bettye, Bobbye, and Billye.

5. GOING DOWN IN HISTORY

The last names of historical figures have long been used as first names. Lincoln has been on the list since the beginning of record keeping, but in recent years it has been making a comeback, reaching 132 in 2012. Columbus made the list until the 1950s, and Napoleon was popular until the 1970s. Cicero had a short-lived run, barely making it into the 1900s, and Washington fell off in the 1920s. Roosevelt peaked in popularity during the runs of both Roosevelts. Sometimes it’s wise to wait and see how a president’s name will go down in history before you give it to your baby. Hoover was the 366th most popular boy’s name in 1928, experiencing a sharp drop off after that.

6. BOYS’ NAMES FOR GIRLS

Charlie has become a popular girl’s name, making the list at 305 this year, but it had an earlier run as a girl’s name in the last century. From the 1880s until about the 1950s, there were a bunch of traditional boys’ names that became popular for girls. Tommie, Billie, Bobbie, Frankie as well as William and George all made the list for many years in a row.

7. THE –FORD ENDING

These days there’s a trend for the ‘-den’ ending, as in Jayden, Camden, Caden, Aiden, and Braden, but there was a time when it was all about the ‘-ford’: Clifford, Wiford, Buford, Rutherford, Stanford, Crawford, and just plain Ford had a good run in the early 20th century.

8. NOUNS

You can name your baby whatever you want. Here are some regular nouns that have made the list in years past: Fairy (#625 for girls in 1905), Dimple (#800 for girls in 1919), Author (#558 for boys in 1883), Cherry (#430 for girls in 1948), and Love (#585 for boys in 1890).

An expanded version of this blog appeared on mentalfloss.com. Read the full text here.
Arika Okrent is editor-at-large at TheWeek.com and a frequent contributor to Mental Floss. She is the author of In the Land of Invented Languages, a history of the attempt to build a better language. She holds a doctorate in linguistics and a first-level certification in Klingon.

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8 Responses to “Name Trends of the 1880s: Everything old is new again”

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southern.maple Says:

November 6th, 2013 at 1:33 am

Most of the “weird spellings” in the 1880s were a result of typos during data entry and parents just not knowing how to spell a name. While boyish nickname names on girls weren’t uncommon for the time, it’s important to note that they were usually double names (Bobbie Mae, Billie Pearl) or were paired with a long, frilly middle name. Names like William and George appearing on the girls’ side are typically results of compilation errors. It wasn’t “trendy” in 1884 to name your daughter William or Thomas.

The rest of these are pretty accurate though. I could debate the “y” thing though, because if you look at numbers rather than rankings it was actually extremely rare.

namefan Says:

November 6th, 2013 at 11:37 am

I agree with southern.maple – the early SSA lists have frequent errors like those. The names like William or Thomas on the girl’s list – as well as names like Mary and Helen on the boy’s – are mainly due to gender coding errors. (In fact, as late as the 1980s or so you’ll see the top names for one gender often appearing in the Top 1,000 for the other for that reason. There are still occasional gender mistakes like a few girls named Jacob and boys named Sophia appearing on the extended list, but with computers such errors do not usually add up enough now to make the name show up on the Top 1,000 list on the other side.)

vicioustrollop9 Says:

November 6th, 2013 at 4:27 pm

Thank you, southern.maple! I am big into searching my ancestry and when I was reading about “unusual spellings” my first instinct was to quickly post a comment debunking the thought. Glad to see I’m not the only one who noticed it!

camjade1 Says:

November 6th, 2013 at 5:09 pm

Victoria is a beautiful named used in the 19th century. Even though it’s a oldy, it’s certainly a goody!

lesliemarion Says:

November 20th, 2015 at 12:10 am

Love the -ford names, especially Rutherford (a family name) and Bedford (as in Bedford Falls!).

Also love the important titles category as Chancellor I just can’t help but love.

I preferred misspellings back then when they were accidental as opposed to now when they are obnoxiously on purpose.

AldabellaxWulfe Says:

November 20th, 2015 at 6:42 am

For every girl named Georgie and Phillip (which, by the way, were often data entry mistakes or, sadly, a result of parents wanting a boy), there were just as many boys named Jane, Marie, Claire, Elizabeth etc. And I LOVE how you’ve never mentioned that, not just in this post but on this site in general. For example, I was partially amused, partially disgusted by the Geezer Names for Girls list, and saddned by the absence of a Grannny Names for Boys list. Sexism at its finest, Nameberry.

p.s – Education in the 1880s wasn’t a given and it certainly wasn’t as thorough as it is today. So parents misspelling their children’s names often happened by accident. So please don’t use that as some form of justification for why parents of the 21st century should be allowed to illiterately butcher their childrens names, especially when it’s been known to have a negative impact on his or her future career prospects.

KateMP91 Says:

November 20th, 2015 at 10:31 pm

I love researching geneology. There were certainly some interesting names and creative namers way back when. In my family tree, there is a Montana and Tennessee, a Morning, and a Tarpley. For boys, George Washington and Hayes (patriotic Americans all up in my family tree lol). I love looking for all the unique names mixed in with the Katherines, Katarinas, and Marys.

Jennai Says:

November 21st, 2015 at 10:40 am

@AldabellaxWulfe: Thank you! Well said! I just hate the whole “boys’ names for girls are so cool” thing! As long as girls’ names for boys is not a cool thing as well.

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