The Social Security Administration’s 2017 baby name data is now in, charting the Top 1000 names on its card applications for newborns dating back to 1880. They also help track our ever-changing tastes and trends in baby names.
First, a little etymology. It’s no coincidence that so many names do end in –ley. It comes from the Old English leah, meaning “field, meadow, clearing, or wood,” those sort of leafy, grassy patches of land we can imagine were perfect for the ancient Anglo-Saxon homestead. (Leah, a biblical name from Hebrew, is unrelated.)
The word survives in lea, familiar to crossword puzzlers, and as compounded into various names. Ashley, for instance, is liteally “ash (tree) woods.” Kinsley is “king’s meadow” and Harley, “hare’s woods.”
These Old English signposts spread as place-names and surnames throughout the English-speaking world—and were preserved many centuries later in the given name for a daughter, say, whose parents met at the University of California, Berkeley, originally “birch woods.”
Berkley hasn’t yet cracked the Top 1000, but 2017 did welcome some notable newcomers. Sneaking in at #965 last year, 70 girls were named Ensley. Ensley is a variant of Ainsley, “one’s own woods,” which, at #352, slipped from her #332 all-time high in 2013.
Emberly made her debut in the Top 1000 at a noteworthy #629. The name either embellishes Ember (#289) or tweaks Kimberly, who, though still respectable at #164, looks back to her glory days as the back-to-back #2 in 1966–67.
Tinsley—an English place-name represented by socialite Tinsley Mortimer—edged up to #837 after first appearing in 2016, just behind Tinley, #827, in her fifth, nonconsecutive year in the Top 1000 since 2011. Like Emberly, Tinley is another –ley-inspired invented name, joined by Briley and the male Zailey, who’ve yet to chart.
What’s driving these changes? For one, -ley names draw on established place names and surnames, long popular sources of first names. For another, many -ley names have a unisex appeal, working for both boys and girls. And -ley comes in different varieties, including -lea, -lee, -leigh, -lie, and -ly. Altogether, -ley names feel familiar but have a twist. They’re distinctive without sticking out too much, the golden mean many modern parents strive for.
Speaking of more familiar -ley names, some other usual suspects are also following Kimberly’s decline. Since its #1 spots in 1991–92, Ashley has dropped to #122 in 2017, neighbor to Bailey (“berry wood,” also “bailiff”) at #125, down from #80 in 1998. At #72, Hailey (“hay clearing”) appears to be retreating from the Top 100 since her #19 peak in 2010. Her alternate spellings, Haley (#343) and Hayley (#612), also made showings. For boys, the perennially popular Wesley crept up to #111 while the #230 Bradley has been slowly sinking from its 1980–90s heyday.
Vying for their place is a fresh cohort of -ley names:
Everly leaped to #82 in 2017 after getting her toe into the Top 100 at #903 in 2012. A lyrical name rooted in an earthier meaning of “wild boar clearing,” Everly was chosen for the daughter of actor Channing Tatum in 2013; Cam Gigandet went for Everleigh for his girl in 2009. It was once associated with the singing Everly brothers.
Kinsley skyrocketed to 59th place from #947 in 2005. Its regal air has an eclectic appeal: Chance the Rapper had a Kinsley in 2015, as did actress Jenny Robinson and rocker Travis Clark. The variant Kinslee was #647.
The fun and youthful Finley reached #159 for girls in 2017, having come afar at #986 in 2005. The NBA’s Blake Griffin and his wife Brynn Cameron used it for their daughter in 2016. We’re watching Finley as a boy’s name, too, reaching #279 last year—and resurfacing from some popularity in the early 1900s.
The name Finley is not a proper -ley, though. Its Celtic roots mean “fair warrior,” related to Finn (#167 for boys) and McKinley (which dipped to #437 for girls and never recovered from its presidential heights for boys in the early 1900s).
While a Top 200 boy’s name in the early 1900s, the tomboy rev of Harley has been steadily gaining for girls, from #678 in 1991 to #202 in 2017. Hip-hop artist Bryson Tiller chose Harley for his daughter in 2013.
Literally meaning “burnt meadow,” Brinley has hurtled from #781 in 2009 to #326 in 2017. For a girl, the name has a sort of delicate mischief, attracting social media savvy singers Acacia and Jairus Kersey in 2017.
Also on the rise is Oakley (“oak clearing”). The name has been aiming higher on the girl charts, jumping from #928 in 2013 to #474 in 2017—five spots ahead of the name on the boy charts, over a century after Oakley was up in the 800–900s between 1900 and 1920. TV’s Sabrina Burkholder (Breaking Amish) named her girl, Oakley, in 2014.
Roughly maintaining their standings are some other notable girl -ley names, including Riley (#25), Paisley (#45), Hadley (#113), Presley (#200) Marley (#209), and Henley (#523). For girls, we’re watching out for Kenley (#755) and for boys, Huxley (#790), both inching up the charts in the less than ten years they’ve been in the Top 1000.
There’s no doubt that that old word, leah, has shown a lot of life in the 2017 baby name data. But if you’re worried that it’s become too trendy, there are many other -ley names, widespread as they are in the language, that have yet to register on the charts. Like Waverly, whose poetic meaning of “place of quivering aspens” has indeed graced literature, from a 19th-century novel by Sir Walter Scott to a character in Amy Tan’s 1989 Joy Luck Club.