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Buttoned-up Girls’ Names

classic girls' names

by Pamela Redmond Satran

The trendiest girls’ names of recent years have been flowery and elaborate: Isabella and Sophia, Olivia and Arianna.  They end in vowels….and often begin with them too.  And if they’re not exotic confections, stylish girls’ names are often gender-and-tradition-confounding novelties such as Harper and Hadley and Neveah.

You can almost hear your granny asking: What ever happened to a nice name like AnneAren’t any babies named Mary these days?

Well, fewer and fewer, in many cases, yet all the frippery in girls’ names is enough to make the old-fashioned buttoned-up standards feel downright refreshing.

A few of these buttoned-up names – Eleanor, most notably – are already making a comeback.  But most are simply lovely standards that may feel buttoned-up, but come with fanciful nicknames for now that can be shed (or not) if and when the future demands more seriousness.

Supreme Court Justice names, anyone?

The buttoned-up names for girls we think deserve a closer look include:

AnneWe’re all for buttoned-up, but we still prefer the minimalist Anne to the nearly-nonexistent Ann; that second vowel adds symmetry and balance.  Anne means grace and is still holding on in the middle of the popularity list, an excellent place to be.  We think Anne feels fresher than Hannah and Anna, more grownup than Annabel and Annie.

CarolineCaroline reached its popularity peak not, as you might imagine, during the Kennedy administration, but ten years ago.  Sweet Caroline hasn’t slipped much, though, still at Number 80 yet feeling timeless.

EleanorEleanor is the unlikely fashion darling of the buttoned-up set, climbing 600 places since the late 1980s.  Set to break into the Top 100, Eleanor is made trendy via its popular nickname Ellie.

Esther – The Biblical Esther was wildly popular a century ago and in recent decades has held its own, becoming neither too out nor too in, though lately its started trending gently upward.  The name has a beautiful meaning – star – and Queen Esther was a heroic figure, so the name has much to recommend it.

FrancesBesides doing many wonderful things for Catholics, the new Pope Francis has done some wonderful things for his own name, burnishing its image and propelling it into wider use.  Can he do the same for the feminine version?  Frances has actually risen more than 100 points in the polls over the past five years and now stands at Number 693.  Frances was the baby name choice of rock couple Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love.

HelenHelen was almost the Number 1 name from 1900 until 1920, when it apparently gave up trying to unseat Mary and started a very long and gradual slide.  But Helen still holds on at Number 409, and if the name feels a bit fusty, you might remember that it was borne by the world’s most beautiful woman, Helen of Troy.

JudithJudith is one of those names that was so hot until it was so not, falling from its midcentury height in the Top 5 to the very bottom of the Top 1000 now.   The problem may be nickname Judy, now everyone’s favorite aunt, and the solution may be reverting to the name’s full form.  The Biblical Judith was a renowned beauty and a heroine of her people.

LouiseLouise has been off the Top 1000 for nearly a quarter century – doesn’t that mean it’s time for a comeback?  Sister name Louisa may feel more fashionable with its final a and Louisa May Alcott antecedent, but Louise is arguably chicer.

MargaretMargaret is no longer the star name it was for so many decades, yet it remains in the Top 200 without feeling at all overused.  Maybe that’s because so many Margarets are called something else: Maggie or Meg or Peggy or (today) even Maisie or Daisy.

MarthaMartha is definitely a quietly fashionable name in England, where it’s in the Top 100, though it hasn’t quite caught on again here.  After decades in the Top 25, Martha is now at its lowest point ever, Number 803.  But it sounds good again to us.

MaryMary was the most popular name for so many decades, inspired by the Mother of Jesus, that it seemed she was unassailable – till Linda came along and started the trend toward trendier girls’ names.  But Mary still ranks a respectable 121 and has so many adorable and unusual nicknames – from Mamie to May, Minnie to Polly – that there’s a variation to suit just about every taste.

Ruth – The Biblical Ruth was amazingly a Top 10 name from the 1890s all the way till 1930.  Though it seems as if you hardly ever hear of a baby called Ruth, the name has actually been holding steady for two decades in the 300s, a nice place to be.  Ruth means “compassionate friend.”

Buttoned-up dress coat by Delia Creates.

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13 Responses to “Buttoned-up Girls’ Names”

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ellieberry Says:

November 11th, 2014 at 12:56 am

Love Ruth! Ruthie is absolutely adorable, too. Mary, Helen, and Anne are other classy faves. I would add Dorothy, Gretchen, Faye, Irene, Edith, Theodora, and Therese to this list if it were expanded. I love “buttoned up” names on a little girl! Great list 🙂

lesliemarion Says:

November 11th, 2014 at 2:11 am

I love Jean and Joan and Brenda and Enid and Louise. Neat and tidy names.

Lo Says:

November 11th, 2014 at 6:14 am

Great list! I really love many of these names. Other than Judith I think they’ve all been on my list of favorites at one point or another.

CsprsSassyHrly Says:

November 11th, 2014 at 11:53 am

I think there are only two names on this list that I don’t absolutely love. Judith is a name I’ve never liked much, although I do have to say that I love Judah and the nickname Jude and, while I like Mary, I’m a bigger fan of Marie. I adore Eleanor and Helen (though, possibly more Helena); they’re great ways to get to the nickname Nell.

Love Caroline, Frances, Louise, Martha and Ruth. I’m on the fence with Anne, sometimes I really like it and other times I don’t. I have an aunt named Esther so I love the name but I would probably not use that name. Which makes it hard to honor her.

I love Margaret and all its possible nicknames. I love that a little girl can go from being Gretchen, Greta, Daisy, Maisie, Maggie, or Peggy around friends and family to Margaret at school or work.

@ellieberry – I am not sure how I feel about Irene on little girls just yet, despite the older girl name revival. My name is Irene and I still feel like it’s not a name I’d like to hear on little girls. I agree about Gretchen (Greta is a bit higher on my list but Gretchen is still up there) and Faye, I love those beautiful names.

miloowen Says:

November 11th, 2014 at 12:10 pm

These are my names, although I think Louisa has far more class than Louise, despite it being a royal moniker. (In fact, Louisa is my daughter’s name.) Love Ann without the e and the nn Nan to go with it. Margaret, Martha, Judith, Esther, Eleanor (and the Elinor spelling), Ruth, Caroline, Frances. Missing are the versions of John: Jane, Joan, Jean, Janet — all of them button-up names. Dorothy, Fay, and my favourite Helen, my grandmother’s name. I’m not fond of Mary (I prefer Miriam) but it would still be nice to hear kids named Mary again, especially as you can get May and so many other nn’s from it.

As for honouring an Esther, Esther’s real name was Hadassah. Which is a beautiful name.

These are stalwart names with dignity and grace, with the weight of our culture behind them. They can be used for a nurse or a judge, the president or a rabbi. They have great nn’s which can be discarded in the business world. And they can all be translated into most Western languages, a real plus in our global economy. I honestly think we do our daughters a disservice when we give them fluffy and frilly names. The world refuses to take women seriously — and when your name is Fifi Tinkerbelle, well, honestly.

Chloe14 Says:

November 11th, 2014 at 1:03 pm

My favorite all buttoned up girls names are: Anne, Helen, Mary, Judith, Margaret, Louise and Ruth! I also love other classics like: Brenda! I love Anne just so much mainly with the E at the end though and Helen is just so lovely, sweet and feminine. Louise is gorgeous although I am a little biased there as it’s my middle name.

cgwaltney Says:

November 11th, 2014 at 2:37 pm

I love Anne, Eleanor, Mary, and Louise! I secretly wish that I used Louise as my daughter’s first name instead of the middle.

maggiemary Says:

November 11th, 2014 at 3:08 pm

As a prouder bearer of two of these names, it goes without saying, that I love this list.

Mary, Frances, Esther, Anne and Martha are names I would happily use.

Caroline and Helen are both gorgeous, but when my twin sister and I shared out family names (yes we’ve really done this) for us to hopefully get to use in the future, she got “custody” of Caroline and Helen. The latter is actually our mom’s name, but I got “custody” of Samuel (our dad’s name), so it was only fair she got mom’s name.

I would be happy to use Eleanor, but only if my sister didn’t use Helen, otherwise they’re too similar.

Judith and Ruth are lovely too, but not names I’d personally use.

Margaret is my name, so wouldn’t use it for that reason, but my sister wants to. <3

Other buttoned-up girl names I like are Jean and Joan.

@CsprsSassyHrly – you've hit the nail on the head, as to why I love being a Margaret, the fact that I can go by Maggie on a daily basis, but be Margaret on a formal basis.

emilybk Says:

November 12th, 2014 at 10:13 am

My daughter’s middle name is Margaret and I completely love it. Her first is Cates, which is a family surname. I liked giving her a super-traditional middle name, in case she decides she doesn’t like having an unusual first name when she’s older. She can always fall back on Margaret and you can’t get much more traditional than that.

iwillpraise Says:

November 12th, 2014 at 11:18 am

Judi (full name) is my MIL; Caroline (no nn) is my SIL; Helen is my aunt’s first and late grandma’s middle (different sides of the family).

I like Anne names, but I don’t think I’d ever use it by itself. I am seriously considering classic Susanne for a future daughter’s middle, for no other reason then it feels fresh and summery with the old-fashioned first I’ve chosen.

I have given thought towards Eleanor, Esther, Louise, esp as middles, but there are just too many other names I’m head-over-heels for… I also like the idea of Ruth and her history, but I just can’t do it. The name is just NMS.

Frances, Helen, Judith, Margaret, Martha, Mary are waaaay too stuffy for me.

Binz Says:

November 12th, 2014 at 7:11 pm

Always preferred Louisa instead of Louise. *hides* When I have a daguhter, Louisa is one of my top picks, along with Jane.
Eleanor, Caroline, Frances, and Margaret are some of my favourite names. And who would have thought that Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain would come up with such a great first and middle name combo for their daughter?

moraea Says:

November 12th, 2014 at 8:59 pm

I feel my daughter’s name should be on here. She’s named after my great grandmother, born 1918. Lilian (Lillian for gma) Lorraine. Bonus: cute modern nn Lilia and Raine.

tfzolghadr Says:

November 15th, 2014 at 12:16 pm

Lois. I don’t get why more people don’t use Lois… she’s buttoned-up with a little charm and sass…

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