Classic Baby Names: New twists on old standards

April 21, 2013 Abby Sandel

With this week’s Nameberry 9, Appellation Mountain‘s Abby Sandel shows how it’s possible to add new spark to classic names.

I love an unexpected nickname, and it is a delight when parents choose classic baby names with spark.  This week’s name news was filled with great examples.

The Bush family is big on passing down heirlooms, from father to son, but also across generations.  Former first daughter Jenna Bush Hager wears her maternal grandmother’s name, and upheld that tradition with her new arrival. 

But Jenna went one step further: she figured out a clever way to use both grandmothers’ names while adding an on-trend nickname that gives the new baby an identity all her own.

Classic names are always open to reinvention.  Whether we’re claiming them from other languages and cultural traditions, discovering fresh nicknames, or just thinking about different ways to honor loved ones, the possibilities are limitless.

This was also the week when crooner Michael Buble complained that his gorgeous Argentine model wife Luisana Lopilato keeps suggesting names that just don’t work in English.  Something tells me that they’ll manage just fine, and Luisana, the Nameberry forums are a great place to test out cross-cultural possibilities.

This week’s name news was all about fresh takes on traditional choices:

YaelLet’s start out with a name nerd bonus.  Did you see the BushHager family snapshot shared on The Today Show?  If you look at the white board in the background, not only does it read Mila, but the name of the assigned nurse is there, too.  It’s Yael, an Old Testament rarity.  The Biblical Yael was a heroine who conspired to kill the head of an invading army.  It’s a fierce, seldom heard name and a surprise to see in 2013.

Margaret Laura – The newest member of the Bush dynasty is named after both grandmothers.  In our age of Eleanor and Beatrice, isn’t it surprising that a classic baby name like Margaret isn’t more popular?    

Mila – The actress born Margaret Julia Thomas became Marlo.  Theodosia Burr Goodman was best known as Theda Bara.  Contracting classic names and playing with their sounds can yield a world of possibilities.  Taking Margaret’s M and the la from Laura leads to Mila, the on-trend name of the moment.  She’s a successor to Mia, cousin to Lila and Lily, and boosted by actress Mila Kunis.  Even before the latest headline-worthy arrival, Mila was on the rise.

GretaThe only reason I’m not completely in love with Mila?  Margaret’s other potential nicknames are equally appealing.  There’s Daisy, Maggie, Margot, and this one, too.  I heard it on the roster at my kids’ school earlier this week, and on the Nameberry forums, and it really does wear nicely.

Elsa – Another spin on a classic, Elsa is a short form of Elizabeth.  She’s more sophisticated than Elsie and less expected than Eliza or Elise.  It could be the perfect way to honor an Elizabeth.  And unlike most of the options, she’s not even in the US Top 1000.  It’s a nice suggestion from Swistle to pair with big brother Oliver.

Gracie Willow – This one comes to us from an Australian birth announcement from National Rugby League player Sam Thaiday and wife Rachel.  The couple went with the casual form of Grace, a homespun spin on the elegant virtue name.  From the British Alfie to the American Cole, short forms of classic baby names are taking center stage.  As Waltzing More than Matilda mentioned, the couple initially threatened to name their baby girl Wednesday Thursday Thaiday.  Gracie Willow was definitely the better choice!

Anne In Name Only featured Anne, inspired by tweenage heartthrob Justin Bieber’s awkward tour of Anne Frank’s house.  The spare Anne is fading, even while other tailored choices like Grace and Jane are experiencing a revival.  Anne smooshes are stylish, too – think of Annabelle and Anneliese.  Can Anne still stand on her own in 2013?

Peterson – This idea at Swistle is another smart way to update a family name: use –son literally.  If dad is David, instead of David, Jr., why not consider Davidson?  It won’t work for every name, but a long list of possibilities emerge: Williamson, Michaelson, Dennison, Robertson, and yes, Peterson.

Sebastian – Now that he’s a Top 100 staple, it is hard to imagine that Sebastian was once unusual in the US.  But he’s a bona fide classic, a name with rich history that seems so obvious now.  It’s also the name that Malin Akerman and Robert Zincone gave to their new son.  Which reminds me – could Malin catch on for girls?  The Swedish-Canadian actress’ name is a contracted form of Magdalene, used in Scandinavia – making her an unexpected cousin to Madeline and a perfect fit for this list.

What are your favorite classic baby names?  Are there any twists that you especially like?

About the author


Abby Sandel is nameberry's Senior Editor and resident Name Sage. Look for her baby name news round-ups every Monday, and her Name Sage columns on Wednesdays. Abby is the creator of the baby name blog Appellation Mountain and mom to Alex and Clio. For a chance to have your questions answered, contact Abby at

View all of Abby's articles


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