From Mary to Isabella: Baby names get longer and longer

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By Nick Turner

Baby-name fads have come and gone over the decades, but one trend has held true: Names are getting longer.

A hundred years ago, boys’ names were typically less than two syllables. John, James, George and Frank were all popular picks, and there were no three-syllable names anywhere in the top 20.

In recent decades, that changed. Three- and four-syllable choices like Alexander, Nicholas, Joshua and Christopher surged in popularity, turning America‘s baby names into more of a mouthful.

By the 2000s, the average syllable count for a top 20 boys’ name had climbed to 2.25 — up from 1.8 in the 1880s.

Girls’ names, meanwhile, have gotten even longer. A Top 20 female name had an average syllable count of 2.75 last year. That compares with 2.05 in the 1880s.

Three-syllable girls’ names have ruled the roost over the past half-century:  Jennifer, Jessica, Emily and now Sophia. Compare that with the name that dominated the charts for the first part of the 20th century: Mary.

Names have also gotten longer when measured by letter count, though that trend is less pronounced. Popular boys’ names were 5.7 letters on average in the 1880s. They topped out at 6.3 in the 1980s before retreating to 5.95 last year.

Girls’ names were 5.45 letters on average in the 1880s. Like their male counterparts, they also peaked in the 1980s, at 6.7 letters.

Apparently the excess of the 1980s wasn’t just about cocaine and shoulder pads; parents also were giving their kids oversized names. (Think: S-T-E-P-H-A-N-I-E.) By 2013, girl’s letter counts had slipped back down to 5.85.

What’s the significance of all this? Well, it probably means your name has more syllables than your mother or father’s name — and that your child will have a longer one than yours.

I suppose it also could threaten America‘s productivity. If we have to shout three or four syllables across the cubicle wall to get a co-worker’s attention, imagine all the time we’ll be wasting. (Fortunately, “Hey, you” is always effective.)

But I’m not going to worry about that here. I’d rather examine (a) the reasons behind America‘s name bloat, and (b) whether parents selecting names for their kids should even care.

First off, why is this happening? There are at least three reasons I can discern.

1. A search for glamour. Let’s face it: Sophia and Isabella have a lot more pizzazz than Mary. (And I’m a fan of Mary.) Other short names that were popular a hundred years ago, such as Ruth, feel drab to modern ears. Grace is still common as a middle name, but it seems to have lost its mojo as a first.

It’s not that biblical names have fallen out of favor (Noah is No. 1 for boys right now). But the old Catholic-school favorites of yore have given way to livelier (and longer) choices.

2. Longer names are perceived to have more gravitas. Many parents are hesitant to stamp their kids with something that sounds like a nickname. So even if they love the name Jack, they’ll choose Jackson for the birth certificate. (Jackson currently ranks 16th, while Jack is barely in the top 40. That wasn’t the case a hundred years ago, when most Jacks were either Johns using a nickname or called Jack outright.)

3. Spanish, Greek and Italian variants have eclipsed English and French versions of names. Sophia and Sofia are both in the top 10, but two-syllable Sophie (the French spelling) is all the way down at No. 76. A century ago, Sophie was the more common name in the United States.

For whatever reason — partly changing demographics but also evolving aesthetics — Americans now prefer the Spanish/Italian suffix “-a.” That means Isabella is much more popular than Isabel/Isabelle, and Olivia is head-and-shoulders above Olive. And it means names have more syllables than before. (Isabella and Olivia check in at a whopping four apiece.)

Maria also outranks Mary, though neither name is tearing up the charts currently.

One name that’s bucking the trend is Alice. It has overtaken Alicia, which largely ran its course in the 1980 and ’90s, and continues to rise in the rankings.

That brings me to advice for parents seeking to navigate this world of supersized names.

Obviously, you should choose something that feels right to you, regardless of how long or short it is (I was just joking about your child’s name bringing the U.S. economy to a grinding halt).

You may want to think about syllable variation too. If the child’s middle and last names will have one syllable each, I would advise picking a different number for the first.

But I also wouldn’t shy away from a short name. The syllable-swelling trend will eventually reverse course, and you could be at the front of the pack.

Anne is beautiful. It doesn’t have to be Anna (it also lets you sidestep the debate over whether to pronounce it “Aw-na” like the Frozen character).

Jane is a gem that’s due for a comeback. It has the plain-Jane reputation, but these days it’s anything but common. (It currently ranks 355th, below Journey and Briella.)

Rose is another shorty that deserves better than middle-name status.

And if you’re partial to Olivia, at least try seeing how Olive feels on your tongue.

For boys, Jude and Cole are nice less-is-more options.

Finally, if you like the name Jack — be a rebel — just name the kid Jack.

Sometimes short really is sweet.

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About the author


Nick Turner is a writer and editor living in New York City (by way of San Francisco). He and his wife have successfully named three kids. Follow him on Twitter at @SFNick.
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12 Responses to “From Mary to Isabella: Baby names get longer and longer”

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peacebird10 Says:

November 14th, 2014 at 3:08 am

Very interesting piece! I wonder if this is US-specific since it seems from what I read that the Brits are really into nickname names right now, putting Archie and Millie on the birth certificate rather than Archibald or Amelia or Millicent. (I’m an American living in Australia, so feel free, Brits, to correct me!)

I think the tides will turn in the next decade and shorter names will be back in fashion. I think they will sound refreshing after a decade of “I’m not Bella! I’m Isabella!”

I think what I notice (and what almost bothers me) is how dainty and fragile the most popular girls’ names have become, with a very heavy emphasis on Ls (Lily, Isabella, Olivia, Amelia) and ending in A. The syllables might be the same as Stephanie and Jennifer but there’s something a little weightier to names of past decades. It’s gone so far that Americans (I’m making sweeping generalizations) think that anything that ends with A is fair game for girls, despite historic use: Luca, Asa, Ezra. I think Amelia and Olivia are beautiful names, but I wonder if there is a correlation to the hyper-feminization of little girls right now. (I’m thinking of the article about how Legos have become way more gender-specific in the last 2-3 decades: )

peacebird10 Says:

November 14th, 2014 at 3:09 am

^ Sorry if I got a bit off-topic there! Just thinking a bit about the composition of those syllables.

ElsaAnne Says:

November 14th, 2014 at 8:13 am

I’ve been thinking for a while that Anne needs to make a comeback! And thanks for mentioning Anna, I loved it, but the Frozen pronunciation has seriously put me off! Great piece!

trich323 Says:

November 14th, 2014 at 10:36 am

I love shorter names: Mae, Ivy, Claire, Leo, Jack… I think they sound really distinctive next to all the Isabellas and Jeremiahs.

Daisychain Says:

November 14th, 2014 at 1:15 pm

How does this fit with the increasing popularity of “raindrop names” that tend to be short?

CsprsSassyHrly Says:

November 14th, 2014 at 1:20 pm

The problem with short names, to me, is that they just don’t feel finished. While Mae is one of my favorite names, I would never put that on my child’s birth certificate. She’d be Margaret and Mae for short. This is a debate I’ve had with myself for years, specifically with the name Tess. I adore that name but it just feels too “nickname-y”, which I can also say for some of my other favorite names, Maisie, Trudy, Greta, Prue, Jude and Jack. I’d opt for a longer version of these names every single time.

Though, I will admit that there are some names that I’m perfectly fine with being short. Rose and Grace don’t sound unfinished to my ears. I’d be alright with a baby Faye and I have no qualms about naming a son Cole or Max.

Sunflowerist Says:

November 14th, 2014 at 3:34 pm

My biggest issue with short names is my last name is 1 syllable (rhymes with “mall”, begins with D) and my partner’s last name is equally short (Heart minus the “e”) and short firsts just seem too small for our 4 letter last names.

tfzolghadr Says:

November 15th, 2014 at 10:13 am

I don’t think there’s a “right” or a “wrong”. Although there are plenty of short names we love, we went with a long name (Emiliana) to honor my Italian heritage. And I think you hit the nail on the head… the demographics of the US are changing, as is the culture. In the past, there was pressure to conform to mainstream American culture. In my family, Beniamino became Ben, Erma became Emma, Rosa became Rose, Antonio became Tony, Alovisa became Louisa, etc. Now people are taking pride in their heritage, regardless of the number of syllables. Plenty of people of Irish descent are using shorter Irish names, i.e. Caitlin, Kian, Kieran, Rory, Devin, Declan, Colin, etc. as honor names… But in terms of efficiency, that’s a bit outrageous. If someone’s name is long enough to impact efficiency, don’t you think they’ll choose a nickname? Moreover, that would imply that Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish-speaking countries would be more inefficient…

JossieChris Says:

November 16th, 2014 at 10:24 am

We are considering using the name Temperence Isabelle for our second daughter. The main voiced concern seems to be the length and having to spell the name. My mother pointed out, she loves the name by the way, that though it is ten letters long, it is only two syllables. She will eventually learn to spell the whole thing, but can use Tempy for short. It is elegant like Elizabeth or Deborah which are also long names we have in our family. With a ten letter last name as well I just hope most forms these days have at least 30 spaces available. My hand may fall off everytime I spell it all out, but I think it sounds spectacular with our last name!

SeaZuno86 Says:

November 28th, 2014 at 10:40 pm

Jane is our number 1 name! I secretly hope it doesn’t get more popular 😉

I love Jude too… another top name for us

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