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Geographic Names Over Time

How place names like Florence, Virginia, Savannah and Sydney have ranked over the years.

posted by: Nick View all posts by this author

By Nick Turner

A century ago, you would have gotten some strange looks if you named your daughter Brooklyn — and not just because the borough wasn’t yet a hipster enclave.

Geographic baby names were rare in those days, and hardly anyone looked to grimy cities like New York for inspiration.

Today, babies with place names are everywhere. While Brooklyn is arguably the No. 1 geographic name, you’ll find plenty of kids named Austin, Savannah, Hudson and London roaming America‘s playgrounds. (And a few named America too.)

The names of states also have gotten increasingly popular, especially Dakota (helped by Dakota Fanning and Dakota Johnson).

That said, some geographic names did exist in the old days. And it’s interesting to look at what places captured the imagination of parents in past decades. So I decided to figure out the most popular geographic names in three eras, each about 65 years apart: 1880, 1946 and 2013.

First off, I should note that it’s hard to define a geographic name. Some parents might christen their kids Charlotte and Jackson in honor of those cities, but most people wouldn’t see them as place names. When culling the data, I excluded choices that didn’t feel closely linked to a location. I would argue that Virginia and Carolina are geographic names because most people would immediately think of the states. Victoria, on the other hand, is not (despite being a lovely city in British Columbia).

So let’s take our trip back in time. What was the most popular geographic name in 1880?

Florence, which was given to 1,063 babies that year.

Florence Nightingale, famous for tending to soldiers in the Crimean War, helped fuel the name’s popularity. (Her connection to the city of Florence, Italy, is undeniable: She was born there.)

Georgia, Virginia, Augusta and Alberta also made the 1880 list, though all of those picks arguably transcend the places that share their names.

Fewer boys were blessed with geographic names, but Austin, Dallas and Israel were all given to at least 15 babies that year.

By 1946, the top three girls’ place names were the same, though in a different order: Virginia, Georgia and Florence. They were followed by Dixie, Geneva and Alberta.

In that baby-boom year, Dallas was the No. 1 geographic name for boys. Cleveland, Austin and Denver also went to more than 150 babies apiece.

Nowadays, Brooklyn is the top place name and ranks 38th overall for girls — despite not being in the top 1,000 before 1990.

It’s followed by Savannah, London, Sydney, Georgia and Paris. (Paris is a complicated case since it was originally a male character in the Iliad. But most people today think of the city.)

With boys, the top choices are Austin, Hudson, Israel, Trenton and Dallas. For whatever reason, Texas cities seem to be the most evergreen. Israel also never goes out of style. Reality-TV stars Jill Duggar and Derrick Dillard just picked it for their son.

State pride seems to have grown in recent decades, and that has spilled over into baby names.

In 1880, only 12 state names were given to babies. That number fell to just nine in 1946, when more traditional choices were favored. By 2013, the tally had swelled to 19. (I’m giving New York the benefit of the doubt and assuming kids named York are a tribute to the Empire State.)

Top state names, ranked by total number of babies (boys and girls):

1880

  1. Georgia: 259
  2. Virginia: 213
  3. Washington: 24
  4. Missouri: 23
  5. Carolina: 13
  6. Nevada: 12
  7. Florida: 10
  8. Indiana: 9
  9. Arizona: 8
  10. York: 5
  11. Tennessee: 5
  12. Texas: 5

1946

  1. Virginia: 10,042
  2. Georgia: 2,318
  3. Carolina: 119
  4. Maryland: 29
  5. Washington: 22
  6. Florida: 22
  7. Nevada: 11
  8. Arizona: 10
  9. Missouri: 5

2013

  1. Dakota: 1,964
  2. Georgia: 1,250
  3. Carolina: 701
  4. Virginia: 534
  5. Jersey: 168
  6. Montana: 144
  7. Indiana: 74
  8. Arizona: 73
  9. Alaska: 40
  10. Tennessee: 36
  11. Kansas: 30
  12. Nevada: 26
  13. California: 15
  14. Alabama: 14
  15. Texas: 11
  16. Washington: 11
  17. York: 8
  18. Missouri: 6
  19. Colorado: 5

Why are state names so popular now? I wonder if it’s because people move around more and have a broader circle of acquaintances. That means they have a stronger interest in touting where they came from (and what better way than naming your child after your home state?). The explosion in Americans attending large state universities also may have contributed to the shift. Hard-core University of Alabama alumni could just get Crimson Tide tattoos, but naming their kid Alabama is a bigger display of commitment.

Even New Jersey (long derided as America‘s armpit) has gotten in on the trend. Girls named Jersey increased in the mid-2000s, reaching a peak of 230 in 2010. There have been some Jersey boys as well, though fewer than 20 in any one year.

One twist: When I checked individual state databases, I couldn’t find examples of people in Alabama, Kansas or New Jersey naming their kids after those states. So the monikers are either being used by expats paying homage to their roots — or it’s just parents who liked the sound of the names. (Likewise, Brooklyn appears to be more popular the farther you get from the actual borough.)

America also is more widely used now, though it ranks below places like Brittany, Malaysia and Milan. America Ferrera helped bolster the pick in the 2000s, but now America appears to be quite literally in decline.

Heaven also is a place on Earth. It was given to 327 kids in 2013, with another 47 receiving its backward-spelled cousin Nevaeh.

As for New York, it’s getting more respect than ever. The majestic Hudson River, the Bronx and Harlem have all been embraced by parents. (Chelsea is arguably a New York geographic name as well, though it shares the moniker with a neighborhood in London.) Manhattan, Queens and Staten Island have yet to build any baby-name cachet, but maybe it’s only a matter of time.

In any case, it’s clear that more parents see baby naming as a journey. And if they can’t find a geographic choice they like, there’s always…Journey. It was given to 950 children in 2013. (Trip and Tripp racked up another 405, combined.)

Bon voyage!

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About the author

Nick

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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6 Responses to “Geographic Names Over Time”

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lynneinlove Says:

May 5th, 2015 at 9:31 am

My favorite for girls are Florence and Geneva, though as a nickname person they would most likely end up being Flora and Evie. For the boys, I love Hudson – seems like a great mix between modern and classic. I’m also intrigued by Israel, although I can’t think of nicknames for either boys’ name.

skizzo Says:

May 5th, 2015 at 12:34 pm

Love the state names Dakota, Indiana, Nevada and Tennessee for boys

kpearl8 Says:

May 5th, 2015 at 11:36 pm

Yay Colorado! Represent! XD

LauraJ88 Says:

May 6th, 2015 at 3:13 am

Hey @lynneinlove, how about these for nicknames: Hudson -> Sonny, and Israel -> Ray? I reckon Flora, Evie, Sonny and Ray are a perfectly name international family.

🙂

Waverly123 Says:

May 6th, 2015 at 8:29 am

I bet the name Arizona was helped along by the character on the TV show Grey’s Anatomy! There’s a doctor on the show named Arizona and (IMO) she’s quite a likable character. When I first heard her name, I shuddered, but now that I’ve heard it so many times, I really like it! Also love Alaska (GP). I really like Geneva, Florence (my great-grandmother’s name) and the name Vienna.

A Different Kind of College Ranking – Baby Name Blog – Nameberry Says:

August 9th, 2015 at 10:44 pm

[…] Georgia or Carolina. Those ones felt like they belonged in another category. (Please check out my previous post on geographic names for […]

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