Hiding in Plain Sight: the Secret Popularity of Lynn and Lee

Hiding in Plain Sight: the Secret Popularity of Lynn and Lee

By Nick Turner

In my last post, I wrote about how baby names are getting longer — with choices like Isabella and Olivia (four syllables each) trumping old-fashioned picks such as Mary and Anne.

While I was sifting through the data for that piece, I noticed something interesting. Some of the short names that were common in the past (Lynn, Lee, Leigh) haven’t really gone away. They’re just hiding within longer names.

Take Lynn. It peaked in popularity in 1956 when almost 8,000 girls received the name. The total number of names containing Lynn (Lynnette, Marilynn, Carolynn) was almost 12,000 that year.

Lynn faded over the decades, and by 2013 almost no babies were blessed with the name itself (just 90 girls and 20 boys). And yet the number of names containing Lynn (Adalynn, Raelynn, Ashlynn) has exploded. Almost 18,000 baby girls had Lynn somewhere in their names last year. That represents growth of about 50 percent since the mid-1950s. By those standards, Lynn is as popular as ever — but as more of a name ornament.

Lee and its variant Leigh went through a similar evolution. Lee peaked as a girls’ name in 1955 when it was used 1,818 times. But Lee was far less common back then as a name ingredient (I’m not counting Kathleen, Eileen and other names that use “lee” as part of a longer syllable).

The second-most-popular Lee name in 1955, Kimberlee, was used just 301 times. In the 2013 data, meanwhile, hidden Lees are everywhere. There are 5,079 Kaylees and 2,878 Rylees. And there were more than 1,000 babies named Kylee or Brynlee last year.

The most popular Lynn pick is currently Brooklynn, which was used 2,140 times last year. The choice lets parents give a shoutout to New York‘s hippest borough while feminizing the name. Brooklynne, Brookelynn and even Brookelynne also have grown in use.

(It’s worth noting that Brooke itself is more popular today as a name ingredient than in its heyday of the 1990s and early 2000s.)

It’s ironic that Lynn is now used to “girl up” a name, considering it was a man’s name a century ago. But by the middle of the 20th century, it had firmly established itself as a female name. (At the time, some parents used it as an alternative to Linda.) Both Lynn and Leigh have nature origins: Lynn is Welsh for lake, while Lee/Leigh refers to a meadow.

Leigh was almost exclusively a man’s name until the 1930s. Lee, on the other hand, has been solidly unisex as far back as the 1800s.

Some boys are still getting Lynn and Lee as name ingredients, though it’s less common. Other than Flynn and Lynn itself, Bralynn, Braelynn and Jaylynn were the most popular picks for boys last year — and they went to fewer than 20 babies each.

Lynn also lets parents put a twist on geographic names — and I’m not just talking about Brooklynn. The suffix has been used to pay homage to Berlin (Berlynn), Ireland (Irelynn), Oakland (Oaklynn) and Scotland (Scotlynn). Like it or not, all those names were given to at least 20 infants in 2013.

There were no Greenlynns or Finlynns, but eight babies were named Icelynn. Perhaps Frozen will help make that last one more popular this year.

Mostly, I think parents use Lynn when they want to gussy up the spelling of a common name. Perhaps Madeline felt a little bland, so they went with Madelynn or Madilynn. The same goes for Katelynn and Evelynn, two other relatively common Lynn names. Clearly, our nation is gripped in the throes of Lynnsanity.

Marilynne Robinson, widely considered one of the greatest American novelists alive today, was a trailblazer here. She was born in 1943 and lends a little gravitas to the trend.

The practice appears to be more common in Southern states, perhaps because of their heritage with compound names (BethAnn, MaryJo). Brooklynn is much more prevalent in Alabama and Mississippi than in, well, Brooklyn.

Some parents are even packaging Lynn and Lee for double-ornament action: Lynnlee, Lynnleigh, Leelynn and Leighlynn all have adherents, though none ranks very high.

All this raises the question of whether Lynn or Lee will make a comeback as a standalone name. After all, look at what happened with Ella. When Isabella and Bella began to surge, more parents started breaking off the suffix as its own name.

Lynn, though, probably isn’t poised for a rebound anytime soon. Unlike Ella, which previously peaked more than 100 years ago, Lynn is a middle-aged woman’s name. We’ll have to wait a few more decades before it becomes a nostalgia pick. Moreover, the broader shift to names with more syllables works against both Lynn and Lee.

For now, fans of the names will have to be content to see them sprinkled though birth announcements like decorative flourishes.

About the Author

Nick Turner

Nick Turner

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.