Names That Age Well

Names That Age Well

by Pamela Redmond Satran

I’ve been thinking lately about the name Jennifer.

The biggest down side of being named Jennifer, I think, is not its enormous popularity — it was the Number 1 name from 1970 through 1983, when over a million Jennifers were born.  It’s certainly not the name itself, which has always been and remains lovely.

No, the biggest problem to my mind is that the name pretty much pegs you as someone who is now in her thirties or forties.  You’re date stamped, as surely as someone named Shirley is getting on 80 or Susan is a Baby Boomer or Mason was born in the Kardashian Era.

This is not a problem so much when you’re young, but as you get older, you (or more precisely, your child) may not appreciate having a name that broadcasts to your employers and everyone on Yo, I’m 58!

It can be difficult, when you’re expecting or the parent of a little one, to imagine that your child will ever be an adolescent, much less a middle-aged or elderly person.  Among all the other pressing qualities for choosing the right name, picking one that’s going to sound good in 2064 — that’s going to age well –may be so far down on the list as to be ignored.

It may be easier to relate to this issue from your own perspective.  For more on how names age, see Joan Lebow’s hilarious essay Does This Name Make Me Look Old?, or our blog on Mom Names.  Most people have names that, like Joan or Jennifer, peg their age pretty accurately, at least to the decade.  A lucky few, like my 40-something friend Isabelle, have names that shave ten or 20 years off their image.  But then there are the unlucky adolescents with names like Karen or Jeff that make them sound much older than they are.

The very best kind of name in terms of age, I think, is one that doesn’t announce your age at all.  A name that transcends generations and so does not create any expectation about how old you’re going to look or act.

How, as an expectant parents, can you choose a name that is going to age well?

A couple of groups are good bets:

Classic Names

Classic names are trickier than they might seem.  There are only a handful of classics — Elizabeth and Katherine for girls, notably, and James and William for boys — that truly transcend time.  Anne and Mary, John and Robert are undeniably classic, yet feel dowdy right now — and who knows if and when that will change?  Jane and Henry, Julia and Alexander have come back into style, but will they hold their classic status or fade away again in the next decade or two, as they have in the past?

Some classic names take unexpected turns.  Isabella, Sophia, Emma, and Emily have been top girls’ names for several years now, and Charlotte is poised to join them.  Charles remains a classic, yet Charlie is now used 40 percent of the time for girls.

Which brings us to the issue of nicknames.  Short forms can date a person more surely than the classic formal name: Most women named Kathy, for example, are middle-aged, while if your name is Katie you’re probably in your twenties or thirties (and may actually be named Katelyn).  The solution may be to either use the full version of the name or choose a nickname that is either newly minted or hasn’t been in style for at least 80 years.

Unusual Names

Unusual names, which we might define (at least for American parents) as those that lie outside the Top 1000, can transcend time, especially if they’re not among those unusual names that seem poised to zoom up the popularity chart.  Name your baby an unusual-yet-stylish name such as Clementine, Thea, Blaise, or Coen, and you’re probably pegging her or him as someone born in the first few decades of the 21st century — though they’ll have a good few years to catch up to Emma and Ethan.

The trick is to pick an unusual name that’s both appealing yet sidesteps stylishness.  Augusta and Delphine might qualify for girls, while Noble or Leopold might work for boys.

Cross-Cultural Names

To confound expectations related to time, mix them up in terms of space.  Choosing a name from outside your home culture effectively unhooks the name from style trends and gives it a timeless appeal since most people who hear it won’t be able to put it in context.  You might look for names connected to your ethnic background — Kasiani if you’re Greek, for example, or Amadi from Nigeria — or simply names from cultures you admire.

Names with Deep Meaning

My older son is named Joseph after my father (along with grandfathers and great-grandfathers on both sides), and I really didn’t care that it was a Top 20 name.  I wouldn’t have cared if it were in the Bottom 20 or the Top 2 either; I picked it because it had deep and lasting meaning for me, and so transcended issues of style and age.

The same will be true for any name you choose that’s truly significant to you.  I’m not talking about the cool name of some distant and unknown relative but the name of someone you loved and admired, the name of your favorite fictional character, the name of the lake where you spent every childhood summer.   That deep meaning will resonate far more for you and your child than any swings of fashion.

What names do you think age well?  Which don’t?  Is that a consideration for you when naming a child?

About the Author

Pamela Redmond

Pamela Redmond

Pamela Redmond is the cocreator and CEO of Nameberry and Baby Name DNA. The coauthor of ten groundbreaking books on names, Redmond is an internationally-recognized baby name expert, quoted and published widely in such media outlets as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, The Today Show, CNN, and the BBC. She has written about baby names for The Daily Beast, The Huffington Post, and People.

Redmond is also a New York Times bestselling novelist whose books include Younger, the basis for the hit television show, and its sequel, Older. She has three new books in the works.