No Expiration Date on Names
If you’re looking for some eye-opening name moments, try browsing through some vintage name books and you might be surprised to discover just how dramatically perceptions of some names have changed over time. In some cases what we think of as perfectly valid current choices have actually been written off as dead and gone. Today’s popular Ava, for instance, was rarely thought worthy of inclusion in most name books, even fairly recent ones. But one generation’s dusty skeleton can be reborn as another’s darling baby boy or girl, so it’s a risky business to write off a name (at least post-Etheldred period), as can be seen from the comments below about some names we love today:
ABIGAIL – turned into a cant term for a lady’s maid, and thenceforth has been seldom heard even in a cottage (1884)
CHLOE — its main use has been by pastoral poets (1945)
ESME – is now sometimes given to girls (1945)
MATILDA — among the most disliked names for girls (1967)
SOPHIA – went out of fashion in the 19th century (1945)
VICTORIA – is now almost obsolete (1945)
COLIN — by the 16th century was regarded as a rustic nickname and it gradually died out altogether (1945)
CONNOR — now survives mainly as a surname (1945)
JONAH – most everywhere regarded as sissy (1967)
On the other hand, I must admit that even we have been occasionally guilty of writing off a name too soon (though our record over the years is pretty clean). Way back when, we did warn against Conan, Desiree, Maximillian, Romeo, Salome and Venus as being too much for a baby to live up to, Orson and Tallulah as being strictly one-person names, and Vera, Wilhelmina, Zelda, Victor, Vincent and Warren designated ‘so far out they’ll probably always be out.’
But perhaps the most outlandish examples of changing perceptions can be found in a 1960 book called What Not to Name the Baby, written by two humorists, Roger Price and Leonard Stern, who characterized names from a Swinging Sixties but strangely un-liberated, somewhat smarmy stereotypical point of view, containing as many cigarette-smoking references as there are on Mad Men.
Some examples of their witticisms:
CLAREs tend to wear tight clothes and insist that men light their cigarettes.
EMMA was captain of the field hockey team in school. She charges through life like an army tank.
EVELYN wears brown and empties ashtrays.
FELIX is a bridal consultant.
GORDON has straight blond hair. He reads a lot and joins a liberal political group in the hope of meeting an intelligent girl he can have a mature relationship with.
LILY has an ornate, overfeminine bedroom.
MADELINEs become executives in Women’s Clubs and organize charity drives.
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Charlotte Vera Said
on October 5th, 2009 at 1:34 am
Hysterical! I’d never caught that use of the name Abigail before. Personally speaking, Lige is preferable to the now-quite-popular Elijah.
I recall chuckling as a teenager when reading a namebook which stated that Kevin was a very appropriate name for actors Cosner and Kline since the name means handsome.
on October 5th, 2009 at 1:51 am
How very interesting.
on October 5th, 2009 at 2:19 am
I think what they said about Sam is true! It’s also interesting to read what others have said in print about the quality of names regarding the fashion of them – many of the old books I’ve seen just refer to the meaning.
Going in sort of blind like that can lead to the more unaware choices – not knowing a name is very popular, or not realizing it’s no longer popular. On the other hand, the fashion changes because a handful of people choose names that you wouldn’t be caught dead with, and suddenly everyone likes the sound of them again, and others go on a hunt to find a name like that attractive revival but different, digging up even more old, dusty names.
on October 5th, 2009 at 5:45 am
This is by far my favourite blog that I have ever read on Nameberry (and I enjoy them all) – absolutely hilarious! Especially the quotations from What Not To Name The Baby – these are the sort of reasons for disliking a name that DH is prone to give 🙂
Fascinating, too, to see what people’s perceptions were. I must admit to being very excited to see the Esme entry, as I have always liked this French name on boys as well as girls (although probably as a mn).
You have inspired me to try and dig up some vintage baby name books! Thank you very much for this brilliant blog.
British American Said
on October 5th, 2009 at 7:42 am
“Everyone in the world is named Sam. They just don’t know it.”
See, now that’s why I didn’t want to name our almost-2-year old ‘Samuel’. 😛
on October 5th, 2009 at 9:22 am
Hilarious blog today! Love it love it.
on October 5th, 2009 at 12:15 pm
This put my day off to a good start! “Sophia went out of fashion in the 19th century”, lol. I want these books!
on October 5th, 2009 at 6:21 pm
Do I detect entries from E.G Withycombe’s ‘The Oxford Dictionary of Christian Names’? I love that book! Mine is a battered old ex-library copy that I’ve had for years but it’s still one of my favourite name books! 🙂
on October 5th, 2009 at 7:46 pm
Yes you do, Elea! The ones that say 1945. My copy is falling apart too!
on October 6th, 2009 at 2:17 pm
This is a great article. Its amazing how if just 15 years ago if you were to ask people what they thought of the name Emma, I have a feeling that the majority back then would have said that its too old fashioned, now it seems that everyone loves it. I’m still waiting for Agnes to get popular, she has in other countries.
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