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The New Traditionals: Baby Names with Substance

By Abby Sandel, Appellation Mountain

Lately when I hear a birth announcement, I’ll sometimes find myself thinking: “Oh, what a nice, normal name.”

This is madness, of course.  Because there’s no such thing as a normal name.

There are stalwart classics, like Elizabeth and James.  There are well-established mainstream choices, like Jacob and Ava.

Trends have been with us forever.  And there have always been kids with outlandish names, the Bunny and Princess, or Rebel, Rocket, and Rogue of their generations.

Names that seem fresh and new eventually become favorites.  Back in 1960, Mason ranked a chilly #851, while Mia had yet to crack the US Top 1000.  Other names – think of Myrtle or Barry – go from being perfectly ordinary, even stylish choices, to the edge of extinction in a few generations.

This week’s name news packed with choices that feel traditional-ish.  They may not have long histories of use, and some are imports.  Some might even be the tiniest bit obscure.

And yet, they all feel like they were chosen for substance over style.

Add in a straightforward spelling and simple pronunciation, and that’s the broadest possible definition of a New Traditional name, a category plenty of parents appreciate.

Such a choice is to be expected when the mom is a former First Daughter turned news correspondent and activist.  But it’s a surprise when it’s a reality star from the Jersey Shore.

The good news for all of us?  New Traditionals is a category both wide and deep, and it means that we have great possibilities for naming our own children, too.

The names in this week’s news are:

GiovannaLorenzo Dominic is a big brother!  Jersey Shore alum Snooki – Nicole Polizzi in real life – and fiance Jionni LaValle have welcomed a second nicely-named child.  Daughter Giovanna Marie’s name pays homage to the couple’s Italian heritage.  It’s also a nod to dad.  Jionni is a respelling of GianniJohn.  Giovanna is the Italian feminine form.  The name has been in the US Top 1000 for the past three decades.  At #958 in 2013, it is pretty unusual, but still feels like a solid choice for a girl.

Winnie – This one comes from the big screen instead of a birth announcement.  Animated movie The Boxtrolls includes a little girl named Winnie, voiced by Elle Fanning.  Winnie is the real girl who meets the subterranean-dwelling trolls. Ever since Jimmy Fallon chose this swingy, retro name for his daughter last year, Winnie has felt like the next Sadie.

Emerson Spencer – Celebrity chef and television host Curtis Stone and wife Lindsay Price have welcomed a second son, Emerson Spencer. Big brother is Hudson.  It’s exciting to see Emerson on a boy.  While the name is rising for both genders, there’s been a wave of girls called Emerson in the last few years – plus Emersyn and Emmersyn.  With the conventional spelling, Emerson brings to mind Ralph Waldo – and has that New Traditional vibe, too.

ArthurHarry Wallop writes for the UK’s Telegraph, including the Dad of 4 column.  He’s just sent his youngest off to nursery school.  The youngest’s Wallop is named Arthur.  So is one of his classmates.  After four kids, this dad has concluded: “… if you want a nice, traditional-with-a-modern-edge, rarely-heard-but-strangely-comforting name for your baby, hours of studying is required.”  Hours?  That might be a slight exaggeration.  But let’s say this: Arthur is a great name, fashionable in the UK, still a little bit clunky in the US, but definitely heading towards cool.

River – In the 1980s, River Phoenix’s first name was a surprise, the kind of outlandish choice that required explanation.  (Globe-trotting hippie parents; siblings with equally unusual names.)  Now River feels like a reasonably mainstream choice, especially for a boy.  But thanks to sci fi staples like Firefly and Doctor Who, River is reasonable for a girl, too, ranking #587 for our daughters and #372 for our sons.  Design Mom’s Living with Kids series recently profiled Brooklyn designer LaTonya Staubs, and her two nature-named children: son Oak, and daughter River.

Charlie – English actress and television personality Jennifer Ellison is now mum of three – all boys.  She and boxer husband Robbie Tickle are the parents of Bobby, Harry, and newest addition, Charlie.  A few years ago, I would have raised an eyebrow at the all of those nickname names, but now it feels like Charles is optional.  Because another hallmark of New Traditionals?  They’re meant to be used in full, just as they appear on the birth certificate.

Charlotte – Speaking of Charlie, Chelsea Clinton’s new baby girl is Charlotte.  Chelsea and husband Marc Mezvinsky announced they were expecting their first back in April.  The former First Daughter’s name was inspired by both the neighborhood in London, and the Joni Mitchell song “Chelsea Morning.”  No word on how Marc and Chelsea arrived at Charlotte, but it is quite the popular choice these days.  Charlotte ranked #11 in 2013, and it is my pick for the #1 girls’ name in 2033.

PhoebeHow can Friends be twenty years old?  The 1990s sitcom staple helped influence baby names in its day.  Kelli analyzed the show’s impact in this post.  The breakout star?  Looks like that distinction goes to Phoebe.  Back in 1993, Phoebe ranked #901 – an obscure choice for the quirkiest character.  Fast forward two decades, factor in Alyssa Milano’s turn as a good-hearted witch wearing the name on Charmed, and Phoebe now ranks #301.  Like Giovanna and Arthur, it is the kind of name that is nicely familiar without being overexposed.

Annalise – Let’s end with one more from the small screen.  Viola Davis is starring in How To Get Away With Murder, a Shonda Rhimes-produced drama.  Rhimes’ shows always deliver memorable character names, and this one is no exception.  There’s Asher, Nate, Laurel, Michaela, and, of course, Annalise.  Viola Davis’ character answers to the German smoosh of Anna and Elizabeth.  It’s been on the rise, and while Anneliese and Annelise might be more authentic spellings, it looks like Annalise is the new Annabelle.

How would you define a New Traditional name?  Are qualities like no nicknames, obvious spelling, and simple pronunciation important to you?

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6 Responses to “The New Traditionals: Baby Names with Substance”

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mermuse Says:

September 29th, 2014 at 7:46 am

I don’t think hours of study is an overexaggeration–I’ve probably put in days!

Chloe14 Says:

September 29th, 2014 at 2:37 pm

For girls I like: Winnie (Short for Winona, Winifred, Wendy or even Wednesday), Phoebe, Myrtle and Elizabeth.
For boys I like only River after River Phoenix.

indiefendi Says:

September 29th, 2014 at 5:27 pm

I’m just glad Snooki had the good sense to spell it the proper way. All is well.

🙂

indiefendi Says:

September 29th, 2014 at 5:28 pm

I’m just glad Snooki had the good sense to spell it the proper way. All is well.

🙂

J_Anne Says:

September 29th, 2014 at 11:05 pm

Like most others who have felt compelled to comment on it, I was pleasantly surprised by Snooki’s name choice for both of her children. They were sensible, spelled correctly, with a history significant to the parents. And I think that those are the guidelines for ‘new traditional’ names. These are names with history, long standing use somewhere, not necessarily the parents country but something the parents think will be familiar, names that are generally recognized as names, and are straightforward spelling and pronunciation wise. They are often sentimental, having some sort of personal significance to the parents, parents are avoiding names that are at the top of the list popularity wise, but not all are jumping to names on the opposite end, making the most popular names less popular.
I think things like length and nicknames are more of a personal level thing, than a widespread, stylistic thing, like if your last name is 4 syllables or 15 letters, you might be avoiding longer names. Though nickname/diminutives as first names is a trend. Personally, I don’t care for it, though I love nicknames, I feel like a longer formal name is preferable for the birth certificate. Though to each his own.

shelly68 Says:

September 30th, 2014 at 5:50 pm

A new traditional name would be Galahad.

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