The Timeless + Timely Baby Name Formula

By Kara Blakley

As an art historian, my friends and family often like to teasingly debate what I consider to be art, and what not. While that is a discussion in its own right, one of my criteria for considering whether something is ‘art’ is if it holds to the standard that it is both of its own time, and transcendent of time.

I think that this guideline translates well in the baby naming world as well. The historian in me is also cautious towards names that will sound dated when the child grows up: it is not difficult to guess in which decade Shirley or Stephanie was born. But on the other hand, so-called timeless names, like William and Elizabeth, can fall flat aesthetically, not speaking to a person’s creative urges. While many parents don’t want to choose a name that sounds or will sound dated, they also want something unique. How does one reconcile these two seemingly contrasting goals?

My approach is the Of Its Time + Timeless principle. First find recurring sounds in the Top 100, and then find rare names that conform to the taste of the times. The result is a name that only one child on the playground will answer to, but won’t sound out of its time, either.

I’ve applied this standard to girls’ names, scouting out underused gems and forgotten classics. Each name is currently unexpected, most having left the Top 1000 list by the 1920s. I chose -ia ending names for the ‘of its time’ criterium: in the 2013 Top 20, six names end with -ia, including Sophia, Olivia, Mia, Amelia, and Victoria. Aria, Julia, and Lydia make the Top 100, and Maria, Natalia, Valeria, Cecilia, Sylvia, and even Virginia are waiting in the wings.

Here are my candidates for names that are of their time, and timeless:

Abelia. This obscure feminization of the rising-in-popularity Abel makes a lovely alternative to the classic Amelia, which its on its way to the top of the popularity lists. Nickname Abby is also a way to bypass perennially popular Abigail without severing the biblical tie entirely.

Basilia. Basilia was widely used in Medieval England, but today she would be guaranteed not to be known as Basilia S. in class. The wink to the herb is a sign of its timeliness. Basilea was the name of the first queen of Atlantic according to Greek myth, while Vasilia also makes a compelling choice.

Camellia. Floral and botanical names are so hot right now (think Lily, Sage, and Willow) that Camellia only makes sense. Add in the the popular L-in-the-middle and it’s surprising that it is currently unranked in the US.

Dahlia. While Violet comes in and out of style, Dahlia is less anchored to any particular time, making her a perfect choice for this list. Currently ranked #439 in the US, Dahlia is a safe-but-not-overexposed floral pick.

Hypatia. Granted, this seems like an unlikely choice in 2015. If ancient origins and feminist connections aren’t enough to sway you, consider its H-initial + middle P similarity to Harper, and the dominant ‘pay’ sound it shares with trendsters Payton and Paisley.

Lavinia. Reaching a peak in 1886, Lavinia is at once ancient, Shakespearean, vintage…and yearning to be rediscovered. The middle V is on-trend like cousin Olivia, while its appearance on Downton Abbey adds to its antique charm.

Octavia. Another Olivia alternative, Octavia has Roman history to spare. Oscar-winner Spencer lends some modern-day wearability. Its occasional entry in the Top 1000, sans dramatic highs or lows, secures its status as a name that transcends the decades.

Turia. For the truly avant-garde, the obscure Turia is the perfect choice for parents seeking a name no other child in the neighborhood will have. An ancient Roman name and a river in Spain, Turia is neither made-up nor commonplace. Another option is Tauria, which quietly acknowledges the astrological sign Taurus and Tauriel of The Hobbit movies.

Umbria. Italian place-names like Siena, Florence, and Rome (or Roman) have mass-appeal, but understated Umbria is a truly unique and detached-from-time choice. Cambria’s entrance into the Top 1000 in 2009 coupled with accessible nickname Bree increases Umbria’s usability.

Zenobia. A regal name awaiting rediscovery, Tina Fey brought Zenobia into the spotlight when she chose it for daughter Alice’s middle name in 2005. Its literary pedigree, similarity to Zoe in sound, and quirky nickname Zen contribute to its allure.

Honorable mentions: Apollonia, Junia, Magnolia, Olympia, Ottilia, Portia, Rosalia, Sophronia, Theodosia, and Wisteria.

Which names do you think fit the ‘Of Its Time + Timeless’ guideline?

Kara Blakley is a PhD candidate in Art History at the University of Melbourne. Her interest in names began when she received her first Cabbage Patch doll. Today, Kara‘s name obsession is enhanced by her love of nature, history, music, art, and traveling

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9 Responses to “The Timeless + Timely Baby Name Formula”

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SimoneKadele Says:

February 6th, 2015 at 12:36 am

Beautiful. 🙂

Orchid_Lover Says:

February 6th, 2015 at 7:27 am

Hypatia: yes please!

epowell Says:

February 6th, 2015 at 10:27 am

wow, I didn’t like any of these names. Maybe it’s just me but none of them sounded timeless. I do like Dahlia but it makes me think of the Black Dahlia which is a REALLY bad association. I was REALLY excited about this article because I too studied art history and I love names that end in -ia. My daughter is Georgia and if we have another girl it will be Magnolia. I also like Adelia or Adalia. Thought I would see one of those on the list. Fun read although not my taste.

lillian85 Says:

February 6th, 2015 at 6:27 pm

What a great article! I call these “sweet spot” names.

ElsaAnne Says:

February 7th, 2015 at 8:12 am

Love this approach to discovering hidden name gems! And I love so many of these names!

clairels Says:

February 7th, 2015 at 7:02 pm

Most of these names are pretty far outside the mainstream. A couple I’ve never even heard before. When I think of names that hit the sweet spot between timely and timeless, I tend to think of names that are a bit more commonly used but still rare enough not to be found in your kids’ kindergarten class. But oh well, I guess there are different approaches.

peacebird10 Says:

February 8th, 2015 at 5:15 am

I think of sweet spot names as being closer to timeless than trying to accommodate a timely taste without being too anchored to that year–something between #250-750 that doesn’t really have a lot of highs and lows. Names that everyone knows but don’t pop up everywhere. I think of Sabrina, Bianca, Mallory, Veronica, Daphne, Bridget, Simone, etc. I think this piece wants to try to find names that have something current about them without them being too trendy, so obscure names are a safer choice for that.

ARead Says:

February 9th, 2015 at 10:06 am

I think my daughter’s middle name fits this criteria: Iria. It’s similar to Aria and Irie, but different without being made up (it’s Portuguese). I don’t think it’s ever been in the top 1000 in the US or any other predominately English-speaking country.

I can’t say that I was a huge fan of any of the names in this article, but that’s just me.

Chimaera88 Says:

February 17th, 2015 at 12:04 pm

I think my daughter’s name, Wilona(wi-LOH-na, an old English name meaning “greatly desired”) fits in this category. Sounds that are familiar to people, but unusual enough that she’ll probably never meet another. As an Amanda that had several other Amandas in anything I was signed up for for years and years, I appreciate this. 🙂

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