True Classic, New Classic: Joseph, Josephine and Cleopatra

October 20, 2013 Abby Sandel

The Nameberry 9 by Abby Sandel of  Appellation Mountain

What makes a name a true classic?

Very few names have been in constant use, and those few evergreen choices differ across cultures and languages.

A definition is elusive.  A classic should be universally recognized and long established. It should possess either a measure of elegance or another distinguishing characteristic.  But classic isn’t a black and white line.  In baby name discussions, classic sometimes translates as “a name I like.”

Are Adelaide and Charlotte as classic as Mary? How do Walter and Jeremy compare to William and JamesHow about names like Samantha or Brooke – seldom heard before the twentieth century, but now solidly established?  How many years does it take to make a classic, bearing in mind that classic rock is sometimes as young as five decades old.

The debate is even more complicated when we consider foreign imports, surname forms, and diminutives.  If Katherine is a classic, does that title extend to CatarinaJohn makes the list, but Jackson might not, and Jaxon?  Never.  Margaret is in the club, but Margo, Maggie and Greta seem to stand just outside the velvet rope.

This week’s baby name news is filled with true classics and their cousins, near classics, as well as a few that might not make the grade – or might qualify as new classics with a little more time.

Joseph – Let’s start with Ivanka Trump’s new arrival, a little brother for Arabella Rose.    Trump and husband Jared Kushner favor family names.  Arabella shares her initials with her great-grandmothers.  Joseph is the name of Jared’s grandfather, while his middle comes from mom’s side.  Joseph is an unassailable classic, never out of the US Top 20.

FrederickFrederick is the kind of name that we’d all probably call classic, even as he slides towards obscurity.  In 2012, more boys were named Ace, Nico, and Nash.  But in the middle spot, he’s easy to love.  Frederick is Ivanka’s grandpa and her great-grandfather was Friedrich.

Francesco – I tend to think of Francis as the enduring choice, but in Italy, it is Francesco.  A recent report suggests that he is poised to become the #1 name in Italy, thanks in part to the election of Pope Francis earlier this year.  It’s worth noting that Francesco was already very popular pre-pontiff.  There are plenty of Fran– names, and some of them seem to be attracting more attention lately, as classics worthy of revival.

Parker – Speaking of Fran– names, British pop star Frankie Sandford – born Francesca – is a new mom, with footballer boyfriend Wayne Bridge.  She’s not the first member of her girl band, The Saturdays, to welcome a little one.  Una Foden has Aoife Belle and Rochelle Humes has AlaiaMai.  Surname name Parker couldn’t be called classic today, but along with choices like Carter, I’m tempted to call him a modern staple for boys.

Vaughn – Here’s another choice that feels both modern and rooted in tradition, Vaughn is the newest addition to the Cason family of CaliforniaDon’t recognize their name?  The mega-family has been in plenty of television specials.  With the arrival of baby Vaughn Robert Dallas, parents David and Christi have seventeen children: Chad, Jessica, Dalton, Austin, Bailey, Gage, Kaylee, Harper, Emma, Rebekah, Trevor, Walker, Morgan, Laura, Sawyer, and Nathaniel, plus granddaughter Jaedyn RaeVaughn feels more classic than Cade, less enduring than John.

CleopatraRoyal names tend to be considered classics, but not all of them make the grade.  Cleopatra was a legendary ruler, her story told by Shakespeare, putting her in the company of go-to names like Edward and Henry.  She wasn’t the first Cleopatra – the one that we think of was actually Cleopatra VII.  She makes the news this week because British pop star turned television presenter Peter Andre quipped that it was one of the “Biblical names” he and girlfriend Emily MacDonagh are considering.  Since Andre has children called Junior Savva and Princess Tiiaamii Crystal Esther with ex-wife Katie Price, Cleopatra feels almost restrained.

Greer – If Cleopatra fails the test, then Greer certainly does.  And yet, after spotting this on one of Mary, Queen of Scots’ loyal retainers on the CW’s Reign, I found myself thinking.  Oscar-winning actress Greer Garson helps put this name in the company of Ava, Audrey, and Katharine.  Better yet, Greer comes from Gregory via the Scottish.  There’s no reliable feminine form of Gregory.  (Gregorina?  Gregette?)  It lends Greer some stature – and while she’s too rare to be a true classic, she has potential.

Brigitte – Speaking of classics, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis is considered a cinematic masterpiece.  Never seen it?  Madonna’s “Express Yourself” video pays homage with the same visual styling.  Brigitte, Birgitta, and Bridget all come from the name of a mythological goddess and a patron saint of Ireland.  Lady Bridget Wingfield was lady-in-waiting to Anne Boelyn when she was queen.  Brigitte is the French, but also the name of Berlin-born actress Brigitte Helm, star of MetropolisBree has a great round-up of names worn by Helm in other films, including Antinea and Alraune.

Josephine – We started with Joseph.  Let’s end with Josephine, thanks the arrival of Elodie Gossuin and Bertrand Lacherie’s twinsElodie is a former Miss France turned politician.  Bertrand is a model.  The couple welcomed a set of twins called Jules and Rose six years ago.  Their two newest additions are Leonard and JosephineJosephine has a relatively short history of use – at least compared to Joseph.  And yet, she seems to be the kind of classic name that we all adore – in France as well as the US.

How do you define classic?  Do you prefer classic names, or something more modern or unexpected?

About the author


Abby Sandel is nameberry's Senior Editor and resident Name Sage. Look for her baby name news round-ups every Monday, and her Name Sage columns on Wednesdays. Abby is the creator of the baby name blog Appellation Mountain and mom to Alex and Clio. For a chance to have your questions answered, contact Abby at

View all of Abby's articles


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