True Classic, New Classic: Joseph, Josephine and Cleopatra

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?

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16 Responses to “True Classic, New Classic: Joseph, Josephine and Cleopatra”

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JH Says:

October 20th, 2013 at 11:14 pm

I would say a classic is a name that you cannot pinpoint the decade someone was born based on their name (ie Catherine, Elizabeth, Michael, James, Matthew, Joseph, etc). I don’t care for modern names like Parker or Greer. I especially don’t like unisex names for either gender.

charmingwitch Says:

October 21st, 2013 at 12:23 am

I would LOVE to be able to call a future baby girl Cleopatra but I know my fiance would never go for it. She’s such a fascinating figure in history. I’m not too fond of Greer, there was this creep with that name in a fantasy series I love.

Millienow2011 Says:

October 21st, 2013 at 5:01 am

LOL the band is called The Saturdays not The Sundays!

Abby Says:

October 21st, 2013 at 5:36 am

Oops – thanks, Millienow2011!

Pam Says:

October 21st, 2013 at 7:53 am

Fixed it. Great post, Abby. I was looking at the lists of names always in the Top 1000 the other day —– — and wondering whether those could be defined as the classic names, but not really. There are so many names that might be considered classic but that fell off for a year or two or even have taken a long vacation.

Chiara Says:

October 21st, 2013 at 8:46 am

About Francesco – the report is misleading. It is right in saying that the name Francesco will probably be given to even more boys in 2013 than the recent years, but that doesn’t mean much since it has been the most popular boy name in Italy since at least 2004 (there are no official charts before then).
The real news is that since the election of the Pope it has become the most popular name for boys born in ROME. 648 Francesco were born in Rome in 2012, while this year in the 6 months following the election they were already 428, making it likely to become the top name (it was #2 last year, behind Lorenzo).

indiefendi Says:

October 21st, 2013 at 12:46 pm

I’ve been waiting since Pope Francis became Pope for Francesco to have a description on here! 🙁

OceaneBreeze Says:

October 21st, 2013 at 12:58 pm

To me a classic is a name that has been around for a long time but is still in its basic form and is not overly extravagant. Therefore, Joseph is a classic but Josephine and Cleopatra are not. I prefer more modern names over classic names, particularly nature names.

Abby Says:

October 21st, 2013 at 1:13 pm

@OceaneBreeze – Now that is a fascinating way to separate the classic from the not – so yes to Alice and Helen but no to Alicia and Elena?

@Chiara – Interesting – thanks! Are you in Rome?

@Pam – Thanks for the fix!

elliebean13 Says:

October 21st, 2013 at 1:17 pm

I like Angela Mastrodonato’s definition of classic she lines out in her Classic Names blog series. You can read it here:
The only names I think are classics on this list are Joseph and Josephine. Frederick is pretty classic, but it’s leaning toward old-manish territory for me.

maggiefromcanada Says:

October 21st, 2013 at 1:33 pm

I like JH’s definition of a classic. I tend towards classic names myself. Francis and Frances are awesome, and Francesca is a guilty pleasure of mine (because my husband would definitely veto it).

Also, Brigitte isn’t just French; it’s a German name too. In German, it’s pronounced Bri-gee-tuh. It’s sometimes spelled Brigitta, but Brigitte is a legitimate spelling.

jmsouthern Says:

October 21st, 2013 at 6:18 pm

Josephine (nn Jo) was the main character in Alcott’s “Little Women” nearly 150 years ago. Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy…names don’t get more classic than these.

cbann Says:

October 21st, 2013 at 7:59 pm

My baby is named Vaughn.

tori101 Says:

October 24th, 2013 at 2:22 pm

I’m a major fan of classics – I really feel that classic names are names that have that classic vibe – names like Josephine or Elizabeth. I would never despite Cleopatra lengthy history think of her as a stereotypical classic. She doesn’t have that vibe.

Neither would I associate Parker as a classic as it seems to fit the trend of surname style choices, like Tyler or Chance he doesn’t have the same feel as James.

I think names which are classics in other countries like Catalina and Francesco should be considered classics in English speaking countries as well as there just as ‘classic’ as names like John and Mary.

Anyway that’s my thoughts on classics!!

: )

Abby Says:

October 24th, 2013 at 3:47 pm

Tori101 – I love the idea of imported classics! You’re right – it seems like Francesco and Catalina deserve that title, even though they’re not classic in English …

Never Out of Season: Different Varieties of Classic Name | Waltzing More Than Matilda Says:

October 26th, 2013 at 7:10 pm

[…] baby names are a perpetual subject for discussion. This week Abby Sandel wondered in her Nameberry Nine column what makes a classic name, and Laura Wattenberg at The Baby Name Wizard shared her “magic […]

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