Vanishing Names: So long, Susan; Bye bye, Barbara
One of my favorite poems, for reasons that will soon be obvious, is called “Mourning the Dying American Female Names,” by Hunt Hawkins. You can read the whole poem here, but I’ll give you a few choice lines:
They were wide women, cotton-clothed, early rising.
You had to move your mouth to say their names,
and they meant strength, speak, battle, and victory.
But then there are the new names headed toward obscurity, my own among them.
In a Nameberry analysis of the names that have lost the most ground in usage over the past five years, we’ve identified several once-favorite choices, all female, that seem destined to bite the dust, or at least to take in a big enough mouthful of it that they fall into a long stupor. We’re not interested in the names that are falling fast that enjoyed an equally precipitous rise — Britney, Precious, Heather — so much as those that seemed to be American classics for several decades but are now sliding toward obscurity.
Over the past decade, such names as Carol, Gail, Diane, Joanne, and Joan have vanished from the Top 1000. Today, the once-common girls’ names falling fastest and furthest are (with the number of places dropped over the past five years in parentheses):
Pamela (-455) ouch!
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on December 13th, 2011 at 2:02 am
I’ve recently started crushing on Meredith, Theresa, & Ellen, which is funny because I’d never consider any of the other names on the list in a million years. In fact, I’m kind of surprised Ellen is falling… with all the other “el” names on the rise, Ellen seems like a safe & familiar choice with a trendy sound.
on December 13th, 2011 at 2:11 am
I have to admit I’m glad to see Susan go (it’s my former legal name and I loathe it).
on December 13th, 2011 at 5:18 am
Just reading through the list of names there, I think one reason they might be unpopular at the moment is because a lot of them are our mum’s names or friends of our mum’s names..that we don’t think of as potential names for our babies 🙂
on December 13th, 2011 at 7:03 am
Lisa is one of the most popular names for newborn girls in France.
I think it’s interesting how French people consider Lisa as somehow a fresh name and think Madeleine as an old lady’s name.
on December 13th, 2011 at 7:25 am
I know the most adorable little Meredith, so the idea of that name being “gone” is hard for me to grasp. The others make sense, though I do like some of them!
Kim W Said
on December 13th, 2011 at 7:40 am
Most of these I admit feel stale to me, but I do love Nancy, Donna, Anne, and Martha.
on December 13th, 2011 at 8:34 am
Becki, you’re right — many of these names were popular in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s and so now are the names of the mothers of young parents having babies and so are not attractive. Your grandma’s name is okay and great-grandma’s, much better.
on December 13th, 2011 at 9:01 am
Martha is top 100 in the UK and the Prime Minister has a young daughter called Nancy — perhaps these names fell out of favour earlier here than in the US and so are making their comeback sooner?
We recently had a teenaged X-Factor contestant called Janet; it sounded surprisingly fresh on someone that age though I still prefer the Celtic variants Sinead / Sioned.
on December 13th, 2011 at 10:19 am
Fascinating! I love your analyses. And, thanks for introducing me to that poem. My take on your list is that some of these names are/were classics. Others, to my ear anyway, seem more like they were the Heathers of their time.
To me, the classics that seem somewhat surprising and I think might come back someday:
Names like Donna, Brenda, Barbara, Marlene, Lisa, Carla, Christine, Denise (all associated in my mind with my mom’s friends and cousins) might not come back so much, at least most of them.
But, I have a seven-year-old niece named Erica and know a nineteen-year-old Martha.
author in writing Said
on December 13th, 2011 at 11:16 am
Pamela, Theresa and Erica are all girls I know about age 20 but the rest are the names of my mom, aunts, their friends, etc. Names I would never consider naming my children but thanks to the 100 year rule, I think my great-grandmothers’ names (Irene and Eleanor) are fantastic.
on December 13th, 2011 at 11:33 am
Mermuse, it really is a fantastic poem, and talks about the changing images of women along with their changing names. I urge everyone to click through and read the whole thing!
Nook of Names Said
on December 13th, 2011 at 12:01 pm
They’ll be back. Ellen has already enjoyed a modest revival in Britain, and my seven-year-old Small Child called one of her dolls Susan…
on December 13th, 2011 at 12:54 pm
I think we’ll all be surprised when many thousands of teenage Abby’s rebel and go to Gail, the same way this happened a dozen years ago with Andy’s moving to Drew. They will want some relief from being in a crowd.
on December 13th, 2011 at 1:08 pm
I’m a 28 year-old Barbara. I’ve always liked my name because it was unique to my age group. I never had to worry about another Barbara in school and I don’t mind that I share my name with mainly older women, most of whom are pretty extraordinary (named after my wonderful aunt)!
I also find it kind of interesting that my best friend growing up is on here, Donna. I guess as a pair of little Barbara and Donna we were pretty unique!
on December 13th, 2011 at 1:22 pm
That’s a great point, Barbara. And when you’re a 68-year-old Barbara and all the other Barbaras are adorable toddlers, you are going to feel very young and cool!
on December 13th, 2011 at 1:28 pm
I love the name Susannah with the nickname Susan.
I love Gertrude so much! But I know I am in the minority on that one.
Judith nicknamed Jude intrigues me.
on December 13th, 2011 at 1:43 pm
On the positive side, if you use one of these names right now for your daughter she may get to have a name coming back in style when she’s an adult (and have a name that is “younger” to her but “older” to us like Pam said!). On the negative side, if the name turns out to be the next Bertha or Gertrude (names that would be ready for a revival under the 100-year rule but are nowhere near being revamped) she may not like having a “so far out they’re solidly old lady” name.
I think you have better odds with those names that have a substantial history of usage prior to their mid-century boom (and you wouldn’t be shocked to see in a family tree before 1900) as opposed to the names that were the Madisons and Nevaehs of the time. Kathleen, Nancy, Susan, etc. will probably blossom again when their time comes (and some already consider these names “retro-cool”). Brenda, Donna, and other names that scream “I am a Baby Boomer” are more likely to stay in limbo even when many of their peers’ names are coming back. Another factor that we can’t really predict right now is what kinds of sounds are in style in the future; this explains why Amelia is skyrocketing up the charts while Agnes is still out of the mainstream.
on December 13th, 2011 at 2:00 pm
Well put, Namefan — I think you nailed that! Great analysis. But it would indeed be a brave move to pick one of these “sinking” names right now, just as it would have been pretty outrageous in the 1950s to name your child Max or Molly or Sam.
on December 13th, 2011 at 3:19 pm
“You had to move your mouth to say their names” – beautiful line. It’s true: current favorites like Ayla and Kylie don’t require you to move your outer mouth at all. It makes the name a passive, airy thing, vs. a name like Gertrude, which requires effort, and is beyond solid. “They were wide, cotton-clothed, early rising.” What a beautiful poem.
on December 13th, 2011 at 3:23 pm
Also, this discussion reminded me of another analogy I posted on my blog earlier this year where I used the seasons of the year to relate to the phases of name popularity/fashion:
In other words, a “Spring” name would be what us Berries usually call “hipster” (either a new name or an older one coming back and rising in popularity), a “Summer” name is one that is at its height of popularity, an “Autumn” name one that was popular a generation or so earlier and is falling (or what Pam and Linda call “mom” or “dad” names), and a “Winter” name is one that has fallen but has yet to see signs of returning (such as many of the names listed in the blog). Of course this has its time period and/or generational perspective: When today’s parents were growing up the names common among them were in the “Summer” phase and the ones focused on in this blog (which would’ve been the “mom names” of the time) were the “Autumn” names of the time (and many of today’s hot picks were the “Spring” names).
Picking a “Spring” name may be seen as avant-garde by the general population but is often a name enthusiast’s dream to have such a name. Conversely, “Autumn” names are seen as perfectly respectable by the populace but are unlikely to be considered fashionable at least until the bearer is older. Of course, “Summer” names are at the end of a name’s hip period but are at the beginning of it being an “everyday” name, while “Winter” names mark the falling of the name from the mainstream radar but can potentially start to re-appear as “hipster of the hipster” possibilities (or maybe not for some time to come).
Of course unlike the seasons of the year name cycles do not run like clockwork: Sometimes names come back relatively quickly (e.g. Audrey) while others take a long time but are starting to see signs of springing back (e.g. Mabel, whose numbers on the extended list are rising).
on December 13th, 2011 at 3:25 pm
…but of course, women named Hilary, Michelle and Sarah vie for the presidency these days…
on December 13th, 2011 at 3:39 pm
My name is Erica and I’ve never met anyone with that name over 40. I’m 16.
on December 13th, 2011 at 5:09 pm
Most of those names should’ve been long gone already, but I’m surprised to see Meredith on the list. I think it’s a really cute, classic name that can still be used.
on December 13th, 2011 at 5:17 pm
Thank you for introducing me to that poem.
“You had to move your mouth to say their names” – ‘beautiful line’ – Completely agree.
To me, ‘solid names’ are something to strive for and revitalize.
In related news, my friend bucked the trends and gave birth to a Pamela in November.
on December 13th, 2011 at 6:51 pm
Ellen and Meredith are gorgeous, but I am not sorry to lose Barbara.
The next one will be Diane – once in the era of Pam’s this was a favourite.
on December 13th, 2011 at 10:40 pm
I have to say that I still love the name Barbara. I knew a little Irish girl named Barbara so she must be about 18 now. And the poem is wonderful. There’s something so strong and revitalising about names such as Berte and Mildred and Joan. These are women who have made bread and climbed pyramids and taught school for forty years and raised children and grandchildren and foster children. Somehow I can’t see the Neveahs and Britnis of the world contributing the way Berte and Mildred and Joan did.
on December 14th, 2011 at 10:37 am
I’m hoping Meredith goes away, maybe one day it’ll return to the boys where it belongs.
on December 17th, 2011 at 2:01 pm
skizzo, Meredith was never really popular as a boy’s name and even going back to around 1910 it was more a unisex name not that popular for either gender. As a boy’s name it’s never broke into the top 600 but became much more popular for girls.
I agree with Becki too. I think parents don’t want to name their children names of their parents and paarent’s friends as they seem older person-ish. But I am sure some of these names will come back into fashion again some time in the future.
on December 28th, 2011 at 2:36 pm
Pamela, Erica, Teresa, Kathleen and Marlene are my favorites. My friends call me Pam, (inside joke) Erica is just soooo lovely! I would definately use that. Teresa, i dont know why but I just fell in love with the name Teresa!!!! I like names that end in Leen, but Marlene because it sounds like my name, Marleigh.
on January 8th, 2012 at 11:59 am
I really like Marlene, Cynthia, and Theresa…..I’d be sad to see them go!
on April 6th, 2012 at 6:55 pm
I can picture a few of those making comebacks.
Wendy, maybe, because of it’s Peter Pan association. Future generations who loved that book might want to bring it out of mothballs.
soo jay Said
on April 19th, 2012 at 8:40 pm
I am both a Susan and a Denise. I don’t particularly like either name, but I have recently discovered that Susan was a very popular name with the Victorian writer Thomas Hardy. As I was born in 1952 and my grandmother came from “Hardy Country”, (Dorset) maybe she liked it, and suggested it to my mum!
I’m surprised that Deborah is not on the list. I have known so many Debbie’s (over all age groups) and I think it is a name which has lost all “nuance”, it is just so common. (My apologies to the Debbie’s on this forum).
I think Meredith (a lovely name) must have had a revival here in Australia in the late 1970s as my kids knew quite few Meredith’s at high school.
Patricia was *very* common in my childhood, so it may be due for a revival as a “we-named-her-after-her-grand-mother” name.
on April 25th, 2012 at 2:34 pm
Meredith, Kathleen, Sandra, and Carolyn were all on my list. And we used Susan as a middle name (after my mom and my sister-in-law). I also love Diana, but not so much Diane.
on April 25th, 2012 at 6:10 pm
I will miss Judith, Meredith, Carolyn, Theresa, Ann, Sandra, Cynthia, but most of all, ELLEN! How is this name getting neglected!? It is just too fabulous a name to sink into obscurity!
on April 25th, 2012 at 6:39 pm
I would definitely use Joan or Patricia. Joan is one of my favorites.
on August 23rd, 2012 at 3:44 pm
The classic, clean, strong names, such as Diane/Dianne, Anne, Meredith, and Ellen will very likely make a comeback!
on August 23rd, 2012 at 3:45 pm
And also Joan! The world is ready again for a baby Joan or baby Dianne!
on September 1st, 2012 at 4:17 am
I’m surprised; I have a mom named Diane and sisters named Meredith and Callie (both in their 20’s, both old southern, family names.)
I love the name Susan! I wish more people used it; who doesn’t love a little girl nn Susie? Too cute
on February 1st, 2013 at 8:42 pm
It’s funny, but with these names I seem to either love them or hate them. Judith has always seemed like a great name to me, especially with the choice of nicknames Jude and Judy, while Pamela, Patricia, Nancy and Brenda feel old and unpleasant. My mom’s name is Teresa and some of her sisters’ names are on this list as well. I’m surprised about Erica, Ellen and Carla though – are they really that unpopular?
My current name crush is Agatha, as in Agatha Christie. It’s a beautiful, strong, old-fashioned name, but I don’t know if I would have the guts to use it, since there aren’t many nickname options and it might seem stuffy and grandmother-y to some. Fingers crossed it enjoys some more popularity in the years to come – when does that 100 Year Rule come into effect?
Weekly Brief – What’s In a Name | Toss the Typewriter Said
on March 19th, 2014 at 12:44 pm
[…] It’s strange that the latest Daily Post Weekly Challenge focused on names. I just deleted a draft post about this subject, specifically about my name, Barbara. I never cared much for my name. It’s rather bland, and the nicknames aren’t particularly flattering. You have Barb, and that reminds me of barbed wire. Then there’s Barbie, which just sets me up for self-esteem and body-image issues. Babs leaves me babbling or babyish. I must not be alone in my distaste for the name because rarely will you run into any Barbara’s below the age of forty. According to the Social Security Administration, the last time it made the top five baby names list was in 1951. Apparently though it was popular enough prior to the fifties to hold onto sixth place in a most-popular names from 1913-2012 list. There’s even an epitaph to my name at the Nameberry blog called Vanishing Names: So Long, Susan; ByeBye, Barbara. […]
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