Classic is a slippery word, one that I don’t much trust. … So often “classic” feels interchangeably used with the word “good.” Abby Sandel, Appellation Mountain.
Is There Any Universal Agreement on What’s Classic?
In trying to make sense of what’s classic, I went to dictionary.com, and was overwhelmed by 20 definitions, eleven as an adjective and nine as a noun, all for “classic”. One definition includes “high quality”; another includes “serving as a standard or guide”. Abby Sandel is right. “Classic” is a slippery word.
To me classic means time-tested. For example, before a car can get antique or classic designation on a licence plate, it must be at least 25 years old. Roughly based on classic car standards, I will use “classic” to describe anything that has been in-style or resonated with the population over time – ideally at least 50 years. Yes, my classic baby names standards are tougher than the government’s classic car standards. My standards are higher because baby names have been around longer than cars.
Names often described as classic, like Isabella, are in reality revival names. Isabella is a name that had gone out of style and then suddenly came back, just like bell bottoms came back in the 90s. But before Isabella rose like the Phoenix, it was completely absent from the top 1000 for exactly 40 years. Isabella was not considered in-style 50 years ago. Isabella is a nice name, but Isabella is not a classic.
But how many things in-style now were also in-style 50 years ago? Pencil skirts maybe? Only a handful of wardrobe items can be truly classic, just like only a handful of names can be truly classic.
For that reason, “classic” is a term I use sparingly. When describing a name, I might feel safer using a term like “timeless-style”. And maybe what makes a name “timeless” can be a bit subjective. What then, makes a name timeless?
Timeless names are usually rooted in the Bible, Literature, Nobility, Mythology or Saints. But does this make all Biblical, Literary, Nobility, Mythological and Saint names classic?
What about the Old Testament name, Jehu, which has never even been in the top 1000? Or what about Old Testament name, Deborah? Deborah enjoyed great popularity in the 1950s-60s, but was never popular before then, has since declined and is again uncommon. Can these names reasonably be considered classic?
And is boxing names into limiting categories fair? Maybe cataloging anything isn’t fair, but it’s useful. In a nod to fairness, I’m going to ask readers for feedback in coming weeks on a couple of names that have stumped me.
Maybe when it comes to defining what’s classic, there will always be debate, but clearly defining what Upswing Baby Names considers classic seems like a good idea.
After pouring over name trends from 1880 (the earliest year data is available) to the most recent data from 2011, I noticed some patterns. Most names seem to fall into categories based on how common the name has been over time.
On the one end of the scale are the rare names that have always been obscure; on the other end are the authentic classic names that have always been common. In between are the modern names, underused classics, revival names, modern classics, and dated names. Through time, any rare name could age into an authentic classic or become dated.
Soon there will a reference page on Upswing Baby Names defining these categories. This reference page will be referenced in future posts and will also be part of a larger project, an in-depth report on name trends. And you will get a chance to include your feedback.
But first here are the definitions.
These names were rare until recently. A modern name entered the top 1000 within the past 20 years, and in some cases zoomed up the charts rapidly. Jayden is the perfect example.
These names have been consistently used, but have never been that popular. They never left the top 500, but never hit the top 100 either. An example is Felix.
Underused classics that hit the top 100 for the first time are revival names. Felix has been trending upwards recently and has a good chance of becoming a revival name.
Revival names follow two different trend patterns. There are names that follow the U-shaped revival pattern; they were very popular, hit a low point and then regained their former popularity. The perfect example is Emma.
The more common pattern is the J-shaped revival pattern. These names were somewhat popular, possibly underused classics, but they never hit the top 50. Then they declined to a low point or disappeared only to come back more popular than before. An example is Elijah.
Modern names and revival names that stay popular for 30 years or more morph into modern classics. Ideally these names stay in the top 50 for at least three decades.
Natalie is a former modern name that has graduated to modern classic status.
Christopher is a former revival name that has graduated to modern classic status.
Any name that has been in steep decline or completely absent from the top 1000 for at least two decades is considered dated. Bertha is an example.
Of course any dated name could reclaim revival name status and the cycle starts all over again.
But what makes a name authentically classic?
Authentic Classic Names
In order to be considered an authentic classic, a name must be consistently popular for many decades, at least 50 years, but ideally a century. Ideally it has never left the top 50. James is the perfect example.
Real Life Hiccups
Few names fit these categories perfectly. For example, Natalie’s historic pattern is unique and hard to fit into a neat box. The name started off at the bottom of the top 1000 at #908 in 1880 and continued to climb to its peak at #13 in 2008. Despite some early spikes and gentle dips on the way, Natalie is one of the few names that has slowly but consistently climbed the charts over a 130-year period to the top 20 ranks.
I classified Natalie as a modern classic because back in 1880, Natalie was probably a modern name. Over time Natalie became more popular. But Natalie climbed the charts more slowly than most other modern classics. Most modern classics climb dramatically at some point and then hit a high plateau for a few decades, like Christopher.
And when it comes to cataloging names as rare, authentically classic or in-between, which carries more credibility, trend statistics or style?
So many stylish names seem to have a timeless style. Owen is a perfect example. Owen is a revival name that has risen dramatically the past decade, reaching the top 50 for the first time in 2010. In all fairness, Owen has good potential to become a modern classic, but Owen hasn’t been in the top 50 long enough yet. Banning names like Owen from the exclusive classic club seems snobby. Yet due to the quick winds of fashion, I can’t classify Owen as classic until he’s proven himself.
The observant among you might protest, “But Natalie didn’t hit the top 50 until 1996. How can you classify Natalie as a modern classic and not Owen?”
The difference between Natalie and Owen is that one climbed gradually while the other climbed dramatically. My theory is that names that climb gradually usually decline gradually and have more staying power.
And, as I said before, Natalie was difficult to catalog. Since Natalie has been in the top 20 for almost a decade I couldn’t classify it as an underused classic, and I couldn’t call it dated, and I surely couldn’t call it rare. Since there was no dramatic drop in popularity, I couldn’t call it a revival name. Since it has been in the top 100 for almost 40 years I couldn’t call it modern. Modern classic was the group that fit Natalie the best, but it doesn’t fit Natalie perfectly.
And what gives me the nerve to classify some names as “Unfairly Dated” anyway? “Unfairly Dated Names” is an Upswing Baby Name series dedicated to names that are dated, but stylistically have much in common with modern, revival and classic names. These names were ahead of their time.
One big question is how I would have classified revival name Emma back in 1976 when it hit its lowest point at #458. Bear in mind, no one knew whether Emma would come back in-style or continue to decline into obscurity. I am unsure of the answer, and I hope readers can weigh-in.
While these categories are far from perfect and may evolve over time, these categories will become standards on Upswing Baby Names. The few times I use “classic” to describe a baby name, I want you to understand what “classic” means to me. And a name doesn’t have to be classic to be good.
Note: The charts used to graph name trends are based on ranks not number of births each year. Since rankings are relative, the number of births would have given a more accurate visual of trends, but collecting the number of births would have been time-consuming and impractical. The ranks show a similar picture of how popular a name was over time. You can see graphs based on number births at the Baby Name Wizard Voyager. I would have loved to use the Baby Name Wizard Voyager graphs instead of reinventing the wheel, but I was afraid that would be copyright infringement.
Readers: Back in 1976, would Emma have been considered an underused classic or dated?