This comparison came into my head when I read this article on The Baby Name Wizard blog, What Can Middle School Teach Us About Baby Naming.
This article compares middle-school students’ desire to fit yet also stand-out to modern parent’s desire to name baby something universally appealing and yet unique. The analogy really resonated with me. Laura Wattenberg, the author, lists three middle-school lessons that can be applied to baby-naming, with the last lesson resonating the most with me: Smart is Cooler Than You Think.
This lesson concludes that life is not a 24-7 party, but rather there is time to be fun and carefree and time to be smart and serious. Ms. Wattenberg explains how as an adult she has grown to appreciate “situational style”, that’s sexy on the weekend and smart come Monday. She closes her observations with these words:
Rather than choosing a party-all-night name, or going crazy with the spelling, why not give your child the flexibility of a smart, serious name with a nickname that walks on the wild side?
These words reminded me of “business in the front, party in the back”, the catch phrase used to describe mullets, the hairstyle hugely popular in the late 80s/ early 90s, The front is short (business); the back is long (party).
I doubt mullets were what Ms. Wattenberg had in mind when she wrote those words, especially considering Lesson 2 is: Don’t Be A Slave To Trends. How many men (and possibly women) do you know who regret their mullets? Somewhere in a landfill are ditched middle school portraits from 20 years ago. People are praying these ditched photos aren’t resurrected by some old classmate with a scanner and a Facebook account.
Changing a mullet is as simple as a haircut, yet changing a name isn’t that easy. The problem is knowing if you have stumbled upon a “baby name mullet” before you give it to your offspring. Compounding this problem is that few names are trend-proof, except for authentic classics like Elizabeth.
Unfortunately for those of us whose tastes don’t include the authentic classics, there’s always the risk of becoming a slave to trends. Being someone who embraces new names, I’m not immune. I’m sure I would really like Madison if it hadn’t become so overused.
While there is no foolproof approach, here are some signs you might love a “baby name mullet”:
1. Until recently the name had been obscure and then it suddenly surged in popularity
This is when a name had never been in the top 1000 (since 1880 the earliest year data is available) and then debuts highly in the top 1000, usually above the #700 rank.
There are always exceptions, but here are some names that debuted highly, that many people either consider dated or will consider dated soon.
- Madison debuted at #625 in 1985.
- Nevaeh (one of our 5 Names We Love to Hate) debuted at #266 in 2001.
Here is an example of a name that recently debuted highly in the top 1000, that is in danger of going the way of the mullet:
- Isla debuted at #622 in 2008. It ranked at #268 in 2011. For what its worth, I love this one too.
While a lot of parents try hard to find a name that has never been in the top 1000, that can be risky, as the above examples show. At least with a name in the top 1000, you have some past trends to go on. Past trends can be invaluable for spotting fad names.
With that said, a popular name is not necessarily a fad name. The advantage of many top 10 names is that they got there gradually, and have a solid history. For example, Olivia (#4) has always been in the top 1000, and while Olivia is popular, it is not a fad name.
This isn’t to suggest all top 10 names are safe. One of the above examples, Madison, reached the top 10 and is still there. Other than a high top 1000 debut, Madison exhibits another characteristic of a fad name; its popularity can be traced to one event, which leads us to the next sign of a future fad name:
2. The name’s popularity is directly linked to a prominent pop culture event.
For Madison that event was the fantasy movie, Splash, of course. Splash came out within a year of Madison’s debut in the top 1000. But the event doesn’t have to be a movie.
The event could be a famous person using an unusual name for their offspring. Such was the case with Nevaeh, which was invented by a Christian rock musician within a year of its debut in the top 1000. Or the event might be a newly famous person with an unusual name.
Besides a high debut in the top 1000 triggered by one event, what Madison and Nevaeh have in common is once they got to the top 1000, they zoomed up the charts. But what about names that debuted highly and never zoomed up the charts. I found one example:
- Ainsley debuted at #481 in 2001 and over the past decade has plateaued in the 300-400s. It ranked at #363 in 2011.
Whether or not Ainsley becomes a fad name depends on how quickly the name climbs in coming years. Based on past performance, Ainsley could continue its gentle climb, but names have been known to gently climb and then suddenly skyrocket. This could happen to Ainsley considering Ainsley’s trendy style as a Scottish surname, and similarity to past hit name Ashley. And this leads us to the last sign of a future fad name:
3. The name has a trendy style.
There are some styles that are susceptible to becoming fads. Some of these styles include: Irish/Scottish/Celtic surnames, names with certain vowels, and modern creative names. This isn’t an all-encompassing list, and not all names with these styles are doomed to go the way of the mullet.
A rule of thumb is if you found a name with a trendy style that also exhibits at least one of the other two signs, this is a red flag. Generally speaking a fad name will exhibit at least two out the three.
When These Signs Come Together
A name that just entered the top 1000 a couple of years ago and exhibits at least three, possibly four of these signs is Iker.
About ten years ago, most American parents probably couldn’t imagine a little Iker. This statement isn’t completely irrefutable, but consider that in 2002 there were only 21 boys named Iker, and the similar sounding Ike is still overlooked by most American parents. And consider that it meets all three signs of a fad name:
Sign 1. Until recently it had been obscure and then it surged in popularity.
Iker entered the top 1000 only a couple of years ago at #646 in 2010. The following year, it rose to #379.
Sign 2. Its popularity can be traced to a single pop culture event.
Iker Casillas led Spain to a World Cup victory in the summer of 2010 (in Soccer or Football if you are outside the U.S.).
Sign 3. It has a trendy style.
Names with the long I sound, such as Isaac are popular now. Boy names with the -er ending, like Archer, are also becoming more popular.
Please don’t hate me if you love Iker.
As with any other set of name rules, these aren’t hard and fast rules, only guidelines. You can ignore these rules if you find that name that exhibits these signs, but you know the name suits your style, and feels like your baby.
And there are some exceptions. Samantha is a big one. It exhibits at least two of the three signs. It had been absent from the top 1000 for decades, and then returned at #473 in 1964, the year the show Bewitched premiered on TV.
But few would consider Samantha a fad name. Samantha has been around awhile and has become a modern classic. One thing that differentiates Samantha from names like Isla and Iker is that it had been at the bottom of the top 1000 before, from 1880 to 1902. Another thing helping Samantha is that after a few years of rapid growth, its growth slowed down and it gradually hit the top 10 in 1988, twenty years after its top 1000 debut, and its decline has been slow, still ranking at #17 in 2011.
Samantha’s previous history in the top 1000 is something it has in common with Archer. For this reason, Archer could avoid going the way of the mullet. Archer returned to the top 1000 at #681 in 2009 after a long absence. In 2011 it ranked at #447. It had spent some time at the bottom of the top 1000 from 1880 to 1889. Whether or not Archer becomes a fad name depends on how quickly Archer climbs (and then falls) and how long Archer sticks around.
These rules were designed for parents who would regret inadvertently giving their child a fad name. If you are one of those people and you happen to like Isla and/or Iker, you have been forewarned.
Readers: What names do you feel are in danger of becoming fad names? These signs are nebulous with names like Ainsley and Archer. Will Ainsley and Archer go the way of the mullet or become modern classics like Samantha?