- Baby names reflect revolution in womenʼs role (and maybe also Darryl Hannahʼs mermaid in Splash)
- “Madison” (the biggest riser since 1940) is the new “Betty” (the biggest faller) “Names can be to genealogy what carbon-dating is to archaeology”
“Women’s role in society has seen a revolution since 1940”, says Speckart. “Men’s role has changed too, though far less.” New names may have helped women forge new lives.
Findmypast.com researchers analyzed the records of the U.S. Social Security Administration, which has recorded baby names, based on Social Security applications for births, since 1879.
The top 10 girls' names in 1940, they found, have fallen by an average of over 700  places in the popularity rankings since – nearly seven times as far as the top 10 boys’ names the same year, which have dropped an average of barely 100  places.
None of the top 10 girls’ names in 1940 even make today’s top 100. Three of the top 10 names from 1940 (Betty, Carol, Shirley) have now dropped entirely from the top 1,000, compared to none of the equivalent boys’ names. Betty, Carol and Shirley are now the names of deceased grandmothers and aged aunts – the names that time forgot.
“Baby names are like period pieces”, says Josh Taylor, genealogist for findmypast.com. “Some recall a particular era, which can make them clues when researching family history. So, you can sometimes guess roughly when someone was born simply by their first name. In such cases, names can be to genealogy what carbon-dating is to archaeology.”
This is far truer, however, of girls’ names than of boys’.
Seven of the top 10 boys’ names from 1940 are still in the top 100, while three (James, David, William) remain in the top 20, and one (William) makes the top three. William is the only top 10 name from 1940 that is still in the top 10, while last year’s royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton seems to have further boosted its ranking.
Only one of the 10 most popular names from 1940 (Mary) is even in the top 500 today, while ALL of the top boys’ names from 1940 are.
“We are becoming the men we wanted to marry”, said the feminist Gloria Steinem, reflecting on the changing career choices of women. “In some cases”, she might have added, “we are even taking their first names.”
Madison is today the eighth most popular baby name for girls born in the U.S. Yet, it was originally a surname (as in James Madison, fourth president of the U.S.) and then for many years a boys’ first name, until it faded from use in the 1950s.
Now, Madison is the new Betty. While Betty is the biggest faller in the girls’ name leagues since 1940, Madison, along with Mia and Abigail, is the biggest riser. But while Betty was the name of a housewife and cake-baker, Madison is a “power” name – a name with its own shoulder-pads and parking space in the executive lot.
“American women used to have names like Betty and – like Betty Draper in the TV series, Mad Men – marry men with jobs on Madison Avenue”, says Joshua Taylor. “Now, women are themselves called Madison and have top jobs – on Madison Avenue and beyond.”
In fact, what suddenly made Madison a popular name for girls was the 1984 movie, Splash, in which Daryl Hannah played a mermaid who adopted the name “Madison” in human form after spotting a street sign for Madison Avenue.
Most of the top 10 ten girls’ names today were rare in 1940, while at least three (Madison, Mia, Abigail) did not even rank in the top 1,000. “In 1940 you were as likely to meet a girl named Madison as a boy named Sue”, says Taylor. Seven of today’s top 10 girls’ names have risen over 500 places since 1940, compared to just four of the boys’.
Not only do popular names for girls change more rapidly over time but girls’ names are also more varied, with the 10 most popular ones accounting for a smaller share of all girls than the equivalent figure for boys. Meanwhile, at least half of the 10 most popular boys’ names today have biblical or Hebrew origins – more than in 1940 – compared to one (or arguably two) of the girls’ names.
Gender differences in naming may, even now, reflect different parental goals for sons and daughters, remarked Nicholas Christenfeld and Britta Larsen of UC San Diego, in a recent paper in The Psychologist.
“By avoiding the most common and old-fashioned names, parents may enhance their daughters’ claims to be young and exotic, and thereby increase their mate value”, suggest Christenfeld and Larsen. “In choosing more common and historically popular names for their boys, parents may signal that their sons are mature and established, and so help them to attract young, exotic mates.”