Naming Babies

By Maeve Maddox

Throughout history, cultures have attached great importance to names. In some cultures people, like cats, have secret names known only to themselves.

Most parents I know spent hours, days, even months writing down possible names, doing the best to ensure that their final choice would go with their surname and that the child’s initials wouldn’t spell out a word that could provoke ridicule.

American culture may not place the same value on the naming rite as some others. If you watched the movie Pulp Fiction, you may remember what one of the characters says about the meaninglessness of American names. Nevertheless I was astounded to read that in 1994 in New York City, 2,516 baby girls were named Female. In that same year, 3,639 baby boys received the name Male. Their parents hadn’t bothered to give them a name, so the sex designated on their papers was recorded as the given name. Although some of the parents later provided genuine names, many of the children grew up with names pronounced [fuh-MAHL-ee] and [MAH-lee], respectively.

Some countries have laws that curb excessive imagination in naming newborns. The United States is not one of them.

American celebrities tend to choose unusual names for their offspring. For example:
Indiana August
Moses Amadeus
Satchel Seamus
Seven Sirius
Apple
Zowie

Some non-celebrities go further:
Hippo
Jedi
Thunder
Popeye
Espn
Google
Burger
Vanille
J’Adore
Shoog

Despite names like these, a glance at the most popular names given to babies in the United States decade by decade reveals that traditional names have staying power. Good old-fashioned “Mary” remained in the top three until the 1970s; “Michael” made it into the 21st century.

Here are the top three name choices for boys and girls (Social Security statistics) for each decade since 1930:

1930
Boys: Robert, James, John
Girls: Mary, Betty, Barbara
1940
Boys: James, Robert, John
Girls: Mary, Barbara, Patricia
1950
Boys: James, Robert, John
Girls: Linda, Mary, Patricia
1960
Boys: David, Michael, James
Girls: Mary, Susan, Linda
1970
Boys: Michael, James, David
Girls: Jennifer, Lisa, Kimberly
1980
Boys: Michael, Christopher, Jason
Girls: Jennifer, Amanda, Jessica
1990
Boys: Michael, Christopher, Matthew
Girls: Jessica, Ashley, Brittany
2000
Boys: Jacob, Michael, Matthew
Girls: Emily, Hannah, Madison

The tide seems to be turning. Judging by 2013 figures, the boys are on their way to exotic names, while the girls are headed back to more traditional choices:

2013
Boys: Jackson, Aiden, Liam
Girls: Sophia, Emma, Olivia

1880s
Boys: John, William, James
Girls: Mary, Anna, Emma

Related post: Names ‘Epicene’ and Otherwise

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10 Responses to “Naming Babies”

  • Connie Oswald Stofko

    Could you please tell us where you read that families neglected to name their children and the children went by the designations Female and Male? I have no doubt that many times paperwork was filed registering a birth with no name. It could be that parents hadn’t decided on a name yet. Or perhaps the mother was quite ill or had even died in childbirth, so hospital staff simply filed the paperwork while the family’s attention was turned elsewhere. But it’s odd, isn’t it, that a family wouldn’t choose a name for their child? It’s such an odd story that it probably isn’t true. See the Snopes article here. http://www.snopes.com/racial/language/names.asp

  • Maeve

    Connie,
    Good question. I found the information at a site called ijmc.com and saw it reprinted at Quora and other sites. I’m sure that there are often reasons that keep parents from naming a baby until after the designated time and that most do provide a proper name. It didn’t occur to me to question the fact that a few parents would not bother.

    It’s after the fact, but I’ve written to the New York Bureau of Vital Statistics asking if they can tell me if there is any truth to the story that some children do get stuck with “Female” and “Male.”

    Btw, the old chestnut about twin girls named Ima and Ura Hogg is not true, but there was an Ima Hogg (1882-1975), the daughter of Texas Governor James Stephen Hogg (1851-1906).

    I’ll certainly let you know what I find out from the NY BVS.

    Thanks for keeping me up to the mark. I don’t want to pass on nonsense.

  • D.A.W.

    “Their parents hadn’t bothered to give them a name”.
    I came here to write, also, that probably the parents were still thinking about it. Thus us is UNFAIR to say “hadn’t bothered”.

    Also, it is possible for a widow to give birth. This is what happened in the case of Isaac Newton (who was given this name by his mother). Then the mother could have died, and there were no living grandparents, uncles, aunts, etc. After some time, then the baby was named by his/her guardians or adoptive parents.
    Newton’s mother soon found that she was too impoverished and distraught to care for a baby son, so Isaac was sent away to live with a couple of his grandparents.

  • D.A.W.

    There are interesting entries that are used in such government papers as military and naval service forms. These are “NMI” = “no middle initial” and “NMN” = “no middle name”.

    I had a great-uncle whose official name was “J.T.”, but everyone called him “Peter”, so he was “Uncle Peter” to me. Uncle Peter also served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, and in the U.S. Air Force later on, after that service was created in 1947. Still, filling out his forms and getting them accepted was probably a challenge.

    In the case of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the “J” was his real first name and it didn’t stand for anything. I think that he had more than one relative whose first names started with “J”, and I know that his father’s name was “Julius”.

    In the name of Harry S. Truman, the “S” did not stand for anything in particular. Also, he tended to write is name without the period in it.

  • D.A.W.

    I am sorry about an astonishing typographical error in the above. I typed “us” instead of “it”, and it is difficult to see how that happened.

  • D.A.W.

    “Their parents hadn’t bothered to give them a name” needs to be “Their parents hadn’t bothered to give them names.”

    This sentence needs to be composed with plural nouns and pronouns all the way through to get numerical agreement all the way through. Come on – you are supposed to know grammar better than that, Maeve.

    A simple practice to follow in cases like this is to either make all of the nouns, pronouns, and verbs singular, OR to make all of the nouns, pronouns, and verbs plural — unless there is a salient reason why not to do so.
    In this case “salient” means “sticking out like a thumb”.

    Thus “salient” has taken on a military meaning, too, such as in “a salient in the Western Front”.
    D.A.W.

  • Maeve

    D.A.W.,
    “I am sorry about an astonishing typographical error in the above. I typed “us” instead of “it”, and it is difficult to see how that happened.”

    Now you know how I feel. 🙂

  • Noadi

    There’s also another more tragic reason. Is there any reason to believe all these babies survived to leave the hospital? It’s possible the parents didn’t name their baby because they weren’t expected to survive very long.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Many parents name their children even when they are stillborn.

    On the other hand, some babies who have been stillborn or died soon after birth are named “Baby Johnson”, “Baby Girl Smith”, “Baby Boy Hamilton”, etc., on their grave markers.

    Also, if “David Peason” died as an infant, one of his younger brothers might be named “David Pearson II” in his memory.
    Also, some boys were named in the same way in memory of an uncle or cousin who died young, especially one who was killed in war.

    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Hi, Maeve,
    I have long thought that when one has made a careless mistake, the best thing to do is to admit it clearly and soon.

    I am reminded very much of my chemistry teacher for two courses in college: Dr. Jay Young. Whenever he wrote something incorrect on the chalkboard or his overhead projecter, I can remember well what he said: “Oh, I Blew It!”

    Dr. Young was a wonderful teacher, and an old man with a slick bald head. I cannot forget him. It liked his classes despite the fact that I only took chemistry because all physics and engineering majors take chemistry in their freshman years.

    (The same thing goes for students majoring in biology, agriculture, pre-med, pre-dentistry, and several other fields.)
    D.A.W.

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