This blog has moved! Please join us over at!

Friday, September 17, 2010

Baby Naming Issue: Evelyn, and How to Tell if a Name Will Get Popular

Kate writes:
I am due with a baby at the end of September. My question is a little different since I think my husband and I have settled on names. (We don't know the sex of the baby so we have a boy and girl name picked.) I am curious if you have any thoughts or insight on "up and coming" baby names. You know the ones - they are out of the top 100 for years and then suddenly from no where start making huge jumps in popularity. The reason I'm asking is that we've basically decided on Evelyn if our baby is a girl. I love this name and loved that it was familiar but not common. Well, when looking at the past few years it's really jumped up the list! The social security website shows that it is #39 in popularity, but less than 1% of the total babies born. So how "popular" does it really make that name? Do you think a name that is trending up in popularity, like Evelyn, will likely make it to the top ten? Like I said, this isn't your typical question, but I thought it was something interesting to talk about. I'm sure this is something you've thought about, and I'd be interested in hearing your take on it.

I think there are some things to watch for:

1. The first is the most obvious: big leaps on the chart. Like, not just a steady increase in popularity (#100, then #95, then #90) but from not even on the chart to #800, then the next year to #400, then the next year to #200. FAST increases mean that most people don't know yet that the name is rising. I think of the name Isabella as the classic example:

It wasn't even in the Top 1000 from 1949 until 1990, and THEN look at it go! (Information and screen shot from the Social Security Administration.) We have friends who named their daughter Isabella in 2001, thinking it was a highly unusual choice---because in 2001, only hospital/daycare workers and SSA site fans knew how common it was.

2. Feeling like the name is a discovery. If the name feels like a dusty treasure, other people are probably feeling the same way. This happens especially with names that have been out of style for awhile---but WERE in style before: Henry, Oliver, Emma.

3. A smack of freshness. If the name has the feeling of surprise---but PLEASANT surprise---it's feeling that way to a lot of other people too. This happens especially with names that haven't been in style before, or have been in style for the other sex: Avery, Emerson, Cadence, Juniper, Braden.

4. A pleasing tie-in. I've mentioned before how people credit Charlotte's Web for their choice of Charlotte for a baby girl---but my guess is that most people thought of the name first and the tie-in second (otherwise I'd expect to see Fern and Wilbur likewise increasing in popularity). The tie-in is what pushed them from "What a great name!" to "Let's use it!" This is also what makes great-grandparent names appealing: the name is already coming back into style, and so it catches people's attention when they see in their family trees (and, as with Charlotte's Web, the names in the family tree that are NOT yet coming back into style go unnoticed).

Numbers 2 and 3 are very similar and have some overlap. One reason I separate them is that I think it's far safer to use dusty treasures than to use fresh smacks: if you were to use the name Henry and then it got to the top ten, it almost wouldn't matter because the name Henry has come and gone many times and is always a sturdy choice even if it's not in fashion. Whereas if you choose Madison or Caden, it could be a different story depending on what the name does in the future. This is the difference between a name that "gets popular" and a name that "gets trendy."

I SUSPECT that the reason Evelyn is coming into style is all the parents looking for alternatives to Ava and Eva and Ella and Emma, combined with Evelyn having a rhythm that happens to match other favorites Isabelle, Abigail, Emily, Madison, and so on. BUT, The Baby Name Wizard has talked extensively about "the 100-year cycle" (which is why great-grandparent names like Emma and Henry are so appealing while parent names like Barbara and Jerry aren't---until our grandchildren are choosing baby names), and although Evelyn has never gone totally out of style, it was last in the top ten in 1915. It's Evelyn's time again.

Considering Evelyn's enduring popularity (it hasn't even slipped out of the 200s since 1915), combined with it getting toward its 100-year mark, combined with what we can see it doing on the charts (not leaps, no, but a pretty fast upward climb after 50 years of not even being in the top 100)---I wouldn't be surprised to see it in the top ten soon.

On the other hand, I also wouldn't be surprised to NOT see it in the top ten. Because plenty of names go up, up, up---and then stop: maybe in the 40s, maybe in the 20s, but never getting to the top ten. The names find their exact balance of being popular enough to be familiar and well-liked by the general population, but not so popular to discourage people from using it.

In any case, I feel about Evelyn the way I do about the name Henry: if it DOES go top ten, you'll still have made a solid choice, not a trendy one.

Now, as to how popular a #39 name really is. If a name were evenly distributed across the entire United States, this would be pretty easy to figure out. At #39, the name Evelyn was given to approximately .28% of all baby girls, which means there are approximately 28 Evelyns per 10,000 girls born in that year. If a classroom has 30 children in it, and half are girls, there will be approximately 1 girl named Evelyn per 24 classrooms. Well, goodness, that's not bad at all! That's positively RARE. And yet, doing that same math tells us there's only 1 Isabella per 6-7 classrooms, and GOODNESS it feels more popular than that---not only because of all the Isabelles and Isabels we've failed to take into account, but also because of regional popularity differences: if some regions barely use the name at all for whatever reason, this makes for many more Isabellas in the other areas. And it'll be the same with Evelyns.

One of my sons has a name that was approximately as popular as the name Evelyn, the year he was born. But if I'd consulted the by state information, I would have seen it was in the top ten in our state. Evelyn is #100 in New Mexico, #98 in South Carolina, #96 in Rhode Island, #89 in Connecticut, #88 in South Dakota, #86 in Oklahoma, #83 in Florida, #81 in Pennsylvania---but #27 in Texas, #25 in California and Oregon, #24 in Illinois and Vermont, #23 in Colorado, #21 in Minnesota in Washington, #20 in D.C., #18 in Wisconsin. And in Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey, and West Virginia, it's not even in the top 100. So of course it depends too on where you live---and where you might move, and where SHE might move as an adult! (Do you feel like running screaming into the sea yet?)

There can also be odd little quirks: the name Noah was #24 in 1999 (approximately .73%) when my first son was born, which SHOULD mean there'd be about one Noah per 9 classrooms. And yet TWO school years, he's had two Noahs in his class, and I think only one school year had no Noahs. It's the SAME Noahs: the statistics show a nice even distribution, but it happens that there are two Noahs in his grade instead of the expected less-than-one Noah, and it happens he's been put into a classroom with one or both of them almost every year. The same could happen with Evelyns.

Er, I seem to have gotten a little carried away, but you've brought up one of my totally favorite subjects, and one I never get tired of talking about because there IS no way to predict these things, and isn't that WEIRD that there isn't??


Abby@AppMtn said...

Fabulous post, Swistle!

The other issue I'd add is that our friends and family and colleagues tend to discover the same names. Maybe it is because we have the same cultural references, but also because other factors tend to narrow the pool of possible names. In our circle, we know lots of boys called Max and Zach, plus a few under-5s called Henry and Theodore. The girls' list is more varied, but the repeats are even more surprising - there are two girls called Hazel in our neighborhood, as well as the more predictable multiples of Abigail, Olivia, and such.

In fact, I thought of Evelyn - lovely, lovely name! - because we know two.

But I do think Swistle is right. Even if everyone else discovers what a great name it is, you won't regret it!

Katie said...

We're expecting a baby girl and Evelyn was on our list. We've finally settled on Eloise and I'm wondering the same thing. It only hit the Top 1000 for the first time after decades off so I'm not too worried about it. But a lot of our faves (Amelia, Eleanor, Evelyn, etc.) have that same feel and seem headed in the same direction.
I also always tell people to check their names by STATE because here in California we have a whole different Top 10 than the rest of the country, and I've also discovered if I lived in Vermont I'd be screwed because they love all the same names as me!
Sorry, that was a whole lot about nothing.
Love the choice of Evelyn and can safely say I don't know ANY in my So Cal circle of acquaintance!

StephLove said...

I don't have anything to say about popularity that hasn't already been said but I do want to reiterate the difference between popular and trendy. The name has been around so long it can't really be considered trendy. I think it's a lovely choice.

I can only think of one little girl Evelyn I know personally, btw. She's 4.

Patricia said...

My husband has a cousin named Evelyn. She was pleased when a granddaughter named her daughter Evelyn a couple of years ago, but suprised that the name is becoming popular again. The name Evelyn peaked the first time around at #10 in 1915; Evelyn ranked 12 in 1925, the year cousin Evelyn Marie was born. (Her parents must have really liked the 'Ev' sound because her brother born in 1928 was named Lyle Everett.)

I think Evelyn will probably increase in popularity but I don't think it will ever be a top 5 name. And I think it will be some time before the name reaches the top 10, if ever. I don't see any huge influence propelling the name to the top of the chart the way Isabella was influenced by "Twilight".

You can see at a glance the popularity of Evelyn, state by state, from 1960 through 2009, at

That's all I'd add to Swistles's excellent analysis of name popularity. And I agree with her conclusion: IF Evelyn does become a Top 10 name eventually, you'll still have made a solid choice, not a trendy one.

Steph the WonderWorrier said...

First of all, YES! Name her Evelyn! It is a strong, classic, beautiful name. Don't even THINK of popularity -- use it if you love it, it will be HER name regardless!

I can speak on growing up with a popular name. I'm a 1985 Stephanie. In my own circle of friends, there are two more Stephanie's -- and yes, we numbered ourselves to keep it straight amongst our friends (plus, Steph2 was my University roomate, so we used numbers for ease of identifying us). (I'm Steph1, by the way, naturally... LOL!).

ANYWAY -- despite this overly, overly popular name that I have I would name my daughter a popular name in an instant. I will not actively seek an "unpopular"/"uncommon" name. I'm just not that traumatized, I guess, and I really do LOVE that my name is NEVER mispronounced and is RARELY misspelled. Such bonuses!

Also, even though my BEST FRIEND is a Stephanie, we often have talked about how we don't even really remember sometimes that we have the same name. She's just "Steph", but it's almost like its HER version of Steph -- I don't even know how to explain this properly, but I just mean to say -- POPULAR NAMES ARE NOT A BAD THING!

(Oh, and for the record, I don't really think Evelyn is uber-popular to the level of 1985 Stephanie, I was just adding my two cents on the topic of name popularity).

Now that I've ranted -- Swistle, I love your analysis! What a great post.

Frazzled Mom said...

I totally get what Steph the Wonder Worrier said about her friend having her own version of Stephanie. As a famous example, Jennifer Aniston, Jennifer Lopez, and Jennifer Garner all seem like completely different versions of Jennifer so I totally get that.

If Evelyn does get to the top 10 you will be ahead of the trend, and that's not a bad thing, IMO. And you anticipate the name could get popular so you won't get disappointed if that should happen like you would if you sought out a "unique" name.

And I loved Swistle's analysis too. That is why I read her blog, she has an articulate way of expressing what I observe with name trends.

Leslie said...

I've been watching this post with interest, because Evelyn is a cherished favorite name of mine as well. It's a beautiful, elegant choice!

I don't have much to add to Swistle's brilliant and thorough analysis of popularity, besides noting that Isabella was still trending upward by leaps and bounds until it got close to the top ten, while Evelyn's progression, while steady, has been much at a much slower pace. To me, that points to what everyone else has also said: the name MAY get more popular, but it won't feel trendy. I don't think you can go wrong with the choice.

Best of luck!

Anna said...

I teach kindergarten and have noticed many Evelyns coming up lately. My school is pretty socio-economically homogenous which might help account for the high concentration. Some of them go by Evie, pronounced "Evvy", some by Evie (Eevee), some just by Evelyn. It's a beautiful name but I couldn't call it uncommon by a long shot, at least in my town (large Midwestern city). Hope that helps! I might add that they have all been very lovely girls, in different ways!

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading your analysis-I have this same conversation a lot with friends and you've given me some good ammunition. One of the most important notes is where you referenced the percentage of named children today-compared to the Stephanies and Jennifers of the 70s and 80s, we've had an explosion of all kinds of names. It means that a class of the 80s with 2 Stephanies and 3 Jennifers is not what kids encounter today. SInce everyone wants a unique name for the children, the top 100 names are shared by a much smaller percentage than they were in past generations, when parents went for conformity over standing out.

My middle name is Isabella-absolutely unheard of in 1968, I am named for a great grandmother. As I grew up, I wanted to name a daughter with it. I didn't get the chance until 2002-and the name had grown in popularity considerably since the mid 90s when I was married. We've encountered only a handful and my daughter is ecstatic when she does meet another, she sees it as something they have in common, like the same shoes or toy. Her friends are Emerson, Summerlin, Caroline, Dazy, Anna Beth and Jadaka.

So go ahead and name your daughter the name you love. And I say all this having lived with a popular name myself-my name is Heather and I grew up in the 80s.

Erin said...

I just wanted to add that I read a few very interesting articles on narcissism and choosing unique names - The trend in choosing unique names has gone way up, and the hypothesis is that parents want their children to be different, the star of, and set apart from every other child in their classroom. But, is it just fostering egotism and narcissism, as opposed to a sense of community and togetherness? Little bit of a sociology tangent, I guess, and here is a link to just one of the articles covering this trend, but its worth thinking about. Its ok that your child's name does not stand out from the pack, and perhaps that would foster connectedness, empathy and good social behavior. And if you name your child a unique name, thats not to say you can't foster the same values in your child, either, but your choice in name either way might reflect underlying hopes and dreams for who you want your child to be. See the narcissim epidemic, or just google unique names and narcissism for some good reads if you are interested.

Emmy Jo said...

Speaking of flukes... we had a first grade class with two boys named Cade, which wasn't even in the top 200 the year they were born. Naming your child an uncommon name doesn't guarantee that he will be the only one in his class.

Anonymous said...

Well, my name is Evelyne. I am happy that people still love this name. I love my name, I grew us in the Jennifer and Ashley Era. I am glad that my parents decided to give a name that.was not popular at that time.