Baby Name of the Day: Madison

Cover of "Splash (20th Anniversary Editio...

Cover of Splash (20th Anniversary Edition)

Note: I’d originally agreed to write about Keziah today, for Racheli. Except when I finishing up the post, I realized it sounded eerily familiar. Sure enough, that was because Keziah was Baby Name of the Day back in the day. Oops, and Racheli, my apologies!

She made waves as the adopted name of a big screen mermaid.

Our Baby Name of the Day is the much-maligned Madison.

The year was 1984. Tom Hanks was just a young actor cast in a romantic comedy about a man and a mermaid, years before he became an Oscar-winning A-lister. His co-star, the one in the flippers, was Darryl Hannah, equally early in her career.

You probably know the clip that inspires Hanks’ character to rename his fishy friend. They’re in a department store. She insists her name can’t be said in English, and he replies “Then just say it in your language.” Her high-pitched squeaks shatter the television screens.

They’re trying to find a non-glass-shattering alternative while they’re walking down Madison Avenue and, well, the rest is history. Splash was a huge hit, and Madison was on her way to the US Top Ten, with thousands of baby girls named after a mermaid who named herself after a street.

But it isn’t that simple – or that silly. In the 1980s, Allison and Megan were popular choices. Madison’s sound and style fit with names that were mainstream in the moment.

But there’s more: the classic Madeline was beginning her return. In 1978, Madeline ranked #704. By 1984, she’d climbed to #623 and by 1986, she’d reached #288. That’s easy to explain, of course – we were all watching Maddie and David on Moonlighting. A long-forgotten girls’ name was suddenly fresh and interesting again.

It was a pop culture perfect storm. Splash put Madison on the map, and Moonlighting prompted parents to consider other ways to get to Maddie.

The name wasn’t without roots. Founding father James Madison helped write the US Constitution, then served as president for a second act. (The street is named in his honor.) There’s also novelist Madison Smartt Bell, a novelist and one of many men to wear the name.

This brings us to one of the biggest controversies surrounding Madison. Why, oh why, must parents steal boys’ names for girls?

I understand the frustration, but I’m not sure the logic holds. In English, there is little custom of forming of surname to indicate “daughter of” as there is in other languages. Pippi Longstocking, for example, has Efraimsdotter included in her extensive appellation. Slavic languages, too, sometimes include matronymics.

But it does happen in English – and Madison just might be one of those cases. Madison’s son clearly indicates descent from an ancestor. That ancestor might be MatthewMad was a short form in medieval English, the equivalent of today’s Matt.

Or Madison could mean son of Maude – or, more broadly, Maude’s descendant. While it wasn’t as common as taking a name from your father, if your mother’s family was especially powerful, if your father was foreign, or perhaps if your father passed away before you were born, you could take a surname based on your mother’s name. Marriott is based on Mary or Marie; Beaton relates to Beatrice.

Madison enjoyed steady but limited use for men for years. He peaked at #332 in 1882. By 1953, he’d left the rankings entirely.

Parents weren’t using him for boys, but they were using tailored choices like Kristen, Erin, and Karen for their daughters. Little wonder, then, that Madison debuted in US Top 1000 for girls at #625 in 1985.

Madison reached the Top 100 in 1994, and peaked at #2 in 2001 and 2002. She’s fallen to #8, but that’s deceptive. From the original French Madeleine to respellings of Madison, there is no shortage of similar names in use today, like:

  • Madison
  • Madelyn
  • Madeline
  • Maddison
  • Madilyn
  • Madeleine
  • Madalyn
  • Madisyn
  • Madelynn
  • Madyson
  • Madalynn
  • Maddilynn

It’s an epidemic.

Interestingly, though, Madison actually rose for boys after it caught parents’ attention for their daughters. After decades spent dormant, from 1987 into 1999, Madison appeared at the fringes of the boys’ rankings, perhaps prompting those accusations of theft. Today, a son is more likely to answer to Maddox or Madden.

Something tells me that Madison, however reviled she may be on message boards, is actually another Jennifer – a name we never considered until she was so common that the name became perfectly ordinary. Twenty years from now, I suspect we’ll be hearing “I was one of three Madisons in my high school; I want my child to have an unusual name, like Gertrude.”

Or at least I can hope!


  1. appellationmountain says

    Well … “endorse” is a strong word. But I don’t think it is surprising, or world-ending. And I think it would be REALLY tough to be a little boy called Madison today. I can imagine him insisting that he be called “Matt” and refusing to admit to his full name.

  2. Valerie says

    I just can’t see a girl named Madison. Whenever I see someone considering it on a forum I always say it’s a boy’s name. I’m then told I’m wrong for various reasons. I can’t believe you’d endorse Madison as a girl’s name.

  3. Kaila says

    I know a male Madison. He’s in his 20’s. He was the first Madison I ever met so I always find it odd sounding when used for a girl.

    • appellationmountain says

      An excellent point. Every name gets put on the table at some point, by some one. I do think that the average person – myself included – is not likely to invent a truly new name, or at least not more than one. It takes the dexterity with language of a Spenser or a Shakespeare to reliably come up with a whole BUNCH of fresh options.

      That said, I’m not sure that a name is less valid because the person inventing it wasn’t doing so in the pursuit of high-minded art or literature. It takes talent to craft humor, too, and the screenwriter who named the mermaid Madison was tapping into a lot of things that were happening in naming culture at the moment – which is valid, and explains why the name caught on.

  4. C in DC says

    The first Madison I knew was a dog who’s human parents had attended U. Wisconsin – Madison. The first child I met by that name made me think (but not say), “That’s a dog’s name!”

    I’ve always loved Madeleine as a name (L’Engle is a favorite author), but by the time I had kids, it was way too overused.

  5. Adrian says

    I admit it. I’ve always had an irrational hatred for this name. It sounds so harsh, it has the word “Mad” in it, and then there’s the whole -son ending. All the Mc/Mac names for girls rankle me for the same reason. Why, oh why, would you want to name your DAUGHTER “son of” something?

    As Tom Hanks said in the movie, “Madison? That’s not a name!” Obviously, the joke went over a lot of people’s heads, and now it’s been in use for so long that no one seems to bat an eye over how ridiculous it is.

  6. English Kate says

    I’ve heard of a couple Madison’s in the UK and while Madison and Maddison are in our top 100 (ranked 54 and 62 respectively) the name really hasn’t taken off here in the same way that it has in the States. I have very little to add that everyone hasn’t already said. Personally, I’m far too concerned about the heritage of a name to ever consider one that began it’s life as a joke in a movie and would rather a girl had a strong, feminine appellation.

  7. Chantillylace says

    I used to love the name Madison (about 10 years ago when I was 14). It was kind of one of those guilty pleasure names for me… although now it’s so over-used that I’m sick of it (it was over-used then too… I just didn’t know it) :). My new trendy guilty pleasure is Taylor. I’m sorry, I would never use it, but I think it’s adorable.

    I like the point you bring up about -son names being used on girls because there’s really not a “daughter of” name. I personally wouldn’t use any -son names on girls because I like more feminine sounding names, but I can see the appeal. I have a friend who named her son Josson, after her husband (Josh’s son). To me, that’s still how I see -son names should be.

    • says

      It so totally doesn’t surprise me that this post inspired so many comments. Nothing to say about Madison that hasn’t already been said. But I too have a trendy guilty pleasure: Harlow. I…I actually like it. Even though it only exists because of Hollywood and it means “army.” Am I dying?

      • appellationmountain says

        Ah, I’ll admit it – I love Harlow, too. And Marlo. But not Marlowe. That I don’t get, Jason Schwartzman.

      • Virginia says

        I like Harlow, too! I probably wouldn’t except that one of my friends has a little Harlow. My friend is one of the smartest and classiest people I know, so I figured if she chose that name it must have its merits.

  8. Allison says

    There is a group on America’s Best Dance Crew with 12/13 year old BOY named Madison…
    I am a girl and my name is Allison, I know an Alison (x2), Allison, Alycyn (not joking) and an Allisson. All around my age. (16)

    • says

      Yes, Madison Alamia. He’s a cute kid.

      I just checked his profile page on MTV and there are hundreds of comments there, and none mention that he “has a girls name”, which is pretty incredible. No one seemed to bat an eyelid at his name, so maybe we really are moving towards different times where these kind of names are no longer that tease worthy?

  9. says

    Madison’s just ehh for me. I (as a 16 year old) know at least 3, all of whom are Madison “Maddie (or Madi)”. On the subject of Morgan, it’s one of the few unisex names I like for both genders. But I like it for boys more. And Morgana’s starting to grow on me too, but as a fantasy lover, I’ve read a few to many adaptations, in which Morgan(a) invariably betrays her (half-)brother, in some cases rather disturbingly. (If you want to know that story, read Mercedes Lackey’s Gwynhwyfar, good book).

  10. Jenny says

    I don’t understand the bad rap Madison gets. It’s not a personal favorite of mine and I wouldn’t consider it but I don’t think it’s as awful as people make it out to be. Given its popularity, I must not be the only one who feels this way.

  11. Virginia says

    I think Madison is fine. It’s the nickname Maddie that I dislike. It’s not a name I would ever consider, but I certainly wouldn’t judge someone who likes it enough to use it. The kreative spellings are irritating, though. I think this is one of those surnames that have been used so often for girls that it doesn’t really sound like a surname anymore (like Ashley and Kelly).

  12. says

    Did people get as bored and irritated with Jennifer in the 1970s as they have with Madison?

    It’s not an awful name, but I’m so sick of the Maddie nickname by now that I’ve gone right off names I used to like, such as Madeleine.

    I just realised that Madison is another of the “Matilda”names! Oh well, can’t hate it now, can I? *grin*

    • appellationmountain says

      Madison IS another Matilda name, isn’t she? Never thought of it that way!

      I’m not sure if parents were irritated with Jennifer, but the Nameberry duo’s book was originally titled “Beyond Jennifer and Jason.” It makes me think that there must’ve been some sense that Jennifer was epidemic, even if there was no blogosphere to back it up.

      Thinking about it, though, I realize that even the most common names of the 70s weren’t much repeated in my subdivision. The girls I grew up with were: Michelle, Kimberly (x2), Heather, Robyn, Jennifer (right next door!), Cara, Beth, Karyn, and Donna. It wasn’t until I hit elementary school that I realized I was doomed to be Amy N., Jenny M.’s neighbor. So our parents might not have really felt the impact the way we did … not sure about that.

    • says

      Jennifer, like Madison, is another name inspired by a movie (Love Story).

      I know Jennifer is meant to be the quintessential 1970s name, but I was born in the 1970s and I only knew two Jennifers. Maybe parents didn’t go so overboard with names, or the population was smaller, or it was too fashionable for my neck of the woods. Or else they’d read an article on how common it was, so avoided it.

      I grew up with literally dozens of Michelles and Debbies, but I don’t know how adults felt about “too many” of a name.

      • appellationmountain says

        That’s a very nice point – though Love Story was the kind of movie you might expect to inspire a child’s name. It’s more acceptable to choose names from tragic heroines than from comic relief. Not sure why … and maybe that’s not entirely true. But it strikes me that names drawn from what we perceive as high or serious culture get a pass, while those from, say reality TV or soap operas? Not so much.

        • katybug says

          It’s true! Sabrina and Vanessa are poetic inventions, I think, and no one would ever accuse you of giving your daughter a “made up” name if you used either one. But Maci? Nooooo.

  13. Julie says

    It’s not a name I like, but I know so many sweet girls with the name I can’t hate it. But at the same time, the seemingly universal attraction to Maddie/Addie/Gabby, etc. has eluded me. I just don’t get it.

  14. Panya says

    No -son name [or any other name with a ‘son’ meaning] will ever be okay on a girl to me. [Allison I *only* like as Alicen.] I think Madison sounds a bit fresh on a boy though.

      • Panya says

        I always confuse the Alison & Allison spellings, but my point is that I would personally only spell the diminutive of Alice as Alicen. So yeah, I would use Allison on a boy, Alicen on a girl.

      • appellationmountain says

        You’re right that Allison can be a patronymic, but so can Alison. And Alison and Allison have been used for women since the Middle Ages. It isn’t possible to make that kind of fine distinction. The idea of standardized spelling is a twentieth century phenomenon, and the vast majority of names are far older.

        • appellationmountain says

          Oh, and to the extent that it is a surname and not a diminutive, it can be derived from several names, including Allen, Alexander, and Alice/Alis/Aliss – which puts Allison squarely in the same category as Madison. We see “son” as exclusively masculine today, but I think it is more accurate to understand it as “descendant.” Does anyone know anything about gender in written medieval English? Off to search …

    • appellationmountain says

      Alicen did exist in medieval English – but I don’t know how common it might’ve been. I do like the “c” spelling.

      • Patricia says

        I’m rather intrigued by the name Alicen as I’ve never come across it before. So I looked for it in Withycombe’s “The Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names”, first published in Great Britain in 1945. Withycombe says of Alison: “a pet-name of Alice, formed by the addition of the suffix ‘-on’ to the French ‘A(a)lis’. It was common in France from the 13th C and was often treated as an independent name. It was still common in England in the 17th C, especially in the North country, where it often appears as ‘Alicen’…”

        So there it is – Alicen. And according to this name researcher, the ‘son’ in Alison is purely by chance — adding ‘on’ to the French form of the name ‘Alis’– and doesn’t indicate being a ‘son’ of anyone.

        Withycombe continues: “The “locus classicus” is the Middle English poem with the refrain ‘From all wymmen my love is lent, Ant lyht on Alisoun’.” Early records of the name include Alison in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, c.1386. and Alicen, Allison in Yorks Recussants, 1604.

  15. Liann says

    I don’t mind the sound of Madison, one of my best friends is a Madison, it’s just so tired to me. I can’t understand why people are still choosing it. There are SO many Madisons! What could possibly be the appeal of a name that is literally everywhere?

    • appellationmountain says

      I always wonder about that. For every parent I know who says “we have NO idea” there are some who say “I’ve had names picked out since I was six.” I wonder if some of the names that were picked out early days just get so set that we’re still in love with them even after they’re everywhere? If you were naming your dolls Madison in 1988, maybe you’d still want to use it for your daughter in 2011?

      • Liann says

        Maybe. My best friend since childhood had her son’s name picked out since we were 11, and she stuck with it. Now, it’s not a super popular name, but it does illustrate exactly what you’re saying. I guess those namers I can understand because I do feel like your love for a name outways it’s popularity. It’s the people who say “we had no idea!” that urk me. I cannot imagine blindly naming my child without knowing everything about the name! And if you do choose a popular name, at least choose it with your eyes open. But I guess that’s what makes all of us namenerds different :) (And gives all of our kids the coolest names)

  16. Sarah A says

    Madison is one of the few names that I really truly dislike. I’m quite against surnames as first names, particularly on girls. Unless, of course, it’s a case as Catherine mentioned where it’s a legitimate family name.

    I also don’t like names that seem as if they appeared out of thin air and then parents rushed toward them in hordes. If I ever choose a popular name for my child it will be something with historical and religious weight, like Hannah or Leah.

    However like Lola, I think Madison is better Morgan (and she beats Mackenzie and Mikayla for me as well!). Now Morgana, that’s one I could get on board with… :)

  17. photoquilty says

    I don’t hate it. But it’s a bit too obvious. Also, its usage in Splash was a joke. The idea of a mermaid picking the street name was a joke. A JOKE. We weren’t to take it seriously. But still. Not hate.

    As Abby’s heard before, I know a girl who had a dog named Maddie. Then she had a baby girl and named her Madison. And then she had another baby girl and named her Madeline (pronounced MAD-a-lyn). So, clearly there are people out there that just love the sound of it.

    I prefer Madeline over Madison, which was on my list the first time I was pregnant. Had I had a chance to use it, I’d have a Maddie who was just one of many in school. Am I better off with my Ethan? Well, *I* think so. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    • appellationmountain says

      I think about Maddie, Madeline, and Madison all the time – I honestly can’t imagine having them all under one roof!

  18. Bek says

    Honestly, I really just don’t like the sound of Madison. Or Addison. Or any spin-off it may spawn to get to Maddie/Addie. The sound, more than anything, just grates on me… A lot.

    While I’m not drawn to popular names, there are plenty of lovely ones, and I don’t think you can hold the ubiquitous nature of a name against it. Though, you can certainly wonder why in the heck someone seeking an uncommon or unique name would gravitate towards something like Madison/Madyson/Madisyn (any others?). I think that is where the problem really lies. Claim it and own it, I guess, differing tastes be darned.

    • Patricia says

      Any others? Of course! In the SSA 2010 Top 1000:

      #8 Madison 1,370 baby girls given the name

      #293 Maddison 1,103

      #338 Madisyn 943

      #444 Madyson 688

      And Beyond the Top 1000:
      Madisen 152
      Madysen 150
      Maddisyn 83
      Maddyson 70
      Maddison 41
      Madasyn 47
      Madisynn 23
      Madysin 22
      Maddisen 19
      Madisun 16
      Madysyn 14
      Madason 10
      Madysson 10
      Madesyn 9
      Madysun 7
      Madasen 6
      Madisin 6
      Madasin 5
      Madisan 5
      Madysan 5
      Madysan 5

      Formula for making the name of your Madison unique:
      Begin with Mad_s_n
      Add your preferred vowels in the blanks
      Double the d or s for added flair

      I like the nn Maddi; don’t like ‘son’ for a girl, but do like the Japanese look of ‘san’ on the end of the name, so how about Maddisan? It’s now a unique name — not on the list above. ๐Ÿ˜‰

      • Bek says

        haha, I knew there were others, I just didn’t have the time to search/think of all the variations that could exist. It was more rhetorical…

        But as Abby said, thanks for the sleuthing!

    • appellationmountain says

      I think parents mean very different things when they say “different.” You hear it all the time: “I want a different name, not like all the Jennifers and Heathers.” But then they name their daughter Ava Madison. What they mean is that they want a name that is different from their memories of childhood. They’re not concerned with whether or not their child has to share.

  19. says

    I really dislike this name, whether on a girl or a boy (more on a girl obv). It’s just the sound, I don’t really like any names starting with mad-. The popularity of Madison on girls kinda reminds me of Ariel. Boy name used on a mermaid and suddenly there’s a huge amount of little girls using the name.

  20. katybug says

    Caroline makes a good point–I just wish that the parents naming little Madisons today would just stick with the original spelling and quit trying to make a common name unique through tricked-up spelling. It just doesn’t work that way.
    My main gripe with Madison is that its popularity renders my mother’s middle name, Madigan, unusable on a boy or a girl. I hate that.

    • caroline says

      Oh, I don’t think Madigan is unusable! I really like it and it sounds very distinct from Madison to me. Plus, the ‘it’s a family name’ pedigree makes up for a lot!

      • appellationmountain says

        Madigan has been one of my favorites since I discovered Elvira Madigan! But the story is way too tragic to let that inspire a child’s name. If Madigan were on my family tree, I’d be ALL about it. Plus you could possibly use Maggie as a nickname to stand out from all the Maddies.

      • katybug says

        I hadn’t thought of Maggie as a nickname–that does set it apart from the Maddies! It goes back on the list! Thanks ladies!

  21. caroline says

    You know, all things considered, I really don’t mind Madison. The sound is nice to my ears, it can be used to honor an American hero, Maddie is fine. For some reason, it doesn’t strike me as quite so striving as Addison. The problem, of course, is the epidemic number and the spelling variations that take it very down-market.
    Madison is definitely not on my top 10 list, or top 100 for that matter, but for those people who like popular, nonscary names that will allow their daughter to fit in easily, Madison isn’t the worst name I can think of. Not everyone wants a Persephone, you know?

  22. says

    I loathe surname names (unless it is a legitimate family name – say the mother was Jane Anne Madison at birth, takes her husband’s name and then gives one of her children – HOPEFULLY a boy – the name Madison). I do love Madeleine but the Madeline spelling (as well as Madalyn, Madasynn and other abominations) I wish would vanish.

    @Lola – Morgan is actually a legitimate female name. Morgan le Fay from Arthurian mythology ring a bell? :)

    (Abby! Do Morgan/Morgana as a name of the day!)

  23. Patricia says

    I’ve never liked the name Madison as a girls’ name. For me, it has frivolous roots – a movie in which a mermaid gives herself the name of the nearest street — Madison. Too, “son” holds no appeal for me as part of any name given to a girl (including Allison). I think Madison would have made a fine presidential boys’ name, along the lines of Jackson and Harrison, had that mermaid chosen a different street sign for her name!

  24. says

    I’m not a fan of obvious surnames on girls, so Madison just makes me sad. Mad- is an unattractive sound and -son just doesn’t belong on girls. *shrug* I do think Madison beats Morgan on a girl, though. Maddy’s at least girly sounding,but Morgan’s got nothing girly at all. So Madison fits somewhere out there. But I still could never use it. If I want a strong name for my girls, I’ll use feminizations: Josephine, Philippa, Georgiana, Wilhelmina. And I’ll second that grown up Madison thought. Hope is all I’ve got left!

  25. Colleen says

    I just can’t like this name. There is nothing that I find appealing. I love Madeline, but Madison just seems so bland to me.


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