Name Help: Finding Timeless Names


Name Help: Timeless Names

Name Help is a series at Appellation Mountain. Every week, one reader’s name questions will be discussed.

We’re relying on thoughtful comments from the community to help expectant parents narrow down their name decisions. Thank you in advance for sharing your insight!

Jessica writes:

I’m a Jessica married to a Josh. Our sisters and brothers have super 90s names, too: Rachel, Eric, Heather. Now all the kids we know are Liam, Logan, Landon, Ava, Evelyn, Olivia. I know that this is normal. But it feels … boring? Repetitive? I’m not sure, but I’d like to avoid it if possible. We both have a cousin named Madison Marie. How does that even happen?!

We’re due with our first baby this spring. We won’t be finding out gender in advance, but we’d like to have more children in the future, so we don’t mind having a few favorites picked out.

I don’t want to saddle our kid with some super-wacky name just to be different, but … I would kind of like to be different.

Where do we start?

Please read on for my response and leave your thoughtful suggestions in the comments.

Dear Jessica –

Congratulations on your first! It’s an exciting time.

Where do you start? You already have!

So often we don’t recognize that names are subject to trends. I’ve heard parents of kids with Top Ten names say – sincerely – that they didn’t realize a name was so popular. This was especially true pre-internet. But even today, it’s very possible to miss things. Parents might find Sophia different, if they’re comparing it to the names of children they knew growing up.

Knowing what you know, I think there are a few directions to consider:

Choose a rock-solid classic of a name.

Elizabeth, Peter, Louise, Henry. Yes, your child might have to share the name, possibly with a future teacher or somebody’s uncle. But if what you’re after is a name that can’t be carbon-dated to the year 2020? Then classic girl names, like Alice and Ruth are rich with potential. So are classic boy names, from Adam to Vincent.

Find a name holding steady in the rankings.

Open us the US Social Security Administration site. Now find the current Top 1000. (As of this writing, that’s the year 2018. 2019 data drops in May.) Look for names you like starting around the 300 mark to maybe the 500s or so. Maybe Malcolm, Dante, Donovan, Julius, Seth, Dalton, Gregory, Leland, Grady, or Hugo for boys. And for girls? Miriam, Laura, Veronica, Daphne, Willa, Helen, Blair, or Celeste. I’m choosing at random, but you get the idea – names everyone recognizes, but aren’t heard everywhere. Next, check the names you like best against the last few decades.

Names like Malcolm and Celeste have never been wildly popular or obscure. Odds are strong they’ll stay that way, bouncing around the 300s and 400s for another few decades while your kiddo enjoys being the only one in a crowd.

Beware spelling traps and sound-alikes.

Trust me. We call our daughter Clio, a rarer-than-rare name, never in the US Top 1000. But reverse the sounds, and Clio is Chloe, a recent chart-topping favorite, guaranteed to be mixed up with our child’s name forevermore.

Some of that is unavoidable. But what you can and should consider is spelling and elaborations. A name with only one likely spelling, like Julius or Daphne, is likely to feel much less popular than a name like Zayn (Zane, Zain, Zayne). And Sky is relatively uncommon, even with the spelling Skye factored in, but then consider Skylar, Skyler, and Skyla and that changes quickly.

Acknowledge that a great name may not stay a secret forever.

Popular names catch on because they’re great names. Maybe it seems like Donovan is just exactly right – a stylish sound that is falling slightly in popularity and makes your heart sing. But then, shortly after your Donovan turns six, a white hot television series debuts with a hero called – yup! – Donovan. Suddenly people are asking you if you named your son for the series, even though that would require psychic powers and/or time travel.

Know that your Donovan will at least be headed to middle school before a wave of little Donovans catch up. There’s some comfort in being ahead of the curve.

Recognize the silver lining: Olivia isn’t Jessica.

Even a #1 name is less popular than it was in prior generations.

By the numbers: In 1908, over 5% of boys were John and more than 5% of girls were Mary. In 1978, nearly 4% of boys were named Michael, and over 3.5% of girls were called Jennifer. And in 1990? Over 2.25% of all girls were named Jessica, and a similar figure for Joshua. Today, a mere 1% of all children born each year receive the most popular name.

In other words, a name barely in the Top Ten in 1990 would’ve been more common than any of today’s #1 names.

Name Help: Timeless Names

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15 Comments

I have 3 girls: Caroline, Katherine, and Eleanor. I think those are all classics. They may be too popular right now for your taste but I don’t think they’re trendy or going to scream 2010s.

Is it weird to suggest my own name? Ha.

Celia has remained pretty stable and is recognisable but not commonly used. And my brother is called Guy which I think falls into the same category!

Other options:
Lydia (love that suggestion!)
Miranda
Helen/Helena
Ellen
Tess
Harriet
Alexandra
Constance
Susannah

For boys:
I have a Nathaniel (Nat)
Simon
Alastair
George
Ralph
Hugh

Of the previous suggestions, Anna, Lydia, and Julia all feel exactly right. They are all undeniably classic, yet consistently common for so long that they are not tied to a specific decade or even century. I would say Sarah, Caroline, Elizabeth, and Grace fall into the same category.

However, if you are definitely looking for a more under-used classic, here are the names I would suggest:

Molly
Rose
Juliet
Lena
Audrey
Jane
Cecily
Margaret
Rosalie
Esther
Josie
Tessa
Belle
Rosemary
Elsie
Louisa

Oh, dear! I forgot to mention boys names in the same category!

Here are some under-used classic boy names:
Edmund
Colin
George
Nicolas
Calvin
Peter
Dominic
Nathaniel

Elizabeth Has always stick out to me as a classic timeless name, yet still not overused. I don’t know any Elizabeths born in the past 2 decades 🙂

For boys, Rafael and Luca are two I like as well that don’t seem overused.

Good luck!!

I’m not sure of your style, but some names that strike me as avoiding a clear time stamp:

Audrey
Ellen
Louisa
Liza
Alina
Adriana
Elise
Marta
Naomi
Hope
Mira
Serena
Joy
Jocelyn
Calla
Cassia
Sybil

Choosing a name that is unlikely to carry a date stamp was my number one priority when choosing a name for my daughter. My strategy was to look for a a name with a gentle (as opposed to steep) popularity curve. We ultimately chose Anna. It’s not tied to a particular decade at all, though it does run into the ‘sound alike’ problem, in that it blends in with popular names like Emma and Ava.

For my second daughter (due very soon) we are pretty settled on Lydia, though can I admit I am slightly sad it didn’t make Abby’s Classic Girls Name list, linked above? I would have happily chosen Julia, if my sister-in-law’s name weren’t very similar.

It may feel plain, but the names I notice that are classic and yet one-offs in classrooms are the ones that have featured in classrooms in varying degrees for generations. I’m thinking of names like John, Michael, David, Robert, Anne, Mary, Jane, Sarah.

With everyone aiming for different, these are being left behind. Lovely names that everyone recognises and can spell, but are likely to be one of a kind amongst the current generation of children.

As a fellow Megan of the 90s, I feel you lol

I like to start from 1000 and work backwards.

Boys
Gibson
Ephraim
Both Gibson and Ephraim have been mostly declining since 2015, but both saw major jumps in 2017.
Brodie (though Brody consistently ranks near 150)

Girls
Vada
Naya
Both Vada and Naya debuted within the last 5 years and have been declining since.
Emmaline

From 300-500

Boys
Gideon
Ellis
Donovan
Marshall

Girls
Phoebe
Carmen
Annalise
Kira

All of these names were popular five years ago but have been falling since.

I felt the exact same way about naming – and i ended up with a Daphne 🙂 everyone knows the name, nobody currently knows one except maybe their great Aunt. I love the 300-500 range! I love all the suggestions but I’ll add one – classic, common name with a more unique or unexpected nickname.

Jordan,
I love Daphne! It was my husband’s paternal great grandfather (unsure why he and his brothers had girl names, he went by his initials). My husband didn’t like it for a girl, so we chose Daphne’s dad’s name, Walter.

All of our names are top 50… in 1880. Pretty trend proof.