The very first thing that all name-searching parents do when they find a name is say it. Whether it is in their mind or out loud, pronouncing the name always comes first. How does the name sound when you say it? Do you like the sound of the name? Does it easily roll off the tongue or are there pronunciation issues that could cause the child problems in life?
Many of these questions are answered subconsciously as we say and hear the name. And of course, this is going to vary greatly per person. What sounds like a lovely name to one person may not be attractive at all to another. But the question is, are there specific sounds in a name that are more mass-appealing than others? Do we, as a country, tend to gravitate toward certain sounds within a name?
Take for instance the top 5 girl names of 2016. They all end in the letter A: Emma, Olivia, Ava, Sophia, and Isabella. These are all very vowel-heavy names that easily roll off the tongue. Today’s parents are flocking to these feminine, vintage-sounding names for girls even though none of them, besides Emma, has ever had major popularity in the past. If you look at the popularity of these five names, you will see that they have all been in regular usage since the US began to keep records in the 1880s, but none of them have ever had this much success until now. So in a way, they are more modern than vintage.
How do their sounds compare to their contemporaries of the past?
The types of names that were most popular around the 1920s have a very different sound to them than the modern names we see today. The top 5 girl names of 1920 were Mary, Dorothy, Helen, Margaret and Ruth. None of these end with the feminine letter A like today's popular names do. Comparatively when you pronounce them out loud, they feel "heavier" than the names of 2016.
Let’s look beyond the top five. In 2016, twenty-one out of the top fifty girl names end with the A-sound, whereas in 1920, only nine out of fifty do. Those nine names are Virginia, Anna, Martha, Edna, Thelma, Clara, Emma, Barbara and Sarah. Out of these, Anna (#51 in 2016) and Sarah (#57 in 2016) are very classic and timeless names. Emma has been one of the most popular names of the past couple decades, ranking at #1 in 2008 and again from 2014-2016. Clara (#99 in 2016) falls in line with the vintage names that work well today and are currently gaining popularity. The other names, Virginia, Martha, Edna, Thelma and Barbara are still being used but they don’t have the same fresh and modern vibe that parents seek today. Why is that?
It is probably because they contain "heavier" and "more out-dated" consonants such as D, N, B, G and -Th, plus other factors like over-use within a particular generation which newer generations avoid. But, if you take a look at the consonants of the most popular names in 2016, you will see that they mostly include L, M, R, S and V. In fact, the letter L seems to be the most popular consonant. It appears in thirty of the top fifty names in 2016, but only seventeen of them in 1920. But on that note, the names Martha and Thelma should technically fit in with the modern names since they end with an A and contain some of the more popular consonants, right?
Unfortunately, no. The Th- sound is not currently deemed stylish. Thelma only had 32 births in 2016, and Martha had 389 for a ranking of #727. There are only two names in the girl’s top 50 of 2016 that contain a Th and neither of them starts with it: Elizabeth and Samantha. While there are indeed many names that contain the Th sound within the name for both boys and girls, there are only two female names in the Top 1000 that start with it: Thea, which is rising quickly (#290), and Thalia which ranks down at #809. On the boy’s side, there are only Thomas, Theodore, Thiago, Theo, Thaddeus and Thatcher.
In 1920, there was Thelma, Theresa, Theda, Theodora, Therese, Theo, Thomas, Theola, and Thora for the girls; Thomas, Theodore, Thurman, Thaddeus, Theron, Theo, Theadore, Thornton, and Thurston for the boys within the Top 1000 names. This indicates that names that begin with Th- are a thing of the past. These names went out of style because the Th- sound became unfashionable over time, except for the timeless survivors such as Thomas and Theodore that are still in use today.
Some may argue that it has more to do with the style of these names since others with a similar “old” feel like Mildred and Doris, Bernard and Donald all went down with them. Style plays into it, definitely, but I think it has to do more with the individual sounds that make these names feel “old” to begin with. For instance, the letter D was rather popular in the past. Names of 1920 included Dorothy, Mildred, Doris, Gladys, Edna, Edith, and Gertrude within the top 50. Today, Dorothy is at #652, and Edith at #488 but none of the others rank in the Top 1000. In 2016, the only female names that have the letter D in the Top 50 are Madison, Addison and Audrey.
For the boys, the D’s tended to be on the end of popular names in 1920 such as Edward, Richard, Harold, Raymond, Donald, Howard, David, Fred, Leonard, Alfred and Bernard within the Top 50. Out of these, only Fred and Bernard have fallen out of regular usage while the rest are within the Top 1000 today. This goes to show that the sounds that work for boys might not always work for girls and vice versa. For example, naming your son David today is a great idea but naming his twin sister Doris might not be.
Many of the sounds that seem "out-dated" today have a great chance at once again sounding fresh in the coming decades. This doesn't apply for all names across the board, but once some of these names have had enough time to cycle back around, they will regain usage again. This is often referred to as the 100-Year-Rule or the Great-Grandparents Rule which states that the new young generation of parents will find that names from roughly 3 generations back are appealing, whereas names from their parents' and grandparents' era are still too associated with that time and not quite fashionable yet.
There are exceptions, of course, and plenty of classic names that stand the test of time by appearing strongly throughout all generations. What do you think? What other observations have you made about the history of sound in the naming process? How much is dictated by these sounds and how much is due to trends and preference? Share your thoughts below!