Since I last went mythbusting, the 2011 name data from the United States has been released, and this week it’s American Independence Day. To celebrate both events, I decided to compare Australian and US name data. (Lou at Mer de Noms brought out her own comparison of the data for the United States and England/Wales in May, and did something pretty interesting with it.)
That Australians are becoming increasingly Americanised, including their choice of baby names, is something not debated, but accepted as a truism. It is often mourned by older generations that Australians used to call their children good solid Aussie names like Barry and Sheila, and now give them sleek American-style names like Logan and Scarlett.
It’s a myth which sounds very plausible – I certainly know far more children named Logan and Scarlett than I do Barry and Sheila (actually I don’t know any children called Barry or Sheila). But I thought we should try to get some numbers to back the myth up.
So I decided to look at the Top 100 names from both countries, in the years 1930, 1950, 1970, 1990 and 2011. If the number of names shared by both countries went steadily up, that could help support the theory that Australian names were becoming increasingly “American”. By no means conclusive proof, but it would be a start, and frankly I couldn’t think of any other way of doing it.
As I went through calculating the number of shared names, I also took note of those trends at work in Australia and the United States, where they were the same and where they differed. This gave me a picture of changing trends through the years. (The data is from Victoria, because theirs go back to 1929).
MALE – 65% shared with US Top 100
1930 marked the highest percentage of shared names between the countries. This wasn’t because Australians were more “American” in 1930, but because in every year, the common denominator for both countries were classic names like John, Thomas and William, and these sort of names took up more space of both countries’ Top 100.
Trends noticeable on the Australian Top 100 were names from Ireland, Scotland and Wales, such as Kevin, Malcolm and Trevor, and aristocratic English surnames, such as Neville. Americans preferred prominent surnames of their own citizens, such as Elmer and Lee. Popular names from America we didn’t share were “cowboy” names – Wayne, Earl and Jesse. In America, nicknames for boys were all the rage, including Billy, Bob and Jimmie.
FEMALE – 51% shared with US Top 100
Popular girls names in both countries were homespun names such as Margaret and Dorothy, as well as plant names like Hazel and Rose.
Australian trends for girls included names from Ireland and Wales, such as Sheila and Gweneth, saints names such as Carmel and Veronica, and literary inventions like Doreen and Mavis. American trends were for Germanic names such as Emma and Clara, and the clunky Old English Mildred and Bertha. America’s Hispanic population meant that Delores and Juanita were Top 100 there.
MALE – 59% shared with US Top 100 (down 6%)
American trends for boys we had picked up by 1950 include Gary, after Hollywood star Gary Cooper, and that supposed Australian favourite, Bruce, also popular in the US.
America continued its love of nicknames, with Bobby, Joe and Fred all Top 100. Several of the Irish boys names such as Kevin and Barry were now on the US Top 100 as well, but new Irish-style names such as Shane were still to gain American acceptance. Already in the US you can see a reluctance to use “feminine sounding” or unisex names such as Lindsay and Noel, which were Top 100 in Australia. In Australia, that same 1950s gender-anxiety produced the opposite result, with some unisex names like Leslie becoming male-only.
FEMALE – 47% shared with US Top 100 (down 4%)
The most noticeable shared trends for girls were those glamorous Hollywood names such as Marilyn (Monroe) and Rita (Hayworth). Even when Australians did take a name from America, such as Jennifer from Hollywood star Jennifer Jones, it didn’t always follow that Americans would embrace it as rapidly themselves. Jennifer was a 1950s name in Australia, but didn’t peak in the US until the 1970s.
Australian girls were being given French names like Annette and Jeanette, while Americans girls had Jacqueline. Another popular Australian “French” name was Lorraine, given in honour of St Joan of Arc, sometimes called The Maid of Lorraine. The American love of the nickname meant that names such as Judy and Peggy were Top 100 for girls.
MALE – 56% shared with US Top 100 (down 3%)
Popular 1970 names which we think of as “American style” were in evidence on both charts, such as Bradley, Jason, Glenn, Darren and Craig.
Australian boys names not picked up in the US included Scottish-style names such as Ross, Graham, Stuart and Gavin, and the “feminine sounding” Ashley and Jamie. Differing ethnicities also made their mark, with Spanish Carlos in the US Top 100, and Italian and Greek names like Giovanni and Giorgio in the Australian Top 100. American nicknames powered on, with Larry, Terry and Jerry amongst them.
FEMALE – 51% shared with US Top 100 (up 4%, return to 1930 level)
It was the decade of those 1970s names Sharon and Tracey, although Sharon in particular had been popular in America for some time and we’d only just caught up.
Names such as Samantha and Amanda were already popular in Australia in 1970, but would have to wait until the 1980s to make it big in the US. Conversely, Amy was popular in the US, but wouldn’t be here until the 1980s. French Nicole was in vogue in both countries, and we’d caught up with Jacqueline; however Australia also had Danielle, Louise, Justine, Natalie, Simone and Josephine – typical 1970s girls names that were underused in the US. Scottish and Welsh names like Fiona, Megan and Bronwyn were popular here but didn’t get a look-in in the US. We were proudly using names of Australian origin, like Kylie and Narelle; naturally these were unknown in the US.
MALE – 56% shared with US Top 100 (no change)
Trends from the US we were embracing were Old Testament names, such as Jacob and Zachary; and the new surname names, such as Ryan and Mitchell.
A new generation of “too feminine” boys names that were popular in Australia were ignored in the US, such as Shannon, Tristan and Leigh, as were more Scottish, Welsh and Irish-ish names, such as Lachlan, Rhys and Kane. Hayden and Jayden were already Top 100 in Australia, but not in the US. America had finally gone off nickname names, while Australia now had Jack, Jake and Ricky. American names Beau, Jackson and Tyson were popular then, as now, in Australia; of the three, only Jackson has hit the US Top 100 so far.
FEMALE – 56% the same as the US Top 100 (up 5%)
Names that both countries had in common were those typical 1990s names, like Tiffany, Brittany, Kayla and Caitlin.
Americana we were still to discover included unisex names for girls like Ariel, Shelby and Paige. Although the US had Danielle and Natalie by now, French names such as Monique, Elise, Renee and Madeleine which were popular here had apparently failed to make an impression. Although Welsh Caitlin was all the rage, the US were not on board with Tegan and Rhiannon, as we were. Most notably, Emma, Amelia, Charlotte, Sophie, Chloe and Zoe were missing from the US Top 100 – while American parents who chose these names in 1990 were ahead of the trends, in Australia, parents choosing these names in 1990 were just following the trends.
MALE – 59% shared with US Top 100 (up 3%, return to 1950 level)
Congruence in popularity between the two nations has risen to 1950 levels, with many name trends in common, mostly a fresh crop of Biblical names, such as Elijah, and surname names, such as Mason.
American parents are now avoiding a new generation of Scottish names, such as Angus and Hamish, while Irish names like Declan and Flynn are also neglected in the US. Oddly enough, Kevin is still Top 100 in the US, while it’s considered a bit dated here. The scunner against nicknames continues as Americans shun Australian populars Charlie, Harry, Archie, Sam and Nate. No longer merely shying away from “feminine sounding” names for boys like Bailey and Riley, parents in the US have actually given these names to their daughters in such numbers that they are now Top 100 for girls, while Top 100 for boys here. Several names we have taken from the US, such as Jett, Hudson and Jasper, are still not popular in America.
FEMALE – 47% shared with US Top 100 (down 9%, return to 1950 level)
Girls names have also returned to 1950s levels. Many names are shared because America has caught up with our popular names from 1990, but Australian parents have also begun to use unisex names for girls like Madison and Addison.
America has abandoned many names as “outdated” such as Amy, Jessica, Holly and Amber that have taken on “modern classic” status here. While America has accepted Lily, it is less keen on our popular plant names Daisy, Ivy, Violet, Willow, Olive and Rose. British-style names such as Isla and Imogen cut no mustard in the States. Meanwhile, popular American virtue names like Genesis, Serenity, Trinity, Nevaeh and Destiny do not resonate here. Perhaps they will in the future.
I did not manage to bust this myth, but neither did I find much evidence to support it, so I will give its status as MYTH UNCONFIRMED.
As I compared popularity charts from the two countries, I realised more and more that it was a case of apples and oranges. Names took longer to gain popularity in the US, and it was harder for them to stay in the Top 100; name popularity was a competitive environment there. Australia has a much smaller population size, which means that name trends show up faster here. We’re also more likely to hold onto our favourite names once we’ve found them, sometimes for generations.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that American parents are absolutely obsessed with getting ahead of the current trends, and can watch the slowly rising popularity of their chosen names with almost comical anxiety. This makes some sense, because trending names can take so long to reach the Top 100 that they have a good chance of having ten to twenty years before that happens. In Australia, this behaviour makes no sense at all, because as soon as a name begins to show up in the data, it’s basically already quite popular. As we keep names around for longer, there’s no real rush to “catch” a name on the way up either; we can always wait until it’s a cosy, familiar “classic”.
In any given year, Australia and the US will share around half the names on their respective Tops 100s, and this has not changed across time. We share many name trends, and since at least 1950, Australia has been drawn to names from America. Sometimes it took us a long time to get onto a particular trend from America, and other times we took to it with greater enthusiasm than Americans did themselves.
Both countries also have their own styles of naming. Australia has always been fond of Irish-inspired names, and although Barry and Sheila have fallen by the wayside, we now have Finn and Molly. Scottish names continue to be a growth area, with Angus, Hamish, Callum and Isla seeming rather stylish to us. Through the years, there were many names unique to the Australian popularity charts. Names that I thought of as typical of their period, such as Dulcie in 1930, Glenys in 1950, and Jacinta in 1970 seemed to be unknown in the US.
Americans are slow to adopt Irish names, but often touchingly faithful to them, and are wary of Scottish and Welsh names. They have a deep suspicion of unisex names for boys or anything that even sounds remotely feminine, while comfortable with briskly masculine names for girls. Flower names are not popular there; perhaps they seem too girlish even for girls.
Due to going overboard on nicknames in the past, America has developed almost a horror of them, much in the same way I can no longer stomach gingerbread after overindulging on it a few Christmases ago. As nicknames are currently internationally popular, this has seen them unfairly branded as a bit stuffy on the issue, when they’re really just over the whole thing.
We don’t have to try to follow American trends, and in fact a couple of them would be downright foolish for us to imitate. But the United States has proved a rich source of name inspiration for many decades, and I know it will continue to be so for many decades to come.