Saturday, July 09, 2005


"Madison" has become the second most popular name for baby girls in America.

I risk insulting huge numbers of new parents here, so I want to tread delicately: I know you love your sweet little baby daughter, and want only the best for her, and I am sure you had your reasons for giving her an idiot name.

Thanks to a new federal baby-name database that goes back past 1900, it is actually possible to track the provenance and popularity of the name Madison. From this source, one can see that Madison has historical roots, as do many popular names. Mary, for example, was the name of the mother of the Christian deity; David was a wise and compassionate king. Madison was the name of a mermaid played by Daryl Hannah in the 1984 movie "Splash." Her real name was an ear-piercing squeal, so she selected a new name from a street sign in midtown Manhattan.

That's it. The numbers make it clear there is no other derivation. Before the 1980s, the name Madison was not among the thousand most popular names in America.

Since then it has quickly risen, like a gas bubble in a septic tank, until it is now number two, right after Emily. (Interestingly, Hannah is now the third most common girl's name.) What's wrong with Madison? If you don't already know, then I'm not sure that what follows will make any sense to you, but I'll try.

Madison is symptomatic of something I call the "Elantra" phenomenon, after the appalling marketing-driven trend among automakers to name their cars pleasing sounds that have no meaning. Increasingly, people are no longer naming children for their ancestors or heroes or even favorite actors or athletes — names with some sense of history or reverence or accomplishment — and are choosing trendy names that to them seem hip or creative. No one real ever had a first name of Madison. The naming process has become not a celebration of love for another, or of good lives well lived — but a celebration of . . . oneself.

And so it is that in the last 10 years, cutesy misspellings have become highly popular. Today, Skylar is the 144th most popular female name, waaaay more common than, say, Susan (475th), Barbara (560th) or Katharine (821st). Also more popular than Katharine are Shyanne (586th) and Destinee (495th) and my favorite, coming in at number 618, Nyah. (There is no indication of how many people chose this as both first and middle name.) Among boys, Alexzander, spelled that way, is more popular than Fred.

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