Naming in the United States
The United States has very few laws governing given names. This freedom has given rise to a wide variety of names and naming trends. Naming traditions play a role in the cohesion and communication within American cultures. Cultural diversity in America has led to great variations in names. American naming traditions and names have been used to express creativity, personality, cultural identity, and values.
Traditionally, the right to name your child or yourself as you choose has been upheld by court rulings and is rooted in the Due Process Clause of the fourteenth Amendment and the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment, but a few restrictions do exist. Restrictions vary by state, but most are for the sake of practicality. For example, several states limit the number of characters you may use due to the limitations of the software used for official record keeping. For similar reasons, some states ban the use of numerical digits or pictograms. A few states ban the use of obscenity. There are also a few states, Kentucky for instance, that have no naming laws whatsoever.
One naming law that some find restrictive is California’s ban on diacritical marks, such as in the name José. The Office of Vital Records in California requires that names contain only the 26 alphabetical characters of the English language. There is no law restricting the use of diacritical marks informally and many parents get around the restrictions by doing so.
Despite the freedom that Americans have regarding names, controversies do exist. In 2013, Tennessee judge Lu Ann Ballew ruled that a baby boy named Messiah must change his name to Martin stating “it’s a title that has only been earned by one person … Jesus Christ.” The decision was overturned in chancery court a month later and he retained his birth name. Ballew was fired and a disciplinary hearing was scheduled on the basis that the name change order violated Tennessee's code of Judicial Conduct. No laws exist banning the use of religious names and judges are required to perform their duties without regard to religious bias.
In 2009, a three-year-old named Adolf Hitler Campbell made headlines after a bakery refused to put the name on the child's birthday cake. The name drew widespread outrage, along with the names of his siblings, who also had names inspired by Hitler's regime, but they were nonetheless legal. Adolf and his siblings were later removed from the home and placed in foster care on the basis of other issues. The Campbells deny that any abuse occurred and assert their children were removed solely on the basis of their names.
African American Names
Many Black Americans use their own or their children's names as a symbol of solidarity within their culture. Prior to the 1950s and 1960s, most African American names closely resembled those used within European American culture. With the rise of the mid-century civil rights movement, there was a dramatic rise in names of various origins. One very notable influence on African American names is the Muslim religion. Islamic names entered the popular culture with the rise of The Nation of Islam among Black Americans with its focus on civil rights. The popular name "Aisha" has origins in the Koran. Other Muslim names such as Jamal and Malik are now commonly used by African Americans regardless of religion.
Many names of French origin entered the picture at this time as well. Historically French names such as Monique, Chantal, André, and Antoine became so common within African American culture that many Americans began to think of them solely as "Black names". Names of African origin began to crop up as well. Names like Ashanti, Tanisha, Aaliyah, Malaika have origins in the continent of Africa.
By the 1970s and 1980s, it had become common within the culture to invent new names, although many of the invented names took elements from popular existing names. Prefixes such as La/Le, Da/De, Ra/Re, or Ja/Je and suffixes such as -ique/iqua, -isha, and -aun/-awn are common, as well as inventive spellings for common names. The name LaKeisha is typically considered American in origin, but has elements pulled from both French and African roots. Other names like LaTanisha, JaMarcus, DeAndre, and Shaniqua were created in the same way. Punctuation marks are seen more often within African American names than other American names, such as the names Mo'nique and D'Andre.
Even with the rise of creative names, it is also still common for African Americans to use biblical, historic, or European names. Daniel, Christopher, Michael, David, James, Joseph, and Matthew were among the most common names for African American boys in 2013.
African American names are subject to the same prejudice that African Americans face. A 2004 study by Roland Fryer and Steven Levitt found that job applicants with Black-sounding names were 50% less likely to get a call back after submitting resumes than applicants with white sounding names submitting similar resumes. African American naming trends are often misunderstood, maligned and sometimes referred to as the pejorative term "ghetto names". Many experts assert that this criticism is solely a manifestation of racism as many other American cultures have used inventive names extensively without the same condemnation. For example, the Puritans had a deep tradition of expressing their values through creative names, many in the form of virtue names like Grace, Felicity, Chastity or Hope. These names have entered the standard American usage without issue. Vanessa, Wendy, Jayden, and Scarlett are also names invented in the past century that do not have stigma attached to them as well as invented spellings such as Haleigh and Jaxon.
Using surnames as a first name is increasingly popular in America, although the origin of this practice is dubious. In one of her books about southern culture, Marlyn Schwartz reports that it has long been common for southern families to use family surnames as first names. The Baby Name Wizard author Laura Wattenberg explains that the practice became popular in the early 1900s as poor immigrants chose names they associated with the sophistication of English Aristocracy and literature, many of them surnames. Regardless of origins, many names that are now considered first names in America have origins as surnames. Names like Riley, Parker, Cooper, Madison, and Harper originated as surnames. Names that originate as surnames typically start out their lifespan as androgynous names before developing a common usage as either a boy's name or a girl's name. Tyler and Taylor had approximately the same usage for both boys and girls when they came onto the charts before diverging. Tyler is now typically used for boys while Taylor is more often used for girls.
Names inspired by popular culture
Without laws governing name usage, many American names pop up following the name's usage in movies, television, or in the media. One notable example is the name Madison. Prior to the 1984 movie Splash, Madison was almost solely heard as a surname, with occasional usage as a boy's name. The name entered the top 1000 list for girls in 1985 and has been a top 10 name since 1997. The Twilight series was another influential force in American names. While most of the names were established historical names, their collective rise in popularity corresponded with Twilight's popularity. The previously obscure name Esme entered the top 1000 names in America in 2010 after its use in the Twilight series.
Names in popular culture fare better as inspiration if they fit in with current naming trends. When Barack Obama was inaugurated as president in 2009, his name had a surge in popularity, but still has not made it into the top 1000 names in America. His daughter Malia, on the other hand, jumped over 200 spots to the 191st spot that year. While Barack is much more influential than his daughter, Barack is an obscure Swahili name with a sound unlike other top boys names. Malia is Hawaiian, but sounds similar to top names like Amelia and Sophia. Names that fit current naming trends and have prestige attached to them fare especially well. The name Blair surfaced as a girl's name in the mid-1980s after being featured on the The Facts of Life as the name of the wealthy character Blair Warner. Blair had previously been used infrequently and mostly as a boy's name. When the series aired, the perceived prestige of the name escalated and fit into the surname name trend.
A number of names have entered common American usage following the popularity of a luxury brand. The name Tiffany began its lifespan solely as a surname. It was popularized as a given name in the late 60's and 70's because of the success of the luxury jewelry store Tiffany & co. Names like Mercedes and Cristal have the same origins as the names of luxury brands. The perception of names taken from luxury brands is mixed. Families of low socioeconomic status are more likely to use luxury brand names than families of higher socioeconomic backgrounds for the same aspirational reasons as surname names are used. This name usage leads to the association that the names themselves are lower class names. A few examples of luxury brand inspired names have had usage throughout the socioeconomic spectrum. Lauren was relatively uncommon until Ralph Lauren became a popular clothier. At the height of its popularity, it was used widely. Tiffany also had widespread usage.
Some names have a variety of factors that inspire their popularity. The name Bentley was inspired by the luxury car brand, but got a further boost by the show Teen Mom when reality star Maci Bookout used the name for her son. The already popular name Tiffany had a rise in usage following the popularity of the singer Tiffany in the mid-80's.
Religious names are extremely popular in the United States. Most of the popular names are rooted in the bible, but other religions are represented, such as in the popular name Mohammed. Names like Jacob, Noah, Elijah, John, Elizabeth, Leah, and Jesus consistently rank very high. Some parents choose names for their religious significance, but there are also many parents who choose names based in religion because they are family names or simply because they are culturally popular. Other popular names are inspired by religion in other ways such as Nevaeh, which is Heaven spelled backwards. Christian, Faith, Angel, Trinity, Genesis, Jordan, Zion, and Eden are names which reference religion.
Research suggests that American parents are more likely to use established, historical names for boys and are much more likely to name boys after relatives and ancestors. Boys names, on average, are more traditional than girls names and are less likely to be currently fashionable. This trend holds true across racial lines. There is a much quicker turnover within girls names than boys. Parents of girls are much more likely to demonstrate their creativity in the naming of their daughters than their sons. In Alice Rossi's 1965 study of naming conventions, she theorizes that the gender differences in naming strategies exist because of the perceived roles of men and women in society. "Women play the more crucial role in family and kin activities, while men are the symbolic carriers of temporal continuity of the family." In other words, women's names are less crucial to family cohesiveness because their actions create that bond. Men are named after family to fill that gap in their role as kin keepers. Others theorize that women are given fanciful names for the same reasons that women wear cosmetics and more decorative clothing than men and men are given traditional family names to encourage them to build the family name.
Gender name usage also plays a role in the way parents view names. It is not uncommon for American parents to give girls names that have traditionally been used for boys. Boys, on the other hand, are almost never given feminine names. Names like Ashley, Sidney, Aubrey, and Avery originated as boys names. Traditionally masculine or androgynous names that are used widely for girls have a tendency to be abandoned by the parents of boys and develop an almost entirely female usage.
Research has demonstrated that a number of factors come into play when it comes to naming strategies. Families with the most education are more likely to use traditional names or family names than families with less education. This seems to be true across racial lines. Also, higher socioeconomic status families tend to choose different names than lower SES families. Over time, the lower socioeconomic status families gravitate toward those names. As those names catch on with the lower SES families, higher SES families abandon them. The name Ashley was popular among higher SES families in the early 1980s, but by the late 80's was most popular with lower SES families. The name Madison is still on the top 10 list, but is used largely by lower socioeconomic status families.
Political status also seems to impact naming strategies. A study on babies born in 2004 in California found that conservatives were less likely to give their children unusual names than liberals. This holds true even across racial and socioeconomic lines. Among families who had less than a college education, political leanings made no major difference in naming trends, however, the study found that the less education the parents had, the more likely they were to use an uncommon name or spelling. But among caucasian families with a college education, conservative families chose different names than liberal families. College educated liberals were more likely to choose unusual names than college educated conservatives.
However, while they both choose unusual names, the high SES college educated liberals had different naming strategies than low SES families. Low SES families choose invented names or invented spellings, while high SES liberals chose established names that are simply culturally obscure like Finnegan or Archimedes. Higher SES conservatives commonly choose common historical names.
The research found that the sounds chosen by liberals and conservatives varied as well. Liberals "favor birth names with ‘softer, feminine’ sounds while conservatives favor names with ‘harder, masculine’ phonemes.”
Baby name trends change frequently for girls and somewhat less frequently for boys. Boys names tend to be more traditional, but Ethan, Liam, Aiden, Logan, Jayden, and Sebastian are currently seeing a spike in popularity. One recent trend is place names. Names like London, Brooklyn, Sydney, Alexandria, Paris, and Phoenix are all seeing a spike in popularity as of the 2012 report by the social security administration. Most place names are used for girls, but some are used for boys as well, such as Dallas and Austin. A few of the more exotic place names like Kenya, China, and Asia have been used by African Americans for years.
Names containing "belle" or "bella" are very common, such as Isabella or Annabelle. Names that end in an "a" like Sophia, Ella, Olivia, and Amelia are also very common for baby girls.
Diversity among American names also seems to be increasing. In the 1950s, most babies were given a few very common names with children using nicknames to distinguish the various people with the same name. In the decades since, the number of names being used has increased dramatically. It is also more common for minorities to use traditional cultural names for their children and for themselves that are obscure in America. It used to be common to choose names that were likely to fit in with the larger American culture. This applied to both given names and surnames. Research suggests that fewer immigrants change their names today upon moving to America than they once did. Princeton University sociologist Douglas Massey believes that immigrants felt less pressure to change their names “during the 1970s and 1980s, as immigration became more a part of American life and the civil rights movement legitimated in-group pride as something to be cultivated.” and that seeing celebrities like the Kardashian family use their original Armenian surname reinforces the normality of cultural diversity.
San Diego State University professor Jean Twenge believes that the shift toward unique baby names is one facet of the cultural shift in America that values individuality over conformity.
- African American culture
- Hispanic American naming customs
- American Name Society
- Family name
- Given name
- List of most popular given names by state in the United States
- Legal name
- Jewish name
- Family name
- Personal name
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