The baby-naming conventions in the United States are perhaps more different than any other English-speaking nation; at least from a modern-day perspective that is. But first, let’s go back to the time of colonization and discuss how the earliest Americans selected names for their babies.
Back in the 17th century, there was a European sea race to see who could colonize this newly discovered land. We know from elementary history class that Christopher Columbus purportedly “discovered” America in 1492. This is not altogether true (we know factually that the Vikings led by Lief Erikkson briefly settled in Newfoundland during the 11th century and there is even non-concrete yet suggestive evidence that a band of Irish monks and/or the Chinese may have made their way over here even before that). While Columbus did indeed initiate European exploration and colonization of the North and South American continents at the end of the 15th century, he never once touched land in present day United States (rather he reached South and Central America). He did however introduce this “New World” to the appetites of the European superpowers in a constant battle for supremacy through land expansion, trade economies, resource control, and military prowess. Our view of American discovery is rather Euro-centric; we must remember that native peoples populated the North and South American continents nearly 20,000 years before the pale-skinned Europeans showed up; there were already tens of millions of these indigenous people (Native American Indians, Aztecs, Incas, etc).
After Columbus spotted the Bahamas (the closest he came to setting foot on present day USA), the race was on. Inspired by the Spaniards South and Central American conquests of the 16th century (including present day Florida), England created its first American colony in Jamestown, Virginia in 1607. From that point on, the English would be the predominant colonizers of what is now the United States. What differentiated the English and Dutch settlers from the Spanish, Portuguese and French (almost predominantly Roman Catholic) was a religious diversity. English settlers represented Anglicans, Puritans as well as Catholics. They were Dutch Calvinists, Scottish Presbyterians, German and Swedish Lutherans, as well as Quakers, Amish, and Jews of various ethnicities. In fact, this country was chiefly founded by people seeking to practice their chosen religion free from watchful eyes or persecution. We don’t refer to them as “pilgrims” by accident. The earliest colonies in America were founded during the latter part of the Reformation period which was in full swing back in Great Britain. As such, our naming practices began primarily with the Puritans or those of other Christian belief systems who came to settle this new land. Therefore, the United States of America started naming their babies with much of the same Judeo-Christian biblical practices still largely compulsory today.
In the beginning (outside of Native American Indians of course), American forenames represented the same stylistic practices prevalent throughout Europe at the time, but particularly England. It was all about John, William, Charles and James for boys; or Mary, Elizabeth, Anne and Margaret for girls. Back then, the top ten names bestowed upon children represented about 25% of all names given in any particular year. By comparison, today that number is closer to 8%. In other words, there was much less diversity in terms of name choices 400 years ago.
What else differentiates the American naming styles over other English speaking nations (or Europeans for that matter)? They are the following:
Open to All. Many of the early American colonists were Puritans fleeing a Protestant-centric (and restrictive) England and looking for a new place to settle. They had already adopted some new naming styles of their own which they brought across the Atlantic Ocean; some which favored lesser-known or less popular names from the Bible (Ethan, Nathaniel, Ezekiel, Elijah, Caleb, Elias and Moses for boys, or Abigail, Hannah, and virtue names like Hope, Faith and Charity for girls). They were also not shy about adopting traditional Hebrew names from the Old Testament and making them their own. We all know Joseph, Mary, John, James and Mark. But the Puritans had no issues with Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rachel, Jacob, Rebecca and Leah. The Puritans arguably started the “open-for-all” naming practices so pervasive in America today. According to Americans, nobody “owns” a name – it’s free for all to use. No squatters allowed, thank you.
Diversity. America is the ultimate global melting-pot. We are a land of immigrants representing people from almost any conceivable nation on earth. As such, our naming conventions have been somewhat influenced by other ethnicities outside of our Anglo Saxon-centric beginnings. Mary became Marie (French) or Maria (Spanish). Elizabeth became Isabella (Spanish/Italian) or John became Sean (Irish), Ian (Scottish) or Ivan (Russian). Because of our ethnic diversity, the pronunciations and spellings of names have become influenced by other nationalities and languages and have therefore become much more diverse.
Short forms. More so than any other English-speaking nation, Americans are quick to use pet forms and nicknames as independently given names in their own right. People in the United States are more apt to name their child simply Andy instead of Andrew or Kate instead of Katherine. Tom instead of Thomas or Larry instead of Laurence. Jack instead of John or Molly instead of Mary/Margaret. We are a “get-to-the-point” nation, and our naming practices reflect this no-nonsense approach.
Last Name First, please. Americans are also most responsible for the surname trend. Think: Franklin, Harrison, Jefferson, Jackson, Schuyler and Lincoln for instance. This is a trend that dates back to our Founding Fathers, Revolutionary War heroes and Presidents, and it has carried through to modern day. Toward the end of the 20th century, almost any conceivable surname became a trendy choice and bestowed upon boys and girls alike: Mason, Addison, Connor, Logan, etc. No other English-speaking nation uses surnames as forenames to the extent that Americans do. Even conventional-sounding first names like Paige and Brooke are derived from surnames.
The Spelling Bee. Respellings are an integral part of American naming practices. This is something not necessarily new. By all means, languages have mutated and matured over time. Names like Elisabeth became Elizabeth (swapping the s for a z) or names like Rebekah became Rebecca. Once Modern English became well established, most other English-speaking nations stick to the traditional name spellings cemented in our language long ago. By the latter half of the 20th century, many American parents said “pshaw” to that rule. This trend is arguably one of the more controversial in our stylistic approach to names, mostly because it has really gotten out of hand since the 1980s. For example, the name Hailey is ϋber-popular today but really started to gain steam after the appearance of Halley’s Comet in 1986. Today, there are a slew of spelling mutations of this once original name: Haley, Hallie, Hayley, Haylie, Haleigh, and more. Americans took the German name Michaela (female form of Michael) and put their own stamp on it in the form of Makayla, Mikayla, Mikaela and even McKayla. The classic English Madeline or French Madeleine have become Madalyn, Madalynn, Madelyn(n) and Madilyn(n). There are hundreds of similar examples to this and while respellings are more common among female names, they are by no means restricted to this gender. Male names like Jayden have been repurposed as Jaden, Jaydin, Jaydon, and even Jaeden. The classic Irish Aidan has been altered to Aiden, Aaden, Aden, Aidyn, Aydan, Ayden and Aydin. Sheer craziness.
The African-American experience
. African-Americans have lent their creativity and inventive naming practices to the nation at large. Following the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and into the Black Pride era of the 1970s, we saw a fundamental shift in the naming styles within this community. For more information on the history of African-American names, click here
. The diversity of names (particularly female names) bestowed upon babies within this community brings new definition to the word inventive. For boys, names like Shawn became Deshawn, Keshawn or Tyshawn; or Anton might mutate into Antwan. For girls, celebratory names like Ebony, Precious, Tiara or Diamond might be used; Blacks also often add the “La-“ or “Sha-“ prefix to female names. A trend that began with the Black population in the United States eventually spilled over into the general population as Whites, Latinos and Asians now embrace creative and inventive naming traditions.
In summary, baby names in America are in a lot of ways similar to the Western World at large particularly in terms of the Judeo-Christian naming traditions. But in more modern times, the United States has deviated from its fellow English-speaking nations with far more diversity and invention.