Family

Herbert, Gladys are out

Three babies (6-9 months) sitting on white background, one crying
Three babies (6-9 months) sitting on white background, one crying Getty Images

The Social Security Administration's annual list of the most popular American baby names, released last week, included Aiden, Jayden and Brayden for boys, and Mia, Leah and Sophia (and Sofia) for girls. Do baby names that rhyme tend to become popular at the same time?

Yes, but only since the Industrial Revolution. Previously, baby names weren't subject to fads. Americans tended to give their children family names, and John and Mary were invariably the most popular. Girls' names became subject to changing fashions before boys' names did, and trendy names often peaked at the same time as other similar-sounding names.

In 1880, the earliest year for which the Social Security Administration has baby-name records, girls' names ending in "-ie" were popular: The top 50 included Minnie, Jennie, Hattie, Mattie, Annie and Fannie, among other "-ie" names.

By the 1920s, parents had begun naming their sons according to trends, too. In 1920, John still topped the boys' list, but names ending in "-ard" had begun to catch on: Edward, Richard, Howard and Leonard all made the top 50 that year.

Other rhymes and near-rhymes clustered together on baby-name lists through the decades: Doris, Dolores, Phyllis and Gladys caught on among parents of newborn daughters in the 1930s and 1940s, as did Evelyn, Marilyn and Carolyn.

At the same time among boys, "-berts" were born in droves: Robert was the No. 1 boy's name in 1930, with Herbert and Albert not far behind. In 1940, Donald and Ronald were the ninth and 10th most popular boys' names, and Larry and Jerry took the 13th and 14th spots, respectively.

The recent rise of Aiden and similar-sounding boys' names appears to have more staying power than past male-name trends. More than a third of American baby boys now get names that end in N, making boys' names ending in N as common as girls' names ending in A.

Many of those names follow the same sound pattern: a long A in the first syllable and a schwa, or unstressed vowel, in the second syllable. Think also of Jason, Mason and Nathan. In general, long-vowel sounds followed by schwas have gained in popularity in recent years among boys and girls: Ava, Layla, Noah and Liam (all top-15 names in 2011) follow this pattern.

It's clear that vowel sounds are in vogue for boys' and girls' names, but it's hard to say exactly why. It's likely that baby-name trends are cyclical and reactive, as parents avoid baby names that were popular among their generation and their parents' generation.

Consonant-rich names such as Herbert and Gladys are out of style now, but it's possible that they'll experience a comeback once today's Jaydens and Mias begin procreating and opt for baby names that sound different from their own.

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