Why Madison is the new Betty: Girl power names

Sep 10, 2012 at 2:00 p.m. ET
Image: Aditya Singh/Moment Open/Getty Images

Move over Betty — baby girl names like Madison are the new power names! It's fun to spot trends and changes in our way of thinking by looking at baby name trends. In fact, the U.S. Census shows us that baby girl names have changed seven times more than boy baby names since the 1940s and most of that change is due to changing roles for women.

Many of the baby girl names that were at the top of the charts in the 1940s, such as Betty, Carol and Shirley, have fallen out of favor for more modern names. “Baby names are like period pieces,” says Josh Taylor, a genealogist at findmypast.com. “Some recall a particular era, which can make them clues when researching family history. So, you can sometimes guess roughly when someone was born simply by their first name.”

For boys, however, many of the top names from the 1940s, such as James, David, William, still remain in the top 20 today! The names that were popular in the 1940s have fallen by an average of over 500 places in the popularity rankings for girls, but barely 100 for boy names. Why have popular names changed so dramatically for girls, but remained relatively unchanged for boy names?

 “Women’s role in society has seen a revolution since 1940,” says Brian Speckart, spokesperson for findmypast.com, which conducted this recent baby name study. “Men’s role has changed too, though far less.”

Why Madison is the new Betty

 “American women used to have names like Betty and, like Betty Draper in the TV series Mad Men, marry men with jobs on Madison Avenue,” says Taylor. “Now women are themselves called Madison and have top jobs — on Madison Avenue and beyond.”

While Betty was associated with the traditional homemaker, the new “power” names, which also include Mia and Abigail, show a changing role for women.

It is also interesting to note that the top girl names are varied according to origin, whereas at least half of the popular boy names today have biblical or Hebrew origins. Nicholas Christenfeld and Britta Larsen of UC San Diego put forth their explanation for this trend for a paper in The Psychologist.

 “By avoiding the most common and old-fashioned names, parents may enhance their daughters’ claims to be young and exotic and thereby increase their mate value,” they say. “In choosing more common and historically popular names for their boys, parents may signal that their sons are mature and established, as so help them to attract young, exotic mates.”

From Kennedy to Taylor: Surnames as first names

Another recent trend is the popularity of last names as first names. It is interesting to note that Madison was originally a surname (for example the fourth president of the United States, James Madison) and then it became popular as a boy’s first name before falling out of popularity in the 1950s.

“In 1940, you were as likely to meet a girl named Madison as a boy named Sue,” said Taylor.

It is a different story today, where power girl names like Kennedy, Emerson, Taylor and Addison are the norm. Let’s not forget Jessica Simpson, who gave her daughter the power name of Maxwell.

The 10 most popular girls’ names in 1940

Check out the top baby girl names from the 1940s. It is interesting to note that Betty, Carol and Shirley are no longer ranked in the top 1000 on today's lists.

On the flipside, some parents are actually embracing old-fashioned names like Vivienne, Abigail and Beatrice, and shunning more trendy names such as Addison or Briella. Does this mean we are starting to long for a return to old-fashioned values — or does this mean we are bucking the trend of being placed in a certain role by our names? Tell us your thoughts below!

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