Today, the Social Security Administration released its official list of last year's most popular baby names. The No. 1 names are the same as 2009: Jacob for boys, Isabella for girls. That doesn't mean naming style was standing still, though. The real action happens lower down the list, where names rise fast and, in most cases, fall even faster.
What makes a name come or go? Naming a child is—or feels like it should be—a uniquely personal decision. And yet each name on the top 10 list represents the collective wisdom of a whole generation of parents. In other arenas of fashion, we know we're subject to commercial pressures. Clothing trends, for instance, are coordinated assaults on public taste. The colors you'll want to wear this fall were determined years in advance by professional colorists on behalf of manufacturers and retailers. But nobody advertises baby names. No one stood to pocket a dime when you named your daughter Isabella. You just felt, personally, that Isabella was the best possible name for your child. You and 22,730 other people.
Media exposure plays a part in naming decisions, but the influence of celebrity names is not as straightforward as it might appear. A minor reality TV personality like Talan Torriero (Laguna Beach) or Jaslene Gonzalez (America's Next Top Model) can win more namesakes than a Taylor Swift. It makes surprisingly little difference whether the person or character in question is likable, let alone a role model. A demonic child like The Omen's Damien or The Exorcist's Regan can inspire more namesakes than a swoon-worthy hero like Twilight's Edward. This year's top naming style-maker was Maci Bookout, an unwed teenage mother from the reality show Teen Mom—Maci was the fastest rising girl's name, and Bentley, her son's name, rose fastest for boys. (Remember the Freakonomics theory that names trickle down the economic ladder? In fact, the hottest name trends are consistently populist affairs.)
So a naming phenomenon—a name that spontaneously captures the hearts of thousands of parents—can't be chalked up to a single celebrity's status. Instead, it usually arises from a mix of powerful factors, including historical naming patterns and phonology. As a case study, let's take a close look at Khloe, the fastest rising name of the past five years. In 2005, Khloe was just an oddball spelling of the fashionable name Chloe. It didn't even crack the list of America's top 1000 names for baby girls. Last year, however, Khloe was No. 42 on the SSA's list of girls' names, bestowed on 5,369 babies. That's more than Katherine, Rachel, or Brian, and a 21-fold increase in just five years. What made thousands of American parents seize on the name Khloe?
The short answer, once again, is reality TV, that most reliable source for today's fastest rising names. Khloe Kardashian is part of America's most ubiquitous reality TV family, and over the past four years she has co-starred in four different TV series. But here's the rub: Khloe's two sisters, Kim and Kourtney, have enjoyed just as much publicity but haven't had the same meteoric effect on baby names. The number of babies named Kourtney only doubled over the past five years, and the number of Kims and Kimberlys actually fell.
So again: Why Khloe? The first place to look is generational trends. Parents today want names that feel fresh. Kimberly was one of the hottest names of the 1960s and '70s, and so by the time Kim Kardashian hit our TV screens, the popularity of that name had already fallen dramatically. Kourtney and Courtney didn't peak until the '90s—so they were a little less stale, but still well past their zenith. Chloe, though, was still on the upswing. Its popularity was rising every year, leaving the name well-balanced between fresh and familiar. And it provided an opportunity for creative spelling. Starting the name with a "K" gave it new appeal for parents with creative, contemporary tastes in names. (K is the consonant of choice for these namers, the types who choose Kamren over Cameron.)
OK, so Khloe's rise was pegged to Chloe. But why was Chloerising in the first place? To start with, it was an old and familiar name that had never been common. It therefore appealed to traditionalists, but unlike old favorites like Helen and Kathy it didn't trigger the dreaded "mom" or "grandma" associations. That's the same recipe that has worked magic for other formerly rare names like Olivia and Gabriel.
Chloe's sound matters, too. The single most powerful trend guiding current name choices is a fondness for vowels. The more a name is packed with long, strong vowels (and not clusters of squishy consonants, like Myrtle or Elmer), the more likely it is to appeal to parents. Look at the long A in Ava, the O in Noah, the E in Ethan. The name Chloe packs two long vowels into two short syllables. Other names in that select family, like Zoe and Eli, have also flown up the popularity charts.
So in short, celebrities may influence naming trends, but in the end it's more about the name than the fame. Parents will only pick up on a name if it has a sound and style they're ready for. A tweak of an already hot name, like Khloe for Chloe, or Miley for Riley and Kylie, is the easiest sell. But herein lies a cautionary tale for Khloe.
The fastest rising baby name of 2008 was Aaden. The ingredients were perfect. Aiden was already the sound of the decade, with 41 different Aiden rhymes among the top 1,000 boys' names. Then, in 2007, the creatively spelled variant Aaden hit reality TV in the form of one of the Gosselin family's sextuplets on Jon & Kate Plus 8. The double-A spelling was eye-catching and promised a first place in any alphabetical lineup, ahead of even Aaron and Aaliyah. A popularity spike followed.
But in 2010, the fastest falling name in America was, yes, Aaden. The name was brought down by the very factors that fueled its rise. Reality-TV fame is fickle, and in this case, the all-too-public dissolution of Jon and Kate Gosselin's marriage left the public disillusioned. Alternate spellings, too, prove volatile. They're the first to fall when the root name passes its peak. And a rapid rise out of nowhere seldom bodes well for long-term naming power. In names as in stocks, the faster they rise, the harder they fall.
Khloe has seen a longer, stronger rise than Aaden and may buck the trend. I wouldn't be surprised, though, if a generation from now Khloe stands as a crystallized moment in naming style, a name that takes us back to the days when Kardashians—and K's, and vowels—were kings. Or queens. Or kweens.