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Isis: The Death of a Name


I’ve known ever since starting this blog that I would have to write this post.  Ultimately what’s kept me from writing this sooner was the desire to assess damage in the 2015 data.  That set was released last Friday, and while I anticipated the exit of Isis from the American top 1000 I do not know that I anticipated the great degree to which she fell from popularity.

Though only bestowed upon people in a modern context, Isis is one of the oldest names in the lexicon.  She was an Ancient Egyptian goddess, but she came to be worshiped throughout the Greco-Roman world.  There were cults of Isis as far north as modern-day London!

As far as I can tell, modern usage as a given name only really started in the 20th century.  The derived names Isidore, Isidora, and Isadora, all meaning “gift of Isis,” are more documented through time.  There were several saints with the first two names, and Isadora Duncan was the name of a famous turn-of-the-century dancer.  Isidora was apparently also a popular name in Chile about 10 years ago.  Isis herself only begins to show up regularly in the SSA data around 1960, and only debuted as a top 1000 in 1994.  Until recently, usage was fairly stable at around 500 babies born with the name per year.

Then events took a turn for the worse.  A terror organization, at one point called “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria,” declared aworldwide caliphatein 2014.  This gang took advantage of a volatile situation after years of conflict and the Syrian Civil War and began to siege and control cities.  The result?  Genocide and destruction.  As of October, close to 20,000 people had been killed in Iraq alone.  Not to mention, thousands of women and children from minority religions enslaved for sex. 

Naturally, the acronym for this group was “ISIS.”  However, when they changed names and acronyms several times (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant [ISIL] and later just Islamic State [IS]), the media clung to the name ISIS.  My only guess for this is that maybe human names are easier for audiences to remember than some other random diminutive.  Unfortunately, that has serious consequences for anyone who actually has the name.

Over the past couple of years, a number of reports have surfaced about children named Isis being bullied (like this one) or businesses being forced to change their name.  It’s become such a problem now that there’s even a petition to force the media to call the organization ISIL instead.  Indeed very recently a Muslim high school student, Bayan Zehlif, discovered that her yearbook photo appeared with the name Isis.  It turned out that the school actually has a student with the name and that the name was switched, but Ms. Zehlif believes the swap was an intentional act of racism.  For what it’s worth, I agree with her. 

Regarding the future of the baby name, this environment almost certainly means death.  After the new SSA data that was released May 6, one name researcher found that Isis experienced a 70.5% drop in popularity between 2014 and 2015 – potentially the biggest decline for a baby name ever.  There are a few other names in the past 125 years that have declined as much, but most of those were only popular for a year or two; so-called “flash-in-the-pans.”  The only other name that is considered to have been injured as badly as Isis was Hilary back in the 1990s – you can read more about that here.  Only time will tell if usage of the name Isis will cease, decline and stabilize, or eventually recover.  

American Names · Articles

Sneak Preview: The San Diego Baby Name Sampler, 2015

Aerial view of San Diego

In eager anticipation of tomorrow’s announcement of the most popular American baby names of 2015, I am passing the time by looking for any information I can already find.  This is the first I’ve known *exactly* when the data was being released (thank you Nameberry!), and although it’s seemingly futile to search for information when you know it will be released the next day, I did find this article about 2015’s most popular names in San Diego County, California – official information that was released a few days ago. 

The most popular baby names in San Diego County were:


  1. Mia
  2. Emma
  3. Isabella
  4. Olivia
  5. Sophia
  6. Sofia
  7. Emily
  8. Ava
  9. Victoria
  10. Charlotte


  1. Noah
  2. Liam
  3. Daniel
  4. Ethan
  5. Jacob
  6. Alexander
  7. Oliver
  8. Sebastian
  9. Benjamin
  10. David

It will be interesting to see how this list corresponds to country’s overall most popular names.  The local station that published the linked piece somewhat problematically compared the official stats to stats from BabyCenter.  BabyCenter does have a large sample size, but two things must be considered: a) it’s not the whole sample, which the Social Security Administration provides (within certain parameters) and b) IT’S NOT AN OFFICIAL TABULATION.  Moreover, just because the San Diego list compares to BabyCenter’s list doesn’t mean the San Diego set compares too closely to the rest of the country.  Indeed, how they name in California may not be too similar to elsewhere.  Naming differs from state to state and from the national average, which is what we’ll see tomorrow with the SSA data.  Some states have very distinct styles of naming, which is why in the state-by-state data there are names that will be popular in New York and New Jersey or Hawaii but not elsewhere.  It really depends on the populations living in a place. 

Until tomorrow, a comparison with the SSA 2014 data is probably better for those of us who prefer using official data.  However, even that isn’t the best idea for analysis.  I can say that in 2014 almost all the names in the 2015 San Diego list were top 20 names across the board.  Actually, the girls’ names were all in the top 20.  Sebastian, however, had ranked #34 whereas Oliver ranked #32.  Maybe tomorrow we’ll find out that Sebastian and Oliver were top 20 names for the entire country last year?


Names that Get the Authorities Involved

Cyanide.  According to BBC, a Welsh mother tried naming her daughter after the poison.  Her reasoning?  Because Hitler took it before committing suicide, which is a “good thing.”

Okay…yes, I think we can all agree that the substance was beneficial in that circumstance.  But, Hitler’s not the only person who’s ever ingested cyanide, and logic dictates that a) Cyanide is a bad name if innocent people have died by it and b) this mother should instead name her daughter after the gun with which he finished the job instead.  After all, who hasn’t heard of kids named Beretta, Colt, or Ruger? 

Cyanide and her twin brother Preacher, along with their other siblings, have apparently been taken from their mother’s care.  I don’t think the Brits have naming laws the way Continental Europeans often do, but that doesn’t mean social services and the justice system won’t become involved when a name is considered particularly heinous.  On the opposite side of the spectrum and the Pond from this Welsh mother, a New Jersey father had his children taken away after it emerged that he named his son Adolf Hitler.  In both cases, the parents were suspected of some kind of abuse (drug abuse, child abuse, etc.) or mental illness.  The New Jersey case is especially telling because the U.S. generally has no naming laws beyond the prohibition of numeric and special characters.  However, certain baby names can and will instigate investigations because they may be indicative of other dangerous behaviors the parents have.  Yet, plenty of children are named Gunner (ranks #235 in the American charts) and you never hear stories about them.  I wonder, though, if naming a child Violence, Alcohol, or Marijuana would alert the authorities. 

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Star Wars names are popular? Sure, but not so fast.

The Internet is buzzing.  Recently, BabyCenter projected that Star Wars names are some of this year’s most-popular names, and major media outlets have since responded.  We can all guess why.  Episode VII was highly anticipated, and that’s an understatement of massive proportions.  For those of us who couldn’t see it opening night, avoiding spoiler alerts was even harder than that time Sherlock was released in the U.K. two weeks before it was in the U.S.  It was still totally worth it!  It was the first time I’d ever seen a Star Wars in the cinema, and the amazing experiences both of watching it for the first time and watching it totally unprepared nevertheless make me feel slightly envious of people who were alive to see it in the 1970s.

I agree that Star Wars names will experience a boost, but hesitate in calling them “popular” just yet.  Because the 2016 Social Security Administration data won’t be released for another year, nobody can know that the names are popular now.  Indeed, the 2015 data doesn’t come out for another month, so if the movie affected naming in December we won’t know for a few weeks anyway.  While I can’t pretend that I know how BabyCenter actually decides what names are “popular” since I don’t normally use the site, I have my suspicions.  Chances are that such information is gathered by looking at what names are being mentioned or clicked on the most, along with people who’ve outright posted that they’ve used the names.  In other words, the site is probably determining name “popularity” through some kind of analytics. 

My other primary concern with this news is a question of semantics.  To call a name “popular” suggests concrete usage data, like from the SSA or Census.  The only concrete data they might currently have is in the form of birth announcements.  That alone can help determine potential popularity, but not current popularity.  What BabyCenter has actually tapped into is that Star Wars names are trendy.  I do credit them for using the word “trendy” in a few instances, but perhaps they shouldn’t use “trendy” and “popular” so interchangeably.  I’ll put it this way – popularity is to usage as trendiness is to conversation.  Popularity is the number you see every May when you look at how many times the SSA says a name was used that year, or the name itself when you realize it made the list at all.  Trendiness is that name you mentioned on social media but won’t necessarily use.  See what I’m saying?

Now, Kylo actually did show up on the SSA data in 2014, with 8 uses…which tells us the name already existed.  That’s the thing about Star Wars and other sagas; quite often, the characters’ names were unusual names already belonging to people.  I’ve found that there were a number of Leias born before 1977.   Also of note are that Anakin finally entered the top 1000 in 2014, and that 1977 was the all-time lowest ranking for Harrison, after which it rebounded.  So, Han shot Greedo but saved a name.  I think that balances the justice scales. 😉



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The Importance of Memorable Names

I saw this blurb in the Guardian a couple of days ago.  All the students mentioned have distinctive names, and although some (like the person named Fragile) have run into problems like having to constantly explain or even change their names, others (looking at you Xanthe) have noticed benefits.  Having a name that helps people remember you is awesome.

For some people like me, we remember people more easily through their names than their faces.  And, there’s something to be said about a unique name.  Where there’s a unique name, there’s often a really interesting story about that person.  And, as much as I may love names like Emma or William, I’m far more likely to ask about Mariel or Annalene.

Lately I’ve been remembering some actors because of their unusual names.  I started watching House of Cards last week and two of the actors have such distinguished names as Sakina and Mahershala – the latter originally being short for Mahershalalhashbaz, considered by some to be the longest name in the Bible.  Considering that I think they’re also rather minor actors right now, I definitely wouldn’t remember who they were without the those names.  (Side note: Seriously, how cool a name is Mahershalalhashbaz?!)

More generic names do have their benefits though, I’m sure.  Just as someone can be remembered for their great deeds, they may also be remembered by their misdeeds. And if privacy is an issue, I imagine a John Smith could much more-easily disappear into the crowd than an Apollodorus Smith.  But if memorability is what you want, who will indeed remember John Smith?

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Can we not call names stupid?

Two days ago Gene Weingarten wrote this article for the Washington Post.  He discusses the growing popularity of fandom names like Anakin and Khaleesi, unusual spellings of common names, and the famous backwards name Nevaeh.  And of course, there’s a mention of the naming laws that many other countries have.

It’s an interesting article, and I see his point, but I dislike the semantics.  Calling a name “stupid” is like calling the person with that name stupid.  Children have no control over what their parents name them.

Anyway, Anakin and Khaleesi aren’t even that bad.  They’re nerdy, and they have meaning to a lot of people.  My only beef really with Khaleesi is that it’s supposed to be a Dothraki title, not name.  Her actual name is DaenerysKhaleesi seems like more of a cat name, honestly.

I’ve never personally liked Nevaeh.  It sounds pretty, but it’s backwards for “Heaven,” and I’ve never quite figured out if that makes it mean “Hell.”  But a lot of people don’t think that, and to them it does mean “Heaven.”  There’s nothing “stupid” about liking a name for its meaning.  Though Mr. Weingarten’s not wrong about other backwards-spelled names popping up too, sarcastic as he is…ever heard of “Semaj?”

I will tend to advise against many alternative spellings.  There are so many names out there that there’s no reason to spell a name differently simply to make it more “unique.”  They might look different on paper, but Jayceon and Jason will most likely hear the same name when called on the playground.  However, depending on the person, Emma may sound like Emmer and Emmalee like Emily.  I suspect that phonetic spelling is the cause for many alternate renderings of popular names.

Finally, the naming laws…the 1st Amendment makes it so that the U.S. has some of the least restrictive naming laws in the world.  May I just say, God Bless America?