If you’re old enough to have children of your own, chances are you can hark back to a time when the most popular name in your fifth-grade classroom was Mary (for the girls) or Michael (for the boys). Catherine and Joseph and John were right up there at the top of the list, too, as parents chose a name for their newborn that honored a patron saint or a beloved ancestor.
But something has happened in the ensuing years. Philip Cohen, in a 2011 article in , quotes sociologist Stanley Lieberson, who had studied changes in American parents’ choices of names for their children. Lieberson cited what he called a “calamitous decline of Mary as a girl’s name” in the United States. Mary remained the most popular name given to newborn girls from 1800 — the earliest year for which records exist — through 1961, except for a six-year dip when Mary fell to the No. 2 slot.
But then came the turbulent ’60s, when many young parents rejected the customs of the past to forge new traditions or to express their individuality. The name Mary still held the No. 1 spot until 1961, but then began an unrelenting decline until, in 2011, it had dropped to the 112th spot in popularity. Other popular saints’ names plunged in popularity, as well, as reported by the Social Security Administration.
The precipitous decline of “Mary” and other saints’ names in popular culture was evidence, perhaps, of a change from the religious to the secular. Lieberson attributed the change in naming practices to a rising individualism. “As the role of the extended family, religious rules and other institutional pressures declines,” he wrote, “choices are increasingly free to be matters of taste.”
Accompanying many baby boomers’ alienation from family and rejection of tradition, the 21st century brought an increase in the use of social media, buttressing the culture of celebrity and reinforcing the twin values of creativity and individuality. A contemporary case in point: Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver and his wife, Jools, named their son, born in 2011, Buddy Bear. Ignoring the critics who scoffed at their unusual choice of a name, the Olivers have since named Buddy Bear’s siblings Poppy Honey, Daisy Boo, Petal Blossom Rainbow, and River Rocket.
Other celebrities who have given their offspring “original” names include Gwyneth Paltrow (daughter Apple), Sylvester Stallone (son Sage Moonblood), Nicholas Cage (son Kal-El, which is Superman’s birth name), and Rapper TI, born Clifford Harris, who has a daughter named, unremarkably, Heiress Harris.
But the ridiculous baby-name craze does not stop there. More than 300 people, most of them girls, have been named Abcde (pronounced ab-si-dee).
The “reverse name” craze has led some parents to spell common words backwards just for fun, naming their children such things as Semaj (which made the list of top 1,000 names for boys in 1999), Derfla or Xela.
In 2012, the Jameson family, in an homage to Twitter, charted new territory by announcing that they’d named their newborn daughter Hashtag. And in New Zealand, parents have exerted their right to free expression by naming their children “Violence” and “Number 16 Bus Shelter.”
The Social Security Administration charts names on birth records, and so offers the most comprehensive evidence of a decline in religious names: Mary, although no longer in first place, had remained the 46th most popular name in 2000, but dropped to No. 127 in 2016. During the same time period, Michael dropped from No. 2 to No. 8; John went from No. 14 to No. 28; and Kathleen fell out of favor with a ranking of No. 841, as compared to No. 204 just 15 years earlier.
Which names showed the most dramatic increase in recent years? For girls, the name “Kehlani” advanced from No. 3,359 to No. 872. (Kehlani is a musician and dancer who was nominated for a Grammy in 2016 for her album You Should Be Here.)
And, even more striking, the boy’s name “Kylo” jumped 2,368 spots to reach No. 901 for newborn American boys. (Kylo is the name of a villain in the 2015 sci-fi film Star Wars: The Force Awakens.)
But if the decline in religious sentiment has fueled new naming practices, many Catholic parents still seek the protection of the saints for their newborn children.
In truth, the Catholic Church does not require that Catholic children be given a saint’s name. In the chapter of the Code of Canon Law devoted to baptism, Canon 855 says only: “Parents, sponsors and the pastor are to take care that a name foreign to Christian sensibility is not given.” A pastor would obviously question the logic of parents who wanted to name their newborn “Lucifer,” for example, or “Hitler”; but the Church permits parents a wide range of naming options.
Nonetheless, many Catholic parents are inspired by the lives of the saints and hope that their newborn children will emulate their patron saints’ heroic virtue.
The papacy of Pope St. John Paul II and his canonization in 2014 inspired some American parents to name their children John Paul. In tribute to the saintly pope, who introduced the “Year of the Family” with a “Letter to Children” in 1994, many parents worldwide were inspired to give their boys his name. That phenomenon was especially evident in Catholic Ireland, where Pope John Paul II visited in 1979: The following year, 10% of boys born in Ireland were named after the popular pontiff.
And Italian St. Gianna Beretta Molla, patron of mothers, physicians and unborn children, has helped to boost the rating of the name “Gianna.” In 2011, seven years after the saint’s canonization, Gianna ranked No. 63 among girl’s names.
Among strong Catholic families, names of recently canonized saints have been used more frequently, with more girls being named Zélie (after St. Zélie Martin, mother of St. Thérèse of Lisieux) or Faustina (after the saint who promulgated the Divine Mercy message). And Old Testament heroes continue to inspire, with Jacob, Noah and Ethan all in the top-10 list of names for boys.
In Michigan, Amy Ekblad, a mother of a large family, admits that she was not deeply influenced by the Christian faith when her first children were born, but her later babies were named after saints on whose intercession Amy relied and whose virtues might inspire her children to grow in grace. Amy and her husband, Jesse, are parents of Brandon Jesse, Hannah Alberta Lynn, Owen Gary Dennis, Katherine Elizabeth Maureen, Jackson Andrew, Samuel Joseph, Mary Therese, Cecilia Ruth, Clara Pia Grace, Josephine Veronica Rose, Frances Benedicta Joy, Augustine John Paul Pio, and Jude Ignatius Simon Ambrose. With a smile, Ekblad confessed that she has started “shoving” all the names in as she nears the end of her child-bearing years.
“A friend once told me,” she said, “that she believes the saints we name our children after really accompany us (and them), especially in the first year of their lives. I have seen that happen. I have seen how, even if they weren’t specifically named for the saint (like in the case of my first four children), those saints still show up in so many ways,” she told the Register.
Ekblad explained how she was touched personally by the saints whose names she had selected. “I guess I would say … that, quite honestly, we named some of our children after saints that we admired but didn’t really know a ton about. For example, our youngest has Ignatius as one of his middle names. When I came back to the Church about 16 years ago, the company Ignatius Press played a big role, as that is where I purchased many of my materials to learn about the Church. I never had a particular affection for St. Ignatius himself, but randomly chose the name for Jude. Now, this year, books about the Ignatian way, websites, etc. have simply fallen in my lap. I have since learned that I love St. Ignatius and his teachings, and much of what I am learning has changed my life, especially my spiritual life, for the better.”
“Josephine was named after my grandma, but later I learned about St. Josephine Bakhita,” she added. “She is featured in the book . Her story struck my heart and soul and helped me through some significant trauma in my life. I read that book when my Josephine was still very young. I truly believe it was a gift from St. Josephine Bakhita to help heal my heart.”
Ekblad continued by offering one more example of how a saint protected her in a time of need: “Since returning to the Church, I have had a great love and affection for St. Augustine. I made some very poor choices in the early part of my life, and learning how he had been redeemed and even canonized was life-changing for me. I am no theologian; I’m just a regular mom doing regular things, but St. Augustine’s writings are like beautiful music to me. My husband and I traveled a very dark road at one point. Had it ended one way, we would have had no more marriage and no more children. But, instead, we had our Augustine. Our marriage was redeemed, and our beautiful son is a testament that all things are possible with God. I believe St. Augustine, among other saints, interceded for us in those scary and rocky times.”
Prayer for Naming Your Child
Thank you for the gift of our child. You know and love this child even more than we do. You have already called him by name. Help us to choose the eternal name you wish for our child. Help our child to grow in faith and wisdom in order to serve and love you all of his days and be happy with you in heaven. We ask this through Christ, our Lord.
Catholic parents who want
to return to the custom of
honoring the saints and giving
their children a holy hero to
emulate will appreciate The
Catholic Baby Name Book (Ave
Maria Press, 2013). Written by
Patrice Fagnant MacArthur, The
Catholic Baby Name Book offers
more than 10,000 boy’s and
girl’s names, with brief stories
of each of the saints listed. The
appendices include a listing of
“Recently Canonized Saints”
who have been elevated to
sainthood by Pope John Paul
II or Pope Benedict, as well as
a list of the “Top 100 Names”
The Ekblad family at baby Jude’s baptism at Christ the King Catholic Church in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Courtesy of the Ekblad family)