On the Subject of Names

Finding a good name has been the bane of authors and expectant parents alike.  For centuries we have struggled to come up with names that fits our characters and sets them apart from our other creations.

Would Jane Doe work as a name for this young lady?

It is my belief that stories set in the future names have no limits. How cold anyone fathom naming trends fifty years from now? How about a thousand? A good example of this phenomenon can be drawn from history. During the 1920s these were the most popular names for girls in the United States.

  • Mary
  • Dorothy
  • Helen
  • Betty
  • Margaret
  • Ruth
  • Virginia
  • Doris
  • Mildred
  • Frances

Fifty years later these were the most popular names in the United States.

  • Jennifer
  • Amy 
  • Melissa
  • Michelle 
  • Kimberly
  • Lisa
  • Angela
  • Heather
  • Stephanie
  • Nicole 

Who could have foreseen such a shift in names over a half-a-century? Mind you there is a reason why names from the 1970s are more mainstream now. Those names belong to people in their 30s to 40s which are now mothers, teachers and even celebrities.

Still we look for inspiration when it comes to finding names. We desire some sort of guide which will shine the way. Fortunately, when it comes to historical names we have the benefit of foresight.

Most countries have records spanning centuries, these also provide an invaluable source of names. The trick is to avoid using names from the decade in which the story is based. Instead, we have to rely on names from an earlier period.

For example, a forty-year old character set during the Roaring Twenties would have been born in the 1880s. Knowing this, the name Dorothy may not be accurate for someone born in that era.

For North America, a good source of names is the Social Security Administration‘s website and records.  To find names, select the decade you wish (starting from 1880) and look at the top 100 names for the period.  Next, simply scroll through the names and find one that strikes your fancy.

As for family names there are a myriad of sites which carry that information as well.  I found a site which contains the 1000 most common family names in the United States.  Again, use such sites to narrow down your selection and make it historically accurate.

That is how I came up with names like:

  • Ida Bell
  • Elmer Bell
  • Eleanor Green
  • Molly Webster
  • Thelma Walker
  • Mavis Johnson
  • Eugene White
  • Cecil Clark
  • Lewis Hall

Some of these names are clearly dated but are oddly familiar. Hence these are the names that may be associated with a  grandparent or even a great-grandparent. They feel old and dated, hence they feel authentic for someone who lived during the Roaring Twenties.

To find names which are modern, the same resources can be applied.  Just dial in the appropriate decade to work from and you are done.

CC BY-SA 4.0 On the Subject of Names by Evelyn Chartres is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


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