- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 20, 2008

Abigails and Sadies are no longer just found in rocking chairs at old folks homes. You’re just as likely to find them — along with Hazels and Ezekiels — digging in sandboxes on the playground.

In other words, when it comes to names, antique is chic.

“Old names — like Emma — are definitely coming back,” says Laura Wattenberg, author of “The Baby Name Wizard: A Magical Guide to Finding the Perfect Name for Your Baby” (www.babynamewizard.com). “It’s made the perfect ‘U’ [graph].”

Meaning almost a century elapsed before Emma regained popularity.

“There is typically a 90-year or so period before we’re willing to revive names again,” Ms. Wattenberg says.

We’re willing to revive them because we’re far enough removed from them; they carry neither bad feelings nor bad memories.

“Names of our own generation sound ordinary, our parents’ [names] sound boring and our grandparents’ [names] sound old,” Ms. Wattenberg says. “Our great-grandparents’ names, on the other hand, sound interesting.”

Also, they answer our need for continuity and nostalgia, says Nancy Schlossberg, professor emerita at the University of Maryland, whose specialty is counseling psychology.

“We idealize previous generations especially at a nervous time like this,” Ms. Schlossberg says. “Picking an old name is a way to connect to what we think was a more stable time.”

A more stable time? Never mind strained race relations, abusive labor practices, World War I, American Indian Wars and the huge inequities of the Gilded Age. Those are not the things we associate with names like Emma and Emily.

“We see a better time. A simple time. And we want to reach back and grab a piece of it,” Ms. Schlossberg says.

Subsequently, Emma was one of the most popular names of 2006. It landed in second place on the Social Security Administration’s list of popular baby names (www.ssa.gov/OACT/babynames) and was trumped only by Emily, another old-lady chic name. This year’s list, which tracks names for 2007, is expected to be released on or around Mother’s Day.

In SSA’s No. 3 slot was Madison, which is vintage-sounding but isn’t really a classic — at least not among girls.

“It didn’t really exist as a girl’s name before ‘Splash,’ ” Ms. Wattenberg says. In the 1984 box-office hit, Daryl Hannah — who plays a lost-in-Manhattan mermaid — is named Madison after Madison Avenue.

“People are definitely influenced by pop culture and celebrities when naming their babies,” says Jennifer Moss, founder and chief executive of babynames.com. “Ryan Phillippe and Reese Witherspoon helped popularize Ava, for example.”

The Phillippe-Witherspoon Ava was born in September 1999, and last year, Ava was in SSA’s No. 5 slot.

Ava, unlike Emma and Emily, though, is no more vintage than Madison. Yes, the 1940s and ‘50s movie star Ava Gardner had the name, but she was virtually alone with it at the time.

“Ava has never been as popular as it is now,” Ms. Wattenberg says. “I call it a ‘forged antique’ name.”

Other examples of ‘forged antique’ names currently in vogue are Olivia and Isabella. They are old-fashioned but were never very popular in the past.

Other celebrity names — no matter how big the star — never advance into the 100 most popular baby names. Such is the case with Elvis, which was No. 761 on last year’s SSA list.

“Elvis never really died,” Ms. Wattenberg says. It can be a problematic name, she says, because it’s a “personality multiplier.” If the boy in question is pudgy-geeky, the name will make him even more miserable; if he’s cool, it will make him even cooler.

Though vintage is in, not all great-grandmommy names make the cut. One of the reasons is that we seem consonant-averse these days, opting for soft-sounding Sophias and Isabellas instead of the hard-sounding Mildreds and Gertrudes.

As for boys’ names, there used to be little variability from year to year. Parents tended to pick conservative, traditional names such as Michael and William.

They still do, but in recent years, many are branching out, going for Celtic names such as Owen and Liam as well as softer-sounding names such as Sebastian and Julian.

Increasingly, parents are staying away from family names, Ms. Wattenberg says, adding that if they do pick a family name, it’s because they like the sound of it. Sometimes that means digging deep into history: The name of a cousin many times removed might become a middle name.

Instead of looking inward toward family connections, contemporary parents tend to look outward when picking names. They think vintage, ethnicity, uniqueness (without being weird) and celebrity. Whatever the origin, they want the name to make a splash.

“Online, your name is your entire calling card,” Ms. Wattenberg explains. “People don’t always meet you in person anymore. But online, your name goes out to thousands of people.”

What does all this mean for future baby names?

“We’re trying so hard to be unique, and that’s a big change from, say, 25 years ago,” Ms. Wattenberg says. So, no future names are likely to be as popular as Jennifer and David in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

Until, perhaps, the 2060s and 2070s.