Friday, May 07, 2010

The Popularity of "Isabella"

As of today, May 8, 2010 it is now a fact that Isabella is the most popular baby girl name in America. Isabella. Like the Spanish queen. How did this happen?

Most baby names hover at a consistent popularity. A quick tour through the Social Security baby names website reveals that Emily sat in the top spot from 1996 to 2007. Before that, Jessica and Jennifer enjoyed similar long stays at #1. For most of the century, Mary was the undisputed champ. Most names don't rise or fall much in the rankings for any given year. In the very long run, they do tend to cycle. New moms and dads reject the names of their parents' generation but embrace the names of their grandparents. Some names are perennials. Some have religious associations or nationality associations or run in families. It's all fairly predictable.

But Isabella has come out of nowhere. Before 1990, it didn't crack the top 1,000 girls names. Look at this table showing Isabella's ascent through the girls' ranks. The 1990s shows the name coming from nowhere and vaulting to the top 100. The 2000s shows Isabella climbing like a machine to the #1 spot.

And don't be misled by the fact that the yearly ranking gains got smaller and smaller for Isabella. Climbing from #800 to #600 might involve a hundred girls. Climbing from #4 to #2 requires thousands of girls.

I am fascinated by the rise of Isabella. And I'll admit, I'm feeling a bit of the schadenfreude. Let me explain. People who for decades chose #1 baby names like Jennifer and Jessica did so because they liked the names. There was no illusion when you named a girl Jessica in 1995 that you were stepping outside the mainstream or making a hip choice. However, I feel certain that all of the Isabella moms and dads over the last 15 years chose the name partly because of its perception of exotic uniqueness. The last thing they wanted was a common name. They didn't want something like Jane or Lisa, the sort of name where if the teacher called it out in class, half the hands would go up. No no no, they wanted something bold. So they chose the hauntingly beautiful Isabella, confident that no other girl not descended from Spanish royalty would share the name.

Now look at them. Unique? Isabella is now officially the least unique name choice in the United States. It is the commonest name. You may not appreciate it now, but just wait 20 or 30 years, when all these Isabellas are grown up. Have you ever wondered why your mom's friends are all named Linda and Barbara, but those names don't seem to exist in any other age group? That's Isabella, 50 years from now.

So yes, I do relish the disappointment of these parents who thought they had found something unique and special, and didn't realize they had inadvertently climbed on the largest bandwagon and selected the trendiest name of the decade. There's another wave close behind Isabella by the way, and it's called Sophia. Watch out for that one in the coming years.

But none of this explains why Isabella, specifically, got so popular. Why Isabella? Well, we know it's a variant of Elizabeth. We know that "Isabel" or "Isabelle" has been around for a long time in America, for anyone wanting that Spanish flavor on Elizabeth. But "Isabella" is really going whole hog with the Spaniard thing. It would be like naming your son Pierre without any French stock in your family. Why would you do that? For this reason, Isabella seems to me to be an unlikely choice to become the #1 girl's name in the US.

Some of you may be thinking that the popularity is due to the book Twilight, but think again. Twilight was published in 2005, a good 15 years into Isabella's rise to fame. To understand my theory of why Isabella vaulted it's way to #1, I need to explain my longstanding and larger theory on baby name popularity.

A lot of people think that name trends follow celebrities. Moms like to name baby girls after the women they admire or envy. Sometimes these women can even be fictional characters. Well, I say this is only partly true. If you really want to know where baby names come from, don't look at the name of the admired celebrity. Look at what the admired celebrity names her baby. It's the baby names that the admired women select that catch on.

The single best example of this is the name Emma.

Emma's stock had been rising slowly throughout the 1990s. Some of this I believe is the cyclical effect of granny names coming back into fashion. Emma had been very popular in the late 19th century. In 2001, Emma clocked in at 13,300 girls in 13th place. In 2003, Emma hit a surprise peak of 22,686 and the #2 spot. Even though it continued to stay high in the rankings afterward and actually hit #1 in 2008, no year exceeded the 2003 total of 22,686 Emmas.

So what the heck happened in 2002? Here's a clue:

Jennifer Aniston, playing the role of Rachel on Friends, named her baby Emma. That's it. Now even though Jennifer Aniston in real life may have questionable taste and intelligence, the character of Rachel was the perfect fantasy. Beautiful, stylish, smart, funny... she came from money and was climbing the corporate ladder at Ralph Lauren. So when she named her baby Emma, guess what about 22,000 other women decided to do? Is there any other explanation for the spike? Followed by the steady decline afterward?

Other examples abound. Check out the name Lily. Yes, it too has been gaining in popularity gradually for 20 years - again the grandma effect. But what do you suppose could have pushed *Lily* into the top 20? How about Sex and the City?

Again, it wasn't the mom's name, Charlotte, that gained ground. Charlotte has been rising recently, it's now in top 100 - but during the run of the show was stuck in the 200s. No, it was her daughter Lily that people wanted to mimic.

And how about the girl's name Regan? Know any girls named Regan? I know two. They were both born in the 70s. Chances are if you know any Regans, they were also born in the 70s. Why? Have a look at this picture:

Yes, that's the Regan they are all named after. The possessed girl from the Exorcist. Portrayed by Linda Blair, the character's name was Regan MacNeil. Now, do you really think American women in 1973 were so charmed by the pea soup spewing, demon-possessed girl Regan, that they all decided to poach the name? Not exactly. You may have to watch it again, or just think back to it, but try to remember the character of Regan's mother.

The mother, Chris, played by Ellen Burstyn, was Jennifer Aniston squared. Take some time to refresh your memory. Not only was she devastatingly beautiful, but she was impossibly wealthy, and all of it self made. She lived in an impossibly opulent mansion in the best neighborhood of 70's Georgetown. She was single. She was an author (smart!), an actress, (artistic!) and her apparently regular cocktail parties and soirees brought guests from the highest echelons of Hollywood and government. (popular!) Even though the movie was not about her, she was front and center for most of it, and her incredible career and lifestyle was the stuff of dreams. (except the demon baby part).

I estimate, based on data from, the movie produced around 1,500 Regans that wouldn't have otherwise existed. Starting in 1973 and ending in 1981. And like I said I've met two of them. Both admitted that the Exorcist was the inspiration for their parents.

So where does this leave us with Isabella? The name took a long time to reach #1. But as we've disccused, it broke into the top 1,000 names, out of nowhere, in 1990. In 1990 there were 215 Isabellas. in previous years there were less than 200, and therefore they don't appear on the site. In 1991, 300 Isabellas. In 1992, 500. In 1993, 827. In 1994, 1,275!

What happened in 1992 or 1993? We can't credit the grandma effect because the name had never had cyclical popularity or any kind of historical vogue. So where was the originating event - which is to say, what admired woman named her daughter Isabella, right in this time period? Well, ladies and gents, it took some searching, but I've found your answer.

Nicole Kidman and husband Tom Cruise adopted a girl, Isabella, born December, 1992.

Here she is today, Isabella Cruise Kidman. Patient zero.

This is literally the Isabella that spawned all the others. Thousands upon thousands of knockoff Isabellas, including thousands yet to be born, to ever more increasingly dumb portions of society that will manage for many more years yet to not have heard the word about the commonness of this name. I grant you, the only moms who were consciously emulating Nicole Kidman were the ones giving birth in 1993, 94, and maybe a few more beyond. But this was enough to start the wave. Thereafter, there were enough baby Isabellas to inspire copycats from moms who admired those mothers.

Nicole Fucking Kidman. Rich, erudite, gorgeous, talented, Tom Cruise-marrying Nicole Kidman. I have to assume the name was her idea and not Tom's. This Isabella thing, and the decades we're all going to have to put up with it, are all her fault. Thanks Nicole Kidman. Look what you've done.

Look what you've done.


annalin said...

I think you're right, mostly, but for the later years, i think Isabella "Bella" Swan in the Twilight saga has soething to do with the top spots...

Anna, mother to an Isobel

David said...

A well written post. I'm convinced you're right. I keep thinking of Jimi Hendrix's song of the same name.

Heather said...

Connor is popular too now!

Sonya L. said...

Wow your analysis brought tears to my eyes because my husband and I are one of those couples that thought we were picking a unique exotic name.
The reason we chose the name was that we liked the name "Bella". Everyone admires the Italians. "Bella" means beautiful and who doesn't want a nickname for their daughter that means beautiful? Also, my grandmother was named Ilsa which is the German for Elizabeth. We didn't feel Ilsa would go over well as an American name.
I wonder too if Isabella is a popular European name and well traveled Americans are wanting to emulate the people across the pond.

Anonymous said...

Well there were two or three movies out during the 500th anniversary of Columbus in 1992. There were also several books, countless magazine articles and television shows on Columbus as well. Queen Isabella had a prominent role

Ken Batts said...

Petty and annoying

Marissa said...

I named my daughter Isabella because I wanted her to have a "classic" name from my heritage. When everyone seemed to be naming their kids really weird ones, I chose this beautiful name. Her middle name is Cristina.

Anonymous said...

My name is Isabella, I got it before it was popular, and I hate it now. It's actually embarassing to have this name.