The rise of the 4-letter baby name

Baby names are getting squeezed.
Baby names are getting squeezed.
Image: AP/Ben Curtis
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My friend wrote me the other day to tell me her new baby’s name was Nyla. My first reaction was excitement about the miracle of life. My second reaction was that, of course, her baby had a four-letter name.

American names are shrinking. The two most popular names in the US for baby boys in 2017 were Liam and Noah; for girls, Emma and Ava were two of the three most popular. That’s a dramatic shift from just a few decades ago. In 1990, no name in the top ten had less than five letters—the interminable Michael and Christopher topped the list. No name with fewer than six letters made the top five in 1990—thank you Jessica, Ashley, Brittany, Amanda, and Samantha.

Girls’ and boys’ name lengths both reached their peak in 1989, with girls’ names averaging over 6.4 letters, and boys’ names average about 6. Since then, the average girl’s name fell by 0.4 letters and the average boy’s name by over 0.2 letters. The US government data used for this analysis includes all names given to at least five babies in a given year, which is the vast majority of names.

What in the name of Mia is going on? We turned to Laura Wattenberg, the preeminent US naming expert who runs the website Baby Name Wizard.

“A key factor is the movement toward smooth, light name style, with an emphasis on vowels over consonant sounds,” Wattenberg explained over email. These vowel focused names, like Ella and Ryan, eschew consonants, which is what makes for really long names like Christopher. Wattenberg refers to the increasingly popular names with four or fewer letter and two vowels as ”raindrop names“—examples include Emma, Liam, and Lila.

Wattenberg also says that the trend toward shorter names is really a return to normal. She refers to the recent trends as “market correction” from the extraordinary lengthening of names in the late-20th century. A look at the chart below proves she is right. The length of boys’ and girls’ names are still well above where they were in the early 1960s.

Finally, Wattenberg says that parents are more likely to give their kids names that would have been considered nicknames in previous generations. She points to parents naming their kids Theo and Mina instead of Theodore and Wilhelmina. If you are going to call your kid the shorter name, why not cut out the middle man?

The trend towards shorter names feels like part of a move to brevity across society. The length of popular song names are getting shorter. So are the length of video game names. Even company names are shrinking (e.g. Dunkin’ Donuts is now just Dunkin).

It makes sense. Short is often cleaner, direct, and more memorable. Those are good characteristics for anything that needs a name, including a baby.