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Sunday, May 5, 2013


As an author, I put a lot of thought into choosing my characters' names. So recently I decided to compile all the "top name" lists into a single document for each decade from 1800 through today. Not the top 10 names, mind you, but the top 200. So far I have made it through all the men's names.

Along the way, I made a few interesting discoveries: A core of names, maybe about 50 (not sure. I haven't finished my counting yet) of both men and women's names, have remained consistently popular over 200 years. In fact, the top three men's names remained the same from 1800-1910 (well, Charles snuck in as name #3 for a couple of decades): John, William, James.  

Another was how many of the men's names also are used as last names.  John William James is an example--it works as a perfectly fine first, middle, and last name. Here are few other names taken at random from the list: 
  • Herbert Matthew Willis
  • Philip Ira Harvey
  • Tom Herman Martin
  • Francis Daniel Lee
  • Kenneth Jesse Russell
So I don't need to look further than this list for my characters' last names as well. Although I have recently found a great list of the most common last names.

We have all met families where all the children share the same initial. "J" is a favorite of mine: Jesse, Jamie, Julie, Jennifer, John, Josiah. . . Jaran . . . Jolene

I haven't met too many families that choose all their names using vowels. But in Colonial times, "A" and "E" were the letters of choice. A lot of the names are biblical: Abraham, Absalom, Abner, Emmanuel, Elijah, Ezekiel. Then there is one "characteristic" name, Experience. And I have never heard the name Ammiras. 

A few names show the influence of famous people of the time. Roosevelt appears in the decade 1900-1909, when Theodore Roosevelt was president. Ulysses appears in the 1860s, when U.S. Grant led the Union army to victory. "Lincoln" also was popular in the 1860s. Grover Cleveland's influence was felt in the 1980s.  Washington was a popular name for several decades.

Other popular presidents aren't reflected in the name pool: FDR, JFK, Ronald Reagan. 

I have decided this much: I need to start using my favorite names for my characters. I only have a limited number of books left to write; I may never use them all!

So Julia and Eleanor, Michael and Craig, here I come. 

1 comment:

James R. Callan said...

I guess you have been accessing the Social Security Administration's list of most popular names -- They give the top 500 boy names and 500 girl names by year and decade from 1879 forward. A great resource. But, you are absolutely right. Selecting names is very important. Would we have started out with a different perception if Margaret Mitchell had named her heroine Jane? Good post.