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By Gene Weingarten
Sunday, September 21, 2003

Signs of a troubled society:

1. The quagmire of Iraq.

2. A lackluster economy.

3. "Madison" has become the second most popular name for baby girls in America.

I risk insulting huge numbers of new parents here, so I want to tread delicately: I know you love your sweet little baby daughter, and want only the best for her, and I am sure you had your reasons for giving her an idiot name.

Thanks to a new federal baby-name database that goes back past 1900, it is actually possible to track the provenance and popularity of the name Madison. From this source, one can see that Madison has historical roots, as do many popular names. Mary, for example, was the name of the mother of the Christian deity; David was a wise and compassionate king. Madison was the name of a mermaid played by Daryl Hannah in the 1984 movie "Splash." Her real name was an ear-piercing squeal, so she selected a new name from a street sign in midtown Manhattan.

That's it. The numbers make it clear there is no other derivation. Before the 1980s, the name Madison was not among the thousand most popular names in America. Since then it has quickly risen, like a gas bubble in a septic tank, until it is now number two, right after Emily. (Interestingly, Hannah is now the third most common girl's name.) What's wrong with Madison? If you don't already know, then I'm not sure that what follows will make any sense to you, but I'll try.

Madison is symptomatic of something I call the "Elantra" phenomenon, after the appalling marketing-driven trend among automakers to name their cars pleasing sounds that have no meaning. Increasingly, people are no longer naming children for their ancestors or heroes or even favorite actors or athletes -- names with some sense of history or reverence or accomplishment -- and are choosing trendy names that to them seem hip or creative. No one real ever had a first name of Madison. The naming process has become not a celebration of love for another, or of good lives well lived -- but a celebration of . . . oneself.

And so it is that in the last 10 years, cutesy misspellings have become highly popular. Today, Skylar is the 144th most popular female name, waaaay more common than, say, Susan (475th), Barbara (560th) or Katharine (821st). Also more popular than Katharine are Shyanne (586th) and Destinee (495th) and my favorite, coming in at number 618, Nyah. (There is no indication of how many people chose this as both first and middle name.) Among boys, Alexzander, spelled that way, is more popular than Fred.

When you do this, your victim is your own child. I know of a kid, born in the mid-1960s, who used to introduce himself thus: "Hi, my name is Caribou, but you can call me Mike." Little 3-year-old Madison is someday going to be 60. ("Hi, sweetie, I am your Grandma Madison, but you can call me Mom-Mom.") It is hard to overstate the creepiness of some of this recent naming. Among the 1,000 most popular girls' names in America today are Essence, Precious, Journey, Heaven, Unique, Cadence and, of course, Lexus. (Elantra hasn't made it, yet.) All of those names are more popular than Betty, which has fallen off the list altogether.

For as long as humans have been responsible for naming their offspring, there have been bad names. The 1910 list of names shows many Clarabelles. Ova was somewhat popular, as was Fanny. And a bunch of boys regularly got saddled with Elmer and Thurston. But these are mostly names that have slid into disfavor over the years in association with tushies and Fudds and Howells and seltzer-spraying clowns. Adolph, for example, was a reasonably popular name that plummeted in popularity after about 1930.

Interestingly, one of the quickest nose dives in recent years was Monica, which was number 77 in 1997, but for some darned reason fell 100 percent to number 150 the following year, and has continued to go down.

Editors have warned me that this is a dangerous column -- that names are a personal thing about which people feel strongly, and parents should be free to name their children what they want without fear of public ridicule.

I know, I know, but I don't care. The Madisonness must end.

Gene Weingarten's e-mail address is weingarten@washpost.com. Chat with him online Tuesdays at noon at www.washingtonpost.com. The baby-name Web site is www.ssa.gov/OACT/babynames.


© 2003 The Washington Post Company

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