The strangest thing has happened to Hillary. Gone. Vanished. Fallen off a cliff.

The name, that is. For decades, the name Hillary had been steadily increasing in popularity in this country.

By 1992, Hillary had edged its way into the top 75 among girls' names. Then, in 1993, Hillary took a nose dive.

"The name just plummets, to one-tenth its 1992 level," says Cleveland Kent Evans, the Nebraska-based onomastician -- that's someone who studies names. "I mean, that poor woman."

The first lady, Evans reports, was the first American Hillary to get famous. "She dominates that name completely. Therefore, even admirers won't choose that name because they'd get that question over and over: You named your daughter for Hillary Clinton?' It's the quickest fall in a name I've ever seen."

He is a roly-poly man, a baby-faced, gray-haired gent with a heavy wooden cross around his neck and an armful of documents. Evans has the goods on our names, gathered from parents logged on to the Internet, from birth certificates, from health departments around the nation. What we call ourselves, our homes, our towns, our sports teams, our pets -- the things and people we hold most dear -- is what onomastics is all about.

It's a tiny field, but Evans and his colleagues in the American Names Society have gathered this past weekend in a close, windowless meeting room at the Holiday Inn in Georgetown for their annual convention. There are barely more than a dozen of them here, and they've come into the study of names from various directions -- literature, linguistics, psychology. There's even talk of trying to merge with some other academic organization to pump up the attendance.

Still, there's an advantage to smallness. The professors all seem to know one another and their research. Conversations pick up where they left off a year ago, charts are updated, conclusions revised.

Evans will deliver his controversial paper on social class differences in given names ("Andrew and Hannah vs. Brandon and Brittany," he calls it). Edward Callary of Northern Illinois University will provide his annual update on the most popular baby names. There'll be sessions on the nature of the names that novelist Don DeLillo uses in his novels, on the most secret word in Freemasonry, on the sounds -- the music! -- of our politicians' names.

But right now, Evans is pondering the sudden, explosive rise of the male first name Gage. From out of nowhere. There's no record of this name, nothing in the texts, nothing anywhere. And yet just in the last couple of years, it's been popping up all around the country. Evans went to all his usual sources: He checked TV Guide (most new names come from TV characters). Nothing. He checked the NBA player rosters (especially among blacks, the names of popular basketball players often blow straight through the roof). Nothing.

Finally, he asked his students at Bellevue College near Omaha. One student got the reference immediately: "Emergency!" he said. Meaning the short-lived 1970s TV series, of course. Turns out there was a character named John Gage on that show, and he was generally addressed as Gage.

"But that show hasn't been around for more than 15 years!" the professor protested.

Evans quickly turned to an onomastician's favorite reference book -- Total Television, a listing of every TV show ever. Incredibly, "Emergency!," which aired opposite "60 Minutes" for four years, was exceedingly popular among elementary-school children.

"And yes, Gage starts showing up on birth certificates about exactly when those kids start having their own children," Evans says, clasping his hands together with academic satisfaction. Mystery solved. The Full Treatment

When he's not studying names, he's a psychologist, and when he writes psychology papers, he goes by Cleveland K. Evans, because that's the traditional form in that field. For his papers on names, he uses the full Cleveland Kent Evans, because if you study names, what you've got, you flaunt. His friends call him Cleve.

(For a long time, the society's expert on nicknames was a man, lately deceased, named James Skipper. "Mull that one over for a while," Evans offers.)

Evans got into names at the unusually young age of 8, when he started collecting first names from birth certificates. His fascination "must come from being named Cleveland and having to grow up in Buffalo," he says. His PhD is in personality psychology, and he teaches abnormal and human sexuality and whatever else his small college needs taught, but his true love is names.

So it is with all of them. When Sheila Embleton of York University in Ontario opens the conference, she is careful to thank everyone, including the Holiday Inn's catering manager, by name. Names are pronounced here with the care and delicacy of a New York deli counterman shaving slices of lox.

"Names are the animal badges we wear," says Christian Moraru of Indiana University, "a primitive index of the soul." Lovingly, he reads from DeLillo's novel "White Noise," a scene in which children comfort themselves in their sleep by repeating, over and over, "Toyota Corolla, Toyota Cressida . . . "

The professor comments: "It is an absurd music of the deep when there is no deep anymore."

The debate in onomastics is whether names, like everything else these days, are losing their meaning. The obsession with brand names and celebrity is pushing away the significance and uniqueness of personal names. "Names seem to have lost their ability to signify," Moraru laments. All Together Now

Ah, but think of all the new names that have come with the era of alienation.

"Confected names," Edward Callary calls them, cobbled together from existing names. They're all the rage these days: Ashlyn and Kaylin, Amerlyn and even Brooklynn, Danessa and Denaya, Karinda and Kiara. Boys, too: Tevon and Sebron, Jamin and Ashtin, Jaron and Joshton.

Since 1985, Callary has been collecting names of newborns in his home county of DeKalb in Illinois. He has, he is quick to point out, not a representative sample but a complete record of every single name given to a child in the past decade.

The 3,280 boys he has examined were given 442 different names. The 3,178 girls bear 612 different names, confirming the long-held assumption that there are more girls' names to choose from.

But Callary was surprised to find that, contrary to popular belief, girls' names are no more trendy than boys'.

One big difference between boys' and girls' monikers is that parents feel freer to play around with the spelling of daughters' names. Boys' names usually vary only slightly and in very traditional ways -- Nicholas and perhaps a few Nikolases. But there are five Ashleys -- Ashlee, Ashleigh, Ashli and Ashly -- nine forms of Brittany and 11 types of Caitlin.

That difference makes perfect sense to Callary, who sees the proliferation of fanciful spellings of girls' names as evidence that parents view their daughters as somehow less serious and less powerful than their sons.

It is just that -- the examination of power and influence -- that got Callary into the field. "I'm really interested in power, how you introduce yourself, how you set up relationships of power, deference and solidarity, and that has a great deal to do with your name and how you use it," he says.

And Callary has identified a trend in American name-giving that reflects shifting social mores. A startling number of boys' names are crossing the gender divide, becoming first androgynous, then being transformed into exclusively female names.

First it was Shirley and Marion. Then Randy, Casey and Dana. Now, there's a torrent of them: Taylor, Shelby, Tristan. As recently as 1990, Kelsey was a boys' name, if already androgynous. By last year, it had evolved -- now often spelled Kelsie -- into the 11th most popular girls' name in the United States.

"Shannon is gone, completely a girls' name now," says Callary, not without some concern. "Where will it end? Somewhere down the line, will we have a first lady named Bob?"

The reasons are clear, he believes. "Boys' names are the source of power and influence in the United States. It's natural to gravitate to where the power is. We still look at men as the source of money and influence."

Names are a quickly shifting barometer of something, though exactly what is open to interpretation. In just 10 years, the list of the five most popular girls' names has changed unusually quickly: In 1985, it was Sarah, Jessica, Megan, Jennifer and Ashley. Last year, it was Sarah, Ashley, Emily, Kaitlin and Alyssa, the last two of which were not even in the top 15 a decade ago.

Even the popularity of boys' names changes with blazing speed. The top five in 1985: Michael, Matthew, Andrew, Joshua and Ryan. Last year: Tyler, Jacob, Matthew, Michael and Austin. Tyler and Austin similarly were nowhere to be found in 1985's top 15.

Go figure. Class Conflicts

Cleveland Evans has. Thanks to computers and a helpful vital records bureaucrat in Oregon, Evans has been able to track given names according to social class, and the results raise pointed questions about whether your name is your destiny.

College graduates give their children an almost completely different set of names than do working-class parents. Guess which set of selections from the top 10 lists comes from mothers who were high school dropouts and which from mothers who finished college:

Emily, Hannah, Katherine, Rachel, Madeline, Madison, Anna.

Jessica, Ashley, Brittany, Haley, Elizabeth, Brianna, Samantha.

The first group contains the names picked by college graduates.

Now try it for boys:

Michael, Austin, Daniel, Christopher, Tyler, Brandon, Christian, David.

Matthew, Nicholas, Zachary, Alexander, Benjamin, Ryan, Andrew, Joshua.

This time, it's the second list that's the offspring of the college-educated.

Evans says different social classes draw from separate sources in picking names. Popular TV characters explain most of the changes in popularity among high school dropouts and high school graduates, he says, while people with some college or a degree tend toward more traditional names, chosen from family history, the Bible or literature.

For example, the name Desiree is quite popular among working-class parents, but "we could not find a single Desiree born to a college graduate," Evans says. "Desiree is too sexy a name for a college graduate to give to their daughter. We like to think of our society as classless, but among many people, getting married is still a powerful sign of success, so a sexually attractive name appeals. While to college graduates, Desiree sounds like a stripper, as one woman said on the Internet. So they go with Olivia."

"When a working-class parent thinks of a name," Evans says, "they think of models of success, and the success they can think of is often in a nonprofessional occupation, like entertainment or sports."

Among boys, cowboy-sounding names -- Cody, Austin, Jesse -- are prominent in the top 20 for families with less than a high school education. But Cody, which is No. 4 in popularity among families in which the mother has only a high school diploma, is No. 39 among families in which the mother finished college.

And Evans says name preferences can be even more finely divided by class: "To appreciate Henry,' " he says, "you probably need a postgraduate degree. To most Americans, Henry is still a wimp."

Lists of popular names among blacks, Asians and Hispanics are often almost completely different from those of European-descended Americans -- and are far less reflective of educational differences. The Asian American top five for boys -- Kevin, Michael, Brandon, Nicholas and Andrew -- is evidence of a classic trend among fairly recent immigrant groups to reach for the names they consider to be most "American."

Black boys' names in recent years have closely tracked the top stars in the NBA; last year's list includes Malik, both Michael and Jordan, Jalen and Isaiah. (However, there are virtually no Grants, despite the popularity of Grant Hill. "Grant just doesn't sound black' enough to most parents," Evans says, "and African American parents tend to choose names they believe sound black.")

The top 25 names among black girls includes many that do not appear on any other lists -- Ebony, Makayla, Tanisha, Kiana, Tiana. And just in the past two years, the name Khadijah has soared from out of nowhere into the top 10. Evans was mystified at first; then he checked his trusty TV Guide: Khadijah is the name of a character played by the actress Queen Latifah on the television series "Living Single."

Similarly, the name Vanessa suddenly popped up on Hispanic top 10 lists, largely because of the popularity of the title character in a Spanish-language TV soap opera.

Pop singers (Selena and Mariah are very big these days) and actors can still inspire boomlets in names. But as Hillary's example indicates, political figures don't do much for a name anymore. Not since FDR has there been a measurable spike in a name's popularity attributable to a president, Evans says, and not since Jackie Kennedy has a first lady sent a name anywhere but down.

The onomasticians eat this stuff up, and so do expectant parents, who have made Evans a minor celebrity on the Internet newsgroups that traffic in names and childbirth. All of which makes Evans proud, even if, as he says, "I know this stuff is never going to win me any respect around the American Psychological Association." CAPTION: Queen Latifah as Khadijah CAPTION: Mariah Carey CAPTION: Jackie O CAPTION: Michael Jordan CAPTION: Hillary CAPTION: Selena