Much recent discourse on baby names has focused on the explosion of spelling variants within the last few decades, the tendency for Aidan, for instance, to breed Aiden, Aden, and Aydin, which then frequently surpass the original in popularity. I’d wager that this is mostly true of “new” names—those debuting after 1965 or so—where the original name hasn’t been able to establish a foothold before parents start getting creative.
The history of the name Caitlin seems fairly typical:
Though it’s a traditional Irish name, Caitlin remained obscure until the late 1970s, perhaps riding a wave of interest in Irishness—in 1976, the year it debuted, the female names Shannon, Kelly, and Erin were in the top 25, and Megan wasn’t far behind. Within five years, it had spawned two variants (Kaitlin and Katelyn), and two years after that, two more (Caitlyn and Kaitlyn). During the period 1994-2002, with the exception of a single year, there were no fewer than nine variations of Caitlin within the top 1000, and in 2006 the original spelling was only the fourth most popular. I was born in 1979, so it’s unsurprising that I’ve only known one Caitlin (b. 1980) and that she spells her name as such; it’s similarly unsurprising that Marissa Cooper’s little sister on The O.C. (b. 1991) goes by Kaitlin.
Obviously, variants in and of themselves are nothing new, as any Sarah who has ever been asked “H or no H?” can tell you. The difference is that, for older names, one spelling has usually dominated over time. When I was younger, for instance, I never understood why other kids would occasionally assume my name was short for Jonathan. Only Jons were short for Jonathan (or at least, there were 12 times as many Jonathans than Johnathans the year I was born), and Jons weren’t nearly as common as Johns. Similarly, Chris has long been the default over Kris (for boys, anyway), Mark over Marc, Eric over Erik, Jeffrey over Jeffery over Geoffrey, etc. I can think of only one “traditional” boys’ name with multiple spellings in which neither has clearly dominated over the past century: Stephen/Steven. Maybe Sean/Shawn, too, though neither was known in the U.S. prior to the 1940s.
For the past few years, however, Jonathan (which I realize is more than just a spelling variant) has been poised to overtake John on the Social Security Administration’s annual list of the most popular baby names, less because Jonathan is hot (it’s steadily hovered between #15 and #23 every year since 1980) than because John is not (it’s been out of the top 10 since 1987) . In fact, last year, when the two names appeared back-to-back at #18 and #19, I predicted that 2006 would reveal a reversal.
It didn’t. Both names slipped by about the same amount, and they’re currently at #20 and #22, respectively. But further down the list, I noticed that a similar milestone had taken place: Bryan had usurped Brian. Oddly enough, Bryan predates Brian within the U.S., having appeared in the low reaches of the top 1000 long before Brian’s 1925 debut. But for decades Brian was considered the dominant variant; during the period 1939-74, there were always at least four times as many Brians as Bryans (in 1952, there were 6.8 times as many).
So why, then, did this figure start to fall in the mid-1970s? One explanation is that as Brian reached a point of oversaturation (it peaked in 1972 and held on to 8th place for much of the decade), parents who liked the name but were wary of bandwagon jumping found Bryan (and, less commonly, Bryon or Bryant) a useful alternative. Another explanation is that Bryan benefitted from one of the hottest boys’ names of the 1970s, Ryan, whose popularity can be traced directly to one man: Ryan O’Neal.
The name Ryan1 entered the top 1000 in 1946 but rose only gradually until the late 1960s, when O’Neal starred in the TV soap opera Peyton Place, and then skyrocketed into the top 100 following Love Story, the 1970 box-office smash that made O’Neal a household name. (It’s also worth noting that Ali MacGraw’s character in the film is named Jennifer, which likely contributed to that name ascending to #1 that year.) By 1976, after high-profile roles for O’Neal in Paper Moon and Barry Lyndon, Ryan was in the top 20, and it’s stayed there ever since. (Other public figures probably helped keep the name current after O’Neal’s star fell, notably Hall of Fame baseball pitcher Nolan Ryan [played 1966-93], actress Meg Ryan, and cause celebre Ryan White, the teenager who was diagnosed with AIDS in 1986. In recent years, there’s also been the award-winning film Saving Private Ryan and The O.C. character Ryan Atwood.)
As with John and Jonathan, Bryan’s recent fortune has less to do with with its own popularity (it peaked, along with Ryan, in 1986) and more to do with the precipitous nature of Brian’s drop. (You may recall that I targeted Brian as a candidate for the dad names of tomorrow.) For those of us who are used to Brian as the dominant variant, however, it will be interesting to see if the new positions are maintained and how that affects our perceptions of the two names in the future.
1 Like Kelly and Shannon, Ryan is an Irish surname repurposed as a first name. It is interesting to note that all three names, though usually identified with one sex (Kelly and Shannon = female; Ryan = male), have often been given to the opposite sex as well.