During my pregnancy, I’ve suffered from more than the occasional bout of insomnia, leading to me scrolling the baby app What to Expect at 2 a.m. more often than I would care to admit. While I also use the app for reassurance about weird symptoms and registry advice, I spend about 90% of my time reading and commenting in a community called Baby Names, where pregnant people anonymously ask for naming ideas. The forum has over 57,000 discussions and 100,000 members to date, and someone adds a new comment to one of its many threads approximately every minute. The users are extremely engaged — and opinionated.
Some of the biggest conflicts on Baby Names are perennial: People who prefer traditional names deride those who like names with, for example, inventive spellings, saying that those types of names are “made up” and that their children will be subject to a lifetime of teasing and get shut out of job opportunities. People who can’t bear to be unoriginal criticize anyone who says they will be giving their child a name like Olivia or Liam (currently #1 for girls and #1 for boys in the U.S.).
But new types of conversations have emerged, too. Lately, there’s been an increase in threads about nature-based names like Luna, Juniper, and Atlas, all of which are on the baby-name website Nameberry’s top name lists of 2021, which predict future popularity by tracking trends in real time. While these names are not yet on top of the charts, they are rising quickly. (Luna, Latin for “moon,” which Chrissy Teigen and other celebrities may have played a role in popularizing, is #1 for girls on Nameberry’s trending list and #16 overall in the U.S.) One Baby Names member recently posted a request for “whimsical girl names”: “I’m thinking dainty faerie like skipping through a meadow lol.” The most common suggestion? Juniper. Others included Meadow, Willow, and Sage. Another user posted a thread wondering whether people thought Juniper was “overused,” and most of the responses reassured her that it was still only popular on baby-name threads, not in real life. (It was #195 in the U.S. in 2019 — more popular than ever, but not what could be called overused.)
These names share a natural and romantic aesthetic that represents many people’s pandemic-era yearning for escape and simplicity, says Pamela Redmond, the CEO and co-founder of Nameberry. Redmond is also the co-author of the influential Beyond Jennifer & Jason — the first baby-naming book that wasn’t essentially an encyclopedia — which first sparked my interest in names when I picked it up as a 12-year-old at the public library.
Nature names like Lily and Rose have been around for ages, but many new ones are emerging and becoming increasingly used and discussed, Redmond added. “I think it reflects a wish on the part of the parents...to be more rooted in nature, to relate to the earth,” Redmond told Refinery29. “A lot of people are giving up on having a baby and raising a kid in the city. That was always a difficult thing to do, and it’s become much more difficult during the pandemic to live in a small space, get around on public transportation, be at home with your family 24/7. Once you leave the city, you can have a garden and you look out the window and you see green. Your kids can play in the yard.”
Not everyone can afford to leave their small apartment and buy a bucolic country estate or suburban mansion with a pool on which to frolic with their family, which I pointed out to Redmond. But baby-naming is inherently aspirational, and nature names can represent a longing to experience more of the world, which is particularly pronounced right now when many of our options and ability to move around is limited. Longing is also a big part of the cottagecore subculture and aesthetic, which Redmond says has heavily influenced baby-naming in the past year and is closely related to the back-to-nature trend. Nature-inspired names like River and Wilder, both frequently discussed on Baby Names, are cottagecore names according to Nameberry, as are names like Maisie and Jane, which have a vintage sound. “The cottagecore aesthetic [is about a] down-to-earth, simple, less sophisticated, less edgy feel — because the world is edgy enough, babies don’t need to be edgy,” Redmond said.
Cottagecore is all about craving a more peaceful, pastoral way of life: It’s “the aesthetic where quarantine is romantic instead of terrifying,” full of meadows, tea cups, and Taylor Swift’s folklore, Rebecca Jennings wrote on Vox. But the difference between cottagecore and other nostalgia-based subcultures is that “despite its reverence for stories about and images of heterosexual white people, it’s become nearly synonymous with queer people and progressive politics,” she added. In the cottagecore baby-name trend, this can translate to parents choosing names that are not overtly or traditionally gendered, such as Wilder for a girl, which has caused a lot of controversy on Baby Names with multiple people writing things like “that’s cruel for a girl” or that it’s “too masculine.” Though, there are plenty of people who like the name, too: “I think it’s a pretty badass name! And some people are just being RUDE! Ha!” said one user. No matter how one feels about the specific names, as a trend, cottagecore has an interesting duality in that it simultaneously has people craving nostalgic simplicity and pushing boundaries.
It’s too early to tell exactly how the pandemic has changed baby-name trends because the last Social Security Administration records of the top 1,000 names in the U.S. are from 2019. But we can make educated guesses based on predictions from experts like Redmond and conversations between parents-to-be. And if there were one overarching trend, it seems to be simply that people care about names and their meanings more: Redmond reports a 4 million page-view jump on her site during the nine-month period at the start of the pandemic in March 2020, from the nine-month period before its start.
Besides nature, there are other major naming themes that have emerged in the past year: positivity and new beginnings, mythology and the Bible, the magical and supernatural, and travel and locations. It’s not hard to see why these are all piquing people’s interest. Baby names often represent parents’ hopes and dreams, and the hope for a new, better way of life after the pandemic is strong. So is the desire to overcome the seemingly insurmountable challenges of the current world, which is why magical and mythological names have come into vogue. And the longing to travel to faraway places is real and widespread, so the surge of Atlas (#226 and rising in the U.S.), as well as place names like Milan and Cairo, is understandable. “We visited Iceland for our honeymoon in 2019 and watched the beautiful Northern lights, aurora borealis,” wrote one Baby Names user who is considering Aurora for a baby.
“Consciously or not, it’s an attempt to arm your child for dealing with a world in which there may be superhuman challenges,” Redmond said of names like Luna (moon goddess) and Aurora (goddess of the dawn and #2 on Nameberry’s popularity-rising list). But, there is a dark side to the supernatural trend: Names like Lucifer are on the rise, too.
Of Atlas, one user said: “We’ve had this name picked out two years ago and fell in love with it. My boyfriend loves Greek mythology. We also wanted something you don’t hear all the time and surprisingly, this name is rising up in the charts but not overly popular, so it’s perfect.”
As many of us rethink our lives on a grand scale — our dream jobs, our romantic relationships, our relationships to our homes — linguistic aspects of our lives like names are being rethought, too. Parents seem not only more eager to embrace nature and goddess names, but more creative and unconventional with naming in general. Of course, there may come a time when we rethink the whole nature trend, too, and it will seem very “pandemic era.” It’s as-of-yet hard to predict who we will be in the “after” of all of this, much less what names we will want to give children.
But one thing’s for certain, and that’s that people will always have strong opinions on baby names. “Atlas is what you name a Lab puppy,” according to one Baby Names user. “I don’t understand why people are drawn to the name Atlas. He’s literally having to carry the world on his shoulders as punishment for eternity,” wrote another. But maybe that’s the point of these super-sized, mythological names — not just to give your child supernatural strength through their name, but also to acknowledge the burden we are all carrying together. Or maybe, it just sounds really good with the middle name you’ve had picked out since before you even knew you were having a baby.