Sunday, November 04, 2007

What's in a name

My piece about trends in French first names for the New York Times' Week in Review is up.

"Elisabeth," by the way, peaked in the mid-60s and is considered old-fashioned now. says it's widespread (in France), but not really given out anymore: in 2004, it was ranked 357th among first names; since 1940 it's 47th overall.

Alas, my namesake saint is a boring one: Saint Elisabeth was a Hungarian princess (1207–1231) who became a Franciscan nun after her husband's death. No crazy stigmata, no particularly nutty catholic endeavors: She just went out and looked after the poor.


Anonymous said...


I am the author of L'Officiel des prenoms, one of the books refered to in your article. I am also's webmaster (Namechooser is the English version of

I would like to add a few comments on your article. It is true that upper class parents tend do choose traditional, French sounding names. Thus, old fashioned names from the nineteenth century (Jules, Louise, Rose) are blossoming in the upper class.
But at the same time, an increasing portion of well educated parents tend to choose original or exotic names, a behavior observed in the general population in France as well as in the western countries. In France, Spanish, Italian and Grec have brought the sound « o » in masculine baby names. In Europe, irish sounding names are becoming popular (Kylian, Evan, Nolan) and by extension, "an" ending sounds which are not necessarily irish ( Nathan, Ethan). But recently, the demand for foreign souding names has pushed frontiers further away. French parents are increasingly searching for names from all over the world, be they from Hawai, Tahiti (Louna, Maeva), Japan or China (Mei, Hanae).

According to a survey conducted on, the sound of a baby name is the first determining factor for French parents. 36% of parents claim that a good sound is absolutely necessary. The second most important factor is the adequation between the first name and last name. And thirdly, comes the orinality of the name. Interestingly, the etymology of the name ranked fifth in this survey which was answered by 12 000 parents over a period of 6 months.

There is a lot more to tell... Maybe for another time ! Nice blog by the way.

Stephanie Rapoport

Elisabeth Vincentelli said...

Thank you for posting such a thorough comment. I didn't have that much space in the article so I consciously decided to focus on specific aspects. One that I thought about but decided against developing is the one you mention—the "bobo" parents who look for exotic names they feel won't come across as cheesy or vulgar. You can still identify the parents' background through those names, which is of course among the overall points of the piece.
Thanks again for commenting.