Most popular names: what happens when they all turn up at the same time?

 

Here are the Belles. The Bellas. The Bels. Here are the Issys, the Izzys and even the Izzis. The Isabels, the Isobels or the Isobelles. Here is Izabela "with a Z and one L". Here are the Isabellas.

In 1998 and 1999, the name Isabella and its various permutations appeared at the top of all those lists of popular baby names. Now they are turning up in classrooms all over Australia.

UTS students with variations on the name Isabella.
UTS students with variations on the name Isabella.  

A new study by Australian researchers Jo Lindsay of Monash University and Deborah Dempsey of Swinburne, based on interviews with new parents, says naming choice reveals a window onto parental aspirations. Middle class parents want names which will be different – but not too different.

"Parents choose names which will be distinctive but not too much . . . they are wanting their children to fit in but a distinctive name could be useful for helping a child stand out as exceptional . . .there are perceptions about names, expectations and imagining the name in the future," says Lindsay.

"If you give them this particular name, could they be a prime minister or a judge? Could they be taken seriously?"

So what happens when your Isabella turns up in a class with 20 others?

Bella Bowdler, 18, of Annandale, is one of 20 young women with a variation of her name in a first year university subject at the University of Technology. That's just under 10 per cent of all the female names in that subject.

She says she rarely came across any others with the name either in primary or in high school.

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"So it was a bit of a surprise coming here because I have about two other Bellas in all of my tutorials. That was a bit of a shock."

Does she mind having a common name?

"My mum wanted to call me Maximilliana and I'm glad she didn't do that. I've ended up being happy with Bella."

Her mother, Jan McLean, already knew her daughter would be surrounded with others of the same name. McLean, an academic, had settled on the name Maximilliana until Bella was born. When she told the midwife that she'd settled on Isabella instead, the midwife replied: "Oh, that's lovely. She'll have so many friends with the same name."

McLean said: "Then we didn't name her for three weeks." After three weeks, they cast aside their reservations about a common name.

Why was Isabella so popular at the time? Isabella the First of Castile had been dead 500 years. More contemporary influences? Perhaps the longstanding success of Italian actor Isabella Rossellini. It was in 1999 that she made her only appearance in The Simpsons. Or the one-season-only television series Isabella filmed in Peru? French actor Isabelle Adjani, who had a slew of movies in the nineties or another French actor, Isabelle Huppert. And let's never forget Belle Black, the long-running character in Days of Our Lives. The parents of these Isabellas might have been influenced by author Isabel Allende, who published House of Spirits in 1982 but kept going. In 1999, her book Daughter of Fortune was published. Our modern Isabellas are daughters of good fortune.

Jo Lindsay says parents choose much lighter and more open-ended names for their daughters, strong names for their sons, and much like everything else, it's open to different pressures.

"People don't expect that they are giving their children names that everyone will have but that's the way fashion works. You turn up to the crèche or the classroom, and everyone is called Isabella."

But Isabelle Rafferty, who grew up in Bronte, had a glimpse of names to come in year six at school. There were five others in her class with variations of her name; and then a seventh arrived the following year.

How did the teachers manage?

"Everyone had nicknames. I was the only Isabelle but we had two Issys, two Bellas, one went by Isabella. It wasn't strange at school but my parents said, 'oh my goodness, we tried to give you a really nice name that we didn't want everyone else to have and every second kid is called Isabella'."

Danielle Latinovic didn't even think about the popularity of names when she had her first child, Joshua, now 27. But seven years later, when she started teaching, she knew that for her own children, choosing names which were slightly more unusual, would a bonus.

"I really wanted names I wasn't hearing over and over again." The names grew more unusual the more she had: Zachary, India, Tobias, Jonah and now Saul, who is nine.

In the short term, no one's called Saul but the downside is no-one knows how to pronounce her youngest's name.

Jo Lindsay has advice for prospective parents if they really do want a distinctive and individual name.

"We should be a little less judgmental about people's names. We should be freer in what's allowed and what's not allowed.

"There is a reasonable amount of freedom in girls' names but boys are very constrained by strong sounding names and girls are constrained by diminutives and pretty names.

"I'd encourage diversity for both genders."

Lindsay says first names are symbolic capital and her participants sensed that names would have a material effect on the life chances of their children.

So what did she call her own?

Her daughter turns 18 this year. Her name is Isobel.

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