New book edited by BYU professor, 'Perspectives on Latter-day Saint Names and Naming,' provides an in-depth look at Utah names
Brooks, Hudson, Milo, Oakley, Navy: if you want to predict the top U.S. baby names of 2033, take a look at some of Utah’s popular names in 2023. Although Utahns are known for their one-of-a-kind monikers — such as Treysen or Swayzee — a new book edited at BYU shows that Utah parents have a long history of anticipating mainstream American naming fads.
For example, Kaden/Brayden/Jaden. Ranking at 7th, 12th, and 21st in Utah in 1998, none of the three names broke the top 100 in nearby Colorado the same year. However, all three became dramatically more popular in the early 2000s across the U.S., with Kaden and Jaden making it high into the top 100. But by 2012 Utahns had already moved on, favoring the “revival” boy names like Oliver and Henry that would shortly be on the rise nationally, as well as popularizing sound patterns like Paisley/Brynlee/Hadley.
“Utah makes names popular, and then Utahns get tired of the names; the popular names start coming down in the rankings here while other places catch up,” said BYU linguistics professor Dallin D. Oaks, the book’s lead editor.
The book, Perspectives on Latter-day Saint Names and Naming, explores “how integral names are in Latter-day Saint beliefs and culture,” Oaks said. The chapter on Utah baby names, authored by Bellevue University emeritus professor Cleveland Evans, appears in a set of contributions from many BYU authors as well as researchers from other universities. Their subjects range from Utah’s unique place names to the former use of code names in scripture and the role of names in Church ordinances.
For his part, Evans set out to answer the research question Oaks gave him, “Are Latter-day Saint children’s names really distinctive?” Evans compared state-provided name data for Utah and Colorado (a neighboring state that, with a much lower Latter-day Saint population, served as a good test case) from 1982, 1990, 1998, 2012 and 2021.
“Now we have a snapshot of about a 40-year period based on his research,” Oaks said. “The cool thing is we not only see what was popular in a given time, but what trends up and down.”
In addition to Utahns’ trend-setting choices, Evans’ research turned up several “blips” in Utah’s name data, where Utah names are indeed unique. One was the high number of Mc-names for girls, with names like McKinley and McKaylee being three times as common in Utah as in Colorado in 1998, and continuing to be more popular in Utah now.
Another was Utahns’ love of presidential names like Carter and Truman for boys and Reagan and Kennedy for girls. Lincoln was more than twice as popular as a boy name in Utah than in Colorado in 2012, and there were 84 Nixons born in Utah that year, compared to just six in the more populous Colorado. Once again, Utahns were ahead of the game — by 2021, Lincoln had moved up from 102nd to 43rd in Colorado’s rankings but down to 15th place from 12th in Utah (Nixon, however, never caught on in Colorado).
And unsurprisingly, Utahns are unique for naming children after Book of Mormon figures like Nephi or Jarom, although that trend rose through the 80s and 90s and has since declined. Especially for boys, Utahns have also long favored the names of public Church figures (Kimball, McKay, Dallin), but Evans was surprised to see that surnames of famous, non-Latter-day Saint athletes like Stockton and Korver are also readily taken up for Utah boys.
Despite these differences, when Evans examined the most popular names in both states, he found that overall Utahns share tastes with Coloradans. Most names found in the top 50 in Utah were consistently in the top 100 in Colorado, and vice versa. For instance, Oliver, Jackson and Liam were the top three boy names in both states in 2021, just in different orders.
Compared to Coloradans, there were more Utah children with idiosyncratic names and spellings like Driggs, Griffey, Bentlee or Afton, but only outside of the top several hundred names. That slight difference may explain Utah’s reputation for inventive naming.
“The kernel of truth in the idea that Latter-day Saint parents favor unusual names is that while the huge majority of Utah parents use the same names as the rest of the country, enough favor unusual names that people will remember it. As a psychologist, I know that vivid and striking things will often distort people’s memories so that we think unusual examples are more common than they are,” Evans explained.
Oaks and Evans emphasized that an important takeaway remains Utah’s similarity with others and its tendency to anticipate name fashions. Utahns seem to “share the common American desire to find a name for a child which is ‘different but not too different,’” Evans concluded.
Perspectives on Latter-day Saint Names and Naming was published by Routledge and additionally co-edited by Paul Baltes and Kent Minson.