Got a pregnant friend? She'll be looking for baby names high and low — and now you can help out. Sort of. Modern American history is full of slightly peculiar names, and figuring out the most popular ones — usually through examining the registry of births at local parishes — is actually a bona fide good time. Because in among all the Lulas and Elmers, some names surface — again and again — that will make your eyes bug out of your head. (And feel particularly sorry for the poor kids who had to go through life blessed with a moniker like Lettice.*)
Trends in names tend to reflect a lot of things: historical figures who were famous at the time, popular novels, religion, societal attitudes towards the sexes, and family ties. Hence why Jennifer was so popular in the '80s and '90s, due to the giant bucketload of famous Jennifers, or, conversely why Ebenezer — once a pretty popular name in both the UK and U.S. — fell radically out of favor when Charles Dickens' hugely popular A Christmas Carol, with its particularly rude villain Ebenezer Scrooge, was a hit. We're an impressionable lot.
Note: the trend for Americans to use severely Biblical names (Hepzibah and Elijah, for instance) doesn't make the list, because they're not ridiculous, just unwieldy. Gammon, however, definitely qualifies. Who names their child after ham?!
*It's pronounced Le-tees, in case you really want to subject a kid to vegetable jokes for the rest of their life.
1. Obedience (female)
Fair warning: a lot of the female names on this list are probably going to make you annoyed, because they're nouns, and they all have to do with the submissive role of women in religion and society. I personally live in hope that some Obedience somewhere rebelled thoroughly against her name and became a highway robber.
2. Pleasant (unisex)
The idea that a name could dictate character wasn't just restricted to women. Pleasant, usually used for women but occasionally attached to boys, had floated around as a name since the days of medieval Europe. We don't really ascribe to the belief that you can make a kid via their name these days, or we'd all be called Billionaire or Real Estate.
3. Fredonia (female)
This wasn't actually a female version of "Fred" by disappointed parents who hadn't bothered to think of a girl's name before birth. Fredonia or Freedonia was used to refer to the country of America after the American Revolution, though in the 20th century it became more famous as the name of an imaginary country in a Marx Brothers film, Duck Soup. You were essentially calling your kid "USA".
4. Aquilla (male)
Americans from the 17th to the 19th centuries liked their historical names of pedigree. The best of these, though, has to be Aquilla — because it's spelled wrong. It's meant to be "aquila," the name of the eagle symbol for ancient Rome. Somewhere along the line, though, somebody messed up, and a bunch of American kids ended up with a name that means nothing at all.
5. Mindwell (female)
Though this admirably abstract name means basically the same as "obedience" (to mind something well), it's got the added attraction of having two words smashed together ... and of being utterly sexist and appalling. It's a reflection of the idea that names were seen less as attributes of uniqueness than they were as demonstrations of societal values and family order.
6. Waitstill (unisex)
Amalgamated names weren't just for the ladies. There are a few famous male Waitstills in American history, like the minister Waitstill Sharp. Originally, though, it was one of a bunch of proscriptive Puritan names about character and subservience to God, alongside such delights as Acts-Apostles, Be-Steadfast, Giant-Despair and the ever-popular Damned. America: a country in which at one point being called Damned Smith was not even cause for comment.
7. Grover (male)
Grover was immensely popular for the very good reason that Americans elected a Grover to the presidency in the late 1800s. Originally, it meant somebody who worked in tree groves for a living, but by the time it came to serious prominence in the 1880s it was just a popular boy's name. Now, of course, we all think of the Muppets. Oh how the mighty have fallen.
8. Increase (male)
This vaguely disgusting name for dudes is based on the whole make-lots-of-babies-it's-your-duty-to-God school of thought. It's another Puritan name, and it actually has some serious clout historically: Increase Mather was a Puritan minister heavily involved in the university of Harvard's administration. He also named his son Cotton, which proves that perhaps Puritans shouldn't have been left in charge of naming anything at all.
9. Aloney (male)
This treasure isn't as popular as the others, but it was certainly prominent: the blog Strangest Names In American Political History has tracked at least one elected official in American history who rejoiced in this moniker. Well, rejoiced is probably the wrong word. It's likely that it's a truncated form of an Irish last name, Macaloney, though that probably wasn't much comfort if Aloney ended up a grumpy bachelor.
10. Submit (female)
Another Puritan example of total patriarchal nonsense, but this is remarkable for something else entirely. The Connecticut State Library has a collection of nicknames from the most popular American names in the 18th and 19th centuries, and it turns out that Submit was regularly shortened to "Mitty". Which sounds like the sort of girl who hits home runs and beats the boys up after school. Could there be more of a contrast?
11. Gammon (male)
This one popped up in 18th century Boston. Interestingly, "gammon and spinach" was also a 18th century English expression meaning, essentially, nonsense or falsehood. So not only were you calling your child a foodstuff, you were also potentially telling them they were baloney. Literally and figuratively. Full marks all around.
12. Marmaduke (male)
You can blame the Brits for this one. Marmaduke was an incredibly upper-crust English name that made its way across the ocean to American in the 1800s — including as the first name of North Carolina's member of Congress. It was particularly popular in the South because it was the surname of a Confederate general during the Civil War, John Sappington Marmaduke —but in the 1900s we stopped using it, largely because it was used as the name of a ridiculous cartoon dog. It's actually reclaiming popularity, though, sort of: Bear Grylls, he of the urine-drinking and adventure-having, named his son Marmaduke. Poor kid.