Thursday, April 26, 2018

Flora, Rose, Violet: Researching popular flower names for “olden times”

When I heard Flora was the topic for April, I didn’t think of my backyard. Instead, I thought of era-appropriate names for the women characters who populate the setting I write about—the late 1800s U.S.

Flora sounds so “old-fashioned.” Surely there was a blooming of Floras, Florences, Roses, Violets, Daisys, and all those floral-type names during this era? Faced with that question, I did what I usually do when musing on the unknown: I went a-researching and geeked out a bit…

My first stop was the Social Security Administration, which has a great site for researching popular baby names for any decade going back to 1880. I pulled up the ranking of names for babies born in the 1880s in the U.S. here.

And then, I made a little chart of all the flower names I could identify, plus the ranking for "Inez," the name of my Silver Rush series protagonist:


 Most popular name for baby girls? Mary. Out of 1,399,571 female births, 91,668 little ones were Marys. (Ida came in at 7th most popular, Bertha came in at 8th place.)

Now, because I was curious (and falling into the rabbit-hole of research), I went looking for other "popular name" lists. Here are the top flower names for female babies born in 1880 in England and Wales, culled from this web post on the British Baby Names site:


Many, many more flower names here! But no Inez. Oh well.

Most popular female name in 1880? Get ready… Mary. (Bertha rolls in at 41st.)

Now, I started pondering. My Inez would have been born 1860. Maybe I should step back a bit and explore what flower names were popular when she was born.

The U.S. census didn’t have a compilation, so I ended up at the Given Name Frequency Project website, which looks at popular names through the decades, starting in 1801 in the U.S. Here's what I found for flower-related names (and my protagonist's name) on the page listing the most popular women's names for 1861–1870:


And here you have the floral results for England and Wales in 1860:


Again, flower names are much more common across the Atlantic.
Additionally, here are some fascinating popular non-flower names that caught my eye: Thirza (100), Kezia (110), Dorcas (140), Tryphena (174), Drusilla (191).

For even more appropriate-character-naming fun, you can go to Baby Name Voyager, enter any name, and see how its frequency rises and falls over time from 1880 to 2016. I took snapshots of the graphs for “Flora” and “Inez,” because... well, why not??



If nothing else, all this might give you a different perspective on character names such as Flora (or Thirza or Bertha!).

 When naming characters, it’s always nice to know if a moniker will cause others to blink (“Well, that’s unusual!”) or if it won’t raise an eyebrow. For instance, “Tiffany” is very common today, but doesn’t even register on Baby Voyager before 1950.

So, what about you? Do you have names you long to give to a character but just haven’t found the “right” time (or place) yet?

Ann Parker authors the award-winning Silver Rush historical mystery series published by Poisoned Pen Press. During the day, she wrangles words for a living as a science editor/writer and marketing communications specialist (which is basically a fancy term for ìeditor/writerî). Her midnight hours are devoted to scribbling fiction. Visit AnnParker.net for more information.

10 comments :

  1. Monday's post on Word Wenches, entitled The Tiffany Effect, discusses all those 'modern' names that aren't.

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    1. Well isn’t this fascinating! Thank you, Liz!
      I stand corrected on Tiffany! :-)
      For those who’d like to read about the “Tiffany Effect,” check out: http://wordwenches.typepad.com/word_wenches/2018/04/the-tiffany-efffect.html

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    2. That is indeed fascinating. I would still hesitate to give a name to a historical character that might provoke such a dispute - so Tiffany would be out for me, even if it is historically accurate.

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    3. Yep... best to not use a name that “pulls a reader out of the timeframe,” even if it *was* in use. :-)

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  2. What an interesting post. Surprised to see Ida mentioned. That was my mother's name. Though my grandmother wanted that to be her first name, she got confused and named her Clara Ida instead of the reverse. She was always called Ida.

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    1. Ida is a great name! My maternal grandmother was Elsie, a name
      Which peaked in the 1890s and is experiencing a small resurgence....

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  3. I do have a name I'm keeping for a "someday" book. My paternal grandmother's middle name was Opal. I'll have to research whether that was ever used in the early 1800s, which is the historical period I'm writing about now.

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    1. Oooooo, Opal has a nice ring to it, Pat! :-) Kind if goes with the flower names... flowers, gems, and all. :-)

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  4. What a fun post! (My stepmother's name was Delores Violet.) Unique character names work well as long as they're not so unique the reader can't remember them. Your lists, however, are very memorable. You've given me a number of great ideas for future books.

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    Replies
    1. Hi Linda!
      Glad you enjoyed the post and got some ideas from it! :-)

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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