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These old and rare baby names are making a comeback

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Agnes, Augustine, Ursula... check out other old names that are the new cool.

It took me close to a decade and four daughters to finally convince my wife to name one of our children “Agnes.” The name can sound, at first consideration, hopelessly old-fashioned. Perhaps a little dusty and matronly, the kind of name only a great-aunt would have (no offense intended to great-aunts). At least, that’s how some people hear it.

But I don’t hear it that way at all. To me, the name, which means “lamb,” is beautiful and dignified. It brings with it a sense of feminine purity. I did agree with my wife, though, that our daughter would probably be unique among her generation to be an Agnes, but now that she’s here all sorts of Agneses have appeared from seemingly nowhere. Perhaps they sense a kindred spirit and are gathering around to welcome her. The women named Agnes come in two categories: There are those who have been named Agnes for 80 years but have always gone by a middle name or a nickname — and those who are little girls. Maybe this classic name is making a comeback?

All of our children have names that lean traditional, and I’m noticing that they, too, have a number of peers who share similar names. Preschools are packed with Eleanors, Margarets, Charleses, and Augustines these days. It appears as though old names – or at least old names that have become more rare – are the new, hip trend in baby-naming.

I asked an online parent group to share the names of their young children. The answers confirmed for me that yes — at least with a certain segment of young parents — old is the new cool. Here’s a sampling of names that were popular responses:

Girls

Agnes, Regina, Lucy, Philomena, Adelaide, Wilhelmina, Cecelia, Zita, Gemma, Cordelia, Magdalene, Mara, Ursula, Rose, Perpetua, Colette

Boys

Augustine, Ignatius, Maximilian, Sebastian, Linus, Thaddeus, Edmund, Roland, Oliver, Cosmas, Leo, Louis, Urban, Benedict, Mary (Yes, there’s an old custom of naming boys “Mary”)

I’m sure Aleteia readers can add many more.

There are a number of reasons why parents are interested in recovering these names:

They have family history

The older names are a way to honor previous generations. Often it’s the name of a grandparent or long-lost relative. It binds a family together and gives children a sense of belonging.

They’re meaningful

Older names usually have lots of meaning. Often, the name is connected with a literary figure or great hero. In my Catholic circles, a lot of the names happen to be saints’ names. A woman named Maggie who used an older name for her child told me that she wants her children to “be reminded of who they were named after.”

Whoever the child is named after, it’s a comfort to know that we aspire for the very best, that our children may one day, like their namesake, change the world.

They’re unusual, but not too unusual

Completely invented names and spellings reveal a desire for unique names. Parents recognize that their child is special and no one else will be exactly the same. Choosing an old name that is rare has a similar effect. It will be unique, but not too unusual.

Agnes, for instance, is name that will stand out in a crowd. It isn’t so unexpected, though, that the name will be a burden. People know how to pronounce it, recognize it as a typical name, and it won’t cause a double-take. One mother named Lori says this was part of her motivation in choosing names, too: “The first initial reason is just to have a name that stands out.” This approach is a happy medium between a name that 10 kids in the same class already have and making up a completely new one that no one has ever heard of before.

They age well

Sure, names rise and fall in popularity, but a classic name never entirely goes out of style, even if it becomes more rare. It will never sound too oddball and is less of a risk than a name that may be trendy in the moment, but entirely disappears in subsequent generations.

Nicknames

Many older names lend themselves to short, sweet nicknames. They’ve been used for so long that they have a built-in shorthand, so these names can have a beautiful, formal weightiness but at the same time don’t need to be used in everyday parlance. Edmund can be Ned, Augustine is Gus, Ignatius is Iggy, and Cecilia is Cece. The list goes on.

Baby-naming is a huge honor and all the parents I know put a lot of time and thought into it. If the care these parents put into choosing the name is any indicator, all of these beautiful babies with all their beautiful names — old or new — will come to know that they are are greatly loved.

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