What's in a name? Kirsten's in, Henry's out

Named for a grandfather who was named for President Grover Cleveland, Cleveland Kent Evans is understandably intrigued by how people choose names for their babies.

The University of Michigan graduate student has discovered:

* Michael and Jennifer are right at the top in enduring popularity over the last several years.

* Not as maw h x s name their newborn after Dad or Auntie or Great-Great-Grandpa these days. Many pick up names they like - though perhaps not consciously - from television, movies, and occasionally royalty. The number of Dianas (presumably linked to Britain's much-loved Princess) increased markedly last year.

* Women's names go in and out of fashion more often. Names popular before the turn of the century, such as Maude, Bertha, and Emma - as well as George, Henry, and Albert for men - are rarely given anymore. Mary, the No. 1 name in a regional sampling of birth certificates in 1880, and second in 1926 and 1951, slipped to 32nd place by 1981. Betty, at first place in 1926, is now rarely bestowed.

As a youngster in Buffalo, N.Y., Mr. Evans took some substantial ribbing at school on his own name. As early as junior high school, he decided to conduct his first informal survey of names of his schoolmates.

Since then, the psychology major has spent many hours poring over birth certificates in county courthouses, particularly in southern Michigan, searching for patterns in how names are awarded.

His findings are from an admittedly limited survey - concentrated in Ann Arbor and Detroit, Mich. But sporadic checks on visits elsewhere in the country and correspondence with others interested in the field, he says, has led him to conclude that many of the trends he has found are also national.

Most parents, he says, give considerable time and care to choosing names for their children that will wear well over the years.

''Many want a name that sounds like something common, but will be distinctive ,'' he says. But, alas, many find that a lot of other parents around the country liked that distinctive name, too.

One reason may be the influence of the movies and television. Evans says he's found some striking parallels between popular TV shows and the appearance of characters' names on birth certificates.

In Detroit last year, for instance, the names Crystal and Fallon, both characters in ''Dynasty,'' were among the top 11 choices in girls' names. In 1977, Jamie, the star of TV's ''Bionic Woman,'' was a big choice.

Kirsten of ''Dallas'' fame, a name which had been fading in popularity since 1971, moved up to fourth place in Detroit by 1981 - when Americans were asking, ''Who shot J. R.?'' Evans notes the names are not always spelled the same way they are for TV characters, possibly because the choice of a TV name is rarely intentional.

Often a movie star or a book, he says, gives rise to a name.

''Love Story'' probably did a lot, he says, to popularize the name Jennifer, which was 23rd in Ann Arbor in 1960, but soon moved into the top slot. It stayed there until last year, when it was edged out by Sarah, one of several names including Emily, Anna, Matthew, and Adam, which were popular more than a century ago and are experiencing a revival.

Gary, which was on the Top 10 list in 1951, was a rarity until Hollywood's Gary Cooper became a star, says Evans. And Carol, a key character in Sinclair Lewis's ''Main Street,'' became popular in the 1920s, when the book was a best seller.

One reason that men's names tend to be less ''volatile'' than women's, Evans says, is the lingering tradition - though to a lesser degree these days - of passing a name from father to son. Names like Robert, John, James, and David have been steadily popular for a number of years.

Why fewer ''Juniors,'' ''IIIs,'' or ''IVs''? Evans suggests it may relate to the fact that families are smaller with fewer children and that the extended family living under one roof is less common.

Evans says local privacy laws sometimes make it difficult to get access to birth certificates, hampering his research somewhat. But he says he intends to continue.

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