What’s in a name?

Consider this list: Emily, Emma, Madison, Isabella, Ava, Abigail, Olivia, Hannah, Sophia, Samantha.

Those are the top female baby names in the U.S. for 2006, provided by the Social Security Office.

Two things should strike you about this list. First, the name of Mary is absent. It’s not in the top 20 names supplied by Social Security, and one popular Web site, which collects data from 370,000 members, does not list Mary even in the top 100 -- as names prevail that seem intended to sound cute, such as Kaylee, Kylie, Hailey, Riley, and Bailey.

Strangely, naming girls after places has become popular. The top 100 also includes Brooklyn, Savannah, Sydney, and Peyton.

Mary’s disappearance as a popular name marks the end of an important historic trend. Throughout the Middle Ages, Mary had been the most popular name in several European countries. By 1650 it was tops in all of them. U.S. Social Security data online reaches back to 1880: Mary was the most popular name then; and it remained most popular until 1962, when Lisa took first place. Lisa remained number one throughout the ‘60s, while Mary drifted down the list. By 1976 Mary was out of the top 20, and the frilly and cutesy names began to predominate.

The other striking thing about the list is that not a single name is the name of an important female saint.

Suppose someone asked you to name great female saints. You might say Joan of Arc, Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena, Elizabeth of Hungary (or Mother Seton), Edith Stein, or Rose of Lima. Of these, only Catherine appears in the top 100.

Baby boys have fared somewhat differently. Male names tend to be stronger, and many saints’ names are strong names. So the top 10 male names last year were: Jacob, Michael, Joshua, Ethan, Matthew, Daniel, Christopher, Andrew, Anthony, and William--which are either saints’ names or Old Testament names.

Yet even so, Joseph fell out of the top 10 beginning in 1990. And cutesy names are becoming more popular even for boys, with Caden, Jayden, Brayden, and Hayden rising high in recent lists.

Why nowadays people pick frilly and even frivolous names for girls, but strong names for boys, is an interesting question that merits its own discussion. It wasn’t always so: at the height of the Great Depression, for instance, girls were given names such as Patricia, Helen, Margaret, Barbara, and Ruth.

But what interests me most is how the change in names reflects a change in Catholic piety, when about a third of all babies born are raised Catholic. Mary and other saints’ names are no longer popular generally, because Mary and other saints’ names are no longer popular among Catholics.

Let’s be clear. The “universal call to holiness,” which the Church teaches, means that every Catholic should strive to be a canonizable saint. If Catholics respond to this call, then doubtless among the coming generation there will be a St. Brianna and a St. Jake. Those dozens of frilly and cutesy names, which rise and fall in fashion every few years, should, in principle, be made just as timeless as Aidan or Augustine, because they will have been sanctified by the Christians who bore them.

But at the same time we should not neglect the real benefits that come from naming a child after a saint.

The first benefit is that the child has a patron in heaven. When a child is named after a saint, that saint--given our devotion and prayers--takes a special interest in the child, and becomes his defender and advocate. Why fail to appoint a patron for your child, if you could do so?

The second is that the child immediately has a “hero” to learn about and to imitate. Name a girl after Joan of Arc, for instance, and she’ll naturally want to learn more about St. Joan as soon as she can reflect on her own name. Godparents can give her images of her name saint; she can watch the great movies about St. Joan, or read books about her. A little Joan will look for signs in herself that she’s like the great Joan, and foster these. But none of these possibilities are open to a Riley or Kaylee -- who might instead imagine that her goal in life is simply to be as cute as her name.

A third benefit is that the child has an extra day to celebrate: the feast day of his saint, or “Name Day.” For many Catholic families, in fact, the celebration of a child’s Name Day is even grander and more elaborate than a birthday celebration.

This might seem like a small thing, but it’s not from a child’s point of view. Just think, a child who is given the gift of a saint’s name is thereby given the gift of 18 extra birthday-like celebrations by the time he grows up and leaves the house.

What’s in a name? Ancient cultures thought that someone’s name expressed his essence and identity. The Messiah was named for his purpose and mission: “Jesus” (Savior) and “Emmanuel” (God with us). Children were traditionally named after ancestors to imply that they would carry on the life of the family with fidelity.

Likewise, there is no better way to signify that a child is called to be a saint, than by naming him after a saint.

Michael Pakaluk is a visiting professor of philosophy at The Catholic University of America for 2007-8. His youngest son, Mark Dominic, was born on Jan. 18.