The epic rise and fall of the name Heather


When people think of endangered species, they tend to think of the giant panda, the blue whale, or maybe the snow leopard. We need to add another group to the list: women named Heather.

A Quartz analysis of US baby-name data that goes back to 1880 finds that no name in history has become so popular and then flamed out quite like Heather.

At its peak in 1975, more than 24,000 girls were named Heather, making it the US’s third most popular girls name, after Jennifer and Amy. In 2017, it was the 1,129th most popular name, given to only 219 girls born that year.

Jennifer and Amy also have fallen in popularity, but not nearly as sharply as Heather.

Laura Wattenberg is the preeminent expert on US naming trends. Her Baby Name Wizard website is a trove of insights on the fascinating choices parents make when naming their kids. We asked her what in the heck happened to Heather.

Wattenberg says the rise and fall of Heather is exemplary of the faddish nature of American names. “When fashion is ready for a name, even a tiny spark can make it take off,” she says. “Heather climbed gradually into popularity through the 1950s and ’60s, then took its biggest leap in 1969, a year that featured a popular Disney TV movie called Guns in the Heather. A whole generation of Heathers followed, at which point Heather became a ‘mom name’ and young parents pulled away.”

Another possible cause of the name’s extreme downfall is the popular 1988 movie Heathers—the characters named Heather in the movie are evil. The data journalist Reuben Fischer-Baum examined this possibility for the website Deadspin, and found that while the movie was likely a contributor to the speed of the decline, the name was on its way out anyway.

While names come and go, Heather’s trajectory is special. Quartz examined the names that were once among the top five for girls or boys and then fell out of the top 1,000. Among the eight names that met this criteria, which all happened to be girl names, Heather had the fastest descent.

These names went from the top 5 to outside of the top 1,000 faster than any others

Name Last year in top 5 First year outside top 1,000 Years between
Heather 1978 2017 39
Debra 1957 1999 42
Donna 1960 2007 47
Betty 1940 1997 57
Carol 1946 2007 61
Joan 1933 1994 61
Shirley 1939 2006 67
Dorothy 1934 2005 71

Heather is unlikely to make a comeback in the near term, explains Wattenberg, because its sound is out of step with the times. “Current style favors liquid sounds dominated by long vowels,” she says. Liquid sounds are those that involve using the tip of the tongue and create air flow through the mouth. Examples of names with these characteristics include currently popular names like Liam, Noah, Aria, and Amelia. Shannon and Chad are good examples of names that, like Heather, don’t fit the current style due to their muted vowels.

If Heather is to make a comeback, it likely wouldn’t happen for another couple of generations. Names that return to popularity tend to do so after a 100-year cycle. For example, the name Clara, popular in the late 19th century, is now returning to prominence. When the current crop of Heathers are great-grandmothers, we may see a similar resurgence.