Showing posts with label Names. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Names. Show all posts

No More Nigels

October 21, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Calvin Trillin once proposed that Americans and the English have a name exchange. English people would start naming their kids things like Sonny and LeRoy. American babies would be Cyril or Cedric.
“Think of how proud the English would be on the first year that every single linebacker in the National Football League all-star team is named Nigel.”
Trilling wrote this a while ago, and the NFL still has no Nigels. But neither does English professional soccer. Well, there might be one — Nigel Roe-Coker, a midfielder who Wikipedia identifies as currently a “free agent.”

Don’t look for Nigels to start popping up on British rosters any time in the future. In 2016 in the UK, no babies were named Nigel. None. In 2017, there were eleven, and last year, eight. You can still find Nigels walking around in England, but they are getting long in the tooth. Brexiteer Nigel Farage, probably the best known, is 55. And while there are no footballer Nigels, elsewhere in sport, over at the snooker table, you’ll find Bond, Nigel Bond, though his ranking has fallen to 99th and he’s roughly the same age as Farage.

This quintessentially English name has gone the way of the shilling and half-crown. And as with other names that have fallen from favor, it’s very hard to say how or why.

Jordan, Ryan . . The Boys at the Back of the Bac

July 26, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

The birth mother in the novel I’m reading (The Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore) has named her child Mary. The adoptive parents promise to keep the name. But for them, the name Mary will not do. They call the child Emmie. They added Emma to Mary to get Mary-Emma, which became M.E., which became Emmie.

The difference in names reflects the social difference. The birth mother is from a small town in Wisconsin.  A foster parent who cared briefly for the child describes her as “not the sharpest tool in the shed.” The adoptive parents live in the university town (presumably patterned after Madison). The mother runs an expensive French restaurant (“Le Petit Moulin served things that sounded like instruments — timbales and quenelles . . .”) Her husband is a scientist. So baby Mary becomes Emmie. The Emmies of the world will have richer childhoods than the Marys. They will do better in school. They will have brighter futures.

The name-class connection is even stronger in France, as I’ve learned from Baptiste Coulmont. Each year, he blogs a graph showing the percentages of students who receive a très bien on the bac, a national test taken by all high school students.* Here are the results for 2019.

(Click for a larger view. The original is on Coulmont’s blog.)

Once again, girls do better than boys, and once again it’s the same girls — Alice and Diane, Louise and Adèle — who score très bien at a rate of roughly 20% or more. And each year, among the boys with Anglo names — Bryan, Ryan, Jordan, Dylan — less than one in twenty rate top honors. William does not do as well as his French counterpart Guillaume.

Here is just the left side of the graph, where the boys with the American names hang out.

The point, as M. Coulmont noted out in a comment when I blogged the 2016 bac, is the “cultural autonomy” of the French working class. In the US and probably elsewhere, fashions in names, like fashions in clothes, filter down through the class system. I remember that the names my upper-middle class, Upper West Side friends were choosing for their kids in the late 80s and early 90s — names like Oliver and Sophia, Noah and Olivia — were unusual at the time but became widely popular twenty years later.

But in France starting in the late twentieth century, the working class looked not upwards in the social system but outside of it, outside of the country entirely. They looked to the US as represented in TV shows and there found Jordan, Ryan, and the others.

* All this assumes a strong correlation between social class and performance on the bac and other school measures. I’m not familiar with research on this topic in France, but I would guess that the correlation is as strong as it is in the US.

Where’s Charlie?

June 13, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

The trend in how we address one another is towards informality. But it also seems that there’s a counter-trend in names — a trend away from informal and diminutive versions of names. 

This occurred to me as I was reading two recent posts — one by Tristan Bridges , the other by Philip Cohen  — that discuss the name Charlie. Charles as a name for boys has been in decline for a long while, but recently, since about 2000, Charlie has been on the rise for both girls and boys.

(These graphs are from Tristan Bridges. Click on an image for a larger view.)

Philip and Tristan are interested in the question of androgyny in name trends and its possible connection to changes in gender in society at large. But what came to my mind was a different question:  What happened to Chuck?  Birth certificates with Charles on the dotted line may have been more numerous in decades long past, but many of those boys went by Chuck or Charlie or Charley, even as they grew to adulthood. Today, Charles is Charles, at least that’s my impression.

Unfortunately, our main source of data on names, the Social Security website, is of no use here. It logs only the official name. So for names in use I turned to a different source — the NFL. The database uses the names that players were known by regardless of what might have been on their birth certificates. So while the Social Security Agency might have recorded the 1950s Giants quarterback as Charles Conerly, on the field and the sports pages, he was Charlie. If you remember him, you probably also remember Chuck — not Charles — Bednarik, who played center and linebacker for the Eagles.* In fact, in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, when a total of 89 Chucks, Charlies, and Charleys entered the NFL, there was only one Charles, a guy named Smith, who lasted only one season.

That was then.

In the current century, the preferred version by far is Charles, which outnumbers the others combined by a ratio of four to one.

A similar way, the Mike is giving way to the more formal Michael.

I suspect that this pattern holds for other names that have maintained their popularity. Thomas instead of Tom or Tommy; James, not Jim or Jimmy; Richard rather than Rich, Rick, Ricky, Richie, or Dick.

There is one perennial name where the Social Security database turns out to be useful — William. Since at least 1900, it has never ranked lower than 20, and for most of that time, it has been in the top ten. But in early 20th century, the less formal Willie was also in the top 20.

Willie Mays (b. 1931) and Willie Nelson (b. 1933) both born before the great Willie decline that started in the 1940s while William remained popular. But I would guess that up until the last quarter-century or so, many of those Williams were known as Bill or Will or even Willie. 

Without a better source of data, all this is speculative. But as long as I’m speculating, here’s one more guess. The trend away from nicknames and towards formal names is especially pronounced among African Americans. For Whites, a diminutive like Jimmy might not raise questions of dignity. It’s a boys name, but that’s no threat to manhood among men who refer to themselves as good ol’ boys. But for Blacks, the name Jimmy, like the word boy itself, reverberates with other overtones.

The difference in name preference might also explain the NFL data. In 1959, when both Charley Conerly and Chuck Bednarik were still playing, the Black proportion of the NFL was only 12%. Today. It’s closer to 70%.

 * Bednarik played both offense and defense. He was probably the NFL’s last “60-minute man.”

I’ve Just Met a Face

January 3, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Each month, the Harvard Business Review has a feature called “Defend Your Research.” I confess, I am not a regular HBR reader, but as I was searching for something else, a serendipitous click whisked me to an episode of “Defend Your Research” that was about names, something I am interested in. The researcher, Anne-Laurier Sellier, had found that people look like their names. More specifically, people shown a photo of a stranger can make a better-than-chance guess as to what that person’s name is.(The HBR article is here.)

I was a tad skeptical. Hadn’t we been through something like this before with men named Dennis choosing to become dentists and women named Florence living in Florida? At least that research had a theory to explain the supposed connection — “implicit egotism” — even if the data turned out to be less than what met the researchers’ eye.* And now we have people named Charlotte choosing to look like a Charlotte?

Plausible or not, the empirical findings about faces and names were interesting, and I was curious to try my luck. Conveniently, Sellier had provided HBR two examples.

George, Scott, Adam, Bruce. Which could it be? “What if it's just that the other names on the list were rarer and less likely?” asks Scott Berinato, the HBR interviewer.

We controlled for that by offering only choices that were as popular as the actual name, based on the frequency of use. We controlled for most things we could think of, including ethnicity, name length, and the socioeconomic background of the subjects and of the people in the photos.

Any good researcher would control for these things. Everyone knows that. But “Bruce?” My spider sense suggested that the names Bruce and Scott are not really equivalent in popularity. To check, I went to the Social Security database on names.

The guy on the left looks like he’s about 40, the one on the right, early 30s. The HBR article came out in 2017. I guessed that the research was done a couple of years earlier. So I looked up the numbers for boy baby-names in 1975 for the older guy, 1983 for the younger. Here are the results.

And what are the answers to the name-that-face quiz? The man on the left is Scott. The man on the right is James. The correct name is two to three times more frequent than the second-most popular name on the list. It’s possible that Sellier’s subjects were putting together their estimate of the man’s age and their intuitive knowledge of name popularity. A better design might have been to show people four pictures of men roughly the same age and ask, “Which one is Scott?”

Maybe Sellier just picked the wrong examples to illustrate her point. After all, she says that she and her fellow researchers did this study in the US, France, and Israel and got positive results in all three countries. And they do have a theory — that people change their appearance so as to conform with the cultural stereotype of their name. “In America people presumably share a stereotype of what a Scott looks like. . . and Scotts want to fit that stereotype.”

I haven’t looked at Sellier’s publications. All I know is what I see in the HBR. Maybe, knowing that the HBR interviewer was named Scott, she picked a couple of photos — one Scott, one not-Scott — just for this occasion and selected Bruce and the other names on the spur of the moment. Still, I assume that a researcher being interviewed for a feature called “Defend Your Research” would bring examples that best illustrate her ideas. If this is the best she’s got, I’m afraid I remain unconvinced


* For more on Dennis the dentist, see this 2018 post by Andrew Gelman (here  and follow the links.

Camille — a Name That’s Bucking the Trend (in France)

July 19, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Harper, Avery, Aubrey, Riley, Addison were among the most popular fifty names for girls last year. These fit a general pattern — first they are names for boys, then become acceptable and often stylish for girls.

Often, once a name has crossed the gender line, parents of boys find it less and less attractive. In an earlier post (here), I referred to this as the “there goes the neighborhood” effect. The lower-status group (in this case girls) move in, the higher-status group leaves. And they don’t come back.

Here’s Aubrey:

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

It doesn’t always happen that way, maybe not even most of the time. Charles Seguin has graphed several names, and in many cases the popularity of the name for boys increases even as the name grow popular for girls.

(Click on an image for a larger view.
The lines don’t go in opposite directions, and are often closely parallel, popularity rising and falling for girls and boys and roughly the same time. But in every case — 27 names in all (I did not copy the other two of Seguin’s graphs)  — once the name becomes more frequent for girls, once the blue line crosses to be above the red line, game over. Girls with that name continue to outnumber boys. (Seguin’s paper is here.)

Things may be different in France, at least for one name. Baptiste Coulmont this week tweeted a graph of the name Camille. I know of only three French Camilles, two male — the Impressionist (or is it post-Impressionist?) artist Pissaro and the composer Saint-Saens, both born in the 1830s – and one female, sculptor Camille Claudel, sister of poet Paul Claudel, mistress of Rodin, born in 1864. (I know about her only because I saw the 1988 film with Isabel Adjani.)

Coulmont graphs the ratio of girl Camilles to boy Camilles. Through the first half of the 20th century, the name was twice as popular for boys. Then that relative poularity reverses until, by the turn of this century, there are 15 times as many girl babies given that name. But after 2000, the trend reverses towards boys just as rapidly as it had 30 years earlier for girls. The girl-boy ratio falls from 15:1 to 2:1.

Here is the graph showing frequqencies.

As might be expected, as the popularity of Camille among girls soared, the name lost popularity among boys, falling by 50% over the course of the 1990s. But then came the unusual reversal. As the name lost favor for girls, in rebounded among boys.  Why are French boys returning to the Camille neighborhood as the girls flee? Coulmont does not offer any explanation, only the data. I don’t know enough about current French culture to speculate. For the few other androgynous French names I could find — Dominique, Claude, Yannick — the trends in popularity go in the same directions, separated sometimes by a few years. Camille is unique.

Names 2017: Boys and Girls Together

May 15, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Boys names can become girls names, rarely the reverse. But that is true only of individual names. With the overall distribution of names, in at least one way, boys are becoming more like girls.

When a name crosses over from one gender to the other, girls follow the boys. A name that had been exclusively male starts to gain popularity for girls, with a consequent loss in popularity for boys.  It’s the “there goes the neighborhood” effect that Stanley Lieberson first pointed out. When girls start moving in, boys move out. (See this post).

For example, around 1960, Brook started to rise in popularity as a name for boys. Barley ten years later, the name was adopted by parents of girls. In a decade this girls  name quintupled in popularity. The number were still small, but where before it was not even in the top thousand, it rose to nearly #500 in popularity. Parents felt they could no longer give a boy that name, and Brook soon became an all-girl neighborhood. With an “e” added, Brooke eventually broke into the top 50, while baby boy Brooks all but disappeared.

(The graphic is from Baby Name Voyager. Click to enlarge.)

But if we look at changing patterns in names —  the variety and variability—  the genders switch places.  The curve of boys names is becoming more girl-like.

Fashions in names have resembled fashions in clothes. Women can wear a variety of colors and styles; men’s choices are more limited. Look at prom pictures. The guys are all wearing pretty much the same black tux. Everyday business wear for men widens the spectrum only slightly. Remember how Obama was pilloried by the right-wing for wearing a tan suit rather than the usual gray or black that all other men wear. But for a woman, it can be an embarrassment to be seen in a dress worn by even one other woman.

Similarly in names, parents of boys were happy to give their sons the same old names —  William, Christopher, John, etc. Boys could be given the same name as the father. But for girls, parents were more likely to want a name that was different (but not too different). One of the trends of the last several decades is that parents of both sexes have tried to come up with less common (but not weird) names.  Consequently the sheer number of different names has burgeoned. Compared with names in 1997, the number of girls names had increase by 60%. But for boys the number had more than doubled. Boys are still trailing girls, but they’re trying to catch up.

The increase in names is not simply a matter of an increase in babies. In fact, more babies were born in 1997 than in 2017.

The trend towards a more female-like variety also appears in the proportion of babies accounted for by the most popular names. Forty years ago, nearly 38% of all boys had a name that was among the 20 most popular. For girls, the corresponding rate was 26%. Parents of girls were more likely to look for less common names.

That trend – the search for more unusual names – increased for both sexes, but more so for boys.  By last year, the boy-girl gap of forty years ago had narrowed to one percentage point.

The desire for something new also means that fashions change more rapidly. Traditionally, women’s clothing styles came and went in a year or two or even in a season while men could keep wearing the first suit they’d ever bought (if it still fit). But fashions in male names (and probably in clothing too) have become more fleeting. Look at the top 20 names for each gender at 20-year intervals.

Of the top 20 boys names in 1997, more than half had been there 20 years earlier. For girls, only five of the top names of 1977 remained in the top 20. Jump ahead twenty years to 2017. Now, among the boys, only 5 names from 20 years earlier are still popular. And for girls, only two — Emily and the surprisingly durable Madison.

The convergence might be part of a general trend towards less rigid gender roles. If so, then the trend towards a greater variation in boys names should be slower in regions that are less evolved when it comes to gender roles. Or perhaps it’s part of the change towards viewing the child as a unique and very special individual, one who deserves a unique and very special name. That change in turn may have a lot to do with the decrease in the number of children. But these are just highly speculative guesses.

UPDATE: Tristan Bridges has much better graphs showing these same trends. He uses the top 10 rather than the top 20 and finds that in 2017, for the first time since 1880 when the census started keeping the count of names, the top 10 girls names accounted for a higher (though only very slightly higher) proportion of all girls names than the corresponding proportion for boys.  His post is here.

Joan — An Old Name For a Young Pelvis

November 30, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

What to name a mechanical vagina? It’s not a question most of us have to deal with on a daily basis. Or ever. But then, most of us are not trying to learn how to insert an IUD.

For her Vox podast “The Impact” Sarah Kliff recently visited a Delaware clinic for doctors and nurses who would be mastering the art of LARCs (long-acting reversible contraceptives). Inserting an IUD properly is an acquired skill – even gynecologists may be clumsy at first –  so the learners practice on artificial vaginas.  Ms Kliff, in the spirit of participatory journalism, was taking a stab at it. Here’s a brief excerpt from her attempt.  The “robotic pelvis” she was trying her hand on was named Joan.

LARCs are effective. After Colorado offered them free of charge in 2009, the rate of births and abortions among teens decreased by more than 40%. Among women 20-24, the decrease was 20%. (Source:

The dramatic changes occurred mostly among Colorado’s youth. Very few of them were named Joan. Joan is not the name of a teenage girl. Teenage girls are named Emily, Hannah, Elizabeth, Taylor, Hannah. Among the young named Joan, boys outnumber girls by at least five to one. Joan used to be popular for girls. In the 1930s, it was consistently among the top ten. In her heyday, Joan accounted for 1-2% of all births, more than the most popular girls names today. Take that, Emma.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

That was the. For the past quarter-century, Joan hasn’t been in the top 1,000. The most common age for women named Joan is 78. Joans who might need an IUD or other LARC (green in the graph below) are far outnumbered by the Joans whose childbearing days are behind them. (I drew the fertility line at the generous age of 55.)

So why did the clinic in Delaware name their robotic pelvis Joan rather than Ashley or Madison (both in the top six among today’s 15-year olds)? I have no idea.

Flashback Friday — Plus Ça Change

July 7, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

 A new cohort of French 18-year olds took the baccalauréat last month, but the names at the top and bottom of the distribution are pretty much the same as last year.

In France, kids’ names are a pretty good indicator of how well they’ll do on le bac – the test that determines how good a university they can attend. As I blogged a year ago:

A little data ’bout Jacques and Diane
Two French kids taking the college entrance exam.
Over in France it’s known as
le bac
Diane often gets
très bien, not so much Jacques.

The baccalauréat exam taken by French students at the end of high school serves as qualification for university admissions and scholarships and for certain jobs. Those who pass at the highest level get très bien. The other levels are bièn, assez bièn, pass, and not pass. For some reason, the government publishes the results for each prénom. This year, 89 students named Jacques took the exam. Of these, 75 passed, but only 11 of them at the très bien level.

That was then. It’s also now. One of sociology’s crucial insights is that rates are remarkably stable even though the individuals who make up those rates change from year to year. The Dianes who took the bac in 2017 are not the Dianes who took it the year before, but their rate of très bien was again over 20%.  And as ever, the kids with Anglo names – Kevin, Jordan, Dylan, Anthony, Samantha, Melissa, Cindy, et al. – cluster at the low end. Less than one in twenty managed a très bien.

Baptiste Coulmont (here) created this graph of the 2017 results.

(Click on the chart for a larger view.)

As in previous years, the highest scoring names are female. Of the fourteen names with more than 20% among the très bien, Joseph is the only male.

The chart shows only the more popular names. For more on some of the rarer names – Guillemette, Quitterie, and others – see last year’s post (here).

UPDATE: July 9. M. Coulmont now has an interactive chart (here) with data for the years since 2012. 

A Boy Named Sue Ashley

August 12, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Has anyone here ever seen the movie ‘Gone With the Wind’?” I ask my class during a discussion of names. “Do you remember that there was a character named Ashley Wilkes?” I say. “That role was played by Leslie Howard.”

Most students have not seen GWTW, and they are surprised to learn that Leslie Howard as Ashley Wilkes is the one on the left. They know that Leslie can be a boy’s name, though it’s mostly for girls. But Ashley? Yes, Ashley. Until about 1939 (the year “Gone With the Wind” was released), Ashley was unknown as a name for girls. As a name for boys it was not common – most years, fewer than 10 per 100,000 – but it was not weird, certainly not among Southern gentry.

(Click on an image for a slightly larger view.)

Then starting around 1950 and accelerating in the 1960s, Ashley took off among girls, followed by a smaller boom among boys. (The y-axes on the graphs are not the same scale. Male Ashleys at their peak in 1980 numbered only about 40 per 100,000. In the peak year for girls, the rate was nearly 700 per 100,000.)

Boys names becoming girls names is not unusual. Nameberry has a list of more than sixty names that have “morphed from blue to pink.”  The reverse almost never happens. Leslie is a good example. Until 1940, it was rare among girls, fairly common for boys. Up until about 1910, it ranked in the top 100 names for boys.

In the mid-1940s, Leslie became increasingly popular for girls, increasingly unpopular for boys. These contrasting trajectories suggest a sort of “there goes the neighborhood” effect. As girls move in, boys move out. Eventually the name becomes thought of as feminine, and parents no longer consider it fit for boys.

Kelly follows a similar pattern. For boys, the name is unusual; for girls it’s unheard of.

Then, around 1950, the number of boy Kellys triples in a decade, though those numbers are still relatively small – only in its peak year, 1968, does it break into the top 100 and then just barely at #97.  But following the boys by ten years or so, girl Kellys come on strong.  From ranking 904th in 1950 Kelly rose in popularity so that by 1966 she was in the top 20, where she remained for another fifteen years. The gender tipping point came in the late 1960s. Kelly became a girl’s name, and parents of boys stop choosing it.

The unusual thing about Ashley is that it reverses this pattern. The increased popularity for boys follows the girl Ashley boom by about ten years. That is, a small but increasing number of parents continued to name boys Ashley even after the name had become established as a name for girls.

Despite this exception, the unwritten rule of naming seems to be that you can give a girl a predominantly male name; she and her name will still be accepted. You might even be in the vanguard of a trend, like the parents in the late 1940s who named their daughters Ashley. But you can’t send a boy out into the world with the name Sue.                                        

Males are more constricted by norms of masculinity than are females by the norms of femininity. And not just in naming. Girls will do boy things, but the reverse is less common. It’s more acceptable for a girl to be a “tomboy” than for a boy to be a “sissy.”  Girls will watch movies targeted at boys, but boys shy away from girl-centered films. Among adults as well, women give favorable evaluations to TV shows targeted at men,  but men are less able to appreciate shows outside their narrow band of interest. (Walt Hickey at FiveThirtyEight thinks men are “sabotaging” women’s shows by giving them low ratings.) 

The same is true in fashion, where women can choose from a wider variety of colors and styles, including those usually for men. Men’s choices  are more constrained. Men will not wear skirts, but women will wear pants and even pants suits, an item of clothing I mention only as a cheap way of getting to one final name.

It follows the usual pattern – a male name, albeit an uncommon one, declining in popularity, crosses over and becomes a name for girls. Its popularity increases rapidly. Up to a point. That point was 1993. Hillary was doing fine before that, but then for some reason, parents of daughters were no longer with her.

Jacques and Diane

July 8, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

A little data ’bout Jacques and Diane
Two French kids taking the college entrance exam.
Over in France it’s known as
le bac
Diane often gets
très bien, not so much Jacques.

The baccalauréat exam taken by French students at the end of high school serves as qualification for university admissions and scholarships and for certain jobs. Those who pass at the highest level get très bien. The other levels are bièn, assez bièn, pass, and not pass. For some reason, the government publishes the results for each prénom. This year, 89 students named Jacques took the exam.  Of these, 75 passed, but only 11 of them at the très bien level.

Here are the results for the names with the highest percent of très bien. (Only names with 100 or more are included. Sixty-seven percent of those named Pavel, Louis-Raphael, and Hans got très bien, but there were only three of each.)

(Click on an image for a slightly larger view.)

And here are the names with the lowest proportion of très biens. 

All the high-scoring names are female. At the bottom, the gender distribution is more even. What you can’t see from this is that these results are remarkably similar to those of previous years. French sociologist Baptiste Coulmont has posted interactive name-cloud graphs for the data each year (here) – no doubt the graph for this year will be up soon. Below is a non-interactive screenshot of the 2015 results. The x-axis is the percent of très biens, the y-axis the number of students with each name (names with fewer than 200 candidats were excluded). You can find Diane and many of her high-scoring peers from 2016 on the right; Bryan, Tiffany, and the other slower students are on the left.

(For a slightly larger view, click on the image. Better yet, go to Coulmont's Website)

The year-to-year consistency is striking. In 2016, Diane was fourth highest in percent of très biens. Last year, she was #2, and in the years before that, #13, #2, and #9. Alice, Josephine, and Clotilde, were also in the top ten last year. At the other end, Jordan, Dylan, Bryan, Anissa, Anthony, and Steven all scored in the lowest ranks this year and last. And to state the obvious,  the 584 (of 601) Dylans who scored less below très bien this year cannot be the same Dylans as the 956 (of 982) who did so last year.

Social class has much to do with it. The children of the wealthy get educational advantages. They also get different names. Coulmont identifies some upscale names too infrequent to appear in his graphs but which typically  have high rates of très bien – Guillemette, Quitterie, Anne-Claire, Sibylle, Marguerite, Domitille. I confess that I am not familiar with the class subtleties of French names. I didn’t even know that Quitterie and Domitille were, in fact, names. And then there were those names familiar to my American ear –Kevin, Cindy, Sandra, Alison, Kelly, in addition to those already mentioned. Why are all the Anglo-name kids sitting in the low end of the scale?

One explanation is that these names are chosen by parents who watch American soap operas on French TV, parents not likely to be found in Bottin Mondain (roughly parallel to the Social Register). Possibly. But that doesn’t explain Kevin, a name that has not appeared on any soap. Maybe Angle names just have a middlebrow appeal in the same way that French imports like Michelle and Nicole came to enjoy great popularity in the US.

If only we had a breakdown by name of SAT scores, would it show any consistent patterns?.

Names Ending in N

January 3, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

A post at FiveThirtyEight (here), by Nate Silver and Allison McCann, has the title, “How to Tell Someone’s Age When All You Know Is Her Name.”* But if the person in question is a male, you might make an equally good guess with one letter – the final one.

In a 2009 post (here), I had some graphs showing the rise of boys names that end in the letter N.

 That trend that had gone largely unnoticed, probably thanks to the availability heuristic.  It’s much easier to think of names and words that start with a given letter rather than those that have that letter elsewhere. Especially with names, we’re more likely to think in terms of initials.

Those data were from 2006. The trend has continued in strength. The FiveThirtyEight post shows the historical change in a slightly different way. Instead of looking at the popular names in each year, Silver and McCann show the age range of people with each name.  Here are the twenty-five oldest names.  The graph shows the median and the inter-quartile range. For example, the median Willard is 65 (the median for all males is about 37); half of all Willards are between ages 51 and 75.

And here are the youngest 25.

Among the oldsters, only Norman and Herman sport the final N. But in the 3-10 median age group, 14 of the top 25, including eight of the eleven youngest, end in N. 

I am at a loss as to how to explain this. It could just be one of those cases of unintentional and unconscious influence. With some names, the imitation with slight variation is more overt – Aidan, Jayden, Brayden, Kayden, et al. But for those others – Landon, Mason, Julian, and the rest – maybe there’s something about that final N that, like the music of Mumford and Sons or Kings of Leon, sounds just right to the ears of 21st-century parents.

* The post appear May but was recently tweeted, which is how I discovered it.

Names – The Last Shall Be First

October 16, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

What to name the baby has become more and more of a problem. A few generations ago, you could give a boy a name that had always been in the family. When is the last time your heard a parent call, “Junior, come here”?  Parents in a high-status family could give a son a family name as a first name. Calvin Trillin used to say that his upper-class Yale classmates in the 1950s were named things like Thatcher Baxter Hatcher, III (and had nicknames like Mutt and Biff).

In more recent generations, parents have been choosing names the way they might choose a work of art for the living room. It has to be different – you don’t want the same thing that everyone else has – but not so different that it’s weird. And if you are a college-educated person of some taste, an enlightened person, you don’t want a name that’s the equivalent of those cottage-and-stream cliches or Elvis on black velvet.

Hence, the proliferation of books with advice on what to name the baby. The graph from Google nGrams shows the number of mentions of the phrases “what to name the baby” and “baby names” in books since 1900.

Even during the baby boom (1946-1964), interest in baby names did not increase. That boom didn’t start until the late 1970s. 

My favorite baby-name book was Beyond Jennifer & Jason : The New Enlightened Guide to Naming Your Baby.  As the title says, you want to get beyond the currently popular names – the book was first published in the 1980s – and note also that word Enlightened.  The title of the most recent edition is Beyond Jennifer & Jason, Madison & Montana: What to Name Your Baby Now.

As the lede in a Huffington post (here) put it, “We’re always looking for baby names that are wonderful but also unusual.” It then offered a list of “100 great names given to fewer than 100 babies in the U.S. last year.” The names on the 100 under 100 are not so unusual as to be weird. Many are revivals (Winifred and Mamie, Roscoe and Chester), some are foreign transplants (Pilar and Romy, Laszlo and Aurelio), some are borrowed from other things – flora and fauna mostly.

Then are the last names that have become first names
  • Baker
  • Baxter
  • Mercer
  • Shepherd
  • Slater
These follow others that have already become widely popular, though they first started out as names that enlightened, upscale parents chose – like Carter as in Burden (b. 1942), identified by the Times as a “progressive patrician”). Last year, Carter was the 32nd most popular name for boys. Here are others in the top 100:
  • Mason (4th)
  • Hunter (36th)
  • Taylor (59th for girls)
  • Tyler (63rd)
  • Parker (74th)
  • Cooper (84th)
Like Thatcher Baxter Hatcher, these names suggest ancestry going back to the Mayflower and before that to landed English gentry. But only to our American ears. No upper-class British parent would have given a kid these names.  Like Thatcher and Baxter and Hatcher, they are the names of commoners whose family names come from an occupation.  These are ordinary tradespeople. (Hatcher is topographical – like Hill or Forest – rather than occupational. It denotes someone who lived near the gate or hatch. Baxter is a variant of Baker.)

Parker et. al are not so popular across the pond. Only two of these trade-names made the UK top 100 last year –  Mason (27th) and Tyler (37th) – and I suspect that neither of these will turn up very often on the rolls of Eton.  In Britain, if you want to suggest good family, you don’t give your kid a name like Baxter or Cooper.  George, Harry, William, and James will do nicely, thank you, especially if they are prefaced by something like Prince.

When Thiago Met Daleyza

September 16, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Fashions in names are like fashions in clothes in at least one respect – they change more quickly for females than for males. When it comes to naming a boy, the same old styles will do, and very few seem out of date. But with girls, it’s easy to think of names like Ethel, Edna, Shirley, Doris – popular at one time, but today, nobody’s would give that name to their daughter.  But William, Richard, and Robert stick around generation after generation . . . at least until now.

That gender difference seems to be changing.  Even as recently as 1980, six of the top 10 boys names had been in the top 10 a decade earlier. For girls, only four remained in that group.

This was in the reign of Jennifer and Michael. Michael had been in #1 or #2 from 1954 through 2008. The Jennifer era was shorter, not 55 years but 15 – from 1970 through 1984. 

That was then. In the most recent decade, the turnover in the Top 10 has been more rapid for boys than for girls.  Six girls names but only four boys names stayed on that list through the decade.

The old reliable boys names – William, John, Robert, James – are being replaced by more faddish entries.  Jacob and Joshua may have hung around near the top for 20 or 30 years, but James and Robert stayed for 60 years or more.  My guess is that in ten years or less, newcomers like Jayden, Mason, Noah, and Liam will no longer be in the top 10, nor will the fading old-timers like Michael and Daniel, though their drop in popularity will not be as precipitous. Generally, the faster they rise, the faster they fall.

Among the less common names, volatility is much greater. The biggest  leaps upward in rank occur far down on the list.  Here are the biggest movers in 2013.

The small numbers make for greater volatility.  With only two hundred Thiagos born in 2012, an additional hundred in 2013 made for a jump in rank of 374 places.  It’s also worth noting that several of the names on the list are inspired by figures in the media – Thiago and Forrest (mixed martial arts), Daleyza (reality TV), Jayceon (music), and probably others I’m too lazy to look up.  Usually, fashions in names spread via influence within the population. The rise in popularity starts gradually.  Parents-to-be get wind of a cool name by hearing what parents around them have chosen. The next year still more parents see kids with that name, and the trend grows.  By contrast, the influence of distant figures in the media is more sudden.  A graph of changes in popularity – steep or gradual – can give you a good idea as to whether the influence is coming from outside or from within the population, even if you’ve never heard of “Larrymania.” (See this post  from two years ago, inspired by Gabriel Rossman’s writings about how songs become hits.)

If fashions in boys names are changing almost as rapidly as changes in girls names, what are we to make of this convergence?  We’re moving away from those once durable names – the Roberts and the Williams – and we’re putting more value on less frequent and more nearly unique names. Philip Cohen (here) speculates that the trend towards more individual baby names reflects a change in how we think about children.  In contrast to 19th-century assumptions about children, we now see each child as a unique individual, important to us for her or his special personality.  The child’s place in the family is all about interpersonal relations rather than economic contributions. In Viviana Zelizer’s famous phrase about this change (roughly in the period from the 1870s to the 1930s), the child has become “economically worthless but emotionally priceless.”

Gender differences might be following a similar pattern, with more attention paid to the emotions and social life of boys, their unique personalities, rather than simply their economic abilities and prospects.  We see a movie like “Boyhood,” nod our heads appreciatively, and say, “Yes, that is what boyhood is all about.” It’s hard if not impossible to imagine a similar story told in 1850 and based on 1850s ideas and assumptions about boys. It would be similarly difficult for Americans of 1850 to understand Linklater’s film (which if you haven't seen, you should).

A century ago, a good father could be emotionally distant so long as he was a reliable breadwinner.   Now, we  expect dads to take part in the emotional life of the family, once pretty much a female preserve.  Maybe the trend in boys names is a further sign of the gradual erosion of old and rigid distinctions between boys and girls, men and women. If so, I wonder if the people who most object to Jayden and Landon and Grayson* and to the greater variety and variability of boys names are also those who insist most strongly on maintaining those traditional gender-role boundaries.

* Boys names ending in “n” have had an impressive rise in popularity. The final “n” now dwarfs names ending in the other 25 letters. For graphs, see this 2009 post.

The Daughter Also Rises

October 4, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

I still recall a Times wedding announcement from a few decades ago. The bride’s given name was Scarlett.

Why, I wondered, would someone name their daughter Scarlett? The text of the announcement pretty much answered that. Her debutante party had been a Gone With the Wind Ball, with the family’s estate transformed into Tara. 

Names are always, to some extent, a projection of parental ideas onto the child.* The question is: to what extent? It’s one thing to name your kid Jayden or Isabella because you think it sounds like a cool name – unusual enough to be hip, not so unusual as to be weird.  It’s another to saddle your child with your very specific fantasy derived from some novel or movie you imagine recreating in real life.  (Scarlett, I recall, had become an actress, so she may have been comfortable playing out other people’s fantasies, even her mother’s.) 

I had thought that this sort of naming had waned, so I was a bit surprised by this sentence in a post at The Monkey Cage, a political science blog:
First up is Brett Ashley Leeds, a professor at Rice University who has published widely on issues of international security, especially alliances.
I know nothing about Prof. Leeds or her work or her parents.  Nor do I have any idea what effect her Hemingway-derived name might possibly have had on her.  I expect that she has not taken up with journalists suffering from what we now call erectile dysfunction or with 19-year old toreros.  (I would also expect that she has long wearied of references like these.) I do note however that her post, “Why is work by women systematically devalued?” has a sentence about the effects street names might have on children. She writes, “from honorary names . . .they will receive messages that are likely to produce a subconscious bias.” I’m reluctant to make any such guesses about cause and effect.  But perhaps the messages that kids get from the names their parents give them is something Brett Ashley knows about.

* Names are parental projections, of course, only in societies where parents are free to choose the names of their children.

False Messiahs -- 1400 of Them

August 12, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Does a baby have to earn its name?

A judge in Tennessee has changed a baby’s name. The parents had gone to the judge in a dispute over the baby’s last name. They agreed on the given names – Messiah DeShawn Martin. But the judge deleted the Messiah and changed the order of the other two. The child is Martin DeShawn McCollough, at least for now. (The story is here among many other places.)

The judge acted on behalf of all Christianity.
The word ‘Messiah is a title and it’s a title that has only been earned by one person and that one person is Jesus Christ.
She also claimed that the name Messiah would harm the child.*
It could put him at odds with a lot of people, and at this point he has had no choice in what his name is.
That last part is indisputable. The kid is only seven months old. But the judge is bucking a trend.  Messiah as a given name is on the rise.

Last year, 761 other Messiahs entered the US population bringing the total to over 1400. They got their names the old-fashioned way. They didn’t “earn” them. Only one Messiah, if the judge is correct, earned the name.

The judge didn’t say how she felt about Jesus. But for some reason, the coming of Messiah matches a waning in the popularity of Jesus. 

*In an earlier post, I noted that in Italy, a civil official to “advise and dissuade overly-creative parents” who propose names that are “ridiculous, shameful, or embarrassing.” I added that in the US, no such restrictions applied.  The parents have appealed the judge’s decision, and I expect that they’ll win.

Hudson on Hudson

May 30, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Maybe geographical names are like t-shirts.  The farther away the place, the more attractive the shirt.  Local references, not so much.  You don’t see many New Yorkers wearing I NY t-shirts, certainly not here on the banks of the Hudson.

A week ago, I got an e-mail birth announcement from a local West Side politician, Ken Biberaj (politicians have extensive contact lists).  He and his wife (a handsome young couple if ever there was) named their son Hudson.

To my ear,  Hudson doesn’t really fit with their obviously Albanian surname. Maybe the Biberajs were in a New York state of mind. We do have a city and a river by that name.  Oh well, it’s different. Or so I thought.

A few day later, I was at a street fair on upper Broadway, and near a rather desultory clown who was making balloon figures, I heard a man call, “Hudson, don’t go too far away.”  And sure enough, there was a little blond Hudson, three or four years old.  A trend?   

It turns out that we New Yorkers are way behind the Hudson curve.  The name has been on the rise for the last 15 years. 

I just hadn’t noticed because the flood of Hudsons has been taking place far from the waters of the Hudson river.  In New York, New Jersey, and other Northeastern states, Hudson hasn’t yet broken into the top 100.  But in the South, in the Plains states, and the Mountain states, Hudson is doing quite well.  He’s not up there with Ethan, Mason, and Jacob, of course.  But in Utah, for example, Hudson was slightly more popular than Jayden and Lucas.  In Kansas, he placed well ahead of Brayden and Jayden (though not Aiden).  And in most other states, he ranks in the top 100, usually  between 25 and 75.  (The exceptions, besides the Northeast, are large states – California, Illinois, Florida.)

Five years ago, I wrote about the same pattern with Brooklyn (that blog post is here). This name for girls had been on the rise, but mostly in places far from the geographical Brooklyn. That pattern continues.

Until 1990, Brooklyn was not in the top 1000.  Since then she has risen dramatically, and is now in the top 30.  But not in New York and New Jersey, where she still can’t break into the top 100.  As I said in that post, if you’re trying to find girls named Brooklyn in Brooklyn, fuhgedaboudit. Go to Utah.  But Hudson may be different.

Bye-bye Hilary

February 1, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

I’m generally skeptical about claims that names in the media have a big impact on parents’ choices of what to name the baby (see this earlier post on “Twilight” names).  But Hilary Parker points out some examples where celebrity influence is unmistakable.  Like Farrah.

(Click on the graph for a larger view.)

“Charlie’s Angels” came to TV in 1976, and the angel prima inter pares was Farrah Fawcett.  This poster was seemingly everywhere. (And in 1976, that barely noticeable nipple was a big deal.)

But as with most names that rise quickly, Farrah went quickly out of style.  If you see a Farrah on a dating site listing her age as 29, she’s lying by six or seven years. 

Hilary is different.  The name grew gradually in popularity, probably flowing down through the social class system.  There was no sudden burst of popularity caused by the outside force of a celebrity name.  (See Gabriel Rossman’s post on endogenous and exogenous influences.)  Then in 1992, Hilary seemed to have been totally banned from the obstetrics ward. 

Surely, the effect came not from word of mouth but from a prominent Hilary (or in this case, the rarer spelling Hillary), the one who said she wasn't going to stay home and bake cookies..

Maybe now that Hillary is getting a favorable press – good reviews for her stint as Secretary of State – the name might return to its 1980s popularity.

Political Donations - Check the Name on the Check

October 1, 2012 
Posted by Jay Livingston 
Cross-posted at Sociological Images

Are people’s first names a clue as to which party they support? Chris Wilson at Yahoo  created this nifty interactive graphic from information on contributors of $200 or more. Mouse over a name-circle to see the proportion of Democratic and Republican donors. Or enter a name in the search box. For example, 60% of the 3000 Scotts gave to Republicans.


The most obvious difference is that women (or at least people with women’s names) are all to the Democratic side of the of midpoint. Men are mostly Republican, though several fall to the left of the midpoint. Bob is the farthest left – 61-39 Democrat – though Robert breaks Republican (55-45). Jim and James follow the same pattern, with the 57-43 split going from Democrat to Republican as you go from informal to formal. 
Among the women, Ellen is the most partisan Democrat (81-19), Ashley the least (52-48). If you change the view from numbers of people to amounts donated, the whole chart shifts to the right. Republicans pony up more money. Or to put it another way, the political big spenders break Republican (despite what Foxies like Tucker Carlson claim).


Among the women, Ashley, Heather, Tiffany, and Betty all lean to the right on the money scale. The Democratic Heathers may outnumber their Republican sisters, but the Republican Heathers have more money to donate to politicians. And similarly for just about every name, male or female.

Among the men, the Jonathan is now the most liberal, giving 55% of his money to the Democrats. In fact, Jonathan is the only man to the left of the midpoint. But while Jonathan is a Democrat, John gives 63% to the Republicans. The difference here is probably ethnic/religious. Jonathan (Old Testament, son of Saul) is Jewish. John (the Baptist, New Testament) is Christian. Age may also be a factor.

Younger, thirtysomething names like Heather and Ashley, Tyler and Clayton, lean to the right. So perhaps the youth vote, or at least the youth money, is not as firmly in the Democratic party as we might have thought.

Names and Character

September 8, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Tough uses the word “grit” a lot.
In today’s Times (here), Joe Nocera writes about a book, How Children Succeed, by Paul Tough.  Mr. Tough recommends that schools teach not just reading and math but “character” – traits like “resilience, integrity, resourcefulness, professionalism, and ambition.”

In the past few years, some psychologists have published peer-reviewed papers supposedly showing a relation between names and life choices or behavior. Dennis becomes dentist, George becomes a geologist and moves to Georgia.  It sounds silly, and it is. The research doesn’t hold up.  Andrew Gelman (here) has written about it. So have I (here).

But even when you know the systematic evidence, the anecdotal data jumps out at you. Like Mr. Tough and grit. 

Having endured “I presume” my entire life, I sympathize with Mr. Tough for the “jokes” he must have tired of long ago.  I just hope that the research on grit and schools is better than the research on names and personal choices.

Charting the Climb

August 9, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Isabella was the second most popular name for baby girls last year.  She had been number one for two years but was edged out by Sohpia.  Twenty-five years ago Isabella was not in the top thousand. 

How does popularity happen?  Gabriel Rossman’s new book Climbing the Charts: What Radio Airplay Tells Us about the Diffusion of Innovation offers two models.*   People’s decisions – what to name the baby, what songs to put on your station’s playlist (if your job is station programmer), what movie to go see, what style of pants to buy –  can be affected by others in the same position.  Popularity can spread seemingly on its own, affected only by the consumers themselves communicating with one another person-to-person by word of mouth.  But our decisions can also be influenced by people outside those consumer networks – the corporations or people who produce and promote the stuff they want us to pay attention to.

These outside “exogenous” forces tend to exert themselves suddenly, as when a movie studio releases its big movie on a specified date, often after a big advertising campaign.  The film does huge business in its opening week or two but adds much smaller amounts to its total box office receipts in the following weeks.   The graph of this kind of popularity is a concave curve.  Here, for example, is the first  “Twilight” movie.

Most movies are like that, but not all.  A few build their popularity by word of mouth.  The studio may do some advertising, but only after the film shows signs of having legs (“The surprise hit of the year!”).  The flow of information about the film is mostly from viewer to viewer, not from the outside. 

This diffusion path is “endogenous”; it branches out among the people who are making the choices.  The rise in popularity starts slowly – person #1 tells a few friends, then each of those people tells a few friends.  As a proportion of the entire population, each person has a relatively small number of friends.  But at some point, the growth can accelerate rapidly.  Suppose each person has five friends.  At the first stage, only six people are involved (1 + 5); stage two adds another 25, and stage three another 125, and so on.  The movie “catches on.” 

The endogenous process is like contagion, which is why the term “viral” is so appropriate for what can happen on the Internet with videos or viruses.   The graph of endogenous popularity growth has a different shape, an S-curve, like this one for “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”

By looking at the shape of a curve, tracing how rapidly an idea or behavior spreads, you can make a much better guess as to whether you’re seeing exogenous or endogenous forces.  (I’ve thought that the title of Gabriel’s book might equally be Charting the Climb: What Graphs of Diffusion Tell Us About Who’s Picking the Hits.)

But what about names, names like Isabella?  With consumer items  – movies, songs, clothing, etc. – the manufacturers and sellers, for reasons of self-interest, try hard to exert their exogenous influence on our decisions.  But nobody makes money from baby names.  Still, those names can be subject to exogenous effects, though the outside influence is usually unintentional and brings no economic benefit.  For example, from 1931 to 1933, the first name Roosevelt jumped more than 100 places in rank. (That was in an era when the popularity of names was more stable. Now, names are more volatile. Nowadays, 50 or more boys names may jump 100 places or more in a single year.)

When the Census Bureau announced that the top names for 2011 were Jacob and Isabella, some people (including, I think, Gabriel) suspected the influence of an exogenous factor – “Twilight.”  

 I’ve made the same assumption in saying (here) that the popularity of Madison as a girl’s name – almost unknown till the mid-1980s but in the top ten for the last 15 years – has a similar cause: the movie “Splash” (an idea first suggested to me by my brother).  I speculated that the teenage girls who saw the film in 1985 remembered Madison a few years later when they started having babies. 

Are these estimates of movie influence correct? We can make a better guess at the impact of the movies (and, in the case of Twilight, books) by looking at the shape of the graphs for the names.

Isabella was on the rise well before Twilight, and the gradual slope of the curve certainly suggests an endogenous contagion.  It’s possible that Isabella’s popularity was about to level off  but then got a boost in 2005 with the first book.  And it’s possible the same thing happened in 2008 with the first movie. I doubt it, but there is no way to tell.

The curve for Madison seems a bit steeper, and it does begin just after “Splash,” which opened in 1984.   Because of the scale of the graph, it’s hard to see the proportionately large changes in the early years.  There were zero Madisons in 1983, fewer than 50 the next year, but nearly 300 in 1985.  And more than double that the next year.  Still, the curve is not concave.  So it seems that while an exogenous force was responsible for Madison first emerging from the depths, her popularity then followed the endogenous pattern.  More and more people heard the name and thought it was cool.  Even so, her rise is slightly steeper than Isabella’s, as you can see in this graph with Madison moved by six years so as to match up with Isabella.

Maybe the droplets of “Splash” were touching new parents even years after the movie had left the theaters.


* Gabriel posted a short version about these processes when he pinch hit for Megan McCardle at the Atlantic (here).