Smart Names — Test Scores and Social Class

August 19, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

“You’re still crushing it on the bac,” I told my friend Adele [not her real name].


“Well, not you, but your namesakes over in France.”

The bac is a national test taken by all high school seniors,. Each year, sociologist Baptiste Coulmont, publishes a graph showing the percentage of très bien for each name. (The other categories are assez bien, bien, and not passing.) Here are the results for 2020.

(Click for a larger view. Or view the graph on Coulmont’s site.)

Of the 550 or so girls named Adele, about 33% got très bien.* Only the Josephines did better. Every year, Adèle is in the top 10. In five of the last nine years, she’s been #1 or #2. My friend Adele (who lives in New York state, not France) told me I’d mentioned this to her before, “my name coming up over and over in France — it seems really odd though.”

But it’s not odd that the Adèles are always on the high end of the x-axis and the Kevins always at the other end. That's the basic idea of sociology — that society is a thing in itself with qualities and properties that are different from those of the individuals who make up that society. The individuals who take the bac are completely different from one year to the next — none of the 2019 Adèles and Kevins took the bac in 2020 —  but the rates are a property of the society, and unless the society changes, we can expect the rates to remain fairly consistent. 

To see this consistency, go to this page that Coulmont has created, enter a name into your browser’s search box, and click on the years going back from 2019 to 2012.

“But why,” asked my friend, “would having a certain name make you do well on an exam?”

Of course it’s not the name that causes kids to do better. It's who gives their kids which name. In France, Anglo boys names are popular among less well-off, less educated, and maybe less smart parents, who watch soap operas imported from the US or other anglophone countries. The French elite do not watch the soaps or at least are not so taken with the names of the characters. Instead they prefer names like Eleonore and Garance. Those names are fairly rare, but the few girls with these names do well on the bac.  Other elite names have frequencies too low to make the chart (<200): Guillemette, Quitterie, Domitille — very upscale and with a high percent of très bien.

My friend, though not a sociologist, is very smart, and I wondered why she didn’t immediately see that it was all about social class. The link between social class and test performance is well-known. But what about the connection between social class and tastes in names? It’s possible that names in the US do not divide along class lines as rigidly as in France, but the distinctions still exist.

“Suppose you looked at a professor’s class list on the first day and had to guess which students would do well. What would you predict for Tiffany, Brandi, or Taylor? How about Sarah, Claire, and Margot?”

“I get your point,” said Adele.


(Earlier posts on Coulmont’s bac data are here (Jacques and Diane)  and here (Jordan, Ryan, . .  Back of the Bac)

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