The country name and the city name
National name statistics give us a portrait of changing fashions. But in a big, diverse country like the United States, the national numbers are the product of many interlocking microclimates of style.
For some names, the primary influences are obvious. The name José, for instance, generally tracks the Census Bureau's stats for percentage of "Hispanic origin persons" in a state. (Except for New Mexico, which is a story for another day.) But some cultural influences are subtler. Take, for instance, the cases of Logan and Nicholas.
Logan is a Scottish name which took the classic path of place name to surname to male forename to androgynous forename. (Names like Leslie and Lindsay took the same path earlier, but unlike those names Logan seems to be reasserting itself as primarily male.) Logan got a boost from the '70s film and tv series Logan's Run, and another big boost in the past generation with the trends toward Celtic names, surnames, and names ending with -n. Logan currently ranks #27 among all boy's names.
Nicholas is an old saint's name, Greek in origin, which has been used in many forms and languages for over 1000 years. In the U.S. it's especially associated with the Christmas holiday thanks to the modern image of "Jolly Old Saint Nick." Nicholas was used steadily but lightly in the U.S. until the late 1970s (the same time as Logan's Run), when it started rising alongside other multisyllabic classics like Nathaniel and Benjamin. Nicholas currently ranks #13 among all boy's names.
Both names are part of the sound of the times, examples of major trends that have defined the past generation of names. You're far more likely to meet a 5-year-old named Logan or Nicholas than a 50-year-old. Both names are also used predominantly by white families. But culturally, the names diverge: Logan is a country boy, Nicholas is a city boy.
Looking state by state, the popularity of these names correlates strongly with population density. Logan is the #3 name in Iowa, South Dakota and West Virginia, but doesn't break the top 50 in California, Massachusetts or New York. Nicholas, meanwhile, hits the top 5 in places like New Jersey and Pennsylvania, but doesn't come close in Alaska or Utah. And it's not just a matter of the coasts vs. the middle of the country--Logan is more popular in rural Maine and Vermont than in populous Illinois and Texas.
These names aren't individual anomalies, but representatives of distinct naming strains that define cultural regions. In general, names associated with surnames are far more common in low-population states. That includes boy's names like Parker and Tanner as well as girls like Mckenna and Riley. More densely packed areas tend to favor long New Testament and saint names (Nathaniel, Sebastian), and the "contemporary classics" (Matthew, Amanda).
The most interesting aspect of this, to me, is the cultural transmission of these differences. We hear so much about the homogenization of culture, and we tend to ascribe great power to mass media. But there's no media voice behind the Logan-Nicholas divide, nor any clear racial, religious or class distinction. By and large, Logan and Nicholas aren't names chosen as social signifiers. Parents choose the names because they "just like the sound," but that attraction is shaped by cultural forces we may barely recognize. So naming regions are more cultural than geographic: North Dakota and West Virginia may be far apart on the globe, but they're neighbors on the naming map.