The Names You Choose Mean More Today Than Ever Before
The title of this column may seem like puffery, but I mean it very literally. Baby names carry more meaning now than in generations past. And all the time that today's parents spend fretting over the perfect name? They're not just obsessive, they're responding to a new reality. I can prove it.
I've talked before about a revolution in the way Americans name their babies. It started in the 1960s, when individuality was elevated to a prized cultural virtue. More parents started looking for names that stood out, rather than fitting in. It accelerated with the new media and information landscape of the '90s. Internet searches, unique user names, and 300 cable channels all upped the ante on finding a distinctive name. Bit by bit, the core classic English names that ruled for centuries began to disappear. They left behind a wild and woolly world where there's no such thing as a normal name.
That's the bird's eye view. What might not be obvious is the revolution's impact on an individual name, and an individual name-hunting parent. With the change in naming culture, your name choice carries more information; it means more.
Let's use clothing as an analogy. Imagine a company where employees are expected to wear gray or blue suits to work. If you see a guy wearing a gray suit in that office, what does it tell you about him as an individual? Not much. Now imagine another company with an anything-goes dress code. Couldn't you read more about an employee from his outfit there? And wouldn't the same gray suit mean a lot more in that environment?
Similarly, the more diverse the names around us, the more each name choice means. Back in the 1950s, "normal" really was the norm. The top 25 boy's names and the top 50 girl's names accounted for half of babies born. That meant that the typical child received a name that was very broadly used, so the name didn't communicate much about the family that chose it. (Gregory, George, Kathy, and Denise were typical/median names.)
Today, you have to include 134 boy's names to reach the midpoint of babies, and a whopping 320 names for girls. Names around the median now include Giovanni, Collin, Cody and Kayden for boys; Kyleigh, Ximena, Paisley, and Juliet for girls. Similarly, the 75th percentile of rarity has moved from Fred (rank: #93) to Giancarlo (rank: #677). There is no more naming "dress code," and so the names we wear speak volumes.
You can quantify this rise in meaning. (Serious stats coming up! If you want more methodological background, see these additional research notes.) In the field of information theory, a measure called Shannon entropy is used to describe the information contained in a message. The more diverse and unpredictable a message, the more information it holds. Think of how a photograph of a real-life scene, with all of its subtle colors and shapes, makes for a far larger file than a same-sized solid color block.
I calculated the entropy for the distribution of American baby names at five-year intervals over the past 125 years. Here's the full graph, for scale and reference:
Now I'm going to zoom in for discussion:
Notice how the curve starts accelerating in the '60s and speeds up again in the '90s. Name entropy, or the information carried by names, has risen as much in the past 25 years as it did in the full century before that. (It's not just a function of the number of babies born, either. See the research notes for more.)
This is the statistical underpinning of the practical reality we sense as parents. Choosing a name is a fraught, consequential process today.
Remember that company where you could wear anything you wanted to work? Imagine meeting three guys in that office. One's in an oxford shirt and baggy khakis. The next is dressed like an H&M model. The third is wearing a t-shirt with a "Far Side" comic strip that he bought in 1992. It's not just that you CAN glean information from those fashion choices -- you DO, automatically.
It's the same with names. As the cultural information conveyed by names grows richer, people process that information, often without even thinking about it. Or to put it another way, the more names have to tell us, the more we learn to listen.
So if you're obsessing over baby names, you're not crazy. In a world where babies are as likely to be named Elijah and Serenity as John and Mary, even John and Mary send powerful signals that the public is primed to receive.