The Literary Name Timeline, take 2
Note: I posted a quite different version of this blog last night, but realized I wasn't being consistent with capitalization of input. Mea culpa.
Fictional names are a world apart from real-live baby names. The follow their own rules and their own patterns. Fictional adults routinely bear names of a different generation, like Samantha and Mackenzie. Picture-book kids have cuter, cuddlier, easier-to-pronounce names than real kids. Pen-named romance novelists choose one kind of name for their characters, another for themselves.
But do literary name styles change over time, rising and falling like real names on the NameVoyager? Would a literary curve reveal more about the name's place in our culture? Thanks to Google's new historical book-text grapher, "Ngram," we can get our first answers to those questions.
Ngram searches the full text of a large historical corpus of books. You can type in a word, a phrase, or a combination of words and phrases to compare. It returns a line graph, representing the rate of occurrence as a percentage of all words or phrases of the same length during each year.
To avoid skews from history, biography, etc., I choose to search the English Fiction corpus. I set the time period as 1880-2008 to most closely match the NameVoyager. (As noted above, it's essential to capitalize names as input; otherwise you come away with a dramatically different idea of names like "Dick" and "John.")
A few patterns quickly emerge. For instance, use of nicknames in literature has also soared over the past 25 years, as you can see in these plots of Jake vs. Jacob and Tim vs. Timothy. You'll also notice a reliable bump in the use of classic men's nicknames in the 1940s-early '50s.
When a baby name experiences a massive usage surge, there's often a significant time lag before that trend is reflected in book characters. Compare Steven babies vs. Steven books, or Amanda vs. Amanda.
In general, classic names are holding on better among fictional people than real ones. In part, that presumably reflects period settings of novels -- you're not going to call your 1890s frontier woman Kaitlyn. It also reflects the fact that a contemporary character created in 2007 may have been "born" in 1930. Even so, the absolute steadiness of a name like Martha suggests that the old standards retain their hold on our psyches, even as we refuse to give them to our babies.
Care to join me in the search? Can you unearth naming revelations from a century's worth of literature?