About That New York Times Article: Studying Baby Name Trends
On June 24, the New York Times Magazine ran a short piece about baby name trends. I found it puzzling, but let it pass -- if I attempted to correct every mis-statement about names in the press, I'd never have time for anything else. I've received so many questions about this particular article, though, that I figured I should comment.
To be blunt, much of the article is off-base. The evidence doesn't support its basic premise; in fact, even the graphs the writer supplies to illustrate his point don't support his statements. I was also baffled by some of the analysis, such as the suggestion that a recent nostalgia craze for the top American baby names of the 1900s could be based on Jane Austen films. (I must have missed the part in Pride and Prejudice when Elizabeth and Jane do the Charleston.)
Rather than simply attacking the article, though, I'd like to use this as a case study of what I do when I come up with a hypothesis about baby name trends. Here's the writer's core claim:
"About two decades ago, an entire generation of girls’ names — those from the late 19th and early 20th centuries — started coming back into fashion...Now the nostalgia wave, which peaked in 2004, is ending."
Interesting concept. How would we know if it's true? First, let's paint a picture of what that proposed trend would look like. We'd expect to see a broad wave of girls' names that were popular around 1900 reappear in the early 1990s, hit a new peak in the early-mid 2000s, and then decline sharply in the late 2000s. Here's that pattern in graphical terms:
OK, now let's test our theory. The obvious approach is to look at the names popular around 1900 and see if their historical graph resembles the prediction above. Here's a graph of the top 50 girls' names of the year 1900:
Hmm. To start with, the claim that "an entire generation of girls' names" from that era has come back is clearly false. In fact, it takes only a glance at the top names of that generation -- names like Mildred, Florence, Dorothy, Frances, Gladys, Ruth -- to know that 2004 was no repeat.
As for the "nostalgia wave" in the 1990s & 2000s, you can, indeed, see a tiny bump around that period. The trick is, it's small enough that removing one hit name makes the "wave" disappear altogether. (More about that one name later.)
Does this disprove our theory? Not necessarily. Maybe it's a mistake to include names like Mary that aren't tied to one particular time period. Instead of looking at the most popular names of the 1900s, let's look at the most typical names, the ones most tied to that time period. Here's a graph of all of the girls' names that peaked in the 1900s decade (you can graph that with the Expert NameVoyager):
Nope, no dice. Very few of them have come back, and the ones that have appear to be still rising. Same story for the names that peaked in the decades before and after the 1900s.
But let's not give up yet. Perhaps the fall of the nostalgia names that did come back has been the dramatic story. Have antique revivals plummeted as other styles held steady? Let's graph the top falling girls' names of the 2000 decade:
Again, no. No matter how you slice and dice the data, you're just not going to come away with the Times writer's conclusion.
Certainly, you can find some examples of individual names that fit the pattern he described...if that's what you set out looking for. (Even so, some of his examples are mistaken. I think he may have been misled by the fact that his data set started with the year 1880. A name like Hannah actually peaked in the early to mid 1800s and was already in deep decline by the period he looked at.) But to make any broader claims, you have to look at the whole population, including facts that could prove you wrong.
The truth is that antique revival names are a subtle and complex phenomenon of sound and style. For instance, parents drawn to actual revivals like Grace also tend to favor "faux antiques" like Olivia and Ava -- names that sound like our romantic image of Victorian days, regardless of the reality of the matter. Plus the names parents choose from the past tend to sound more like contemporary hits than like the typical names of the old days. The hit antiques Sophia and Amelia, for instance, are closer in sound to Arianna, Malia, and Saniya than Mildred and Florence. And by the way, Amelia and Sophia are positively soaring. The "nostalgia trend" is far from dead.
Where did the writer's claim come from, then? I don't pretend to have any inside knowledge of his process, but indulge me for a moment as I speculate.
To me, the really telling bit in the article is the Jane Austen reference. Why would you think Austen had anything to do with a 1900s revival? As a group, her heroines' names don't follow the pattern described in the article at all. Not Jane or Elizabeth (or Lizzie or Eliza), not Marianne or Elinor or Anne or Catherine (in any of their spellings), and definitely not Fanny. But Emma? Ah, Emma.
As it happens, Emma is that "one name" I mentioned in the 1900 graph that drove the tiny bulge. And it's the one Austen name that fits, too. Could it be that the writer started off looking at the name Emma, and over-extrapolated an entire trend from it?