Was Freakonomics Right About Baby Names?
Ten years ago, the authors of the pop-economics book Freakonomics made some bold predictions. They had analyzed names and income among a sample of Californians, and come up with a class-based theory of baby name trends.
Call it the "trickle-down theory." Baby names, they claimed, first catch on with high-income, highly educated families, then trickle down the socioeconomic ladder as aspirational parents copy the more privileged. In their words, "It isn't famous people who drive the name game. It is the family just a few blocks over, the one with the bigger house and newer car."
Inspired by that theory, they compiled a list of 45 "high-end names" that they predicted would become popular with the masses by 2015. Now that the future is here, we can put their predictions to the test. Here's the 10-year popularity curve of the Trickle-Down 45:
On first glance, that looks pretty impressive. Their predicted names were given to 43,000 more babies last year vs. in 2004, a rise of nearly 40%. But there's more going on behind that graph. Take a look at what had happened to those same names in the decade before Freakonomics was written:
Now that's what I call a trend. In the prior 10 years the names had risen in popularity by 87,000 babies per year, a rise of nearly 400%. In other words, the authors had caught a ride on the tail of a comet, choosing a set of names that were already wildly trendy. That's no coincidence. The Freakonomics name list wasn't a pure economic projection; it was a hand-culled sample based on the authors' own sense of what sounded fashionable.
The trendiness of their name choices alone could account for their positive results. In fact, the authors would have done better in their predictions by simply listing all baby names that had risen every year during the previous decade. Compare the two outcomes (normalized to display on the same scale):
That doesn't look good for the power of the trickle-down theory. Even if their predictions were correct, though, I think they'd be a red herring. The big picture in baby names is not top-down but defiantly grassroots. Any parents who choose names because they're popular with the ruling class are swimming against the powerful and fascinating current of American naming culture.
Take a look at the names that actually rose the most in the USA over the past decade (based on our standard BabyNameWizard.com "hotness formula"). All currently rank among the top 1000 names for boys or girls:
If you don't recognize all of those names, I'll give you a hint: there's not a Fortune 500 CEO in the bunch. They're an ethnically diverse lineup showcasing the full range of popular entertainment: extreme fighting champions, Spanish-language tv stars, action-movie antiheros, animated characters, reality tv stars -- lots of reality tv stars. This won't come as a surprise to regular readers of this blog. Every year we run a contest to predict the fastest rising names in America, and the smart money is always on the populist side of culture, especially reality tv, telenovelas and hip hop.
A closer look further challenges the notion of aspirational naming. Anyone from an adult entertainer to an assassin to the spawn of Satan can inspire namesakes, as long as their name is catchy enough. The single biggest baby name hit machine of recent years has been Teen Mom, the show that follows the lives of pregnant, unmarried 16-year-old girls. Even among the Freakonomics names, the closest they came to predicting a breakout hit was the girl's name Quinn...and that name only took off six years after their prediction, when it was featured as the name of a pregnant cheerleader on the tv series Glee.
In other words, American parents are picking up fresh new names wherever they find them, and those names don't sound anything like ladder climbing. Increasing numbers of parents are going off-road inventing whole new names. Some take words that express something about them and turn them into names. (Firearms-related terms are popular choices.) Others simply string together attractive sounds. As the hip hop and reality tv names above become popular, it's a fair bet that most of them will be abandoned in favor of something fresher.
Any analysis that focuses on the very top of the name popularity list will miss this big picture. The existence of a top 10 maintains the illusion of consensus, but it represents an ever-shrinking slice of the population. Every name now represents its own subculture and worldview, and poorer parents aren't following in the steps of the wealthy. They're aggressively blazing their own trails.