Name Rankings and the Illusion of Consensus
In May, the U.S. government will release its annual baby name statistics and I will post the new top 20 name list in this space. It's the most exciting naming day of the year, my profession's Superbowl Sunday. But how much does that top 20 list really mean?
The answer is "less and less every year." The top 20 names represent the points of agreement and commonality in our baby name culture, and agreement and commonality are going out of style. The driving force behind current name trends is the desire to be different. Take a look at the percentage of babies receiving a top 20 name over time:
Through the 1960s, the top 20 names covered between a third and a half of all American babies. Back then, a top-20 list would have given you a pretty solid snapshot of name style. Today, the portion of babies covered by a top 20 list is just one in eight, and falling.
The new top 20 is not just a smaller snapshot, but a potentially a misleading one. For instance, the top names of the 1960s, Michael and Lisa, were broadly popular across ethnic, geographic and socioeconomic lines. Today, it's easier for names to rise up the ranks by appealing primarily to a particular demographic or region. What's more, the lifecycle of hit names is getting shorter. When style is about rapid change and individuality, focusing on the ever-shrinking points of consensus leads us away from the real story.
This isn't to say that name stats aren't informative. They have a great deal to tell us about our whole society's attitudes, values and obsessions. We just have to cast a broader net, looking at samples and shifts in addition to summaries. I'll still be posting the new top 20 name list the moment it's released this May, but I'm going to post other ways of tracking style as well. I'll be talking about the median or "average" names, the risers and fallers, the brand-new names, and the top names in each state. That kind of array now paints a far clearer picture than the top of the charts. In today's fashion, consensus itself is an outlier.