If naming a child Violet or Lily suggests delicate, timeless beauty, and naming a child River or Sky conjures the majesty of the natural world, what does naming a child Ruger or Beretta suggest?
That's no longer a hypothetical question. Gun-related names have become a style category of their own, and as I've briefly noted in the past, they're on the rise. Today I'd like to take a closer look at this trend.
I cross-checked lists of firearms terms and manufacturers with names given to five or more babies in the most recent statistical year (2012) and/or 10 years earlier (2002). I ended up with a list of 15 gun-related names, including brand names like Ruger and Colt as well as general terms like Gauge and Shooter. The decade-long popularity trend was crystal clear:
Every name on the firearms list rose significantly over the 10-year period.
The average rise was over 500%. Five names which didn't appear at all in 2002 -- Beretta, Browning, Savage, Trigger and Wesson -- showed up on the 2012 list. Here's a visual summary of the trend (* indicates girls' names):
You may not see these all as "gun names"; the borders of the category are fuzzy. For instance, Gunner could be a respelling of the Nordic name Gunnar as well as an English noun. Even trickier is a name like Cooper, which is both a rifle maker and a familiar tradesman surname. (I left Cooper off of my list, but it too has soared in popularity.)
For borderline cases, I made my decision based on prevalence in name-idea threads on forums for firearms enthusiasts. A sign that a gun association really is a driving force in the popularity of borderline names: in 2002, the traditional Gunnar outpaced Gunner in the U.S., while today Gunners are in the lead by a 2-to-1 margin.
What does the trend mean? I believe it points to two different cultural threads in the United States over the past decade. The first is the rising role of guns as a cultural identifier. For hunters and firearms enthusiasts, guns can be both a passion and a symbol of a way of life. It's notable that other manufactured goods categories, like automobiles, haven't followed the same name trajectory.
Some gun owners perceive their lifestyle as being threatened by those who don't understand them or share their values. Choosing a gun name, then, can summon up happy memories of hunting with your dad -- or be a statement of cultural defiance. It's an in-group statement, designed to speak to those who share your cultural touchstones. (Suffice it to say that if the name Savage makes you think "Dan Savage" rather than "Savage Arms," that name isn't aimed at you.)
The second, equally important change is about names themselves. Think of it this way: to get to the point where you're asking, "Should we name him Ruger or Wesson?" you have to NOT be asking "Should we name him after Grandpa John or Grandpa Jim?"
The past decade has seen an accelerating movement away from traditional names. Over the same decade that the 15 firearms names above rose by a combined 3,824 babies, the four most classic English baby names, John, Mary, James and William, fell by a combined 16,875 babies. Something has to be stepping into that gulf. Parents today cast a broader net, and are more likely to consider creative meaning names that reflect their personal lives and interests.
Consider, too, that gun names were always popular for dogs, suggesting that a love of guns is nothing new. A foxhound named Trigger would never have surprised anyone. Today, parents are more willing to "pull the trigger" on that kind of eye-catching name for babies, too. Just as we're naming our pets more like children, it seems that we're naming our children more like pets.
This broad change in the naming process means that names are a more sensitive cultural barometer than ever before. Any shift in parents' interests, passions and values is sure to be encoded in the name record. Today, if you want to know what people really care about, follow the names.
Novelist Tom Wolfe famously dubbed the 1970s "The Me Decade." He was talking about a rising focus on the self -- an individualism that had Americans obsessing inwardly, trying to understand and remodel themselves, rather than looking outward at their communities.
It turns out that he could have gone with a much more literal definition. Take a look at what happend to "Me" names in the '70s:
Melissa, Megan, Melinda, Melanie. These names swarmed the '70s, shouting "me, Me, ME!" Over the decade, Melissa alone outpaced the traditional M girls Mary and Margaret put together.
Could it be mere coincidence, that the Me- wave hit in the age of "ME!"? Umm, yeah, it could. Definitely. In fact, if you say those names aloud -- Melissa, Megan, Melinda, Melanie -- you'll find that they don't shout "ME!" at all. It was an era of short consonants. "The Meh Decade," anyone?
In truth, Wolfe's "Me Decade" was never about telling your name the livelong day to an admiring bog. The core idea wasn't attracting the attention of others. Rather, it was the age of self-help and self-discovery; of "finding yourself" within yourself, rather than as a cog in the great machine of society.
That seems a different brand of narcissism from today's "Look-At-Me" decade, in which which our inner lives become ever outer. This is the age of over-sharing, of social media and reality tv. It's also the age of the Great Baby Name Explosion, as increasingly creative name choices vie for attention.
You can see that desire to stand out in every possible measurement. The popularity of very long and very short names have both risen. Names with the eye-catching letters X and Z are at all-time highs. And "popular" has become a dirty word, as parents shy away from the top of the baby name popularity charts. Today's #1 names, Jacob and Sophia, are only one quarter as common as the #1 names of 1976, when Wolfe wrote his article.
Perhaps it's fitting, then, that this is also the age of names that literally shout "ME!" by starting with that syllable:
What makes a person's name easy or hard to remember?
Common, classic names are ingrained in our name vocabulary, but might get lost in a crowd in our minds. Unusual names stand out, but they're unfamiliar and lack memory hooks to our past experiences.
Perhaps the name itself isn't the only key to memorability. After all, learning a name really means learning a match between a name and an individual. If you've ever met a guy and thought "Huh, he doesn't look like a 'Kyle,'" you know that some matches feel more natural than others. Does a match that messes with our expectations make the name harder to learn?
Perceptual psychologists have a classic demonstration of mismatches that mess us up. It's called the "Stroop Effect." To see it in action, try reading these two groups of words aloud, fast:
If you have normal color vision, you should find group A slower going. Your perception of the colors interferes with your reading of the words. Interference can operate on memory and learning, too. For instance, a longtime Mac user may find it harder to learn Windows keyboard commands, because the old knowledge interferes with the new.
We all have deep domain knowledge about names: the lifetime of experience that tells us that a Linda is probably older than an Addyson, and a Craig is probably maler than a Melissa. Could there be a "baby name Stroop effect," in which a mental image of all the older Lindas you know interferes with your ability to match the name Linda to a young girl?
Try it out and see. Imagine meeting the two groups of people below. Do you think it would take you more time or effort to learn the names of one of these sets?
I suspect that a controlled study would find that name pairings like Set 2 take longer to learn. (It's a testable hypothesis, at least! Face recognition researchers who use names in their experiments tend to choose the names rather cavalierly. Senior thesis hunters, don't say I never gave you anything.)
I'm not suggesting that everyone should choose names that conform perfectly to others' preconceptions for convenience. On the contrary, a "surprise factor" can be a name's calling card -- and shaking up our mental models of social roles can be a good thing. But if you do choose a name that switches up expectations, be patient. As the Baby Name Stroop Test shows, it might take us a while.