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.
Imagine that you loved the name Miley long before Miley Cyrus ever hit the scene. You still want to choose the name for your daughter, but you don't want it to remind people of the singer and her tabloid-frenzy life. Can it be done? Can you say "Miley" withough anyone thinking "Cyrus"? My guess is that most people would answer no. The name Miley has become inextricably linked with the star.
But what about the name Angelina? Actress Angelina Jolie is just as famous, yet her first name has held on to some stylistic independence. The celebrity association is there, but she doesn't own the name.
Photo: Image Press/Splash News
Celebrity name "ownership" depends partially on the star's image and fame, and even more on the name itself. To get a sense of how thoroughly your name has been claimed by a celebrity, score it on the questions below. I'll call this the "Kim vs. Kanye Test" in honor of a Hollywood couple who together max out the fame meter...but only one maxes out the name meter.
1. Does Pop Media Even Bother With Last Names? The more a star is referred to by first name only in the celebrity press, the more they become linked to that name. Assuming no accompanying photo, do editors feel safe in dropping the surname?
(Score 0 points if the celebrity always requires a surname in absence of a photo, like Ryan Gosling. Score 1 if they sometimes do, like Mila Kunis. Score 2 if never, like Oprah Winfrey. Extra bonus point if the star actually goes by one name, like Adele.)
2. Was the Name Familiar Before the Celebrity Came Along? Jennifer Lawrence has been called the most powerful actress in Hollywood, but her power doesn't extend to the name Jennifer. The name was already too familiar without her. This effect can also cover variant spellings of a name, like Ginnifer Goodwin.
(Score 0 points for a popular or classic first name, like Will Smith. Score 1 for a previously uncommon name, like Channing Tatum. Score 2 for a name that owes its whole existence to a celebrity, like Charlize Theron.)
3. Can You Think of Other Famous Examples of the Name? The more prominent bearers a name has, the harder it is for any one image to dominate. The famous examples can be past or present, real or fictional. Even a cartoon mouse like "Angelina Ballerina" can help loosen the name hold of a star like Angelina Jolie.
(Score 0 for a name scattered across Hollywood and history, like Adam Levine. Score 1 for a name with a few strong associations, like Leonardo DiCaprio. Score 2 if you're wracking your brain for another example, like Keanu Reeve.)
4. Does the Star Score a Clean Sweep of Google Image Results? This is a good illustration of the difference between the names Kim and Kanye (but be warned, it only works with safe search OFF, so some questionable images may result). Go to Google Image Search and type in Kim. You'll get an eyeful of Kim Kardashian, but focus on the top bar showing other associations from rapper Lil' Kim to North Korean potentate Kim Jong-Un. Now try typing Kanye. The result is 100% Kanye West, even in the top bar.
(Score 0 for a diverse image search result, like Daniel Radcliffe. Score 1 if a celebrity dominates the main images but not the top bar, like Trey Songz. Score 2 for a clean sweep, like Björk.)
0-2 points: "Emma Watson." You're in the clear. This name is independent and likely to stay that way.
3-5 points: "Scarlett Johansson." The name is certainly linked to a star, but not owned.
6-9 points: "Beyoncé." The celebrity is in command. That doesn't rule out the name as a choice for your baby, if you like the image the star conveys. But be sure it's a celebrity you trust for the long term.
Boys' names may stay more classic over the years, but that doesn't mean there aren't always a group of standout choices that have just the right sound and feel for the times. Over the last two decades, America has proven its love affair with uncomplicated boys' names that strike us as smooth and light. They are easygoing, simple, and they will never weigh your little guy down.
Ari: Lighter than air, and smooth as silk, Ari is a crowd pleaser that soars high but has deep roots. It can be short for Aristotle, is Hebrew for "lion," and Old Norse for "eagle".
Eamon: (AY-mon) This delightful international name has distinctive Irish flavor, and it's seen lots more use in the UK and Australia than it ever has in the US. Yet it's a perfectly on-trend, uncomplicated name that should find its way into more American homes.
Eli: Simpler than the biblical favorites Elias, Elijah or Elisha, Eli is a clean and breezy name free of any potential heavy overtones.
Ethan: This reliable top-10 hit was brought from biblical obscurity to contemporary favorite over the last 30 years or so, remaining in US memory thanks to the Revolutionary war hero Ethan Allen. The name is simple and ethereal, just as its sound would suggest.
Evan: Evan is an unassuming hit that's perfectly effortless. As a form of John with Welsh and Scottish roots, it has a classic feel that seems to transcend the trends, even though it fits right in with today's favorites.
Joah: Sweet and simple, Joah can be found in the Old Testament but it's remained mostly undiscovered. It has all the appeal of Noah, and boasts a simplicity that favorites like Joseph or Josiah lack.
Leo: A lion isn't the first thing that comes to mind when discussing "smooth and light," but the sleek way this name rolls off the tongue makes it a definite fit for the category. Leo is an independent Latin name that also makes the list of nicknames for elegant-but-more-complex choices like Leopold and Leonardo.
Liam: A perfectly simple Celtic charmer, Liam is a hitting all the right style notes for light and smooth sounds. Unfettered from the traditional English William, Liam is a Celtic standout with an irresistible flow.
Luca: We're all recently captivated by this Italian form of Luke. Between its rare sound and the crisp, light feeling it evokes, it may just be the perfect choice for your little guy.
Micah: If you're looking for an alternative to Michael, it doesn't get better than Micah, which has a contemporary feel and less chances of turning into Mike. It's also biblical and endearing, with a sheer, light quality, much like its mineral homophone.
Miles: A cheerfully light English name, Miles has a smooth, simple sound that's easy to love. It's less serious than Giles, and not as spunky as Milo.
Noah: It's been the number one name for two years in a row. Noah is biblical and beloved, and we can't get enough of its sound. With a soothing flow and only one consonant sound, hard edges are nowhere to be found when it comes to this favorite name.
Noel: A holiday name that's fit for any season, Noel is a breezy choice with global style. It's gaining favor here in the US slowly but steadily as parents discover its simple charms.
Owen: In the top 40s for boys and rising a bit every year, Owen is a crowd pleaser with an appealing ring to it that's effortless and a little old fashioned.
Rowan: This versatile Celtic name bears Owen's familiar sound without its chart-topping popularity. It has a colorful meaning (little red one or rowan tree) and a flowing, contemporary sound that hits all the right buttons today.
Love these smooth, light names? Take a closer look at the statistics behind this trend with Goodbye J? The Great Smoothing of American Boys' Names and Raindrop Names.