I interrupt today's scheduled statistical analysis with a breaking news bulletin.
Ladies and gentlemen, it's celebrity baby season. The (movie) stars have aligned so that an unusual number of famous people are giving birth all around us. And that means an unusual number of articles trumpeting the weirdness of celebrity baby names. Even when the names aren't so weird. Reading all the "wacky Gwyneth's done it again" columns, you'd think she named her son Banana rather than the biblical classic Moses.
The weird-name hysteria reached its zenith with a long piece by Alex Williams in this Sunday's New York Times. The thesis:
"It seems almost unimaginable for any 21st-century movie star to send his children out among the Hollywood elite equipped with ordinary names"
Any American who lived through 2005, when overhyped Hollywood babies named Sean and Violet were born, knows that statement is simply ridiculous. But the writer sticks to it doggedly, "proving" the point with such Hollywood luminaries as Shannyn Sossamon and Penn Jillette. (Surely Penn Jillette is no closer to the mainstream of Hollywood than he is to the mainstream of anything else.) In fact, every article like this trots out the same minor celebrities to prove that all Hollywood is wacko. If you read only baby name articles, you'd be convinced that Shannyn Sossamon is the queen of Hollywood and that Britney Spears conveniently doesn't exist.
Why should you care whether Shannyn Sossamon is elevated to royalty? Let's take a look at what the Times piece does next. Having briskly concluded that all celebrities choose wacko names, the writer goes on to offer an explanation for the phenomenon: it demonstrates a vast, universal character flaw. You see, celebrities all like crazy names because they all have gigantic egos, and are even willing to sacrifice their children's well-being to prove that they're above normal people. Ah. In other words, the wacky-name fixation is taken as a great excuse to bash people.
In the name of civility, I'm going to pose a question that I've never seen asked in any article on weird celebrity baby names: What do celebrities name their children?
For an impartial answer, I've adopted the Forbes Celebrity 100 as my fame-o-meter. To make my roster of A-list moms and dads you have to be a peformer, under 50, American, and listed by name among the top 40 in the Celebrity 100 during the past four years.
The 18 parents who make the cut are household names. Their 38 kids, by and large, are not. (Quick, can you name Jim Carrey's child? Did you even know he had one?)
The real celebrity baby name list:
Isabella, Connor, Suri
Colin, Elizabeth, Chester, Truman
Bria, Miles, Shayne, Zola
Alexandra, Gregory, Matthew, Joseph
Willard III ("Trey"), Jaden, Willow
About 75% of American babies receive names in the top 1000, same as the celebrities on the list. Some of the other 25% in each group are unusual, but fairly normal. (For instance Will Ferrell's wife is Swedish, and Magnus is a classic mainstream name in Sweden.) And some in each group are truly eye-popping, like Sossamon's son Audio Science and the several American boys named ESPN.
Hollywood may indeed have a higher wacky rate, as you'd expect from a community of creative artists...I'd need a much bigger sample to say for sure. Even so, Jacks and Isabellas clearly outnumber Audios by a huge margin. As for the wacky few, do they really point to egos run amok? Could be. But it's not so obvious to me that naming your child Audio shows more ego than naming him -- traditionally, conservatively -- after yourself.
When you're trying to make sense of name trends, names with multiple spellings are a constant challenge. I generally treat each variant independently -- you can read my rationale here. But there are times when it is handy to merge all the Kayleighs, Kaylees, and Kaylis into one name.
The spelling issue recently came up here in response to a column on conformity in names. Reader "Jennifer" suggested that the seeming decline of name conformity could really just be a rise in different spellings of the same old conformist names:
"In the 1940's, there was only one way to spell Shirley. You didn't have hundreds and hundreds of parents blessing their little darling with Shirleigh, Chirly, Shirlie, and 12 other spellings, like you see now."
If you've recently met a young Madalyn or Bayleigh it's natural to see this as a generation of "kreative" spellers. Right now, there are six different spellings of Madeline among the top 1000 girls' names: Madeline, Madelyn, Madeleine, Madaline, Madalyn, and Madlyn.
Oops, sorry...I was looking at the wrong list. Those six Madelines were actually from the top 1000 names of 1915.
In fact, multiple variants have been more the rule than the exception for the hot names of each generation. Some highlights of a century of kreativity:
1900: Catherine, Katherine, Kathryn, Catharine, Katharine, Katheryn, Cathrine, Cathryn, Kathrine, Kathryne
1920: Eleanor, Elinor, Eleanore, Eleanora, Elenora, Elenor
1940: Gerald, Jerald, Jerold, Jerrold, Gerold, Garold, Jerrell, Jerrel
1960: Cheri, Cherie, Cherry, Cherri, Cherrie, Shari, Sherry, Sherri, Sheri, Sherrie, Sheree, Sherie
1980: Kristin, Kristen, Kristine, Kristyn, Kristan, Christin, Christen
2000: Kaitlyn, Katelyn, Kaitlin, Katelynn, Katlyn, Kaitlynn, Katelin, Katlynn, Caitlin, Caitlyn, Caitlynn
But is the trend accelerating? Does the typical popular name today have more -- or more popular -- variations than in the past? That turns out to be a tricky question to answer, as I'll talk about next time.
It's been a tough offseason so far for New England Patriots football fans. Some long-time favorite players have moved on to other teams, and it can be hard to say goodbye.
Especially if you just shelled out a hundred bucks for a replica jersey.
Across New England, fans are staring glumly at shirts that say #4 Vinatieri, knowing that kicker Adam Vinatieri is now a member of the hated rival Colts. As a wardrobe problem it's just a nuisance. But what if you'd named your child after him?
Consider the most visible Patriot, quarterback Tom Brady. Brady is the 122nd most popular boys' name in America -- but #53 in Massachusetts, home of the Patriots. (It firstcracked the top 100 in the state in 2002, the year Brady led the team to its first Superbowl victory.) Brady is signed to a long-term contract, but who knows what the future may bring?
Naming a child after a living person is risky business. By and large, today's parents are wise to this. There's now a time lag in naming babies after presidents -- parents wait to see how the term in office works out. Yet sports stars are inspiring more namesakes than ever. Not only are athletes, like any young celebrities, subject to unpredictable slumps and scandals, but they change teams. Look at another New England star, former Red Sox outfielder Johnny Damon, who's now...gulp...a Yankee. How do you explain to little Damon that he was named for a guy in pinstripes?
If you want a sure thing, name for a sports star whose career is already safely in the record books -- or better yet the history books. Jackie Robinson and Johnny Unitas jerseys never go out of style.