License to Name: The press of modernization

Apr 23rd 2009

The first in an occasional series on naming regulations around the world.

A recent New York Times article described China’s battle against its own baby-naming traditions.  In Chinese custom, names are not a special class separate from ordinary words.  Instead, parents have always constructed names out of auspicious combinations of the 50,000 different Chinese characters.  Certain elements such as Mei ("beautiful" or "plum blossom," depending on tone) and Li ("strong" among other meanings) are particularly popular, but many parents have also chosen rare characters drawn from traditional sources like ancient poems.  Until now.  In 2006, China announced plans to ban half of all characters from use in baby names.

The problem was a practical one.  The country was preparing the awesome task of issuing electronic ID cards to 1.3 billion citizens.  To make such a massive database project feasible, some streamlining was required.  The 27,000 least common word characters had to go.  To be credentialed as a citizen you must be tracked in the database; to be tracked in the database you have to bear a modern, efficient name.  The estimated number of Chinese with non-compliant names is 60 million. The plan, as you might expect, has met with considerable resistance.

This data-driven reform sounds like the ultimate 21st-century naming statement.  In fact, it’s a close relation to a naming revolution that took place two centuries earlier on the other side of the globe.

From the days of the Vikings, the Nordic peoples used patronymics—names identifying people by their fathers.  You'll find patronymic-based surnames in many languages.  Jefferson is "son of Jeffrey," McCormick "son of Cormac."  A true patronymic, though, changes with each generation.  So in Denmark, Niels Andersen's son Peder was known as Peder Nielsen, while Peder's daughter Anna was Anna Pedersdatter.

This constant change became a sticking point in the modernizing Europe of the 1800s.  Modern nations were mobile and industrializing.  They operated at a large scale, collecting taxes, drafting armies, even attempting to establish national systems of education.  That all required organization, and a population of shifting, indistinguishable Hans Jensens and Jens Hansens was no help at all.  So one by one, most governments of Scandinavia began to require heritable surnames.  In Denmark, patronymics were simply frozen in masculine form.  Any Hans Jensen of 1828 would find his patronymic immortalized as the surname of generations of descendents, while the form Jensdatter was left to die out.

Do you see a flaw in this plan?  Freezing patronymics made it easier to trace families, but it didn't actually make the populace more distinguishable.  All those Jensens and Hansens were still Hansens and Jensens, and still named their sons Jens and Hans.  Denmark was left with a small and concentrated name pool.  Even today, the top 50 surnames account for two thirds of all Danes.  Meanwhile the need to track and identify individuals increased year by year.

The Danish government responded in the 20th Century with an aggressive move toward personal identification codes, or personnummer.  Each Hans Jensen now has a number that represents his identity, akin to a U.S. Social Security number but more broadly used.  (It's also less private; the number comprises your date of birth, sex, and just three extra unique digits.)  A Copenhagen University guide for foreign students explains that "the 'personnummer' opens Danish society to you."

This naming number crunch happened in Denmark, a nation of only 5 million citizens.  Compare that to China where the surname Li alone accounts for almost 100 million people.  Doubtless, the Chinese government will rely on numeric identifiers as well. Yet the movement toward national IDs that is costing so many Chinese citizens their naming freedom has had quite the opposite effect in Denmark.

Once it became clear that Danish surnames had ceded their practical, legal significance to ID codes, the need to restrict them began to melt away.  In 2006, the government turned back the clock.  21st-century Danish parents now have a freedom their parents and grandparents never had: to name their children with patronymics in the old Viking style.

The name world speaks: the most popular choices for the Baby Name Pool

Apr 16th 2009

Hundreds of you put your best (and worst) names forward in the annual Baby Name Pool, guessing the fastest rising and falling names of the year. I'm always fascinated to see the patterns in the voting. Right or wrong about 2008, they're a great glimpse at the name-culture zeitgeist.

This year's Pool entries give us an Obama landslide even bigger than the one last November. But this time, the winner isn't's his daughter. The name Malia was your overwhelming favorite for a fast-rising name of 2008.

Malia sat at the intersection of two hot themes in your voting, the Obamas (Barack and Sasha were also heavy vote-getters) and famous kids (Vivienne, Honor, Violet). The other dominant theme was Twilight (Cullen, Edward, Bella), with tween rockers close behind (Miley, Jonas).

On the other side of the fashion equation, you all seem confident that the name Madison has run its course. That name absolutely dominated the falling it has in the past. Other popular predictions: the end is nigh for the phenom Nevaeh, Britney is so over, and old favorites like Jennifer, Jessica and Ashley will continue to fade.

Many of you banked on the "what goes up must come down" principle and wrote in last year's fastest rising names like Miley and Jaslene. Finally, we saw a reverse Obama phenomenon. Plenty of you decided that a year when both parties seemed to be running against incumbent George Bush had to be tough on the name George.

And now, as promised, I'll try my hand at the prediction game. Here's my own ballot. When you trounce me with Malia and Madison, be kind.


This was a tough choice due to sheer abundance.  The fastest-rising names are often inspired by celebrities, and 2008 looks like a Hollywood bumper crop.

Last year's rising champ Miley kept up her cultural momentum, and fellow tween-dreamers the Jonas Brothers should give a boost to the already hot name Jonas. Twilight and Gossip Girl also stand to cut a broad swath through the 2008 name charts, with their bevy of well-named beauties: Cullen, Bella, Jasper, Esme, Leighton, Serena, Chace. And it never pays to look past reality tv, where Kenley and Audrina made their marks -- or telenovelas, home of Marely, Camila, Hugo and Lola.  Of course, style didn't stand still off the screen, either. Finn, Harper and Cruz are strong competitors in the fashion arena.

But pick I must, so the rising slate is: Marely (F), Chace (M), Kenley (F). That's a mighty risky group. Marely already got a big bump in 2007, and neither Chace nor Kenley has ever hit the top 1000. If the latter two don't break through, I'm in for a whippin'. But bold guesswork's the name of the game on the rising side!


Falling picks are always harder, because breakout stars are a lot more common than breakout obscurities. Reality TV can be an exception with its 15 minutes of fame, but last year's name-making reality stars (Jaslene, Jordin) have shown some staying power. So here, I play it safer.

The picks:

Dakota (M): This '90s favorite has hit its downside, accelerated by a pair of young actresses who have tilted the name toward the feminine side. Look for parents of boys to scurry away.

Ashlee (F): When a name starts to decline in popularity, alternate spellings often take the hit the fastest.

Ciara (F): For an R&B star, a year without a new radio hit usually means a year without namesakes.

Get your Baby Name Pool entries in by tomorrow, April 15!

Apr 14th 2009

If you haven't entered the Baby Name Pool yet, there's still time! Just come up with three names you think rose in popularity in 2008, and three you think fell. Then bask in the glory if you beat out all of your fellow name enthusiasts.

In fact, this year I'll even let you beat out a Baby Name Wizard. Later this week I'll offer my own ballot, giving you a chance at a full year of smug superiority when you top my score. But to take advantage of this fabulous offer, you have to enter by the end of day on Wednesday, April 15!

Now, to the ballot.