Looking out for number one

May 4th 2008

In just a few days, news outlets across the country will report on the ultimate expression of our nation's tastes: the most popular names for babies. The number one names for boys and girls will begin a year's reign as a symbol of what we have in common, the sound of the times. But are they really the signifiers they're made out to be?

In past generations, being a number one name meant a great deal. Back in 1880, the first year for which Social Security Administration statistics are available, the #1 name John accounted for 8% of all boys born. For perspective, that was 13 times as many boys as the #20 name, Joe. But the #1 name of 2006, Jacob, accounted for a mere 1% of boys -- just 1.6 times that year's #20 name, John (how the mighty have fallen). In other words, being #1 used to mean you were king of the hill, but now you're just one of the pack.

In the graph below the top blue line shows the percentage of newborn American boys bearing a #1 name, taken at 5 year intervals through 2005. The orange line shows the frequency of use of the #20 name, and the gray reference line indicates the level of the most recent #1.

Yes, the 20th most popular name of 1965 was bigger than today's big cheese.

So should we stop paying attention to the announcement of the top names? Of course not. (What self-respecting Name Wizard is going to tell you to stop paying attention to names?) I think we should pay more attention -- looking beyond whatever name happens to land in the top slot. The whole sweep of names, and the way they're changing, is every bit as compelling as the war of attrition to be #1. I'm rolling up my sleeves...join me for "name week."

Housewarming Party

May 1st 2008

Welcome, everybody! I hope you like the new digs--it feels good to have my own place again. Right now I'm still hanging wallpaper and checking the plumbing, but fancy new additions are in the works. One instant upgrade: look in the lefthand menu and you'll find, at long last, an option to search the blog archive. Three years into this blog, it's interesting to discover what themes and names come up again and again. The name Ashton has been mentioned in six posts, Nevaeh in nine, Madison a whopping 20. But the single most-mentioned name is one I scarcely remember talking about at all. That's how it goes with the classic, understated king of English names: John.

"Please use this name liberally within its ethnic context!"

Apr 17th 2008
I recently stumbled on a website with a large set of baby names classified as either "legitimate" or "illegitimate.""Legitimate" names were verified by the site creators as real names with known origins.  "Illegitimate" names appeared to be random user submissions like Brinderella and Dabrielle -- names, in the site's own words, "most likely either pulled out of someone's behind or respelled with a wreckless (sic) disregard for history."

Illegitimate names came with the warning "Use with caution."  Legitimate names, though, came with this juicy argument-starter of an exhortation:

"Please use this name liberally within its ethnic context!"

Even accounting for the site's unique verbal style (and the challenge of assigning an ethnic context to "legitimate" names like Betelgeuse), the qualifier was striking.  A great many names are linked to a particular cultural or religious heritage.  Does that heritage mark the name's realm of use, and should parents fear to stray outside it?

American parents have already obliterated cultural borders around many names.  You would never assume that a Denise was French, a Brian Irish or a Sandra Italian.  Religious names can be trickier.  A recent discussion here, for instance, questioned the growing popularity among Christians of the name Cohen -- a Jewish priestly title that's not traditionally used as a given name.  Yet I've met enough Jews named Renee to know that even those boundaries are flexible.

So assuming that you can go beyond a name's "ethnic context," should you?  The considerations include respect for the other culture; potential false expectations on the part of those who hear the name; and, as always, style.  If your last name is Finnegan, do Sean and Bridget just go better than Giovanni and Ashanti?

Here's my take, from a style perspective.  Mixing name ethnicities is like mixing ethnic cuisines.  An expert chef may take lemongrass, tomatillos and fettucini and whip up a globe-spanning masterpiece.  When it works, fusion cuisine opens fresh new possibilities that work together in enchanting ways.  It's tricky, though, and not every combination works.  You're in more of a safety zone pairing lemongrass with coconut milk...and Sean with Finnegan.  Sean Finnegan is the classic comfort-food of names, reliable and warm with tradition.  You know what you're getting, and you know it will be good.  But if you're up for something new, Ashanti Finnegan doesn't sound half bad.