An update and a mystery

Jun 28th 2007

Two items for a summer afternoon...

A smarter Nymbler. If you visit the name-finder Nymbler today it will look the same as yesterday. But don't be deceived; there are changes under the hood. We've tweaked the way Nymbler thinks about names, which should make its recommendations smarter and more discerning. Give it a try and let me know how it works for you!

A challenge for all you namerologists. When I find an odd name phenomenon in old baby-name data, it often leads down a trail to a fragment of history or culture. But sometimes it leads to a dead end. Here's one name that has me stumped:

The girl's name Willodean cracked the United States top-1000 name list six times from 1926 to 1932. It was most popular in a vertical strip of the country, focused on Tennessee and extending North to Indiana and South to Mississippi. That's what I do know. What I don't know: where it came from, what sparked its use, and even how it's pronounced.

I'm not inclined to accept the explanation from one web name dictionary: "Its source is an English expression meaning 'A tree with long, drooping branches covered with narrow leaves.'" That would be Willow, no? (Some dictionaries are strangely allergic to the word "word," apparently believing that "expression" sounds more scholarly. So we're treated to derivations like this one for the name Windy: "Its source is an English expression meaning 'Windy.'")

Willodean is decidedly not just Willow, nor does it seem to be a form of Wilhelmina, Wilda, etc. Are there any Willodeans or descendants of Willodeans who can shed some light on this baby-name of mystery?

Names without borders: Professional edition

Jun 19th 2007

In March I wrote about ingredients that make a name "travel well" -- name sounds and styles that play well to speakers of many languages. While some parents do look for global-ready names, they (and I) are rank amateurs in that game compared to another group of namers: branding consultants.

Consider the cross-linguistic approach of Brand Institute, Inc.:

With the global complexities of international marketing and the growing importance of cultural submarkets within the domestic market, rigorous linguistic screening is required for every name that clears trademark screening.

During Brand Lingustic™ Screening, native linguists review all name candidates for appropriateness.

This screening is conducted for a minimum of 32 languages in 39 countries and includes evaluations for connotations and pronunciation.

Brand Institute (BI) and its competitors create company and product names from scratch, often with the charge of creating a single brand and logo to be used in dozens of countries. BI is particularly active in the healthcare industry, creating pharmaceutical names like...


Some of the names are linked closely to the purpose of the drugs. Sustiva, for example, is an anti-HIV medication. The name builds off of sustain/sustinere, a Latin root that's a natural for a treatment designed to prolong overall health. Others like Geodon or Invega are more opaque in etymology and could have been applied to a wide variety of products or services. (Both are anti-psychotic drugs.) But all on the list fare well on our tests of global-ready baby names.

For a comparison, here is a brand the same company worked with for a purely domestic market...

Global Priority Mail

And how about Taco Bell's Crunchwrap Supreme, or HP Storageworks? Not nearly so euphonious, and they certainly wouldn't travel well. ("Crunchwrap" alone is enough to drive an ESL teacher to tears.) But they're effective and memorable names for their English-speaking audience. Each is clear and meaningful because it's based on the core units of meaning in our language: words.

Like words, familiar names have built-in meanings and relevance. As the naming culture turns more and more toward attractive neologisms (Jayla Jaylen Jayden Kayden Brayden), it's worth considering some unique virtues of standard English names. "Global Priority Mail" requires no explanation and no spelling help. Nobody's going to confuse it with a Crunchwrap or an antipsychotic medication. And nobody's going to think William is a girl, misspell Margaret...or mistake Joseph for an antipsychotic medication.

Does that mean drug makers should be aiming for word-based names like Get'EmUp instead of Viagra -- or that parents should be choosing a recognizable English-based name like Mary over a neologism like Bryleigh? Not necessarily. There are plenty of other factors that play into a name choice (I challenge you to sell a single pack of "Get'Em'Up"). But novelty in names comes with costs as well as rewards.

Funny, he doesn't look like a Methuselah

Jun 8th 2007

Names carry social meanings. When you hear a name you automatically draw inferences -- the person's likely sex, age, race, and religion. You make subtler assumptions too, on measures like social class and even personality. But do you form an image of the person's appearance? Does one name have a round face, another long and thin?

A recent study suggests that we do make these connections between names and looks, and that there's broad agreement about what each first name looks like. Psychologist Melissa Lea and colleagues asked subjects to configure a face to fit their mental image of each of a group of names. The researchers then showed the consensus faces to another group of subjects and asked them to pick, for example, which one looked like a Bob and which like a Tim. There was statistically significant agreement: according to the study, a man with a roundish face and features just "looks like a Bob."

The interesting question to me is why. It could be the look and sound of the name itself. The letters of "Bob" carry multiple signals of roundness--think "blob." It could be style. Bob is a friendly, easygoing nickname--think "Bob's your uncle." But it could be something outside of the name itself. The results could be mediated by a broad social difference that carries smaller distinctions in its wake. (At this point I should warn the reader that I'm a recovering experimental psychologist myself. I'm on the wagon, haven't run a subject in 14 years, but still.)

Science Daily featured an image from the scholarly article, headshots of two men with the caption:

"Which person would be inclined to call Bob, and which Tim? An entire lecture hall of students chose the bearded man as Tim and the round-faced man as Bob."

The "Tim" photo has a slim, wiry build, a goatee, and a full head of hair in a longish, casual style. He wears a t-shirt, a choker, and the faint bemused smirk of someone trying hard to look serious. The man called Bob, meanwhile, appears more heavyset with fuller features. He is mostly bald. He wears a striped button-down shirt and a blank, tired expression that reminds me of my driver's license photo.

Yes, one's face is rounder than the other. But the cultural cues in those photos are far stronger than the facial cues. The cues in the Tim picture point much more toward youth...and a Tim is younger than a Bob. Take a look at the names' usage over time:

Granted, the actual experimental stimuli surely eliminated obvious cues like goatees and jewelry. Yet expected age could still be a huge confound in interpreting the results. Did the researchers control for the perceived age of names? Here's a description from the Science Daily article:

"Mixed gender groups of college students participated in the study, which used men's names that appear with equal frequency among that age group."

At this point, my Name Wizard sense is tingling. Something tells me this control is backwards. They asked how likely it is that a guy that age would be named Bob...but they didn't ask how likely it is that a guy named Bob would be that age! (OK, it's not exactly "they didn't move the graves," but we're talking baby name research here.)

The typical Robert is a solid 30 years older than the typical Timothy. If you factor in nicknames, the age difference between them might even be greater. The study used nicknames like Bob and Bill in place of given names, but those forms are out of fashion among young Roberts and Williams...while young Timothys are stil Tim. It's only logical that subjects would assign signs of youth like thinner, more delicate features to the younger name.

Here's a nice testable hypothesis for your next name-image study: our mental models of names include something like NameVoyager graphs, representing the ages of all the Tims or Bobs we've encountered in our lives. Perceived age is based on typicality and availability from that curve. Tease out the age curves from your test stimuli and then we can start finding out for sure whether a Bob is "rounder" than a Tim, and why.