Counting People, Counting Names

Nov 2nd 2009

Global phone directories are a standard part of my name explorer toolkit. When a user submits a name like Wynagene to Namipedia saying "This is my grandmother's name," a directory search can give me a quick sense of how many other Grandma Wynagenes may be out there. (Answer: not many.) A couple of months ago, I tried out a new search from whitepages.com. It allowed convenient first-name only searches of the U.S., so I was happy to add it to my bookmark list. Until...

Last week, I heard from a PR rep promoting the official release of that tool as a baby name popularity search. They hoped I'd write about it. According to their official press release, whitepages.com is responding to "a growing trend to give babies uncommon names" by "making it easier for parents-to-be to identify unique names for their babies based on popularity rankings" which will "help new parents identify whether or not their desired name is as unique as 'Brooklyn' or 'Seraphina.'" The press release goes on to cite research about the increasing uniqueness of baby names, based on 2007 birth data.

I was so astonished that I did something I've never done before. I called the contact number on a promotional email. I told them, before their official press release, what I'm going to tell you now. They are misleading parents by suggesting that their directory can help identify uncommon baby names. What's more, they are misleading all their users by stating that they're counting the people in the United States with a given name. Their tool does neither.

Their own examples illustrate the problem. Whitepages says that they'll help you find "unique" names like Brooklyn. Now, why would you consider Brooklyn "unique"? The name has made the U.S. top-1000 charts for two decades straight. Last year alone there were 5,249 Brooklyns born in the United States, making it a top-50 girl's name. Ah, but that's not what whitepages.com thinks. According to them, Brooklyn is a rare name indeed. It ranks #7,576 in America. There are three times as many people named Sunshine as Brooklyn. And here's the grand national total, according to the big, bold result on their site:

"There are 1,036 people with the first name 'Brooklyn' in the United States."

Obviously, that's not even close to right. The problem is that whitepages.com, being a souped-up phone directory, isn't really counting "people" as their site claims. When I asked, their PR rep confirmed that by "people," they mean "adults." And from some experimenting with their site, I suspect they might really mean "adults with land lines." The percentage of young adults with land lines in their names shrinks daily. So the directory numbers massively favor the 30-80 demographic -- precisely the generations of names which are LEAST trendy today.

That makes turning to whitepages.com for baby name guidance a lot like turning to your grandma: they're a generation or two behind the times. The results can be pretty comical. Adelbert three times as common as Aiden? Six Myrtles in America for every Madison? And don't even ask about Novella vs. Nevaeh.

I might have let it pass with a chuckle if it weren't for the PR campaign, complete with statistics about babies they don't actually track, aimed directly at the expectant parents who care most about name popularity. If you actually talk to these parents as I do, you know this isn't a game. Choosing a baby name is a heartfelt act. Assuring a parent who truly, deeply wants an uncommon baby name that Brooklyn or Aiden is "unique" when you know you don't count folks born since Reagan left office is...umm...well, if you can think of a polite term to insert here, be my guest.

On a cheerier note, you can find a much more interesting take on population-wide name usage at WolframAlpha, the "computational knowledge engine." They use tricks like crossing birth data with mortality tables to make intelligent name population estimates. For instance, Wolfram estimates 37 times as many Brooklyns in America as whitepages does. Unfortunately, Wolfram's models break down for unusual names. (Estimated number of people named Calla alive: 0.) That means it will still take some creativity and cross-referencing to track down the likes of Grandma Wynagene.

Surnames that still sound like surnames

Oct 28th 2009

Have you ever met a child named Connolly? How about Barker, or Janson? Most likely not, but if you did I doubt you'd bat an eyelash. So many surnames of the British Isles are used as baby names right now that those fit right in.

That's good news for parents who want to "fit right in." What if that's not your goal? What if you chose Barker because it's your family surname and you want it to sound like a surname, darn it, not like some trendy spinoff of Parker? Or maybe you just miss the buttoned-down prep school style that used to come along with surname-names. When names like Chandler and Dalton have gone mainstream, where's a stuffed shirt afficionado to turn?

Here's one clue. Since quarterback Peyton Manning's first college game, the popularity of the name Peyton -- a traditional surname -- has soared. You can see spikes in the name at notable moments in Manning's career, like a record-setting season and a Super Bowl victory. But...why Peyton? Why not Manning? Manning has plenty of history as a first name, and it gets a double dose of publicity because Peyton's brother Eli is also a championship quarterback.

What Peyton has (and Manning lacks) is an ending from the golden trinity: -n, -r and -y. Today, the vast majority of surname-names cling to those three fashionable sounds. If you're willing to move beyond them, you can still find plenty of names with unadulterated surname style.

Names ending in -ing like Manning are one neglected group. A reader recently wrote to me about a sterling example (no, not Sterling): Fielding. It still has the power to surprise, doesn't it? It may be another British isle surname, but it won't get lost in a sea of Parkers and Peytons.

The -s surnames, particularly patronymic names, are another good target for old-time surname sound. A century ago many names like Evans, Hughes, Hayes and Clemens hit the top 1000, but today Brooks and Davis are the only survivors of the style. That leaves the -s names impeccably buttoned-down.

Put the two styles together and the effect is magnified. A name like Jennings or Hastings practically comes with its own bow tie.

This isn't for everyone, of course. Some people will find the ultra-surnames a little forced, even pretentious. Others will assume that these old-fashioned names were chosen the old-fashioned way, and ask about the importance of the name Fielding or Hayes in your family tree. But if you want pure surname style undiluted by the Peyton generation, try these:

-ING NAMES
Browning
Carling
Channing
Denning
Ewing
Fielding
Harting
Henning
Janning
Keating
Kettering
Lanning
Lansing
Manning
Pershing
Redding
Spaulding
Sperling
Waring

-S NAMES
Albers
Ames
Baines
Brooks
Clemens
Collins
Dobbs
Eakins
Evans
Evers
Forbes
Gaines
Hawkins
Hayes
Hobbs
Holmes
Hopkins
Hughes
Mills
Perkins
Powers
Reeves
Rhodes
Robbins
Sanders
Simmons
Travers
Watkins
Yates

-INGS NAMES
Billings
Hastings
Hollings
Jennings
Rawlings

Death by androgyny? The old name rules meet the new generation

Oct 21st 2009

It's one of the classic maxims of the baby name business: most parents who like "androgynous" names really like masculine-sounding names for both sexes. Parents of boys carefully avoid anything feminine. When a boy's name starts to show up on the girl's chart, the male version's days are usually numbered. Take a look at the NameVoyager graph of Leslie for a classic example.

In the past decades we've seen an explosion of new androgynous names. In addition to the 65 names that make both top 1000 lists, countless more names are surnames that could go either way (Jensen), new inventions you'd have to guess at (Braelyn), or spelling variations on androgynous names (Kamren and Camren make the top 1000 for boys only, Kamryn only for girls, Camryn both). It's not just individual names used for both sexes, it's a broad androgynous style that's defining a generation of names.

Does that mean an entire generation of names is destined to turn feminine? Will boys eventually find themselves stranded on a tiny name island with nothing but kingly classics and absurdly macho inventions to choose from? Don't panic yet, parents of boys. There are reasons to think that this crop may be different

Remember that the common wisdom on androgynous names comes from a history of long-time male names being adopted by females. Many of today's favorite emerged simultaneously as names for both sexes. What happens when a name starts out gender-neutral? Is one sex destined to "win" the name, or can it maintain a balanced sex ratio over time? And if there is a winner, who wins?

In many cases, these questions end up moot because the trendy names fade away before any resolution. Yet examples are mounting to suggest that the old rules may not apply, and all bets are off.

Take a look at the name Devin, in all its many spellings. 50 years ago it was essentially unknown, then it started climbing for boys and girls alike. The boys eventually took the lead, and in 2006 every spelling (Devin, Devon, Devyn) dropped off the girls' chart simultaneously, leaving the name suddenly, authoritatively masculine. The girls, meanwhile, are "winning" Addison. And still other names are showing staying power on both sides of the charts. As in the case of Kamren/Camren/Kamryn/Camryn, many of these splinter into multiple variants, each with its own sex ratio. For instance, Jalen is masculine, Jaelyn feminine, and Jaylin a tossup. What that means, in practice, is that you can't assume anything when you hear the name.

So it seems that unlike established names, new androgynous names don't inevitably tip toward the feminine. The trick is, they don't inevitably do anything. What crystal ball could have told you 15 years ago that Ashton would end up masculine and Addison feminine? In each case, the name's fluid gender identity made it easy for a celebrity example to shape public perception. (Check out this past post on Ashton to watch the forces of celebrity in action.) You can weigh risk factors, like whether the name contracts to a girlish or boyish sounding nickname. But in the end, if you choose a new androgynous name today you have to be prepared that 10 or 20 years down the line it may come across very differently.