Neutral colors revisited: Surname edition

Nov 18th 2007

Back in 2005 I asked the question, "what names tell you the least about a person's race?" I used baby name and ethnicity data from two major U.S. metropolitan areas to identify given names with roughly equal appeal to Black, White, Latino and Asian families. Realistically, though, no first-name choice will yield a truly "neutral color" name for many Americans. If your surname is Washington, Yoder, Barajas or Zhang, your racial background is pretty clear to all. Those are the top-1000 U.S. surnames that are most race-specific to Blacks, Whites, Latinos and Asians respectively according to Census Department figures released on Friday.

The new surname rankings are based on an analysis of the 2000 U.S. Census. Surname frequency was also reported in 1990, but this is the first time the names have been broken down by race. (I'm very, very interested to see what they do for first names!) So far, news reports have used the new surname data mostly as a proxy for race. "Hispanic surnames are rising" has been the big headline -- yet hardly a surprise, since the actual population change data for Hispanic Americans was released back in 2001.

So instead, I'm going to look once again for the points of intersection. What names are shared by large numbers of Americans of different races? If you stick to black and white, the answer is hundreds of them. Imagine a Williams, a Harris, a Rivers...flip a coin to guess the race. But Asian and Latino names are a different matter. The vast majority of surnames are either over 80% Asian/Latino or under 10%. So suppose you wanted to create a "neutral" character -- say for a public service ad campaign. What surname would you choose?

I went in search of names with at least 10% representation in three or more racial groups. Since the target was "neutrality," I eliminated surnames that crossed races but shared a strong religious or ethnic connection, such as Ali. The results? Just three names:

(near miss: Barron)

Lee is the champion by a mile, with no majority race: 40% White, 38% Asian, 17% Black. The largest "other" group of Lees is, not surprisingly, Mixed Race. So if you're planning to meet a guy named Anthony Lee, make no assumptions.

If you'd like to explore the new surname data yourself, let me point you a way to do it. My NameVoyager was a collaboration with my husband Martin, a "wizard" in his own right -- he has a magical way of turning numbers into beautiful moving pictures. He and his colleagues at IBM's Visual Communication Lab have created a site that lets anyone paste in their own data and generate amazing interactive visualizations. I used some of those tools on the surname data to research this blog entry, and will surely use them to illustrate future topics. See what you find! (Click on an image below to go to the full interactive graph; requires Java!)

Your Name Goes Here

Nov 9th 2007

How big a namenik are you? Here's one test. In a store, you spot a rack of name-printed gifts for kids -- stickers, say, or packs of pencils that read BRANDON, BRANDON, BRANDON. Do you walk on past? Or do you eagerly scan the list of names, judging how well the manufacturer chose the names? Come on, 'fess up, I know I'm not the only one.

Most often the gift racks are a few years behind the times. (Too many Melissas, not enough Mias). But they're getting better and better now that more name statistics are available. At one store I spotted two gift racks side by side, clearly from the same manufacturer. One held light-switch covers printed with butterflies, rainbows, and names like Haley, Jasmine and Hannah. The other held small flower pots printed with inspirational sayings and names like Barbara, Nancy and Joyce. The gift company had two different markets down pat. (Or realistically, one market: Melissa, Kristen or Stephanie buying one gift for her mom, one for her daughter. Because nobody really buys themselves that stuff.)

What happens if the manufacturer gets it wrong? Talk about short shelf life...the wrong baby name can mean those "grrl power!" stickers were out of date a decade before they were printed. So today, I offer a cautionary tale for the world's personalized-gift industry.

I recently found myself in a deep, deep discount store--the job lot/salvage variety. You know, the kind of place where rolls of paper towels (banana scented) go for pennies on the dollar, and where you can pick up a t-shirt celebrating your team's divisional title long after they're eliminated from the playoffs. Displayed across one wall were ceramic name plaques ready to personalize a child's bedroom door, marked down to just 19 cents each! Drawings of crayons, cars and ice-cream cones accompanied the names: Gene, Betty, Alice, Ralph. Gosh, I wonder why they didn't sell?

The plaques spanned nearly a century of name style, from Walter and Bea to Todd and Dana. The bulk, though, were names of the 1920s through '60s: Joy and Guy, Tammy and Jerry, Jean and Glenn. Here's the lineup, as recorded on the back of an envelope from my pocket:

When were these things made, anyway? A look at the package revealed: 1984. Uh-oh. The names were off by a generation or three, and now 23 years later the product still languishes on the shelves. Granted these are just the unsold remainder names, but there are a lot of them. It's a fair bet the boy's name Cary was printed on more of these plaques than on actual birth certificates in 1984.

For the salvage store in 2007, the extreme wrongness of those old name guesses might prove to be a bit of a blessing. The very "wrongest" names on the list may actually be ready to come around again. So if you're looking for a personalized gift for your little Alice or Bea, I know where to find

Who is Sylvia?

Nov 2nd 2007

This blog is blessed with an incredible community of readers who keep a lively, intelligent discussion going all week long. It's so active, in fact, that I seldom manage to keep up! But this week one topic particularly caught my eye: the perception and popularity of the name Sylvia.

A reader asked: "Why hasn't Sylvia come back, given the popularity of Olivia and Sophia?"

One reply was particularly informative. Regular comment readers may have noticed a preternaturally knowledgeable poster by the name of Cleveland Kent Evans. Dr. Evans is a well-known name researcher and past president of the American Name Society. Having him posting here is a little like having Curt Schilling posting on your Red Sox bulletin board. (Which reminds me, woo-hoo, Sox! OK, got it out of my system, we'll move on now.) On Sylvia, Dr. Evans noted:

It isn't time yet for Sylvia to sound "fresh" again to young parents. Sylvia's high point of use since 1880 in the USA was #50 on the SSA list in 1937. The most typical Sylvia in the USA is turning 70 this year. Most young Americans know an elderly Sylvia, so they still associate the name with grey hair...

As it turns out, quite a few readers had never met a Sylvia (and indeed, seldom meet any women over 65! But that's a whole other discussion.) Personally, I'm at the opposite end of the spectrum with a grand abundance of Sylvias in my life. It's my official Aunt Name -- an Aunt Sylvia, two Great Aunt Sylvias and a Great-Great Aunt Sylvia. You might expect that experience to fossilize the name in my mind, except I've also had the pleasure of meeting new little Sylvias in the carseat demographic. It's a matter of local style. I live in antique style territory (in Massachusetts, in case the Red Sox cheer didn't tip you off), so little Sylvias fit right in.

Yet as Dr. Evans points out, Sylvia isn't properly an antique. Head over to the NameVoyager for a moment and type in Sylvia. Based on that popularity history, Sylvia's closest relatives are actually Gordon, Loretta and Melvin--with cousins Arnold, Stanley and Wilma. That is the least fashionable generation of names in America. So despite Sylvia's modest numbers, I'd argue that the name isn't surprisingly rare today, it's surprisingly common.

Focus on the past decade in the NameVoyager graph and you'll find that Sylvia's fall has leveled off and the name shows hints of a resurgence. That's a remarkable success story for a trendy name of the '30s and '40s. Only a handful of those names have held on at all. Why is Sylvia different? And which other names of that generation might follow in her path?

For clues, let's turn back to the original reader's question. She linked Sylvia with the more popular Sophia and Olivia. What are the common threads? 3+ syllables, ending in -a and preferably -ia, with bonus points for v's. I plugged in those variables and matched to Sylvia's popularity curve to find dark-horse comeback candidates. The clear winner: Virginia, with honorable mentions to Geneva and Dorothea.

Finally, a note on alternate forms. A number of readers mentioned that Sylvie sounded fresher, and even those who didn't care for Sylvia liked this "nickname." I agree on the freshness; Sylvie is listed as a "Why Not?" name in my book. But don't dismiss it as just a nickname. Sylvie is also the French form of the full name, as Sophie is to Sophia. While it may sound nickname-cute in English it can stand on its own as a given name. Another option is the Italian spelling Silvia, which is also the proper spelling for the Shakespearean title of this post.

Then to Silvia let us sing,
That Silvia is excelling;
She excels each mortal thing
Upon the dull earth dwelling:
To her let us garlands bring.