Meet The New Bouncing Baby (beta) Tools!

Oct 22nd 2008 is thrilled to announce the birth of two new major baby naming resources.

  Names: NameMapper and Namipedia
  Date: October 22, 2008
  Weight: Tons of Fabulous Names

NameMapper and Namipedia join big siblings NameVoyager, Wizard Blog, and The Baby Name Wizard book to form a heck of a baby naming family, if we do say so ourselves.

The new arrivals are still infants -- which is to say, in beta release -- and they'll be growing fast over the coming weeks.  (Please bear with me if there are some bumps in the road along the way!)  But I'm excited about them, and I hope you will be too.

The NameMapper is an interactive playground for exploring the varying popularity of names across the United States over the past 50 years.  Try typing in Charlotte, and watch the name transform from Southern belle to "Sex and the City" chic.  Or type Duane and Dwayne for an illustration of why a different spelling can really be a different name.

Click MultiMap to see the full expanse of time at once, or click on the Timeline tab to explore new dimensions of the data.  The Timeline view is a colorful grid of mini-graphs representing the name's usage in 50 different states and 48 different years, grouped by naming-style regions  You can customize the view to show popularity in different ways, or to order the states by population variables.

(Note: The NameMapper is a Java applet.  If you can't view it, you should download the standard Java plugin from Sun.)

Namipedia is a multifaceted baby name encyclopedia that gives each name its own "home page."  Each Namipedia name page combines reliable expert information with reader-contributed content and opinions.  Look up a name in Namipedia and you can...

  • Learn about a name's origins, check it's popularity in the U.S. and abroad, and find out how it's pronounced.
  • See what others think of the name -- does it sound strong? friendly? sophisticated? -- and what real-world parents have chosen for sibling names.
  • Read about famous namesakes, nickname ideas, and readers' personal experiences with the name.
  • Contribute your own ratings, opinions, siblings and insights...and even names.  It's pleasantly addictive!

I owe special thanks to the early beta testers who have given me invaluable feedback on the new tools.  You'll see many of your suggestions come to life in the weeks ahead.

Happy naming, everyone!

Your Alternate-reality Identity

Oct 15th 2008

Every life is a series of choices and chances, paths taken and not taken.  We can ponder the unknowables of who we would be, if.  If we'd grown up in a different place, or a different time; if we'd chosen a different school or a different career; if we'd looked different, or even been a different sex.  This last "if" has a special quality -- from the point of view of this blog, at least.  Because for most of us, our opposite-sex alternate reality has a name.

Even in this age of ultrasound, most parents still consider both boys' and girls' names for each baby-to-be.  In some families, the unused name is later given life in the form of a younger brother or sister.  In many cases, though, the name simply lingers in parents' minds as personal connection, insubstantial yet meaningful.  My husband and I had just-in-case boys' names picked out when our daughters were born, and I still feel a sentimental attachment to those names.  On some level, they're still "mine"...and in that way, they belong to my daughters, too.  But of course my daughters don't remember those names, and can only hear them as foreign to themselves.

In fact, my own alternate-sex, alternate-reality name feels just as foreign to me.  I was taken aback when my mother informed me that if I had been a boy, I would have been named Evan.  Now Evan is a fine name indeed.  It even ranked as one of the most "likeable" of all names in my informal poll a couple of years back.  But it doesn't feel like me.

It's a mind-bender of a question, "what name would suit you if you were the opposite sex?"  That's a lot of layers of hypothetical to fight through.  Yet it's clear to me that Evan's light, contemporary Celtic style doesn't fit my image of myself.

I can't help but wonder how much that is shaped by the name I have borne all of these years.  Laura and Evan are very different in history and style.  If I had lived my life as, say, "Megan," would Evan seem like a more natural masculine alter ego?  And if so, does that mean that as a Megan, I would have a different sense of self?

Try the exercise yourself: think about what you would name your own opposite-sex identity today.  Not necessarily the name you like best, but the name that feels most natural to you.  How does it relate to the name you actually bear -- and, if you know it, to the name you would have borne in your parents' alternate reality?

Name Spotlight: Levi

Oct 10th 2008

Levi is a classic biblical name.  It is not, by and large, a classic English Christian name.  Written as Levi or Levy and pronounced LEH-vee or LEE-vee, it comes across as distinctly Jewish to most American adults.  But pronounce it LEE-viy and the name's image suddenly shifts.  Over the past generation, the name's whole identity has made that shift -- a shift encompassing a rich American stew of history, geography, religion and culture.

For most of the 20th century, Levi kept a low profile.  It didn't crack the top 200 nationally until the 1980s.  The most telling pattern, though, isn't when Levi came back, but where.  Take a look at this map, showing the states where Levi ranked among the top 100 boys' names 25 years ago:

map of the name levi

You're looking at the modern frontier, American states with rugged terrain and mostly sparse population.  All are overwhelmingly Christian.  So why Levi in those regions?  Because it's a "pioneer" name, one of the Old Testament men's names that conjure up a world of trappers, homesteaders and prospecters who ventured out to make their homes and fortunes in a rough and wild land.  The name Levi is one of the pinnacles of that hard-scrabble style, thanks to Levi Strauss and his legendary jeans.

The tale of Levi Strauss is one of the best known origin stories in American business.  It was the California gold rush, and young dry-goods purveyor Levi saw the toll that the 49ers' hard labor took on a regular pair of trousers.  So he fashioned some tough work pants out of sailcloth with copper rivets at the pockets, and a nation had a new workwear uniform.  The Levi Strauss company's frontier heritage is commemorated in the mule drivers on the label of my Levi's 512 mom jeans, and in the many young Levis living across the Mountain West.

So far, so good.  But the first point to ponder in this tale is that the pioneer Levi who propelled the name's transformation to Christian rancher chic was himself a Jew.  Levi Strauss was a paragon of the San Francisco Jewish community, a benefactor of Jewish causes and a member of the city's first synagogue.

The next intriguing tidbit is that Levi's famous work pants weren't actually invented in the 49er gold rush at all.  Strauss was born in Bavaria in 1829, and emigrated to New York to join his brothers in the dry goods business in 1847.  After five years in the family business he headed West, establishing his own successful dry-goods supply firm in San Francisco.  In 1872 Strauss got a letter from a tailor who had devised a clever method of using rivets to strengthen work pants; he hoped that Strauss, by then a prominent businessman, would partner with him to patent and develop the idea.  The two joined forces, and a clothing empire was born.

And one final item to put the whole Levi story in perspective: Levi's given name was Loeb Strauss.  He restyled himself as the more American-sounding Levi after arriving in New York.

So there you have the story of Levi: a tale of enterprise, ingenuity, self-reinvention, ethnic mishmashing, and romantic mythologization.  Is there any more American name?