In Memoriam: UK Baby Name Statistics

Jan 7th 2009

Hard times are hitting economies around the world, and hard choices have to be made.  Even in my baby-name bubble I recognize that tracking the rise and fall of Nevaeh doesn't make any top-10 list of national priorities.  Still, it was a shock to learn to that UK Office of National Statistics has decided to stop reporting on popular baby names as a cost-cutting measure.

The announcement of the year's most popular baby names has quickly become a tradition around the globe. It's a happy tradition: a rare moment when our government tell us something just because it's fun and interesting. It's also a unique barometer of our changing national mores. As an American, I learn something new about my country with every new name list. Similarly, looking at the England & Wales stats each year taught me a lot about how our countries are the same, and how we differ.  I'll sorely miss watching names like Alfie and Poppy climb toward the top 10.

There's no substitute for true national statistics. They capture the full range of the nation's tastes, while private listmakers -- web sites or newspapers that poll their readerships -- systematically ignore large swaths of the population. As the UK experience demonstrates, we shouldn't take the government data for granted.

The United States first started tracking popular baby names in 1996. As I understand the story, a Social Security Administration actuary by the name of Michael Shackleford compiled the first name popularity lists, simply because he could. After a couple of years Shackleford left the SSA to dedicate his mathematical skills to the gambling industry (see wizardofodds.com). By that time, though, the name stats were so popular that the other actuaries had to continue Mike's pet project.  Eventually the SSA realized they could use this popular feature as a showpiece to lure in parents and educate them about other family programs. Thus the current name stats website was born.

The SSA's approach to name data keeps evolving.  They've gradually tweaked and expanded the figures they make available, which are now the the world's best.  Last year they tried to jazz things up, making the data release a Parade Magazine "exclusive" and adding some freaky talking babies to their website. This year, who knows?

On behalf of the name-loving public, let me beg the SSA to keep doing what it does so well.  (No, dearest actuaries, that does not mean more talking babies. Please, no.)  Baby name statistics deliver a lot of cultural bang for the buck. We love them, and we love you for providing them. See you in May, SSA!  I hope.

One last holiday leftover

Jan 2nd 2009


There was Holly and Ivy and Noëlle and Joy,
Merry and Carol, and Nick for a boy,
But do you recall
The least famous Christmas name of all?


During the holidays, I renewed my annual acquaintance with the name that represents the season best to me.  This name calls to mind generations of families around the world, celebrating with those little family-specific traditions that carry the most cherished memories. The name is Tammis.

The funny thing is, Tammis isn't part of any tradition of mine. In fact, I don't know much about the name, though I quite like it -- it's a female name, simple but chic and very uncommon.  The holiday link comes via a lovely household I visit each December.  One of the family-specific traditions in that home is an old Little Golden Book of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, laid beneath the tree each year.  And therein lies our tale.

This Golden Book was first published in 1958.  It was written by Barbara Shook Hazen, and illustrated by the great Richard Scarry.  I was raised on Scarry's Busytown books, which used cartoonish animal illustrations to present original stories from the practical (What Do People Do All Day) to the bizarre (The Talking Bread, Schtoompah the Funny Austrian.).  But before Busytown, Scarry spent years at Golden Books illustrating other writers' works in a more conventional picture-book style.  His drawings for "Rudolph" took the material totally straight, with one exception: names.

In a key scene, Santa holds a long scroll naming all the "good boys and girls" on his delivery list. Little John and Mary and Peter and, yes, Tammis are destined to be happy on Christmas morning. Here's the full lineup:

John
Mary
Leo
Betty
Ralph
Peter
Henry
Ruth
Sally
Huck
Joan
Jane
Tammis
Edward
Michael
Frances
George
Lucy
Carlton
Pierre

(You can see the original image, courtesy of a random flickr user.)

Every year I pore over the names, reading Tammis, Huck and Carlton and wondering about the real meaning of Santa's list.  It's not mentioned in the text of the story so I assume it was Scarry's own contribution, a shout-out to all the "good boys and girls" in his own life.  I like to imagine that Tammis could refer to Tammis Keefe, a great textile designer of the same period whose animal prints could have done a Golden Book proud. (Check out some of Keefe's handkerchiefs with crocodile, circus and exotic animal motifs.)

Whatever the real story behind the names, the list speaks across time.  It's a moment of connection, a glimpse of quirky humanity in an otherwise sanitized setting -- like a family tradition passed down to us from the Scarry household.  And Tammis is a pretty nifty name, too.  Maybe one to add to your own list of "good little girls"?

 

UPDATE: Since I posted this, readers have joined me hot on the trail of the elusive name Tammis.  Theories abound, but evidence seems to be mounting that its roots are in Celtic variants of Thomas, and that it can be used for boys and girls.  Close relatives are Tam (the Scottish version of Tom) and Tamsin (a Cornish contraction of Thomasina which is now widely used across the U.K.).  Thanks, everybody!

Top Five Biggest Baby Name Stories of 2008

Dec 24th 2008

Names are always the story here at the Baby Name Wizard blog.  If you listen closely enough, names are always whispering to us about what's going on in our culture and our world.  But from time to time, they speak loudly enough that the whole public sits up and listens.  Here's a coutdown of the five biggest name stories of the year, and some thoughts on what they really tell us.

5. Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii

The case of a New Zealand girl named Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii made headlines around the globe because of the sheer bizarreness of the name. Look closer at the details, though, and you see a case study of children's rights and the significance that society attaches to names.  "Talula" wasn't a baby; she was a nine-year-old petitioning the court system for redress of the naming misfortune her parents had subjected her to.  The Family Court Judge took the extraordinary action of placing the child in government custody solely for purposes of changing her first name.  The court determined that a name that sparked bullying or created significant social hurdles constituted child abuse.

4. Track, Bristol, Willow, Piper, Trig
I've said about all I can say about the Palin family names, but there's no question they deserve a spot on this list.  They represent a great national coming-out party for a new naming culture that will be shaping what we call one another for generations to come.

3. Happy Birthday, Adolf Hitler
A white-supremacist family in New Jersey was turned away from a supermarket bakery when they requested a customized birthday cake for their son named Adolf Hitler.  The parents expressed shock and dismay, yet they couldn't have been surprised: the same store had been denying their requests for cakes with similar messages for years.  Public outrage flew in all directions, but gradually settled on the abusive nature of giving an innocent baby a name that will provoke conflict and ostracism (see "Talula Does the Hula").  Another angle to ponder: using a child's name as a billboard to generate publicity for a cause.  How long until a parent successfully generates global media coverage by naming a baby "Vote No on Proposition 12"?

2. Bronx Mowgli, Zuma Nesta Rock
Devotees of "wacky" baby names had a bountiful harvest this year, with top media-feeding-frenzy honors going to young Bronx and Zuma.  I've written before that the supposed wackiness of Hollywood names is actually overblown. (Quick, name Jennifer Lopez's kids! Oops, they're not weird enough to remember.)  But the massive attention paid to these names is starting to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Think of it this way: you're a performer, and have spent your life pursuing the spotlight.  You know that you now have an opportunity to give your child instant global fame simply by giving her an unconventional name -- even if you're a B-lister yourself.  Why not give your kid an advantage you would have killed for at the start of your career?

1. Barack Hussein Obama
In the wake of Obama's landslide victory, reporters clamored to report on the wave of new babies sure to be named in his honor.  It's a risky sort of reportage, assuming a phenomenon exists and then searching for examples to confirm it.  Plenty of reporters called me for comment on the huge surge of little Baracks...then asked me if I could find one for them.  The Rocky Mountain News managed to find a single child given the middle name Barack and ran a full feature, only to discover that the father in question made the whole thing up.  ("I'm so sorry," the mother said. "My husband's an idiot.")

Yet a president-elect named Barack Obama really is a huge naming story, even if he never inspires a single namesake.  A president with a non-European name is as unprecedented as a president with non-white skin.  The name breaks the mold in a way that speaks profoundly to the many Americans with foreign or unusual names.

Happy New Year, Baby Name Nation!