Research followup: what goes up (fast) must come down

May 5th 2009

A year ago, I invited you all to participate in a study on name trends. (I had provided some baby-name expertise to the research team, from the Wharton School of Business.) If you're curious what came of your input, I'm happy to report that their results have been published -- you can read the original scholarly paper (pdf), or get Wired magazine's thoughts on the subject. Or if your click finger's tired, here's my brief take:

Names that rise in popularity fast tend to fall fast as well. This in itself isn't a surprise. In fact, I've been blithely saying so for years -- though having rigorous research to back up my reckless claims is awfully nice. But the meatier part of the study comes from the opinions of research subjects like you. It suggests that parents are attuned to the rate of adoption of a name and that it affects their perception of the name. Enough of the public is trying to actively avoid short-lived naming fads that they help make those fads short lived.

Or to put it another way, there's a big difference between a popular name and a trendy name. Elizabeth and Addison may be close in current usage rates, but that identical popularity comes across very differently.

This reminds me of another study I talked about a couple of years back. In that case, I suggested that the researchers had made a mistake by choosing "equivalent" names based on popularity at a particular time, ignoring the historical ebb and flow that helps shape our perceptions.

Which is why tools like the NameVoyager and NameMapper are so revealing. They don't just tell us where a name is today, they show us where it's been...and as the new study demonstrates, help us guess where it's going.

Namer's Remorse: How Late Is Too Late?

Apr 30th 2009

When I wrote about "namer's remorse," I heard from many parents who had struggled with their kids' names after the baby was born.  But what if the struggle continues once the baby is no longer a baby?  One mother wrote to me after suffering from four straight years of name regret.  Is it ridiculous, she wondered, to think of changing a preschooler's name?  Will it lead to identity confusion, to teasing, or to a reputation as a family of kooks?

Few parents ever reach that stage of worry.  Most come around to liking their name choice as their child grows into it.  Most, but not all.  And for some parents, the name regret only starts once the child's personality fully emerges.  (A name like "Ranger Blaze" or "Desiree Venus" isn't going to fit everybody.)  Is it too late to reconsider?

Once a child is a walking, talking, tricycle-riding, Lego-building member of the family, a name change takes on a whole new context.  There's a shift in jurisdiction: the name no longer belongs to the parent, it belongs to the child.  Most kids dive into that ownership, proudly spotting their initials everywhere and learning to write their names before they learn to read.  If your child feels happy and "as one" with her name, it would be unfair to take it away from her.

That doesn't mean, though, that a preschooler's name is set in stone.  Many kids acquire new names naturally during childhood, in the form of nicknames.  I know plenty of adults who answer exclusively to a name they took on by chance at the age of three or four.  Then there are the legions of serial nicknamers -- the kids who go by Kathy one year, Kit the next, until they finally settle into life as a Kate or Katherine.  Children generally take these shifting identities in stride.  My best childhood friend went through several of these name phases, and I never skipped a beat shifting with her.  (My parents always seemed one step behind on this, though.  Grownups aren't quite as adaptable as kids.)

So let's say that you really, really don't think your child's name fits.  Or perhaps your child feels that way herself.  It's not out of bounds to introduce a new "nickname," in hopes that it might eventually grow into an everyday name.

A few suggested ground rules for introducing new names:

1. Make sure you give NO indication that you think your child's name is "bad" or "wrong."

2. Don't push your child to accept a new name of your choice, or to stop using his given name.  A new nickname should be treated as an item of fun and affection, not a taking away of the old name.  Introduce the new name candidate gradually and naturally.  If it doesn't stick, then it probably wasn't meant to be to begin with.

3. For a child who is still very young, you can treat the candidate name like any of the many other silly nicknames you call him.  With an older child, you might consider opening a direct conversation -- again, without any suggestion that you dislike his current name.  The idea is that you picked out a name before you even met him, and he's big enough now to have some say.  What does he think of his name?  Does it suit him?  (Prepare yourself, though, for a child who suddenly demands to be called Spike or Isis.)

Ideally, you'll either end up with a name that fits just right and makes the whole family happy, or with a newfound peace with the name you originally chose.  If your daughter expresses total happiness with her "wrong" name, you can content yourself with the knowledge that you've done right by her.  And in the end, that's the only measure of success a parent can ask for.

License to Name: The press of modernization

Apr 23rd 2009

The first in an occasional series on naming regulations around the world.

A recent New York Times article described China’s battle against its own baby-naming traditions.  In Chinese custom, names are not a special class separate from ordinary words.  Instead, parents have always constructed names out of auspicious combinations of the 50,000 different Chinese characters.  Certain elements such as Mei ("beautiful" or "plum blossom," depending on tone) and Li ("strong" among other meanings) are particularly popular, but many parents have also chosen rare characters drawn from traditional sources like ancient poems.  Until now.  In 2006, China announced plans to ban half of all characters from use in baby names.

The problem was a practical one.  The country was preparing the awesome task of issuing electronic ID cards to 1.3 billion citizens.  To make such a massive database project feasible, some streamlining was required.  The 27,000 least common word characters had to go.  To be credentialed as a citizen you must be tracked in the database; to be tracked in the database you have to bear a modern, efficient name.  The estimated number of Chinese with non-compliant names is 60 million. The plan, as you might expect, has met with considerable resistance.

This data-driven reform sounds like the ultimate 21st-century naming statement.  In fact, it’s a close relation to a naming revolution that took place two centuries earlier on the other side of the globe.

From the days of the Vikings, the Nordic peoples used patronymics—names identifying people by their fathers.  You'll find patronymic-based surnames in many languages.  Jefferson is "son of Jeffrey," McCormick "son of Cormac."  A true patronymic, though, changes with each generation.  So in Denmark, Niels Andersen's son Peder was known as Peder Nielsen, while Peder's daughter Anna was Anna Pedersdatter.

This constant change became a sticking point in the modernizing Europe of the 1800s.  Modern nations were mobile and industrializing.  They operated at a large scale, collecting taxes, drafting armies, even attempting to establish national systems of education.  That all required organization, and a population of shifting, indistinguishable Hans Jensens and Jens Hansens was no help at all.  So one by one, most governments of Scandinavia began to require heritable surnames.  In Denmark, patronymics were simply frozen in masculine form.  Any Hans Jensen of 1828 would find his patronymic immortalized as the surname of generations of descendents, while the form Jensdatter was left to die out.

Do you see a flaw in this plan?  Freezing patronymics made it easier to trace families, but it didn't actually make the populace more distinguishable.  All those Jensens and Hansens were still Hansens and Jensens, and still named their sons Jens and Hans.  Denmark was left with a small and concentrated name pool.  Even today, the top 50 surnames account for two thirds of all Danes.  Meanwhile the need to track and identify individuals increased year by year.

The Danish government responded in the 20th Century with an aggressive move toward personal identification codes, or personnummer.  Each Hans Jensen now has a number that represents his identity, akin to a U.S. Social Security number but more broadly used.  (It's also less private; the number comprises your date of birth, sex, and just three extra unique digits.)  A Copenhagen University guide for foreign students explains that "the 'personnummer' opens Danish society to you."

This naming number crunch happened in Denmark, a nation of only 5 million citizens.  Compare that to China where the surname Li alone accounts for almost 100 million people.  Doubtless, the Chinese government will rely on numeric identifiers as well. Yet the movement toward national IDs that is costing so many Chinese citizens their naming freedom has had quite the opposite effect in Denmark.

Once it became clear that Danish surnames had ceded their practical, legal significance to ID codes, the need to restrict them began to melt away.  In 2006, the government turned back the clock.  21st-century Danish parents now have a freedom their parents and grandparents never had: to name their children with patronymics in the old Viking style.