Around the world with Facebook names

Feb 11th 2010

A clever website from a market researcher has put the world of Facebook on the map. Millions of Facebookers' personal tastes, connections, and names are tallied up and presented as geographic profiles -- a kind of  Match.com entry for a country, U.S. State or U.S. City. The results give you plenty of random tidbits to waste a morning on. (The #1 "Like" in Macau is  is Avril Lavigne?)  But let's cut to the chase: the names.

30 seconds into exploring the tool, I was ready to give up on it. The U.S. state and city name info is frankly a washout. The problem is that the site simply delivers the 10 most common names of Facebook users for each region. It's not relative to other places, just a straight count. News flash: everybody in the U.S. is named Mike and Jen! Unless they're Chris and David. Yawn.

The closest thing to a revelation in the U.S. data is that the upper Mountain West (Idaho, Montana, Wyoming) is the only part of the country where Jennifer tops the male names. Perhaps that's the one place that men still go outside rather than updating their Facebook status all day.

The real rewards of the tool, though, became clear to me when I clicked on the state of Georgia. Neighbors like South Carolina were safely in the Mike & Jen camp, but the top 10 names in Georgia read:

Nino
Giorgi
Natia
David
Keti
Irakli
Mariam
Salome
Levan
George

Apparently their data feed got the Peach State confused with that other Georgia. A silly mistake, but an intriguing name collection. Sure enough, the global view is the treasure trove for name enthusiasts. Click over to pockets of the world where they don't keep first-name statistics, and where the naming cultures are less familiar to English speakers, and there's a lot to discover. Here are the top 10 Facebook names from 6 places around the world. Can you guess which they are?

A
Aziz
Alisher
Olga
Sardor
Ulugbek
Zafar
Muzaffar
Jamshid
Sanjar
Malika

B
Uyanga
Nomin
Dulguun
Bilguun
Bolor
Zaya
Solongo
Tsolmon
Onon
Anar

C
Alain
Nadia
Willy
Patrick
Kaneza
Olivier
Sandra
Yvan
Ines
Sandrine

D
Cheikh
Papa
Abdoulaye
Ousmane
Amadou
Pape
Abdou
Moustapha
Mamadou
Mohamed

E
Siti
Nurul
Dk
Mohd
Nur
Hjh
Hj
Muhammad
Ak
Abdul

F
Daniel
Brian
James
David
Alex
Steve
Andrew
Pope
Mark
Ryan

(answers will be posted in comments tomorrow)

Names on the Verge: Alice

Feb 5th 2010

In the most recent edition of The Baby Name Wizard book, I wrote of the name Alice:

This plain and simple classic has been neglected for years. Right now, opinions on it are divided. To some, the model Alice is long-suffering housewife Alice Kramden of the “Honeymooners. “ To others, it’s the girlish enchantment of Alice in Wonderland. Expect to see the name come back first in the tony urban neighborhoods where Lucy and Henry are hits.

Signs are now mounting that Alice's comeback time may be sooner rather than later.

The first sign: vampires. I've written before about the stylish names of Twilight's undead Cullen clan. Eye-catching names like Jasper and Esme got the most dramatic boost, but Alice has quietly benefited from the connection too.

Sign two: top billing. What could tilt Alice toward the "Alice in Wonderland" side better than Alice in Wonderland itself? Tim Burton's phantasmagoric take on that classic story hits theaters next month. The media coverage should make more parents think of the name, and all the blond curls and pinafores should help push images of diner waitresses into the background.
 
But no amount of publicity can boost a name that parents aren't ready for. So the most important sign that Alice is a "name on the verge" may be one from a much less glamorous source: the Swedish Bureau of Statistics. A week ago, the Swedish number-crunchers announced that Alice was their #1 girl's name of 2009. That's a dramatic rise from #6 the year before.

Sweden is often a step ahead of the United States in reviving old-fashioned names. Emma, for instance, became the #1 name in Sweden in 2002, 6 years earlier than in the U.S. Alice will surely rise here too. But how far? Do parents who like Alice for its sweet quirkiness have to brace for an Emma-like onslaught?

My crystal ball says that Alice will never reach those heights in the United States. The name's appeal is deep, but not broad enough.

Alice doesn't end in a vowel, like Emily and Ava. It isn't multisyllabic with strong nicknames, like Elizabeth and Abigail. And it isn't lilting and romantic, like Isabella and Olivia. Culturally, Alice is closer to boys' names like Henry and Charlie. Those names walk a fine style line. They have a slight whiff of old country bumpkin about them, which scares off some parents -- but not the most affluent and educated ones. The farther you are from a country bumpkin, after all, the less you risk being mistaken for one. That has made Henry and co. favorites of Ivy League and Hollywood parents, and Alice seems destined to follow.

To tell or not to tell?

Jan 29th 2010

As expectant parents, you have two big naming decisions. The first is the choice of name. The second is when to reveal it.

At one extreme you have parents who start referring to the fetus by name from the moment they see an ultrasound. Let's call them the "broadcasters." At the other, you have the parents who guard the name as a state secret, refusing to give their nearest and dearest so much as a clue: the "keepers."

Both of these extremes are on the rise. The broadcasters have gained momentum from early sex detection and the self-revelatory culture of the internet. As reader Jen wrote to me, "Facebook seems to be the main vehicle for this reveal: 'We had our 20 week ultrasound today, and Olivia Kate is on the way...,' 'We are on our way to the hospital to meet Matthew!'"

The keepers, meanwhile, have more and more to hide. Our modern culture of creative, distinctive names leads to a lot more wrinkled noses and outraged grandparents at name announcement time. The way keepers see it, if you know they'll complain and you know you won't change your mind, why have the argument? Just present them with an adorable newborn baby, the name a fait accompli.

As usual, extremes carry risks. For the keepers, if you suspect that your friends and family will all hate your child's name, shouldn't that set off alarm bells? Bouncing ideas off people can also help you avoid unwelcome surprises. I've heard from "keeper" parents who learned too late that, say, Amelia was the name of Grandpa's first wife whom nobody ever talks about.

Broadcasters risk locking themselves into premature decisions. Their public pre-announcements can also seem like tempting fate. The sad truth is that things can go wrong with pregnancies, and an early name broadcast to 1,000 Facebook friends can add an extra layer of complication to an already painful time. Even if all goes well, you've stolen the thunder from your birth announcement. If everybody already knows the ultrasound sex reading, the date of your scheduled c-section, and the name, what's left to announce?

Luckily, there's plenty of middle ground. For instance, you can choose a trusted circle to bounce your ideas off of. Ideally the group should include at least one parent of young kids who knows the name landscape, and one person who knows your family well enough to help you navigate around the "Grandma Amelia" problems. If you keep the circle small, you preserve some secrecy and get the extra bonus of flattering the people you've taken into your confidence.

If you're a broadcaster at heart, you can hold back a bit by sharing a list of finalists rather than a champion. (You may have already chosen the winner, but nobody has to know that.) Presenting a candidate list can also generate excitement about the name choice. After all, you can't root for a team without knowing who's playing.

Personally, I like the idea of combining both approaches. If you share a small group of names with a small group of confidantes you gather feedback, retain some air of mystery, and get the full oomph of the birth announcement.

How about you?