The Literary Name Timeline, take 2

Dec 17th 2010

Note: I posted a quite different version of this blog last night, but realized I wasn't being consistent with capitalization of input. Mea culpa.


Fictional names are a world apart from real-live baby names. The follow their own rules and their own patterns. Fictional adults routinely bear names of a different generation, like Samantha and Mackenzie. Picture-book kids have cuter, cuddlier, easier-to-pronounce names than real kids. Pen-named romance novelists choose one kind of name for their characters, another for themselves.

But do literary name styles change over time, rising and falling like real names on the NameVoyager? Would a literary curve reveal more about the name's place in our culture? Thanks to Google's new historical book-text grapher, "Ngram," we can get our first answers to those questions.

Ngram searches the full text of a large historical corpus of books. You can type in a word, a phrase, or a combination of words and phrases to compare. It returns a line graph, representing the rate of occurrence as a percentage of all words or phrases of the same length during each year.

To avoid skews from history, biography, etc., I choose to search the English Fiction corpus. I set the time period as 1880-2008 to most closely match the NameVoyager. (As noted above, it's essential to capitalize names as input; otherwise you come away with a dramatically different idea of names like "Dick" and "John.")

A few patterns quickly emerge. For instance, use of nicknames in literature has also soared over the past 25 years, as you can see in these plots of Jake vs. Jacob and Tim vs. Timothy. You'll also notice a reliable bump in the use of classic men's nicknames in the 1940s-early '50s.

When a baby name experiences a massive usage surge, there's often a significant time lag before that trend is reflected in book characters. Compare Steven babies vs. Steven books, or Amanda vs. Amanda.

In general, classic names are holding on better among fictional people than real ones. In part, that presumably reflects period settings of novels -- you're not going to call your 1890s frontier woman Kaitlyn. It also reflects the fact that a contemporary character created in 2007 may have been "born" in 1930. Even so, the absolute steadiness of a name like Martha suggests that the old standards retain their hold on our psyches, even as we refuse to give them to our babies.

Care to join me in the search? Can you unearth naming revelations from a century's worth of literature?

The Name of the Year, 2010

Dec 7th 2010

Before I announce the Baby Name Wizard Name of the Year, let me remind you that the NOTY designation isn't an endorsement. It's not a claim that the name will soon be heard in nurseries across the land. It's a recognition that this name captures our moment in time, both reflecting and shaping the naming culture around us.

With that in mind, the 2010 Name of the Year is....

The Situation.

For those of you who haven't looked at a TV this year, yes, that's a name. Read on.

This year's reader nominations had a clear theme. 2010 was, in one reader's apt summation, "the year of the un-name."

It was a year that saw people pushing the boundaries of what a personal name is. Parents were ravenous for fresh baby name ideas, digging deep into their reference books for untapped words (Legend, Malaysia) and jazzing up spellings the same way marketers do (Juelz, Maxx). The swelling ranks of Bloggers and Twitter users were referred to by handle rather than name. Performers, meanwhile, were upping the artifice (Prince Poppycock) and launching lawsuits when other people encroached on their name space (Lindsay Lohan). All together, it created what another reader described as a "name-as-brand vibe" to 2010.

Nowhere was this more apparent than on MTV's reality show Jersey Shore. The series, a kind of Real World populated entirely by buff young New Jersey Italians on vacation, premiered in December 2009. Soon, it was everwhere. Its heavily nicknamed cast dominated Name of the Year nominations, especially breakouts Snooki (Nicole Polizzi) and The Situation (Michael Sorrentino).

Those nicknames, as readers attested, were more than incidental to the show's success. "I don't have cable and have never seen the show, yet I still know who they are," one reader wrote. "I admit, I did tune in for a few episodes," wrote another, "and I also have to admit, I partly did because of the names. They made me curious--who were these characters?"

Of all the Jersey Shore nicknames, it's The Situation that epitomizes the year of the un-name. Snooki's nickname was conferred, in time-honored style, as an in-joke among her middle school friends. The Situation is a less natural, more calculated choice. It's a statement which translates roughly to "all eyes on me!"

Think of The Situation as a stage name without an act. What better emblem could there be for an age of empty celebrity, when you become famous because you're on camera, rather than being on camera because you're famous?

But more than a traditional stage name, The Situation is also a brand. By the time the first episodes of Jersey Shore aired a year ago, Mr. Sorrentino was already attempting to trademark "The Situation" for product licensing. He understood that his adopted name was his platform to fame.

You could think of this name-first celebrity as the ultimate step in a long evolution. Entertainers have always been aware of their "name brands" as they sell themselves to their audiences. In past generations, they routinely checked their names at the door when they entered Hollywood. Stage names were selected to project an image: usually glossy, like Cary Grant or Judy Garland, and occasionally goofy a la Groucho Marx. By and large, though, they all stuck to the form and style of names. To do otherwise, like ukulele-playing singer Tiny Tim, was to mark yourself as a novelty act.

Hip-hop did away with those rules. From KRS-One to Curren$y, performers blurred the line between name and act. A rapper name could be made up of anything: nouns, adjectives, articles, numbers, punctuation. It wasn't just style, it was statement. It was a brand identity.

Previously an entertainer might have created personas, like David Bowie's Thin White Duke, but these were separable from the individuals behind them. Not so with 50 Cent or T-Pain. When rap empresario Sean Combs decided to shift his image away from Puff Daddy, he had to re-name himself in a formal public relations blitz.

It took a while, but the hip-hop approach to names has finally spread. World-conquering Lady Gaga is leading the charge, with a crowd behind her. White pop singer Ke$ha, for instance, adopted a rap-style brand name as well as incorporating bits of rap into her music.

In the past, I've compared the way parents today name babies to the way companies name products. We're all trying to launch our children into life's competitive landscape with the best chance to succeed and achieve their dreams. That, I think, remains a heartfelt and loving (if obsessive) impulse. The Situation represents a different kind of name-as-brand. It's a more calculated attempt to make yourself a product, with your name as your marketing campaign. And for better or worse, it's working.

Celebrity vs. Fashion: The Kate Middleton Baby Name Effect

Dec 2nd 2010

The upcoming royal wedding in England has stirred up flurries of talk around the classic nickname Kate. The first headline-grabber was Kate Middleton's prenuptial shift to Catherine. (Good luck making that change stick, Ms. Middleton.) Now, the name speculation has moved to the broader English name landscape.

Genealogy website analyzed U.K. birth records from past royal wedding years and found consistent popularity spikes for the princess names. This makes plenty of sense. What better public platform could a baby name have? The Ancestry team felt so confident in the power of the princess effect that they made a bold prediction. Based on the historical trend, Kate is "likely to be [Britain's] number one girl’s name in 2011."

The prediction has history, celebrity and the global media industry on its side. Putting an attractive name on the news 24/7 generally makes it rise, as we've seen with hurricane names.

But facing off in the opposite corner is a formidable foe: fashion. The problem is that in England, Kate has already come and gone. The given name Kate was a steady, top-100 English favorite in the early 1900s. It fell out of fashion for several decades then reemerged in the 1970s, peaked in the '80s and began a slow fade in the '90s. By now Kate's been out of the U.K. top 100 list for years.

That makes 28-year-old Kate Middleton the typical Kate. In other words, the name may be a classic, but it's a mom name.

If you're American, you probably can't hear the mom-ness because Kate is more current on this side of the pond -- it hit its U.S. peak in 2007. For an American name with a curve similar to the U.K. Kate, think Amy or Angela. Or for a celebrity parallel, think Michelle. Michelle Obama becoming First Lady of the United States had zero effect on the name Michelle; her name says "First Mom." Is Britain's royalty culture strong enough to chart a different path?


p.s. Look for the Name of the Year announcement next week! It's shaping up to be a doozy.