One more week to enter the Baby Name Pool!

Feb 23rd 2007

If you're reading this blog, you should enter the Baby Name Pool. Here's why.

The Pool, now in its second year, asks you to guess names that rose and fell in popularity in 2006. In a sense, it's about fashion -- what's hot and what's not. But names are so rich in cultural connections that it's really about the broad zeitgeist. Last year you would have beat all comers by keeping an eye on MTV ("Laguna Beach" spawned the hot name Talan) and auto racing (Danica, thanks to driver Danica Patrick). But names reflect our serious sides, too. The reverent name Johnpaul and its feminine counterpart Karol also soared in 2005. And true style mavens might have predicted the cross-breeding of hot styles: the androgynous surname trend + the rise of Emily and Emma = hot new Emery and Emerson.

You live in the world and you bring your own unique perspective. Maybe you happen to know three baby Mathildas; maybe you wish you could name a baby Akon. Maybe you just remember what you've seen on TV -- last year not one of the 500 entrants thought of Talan or Johnpaul.

So take a stab! Give your impression of the year in names by entering the contest at

Off with their heads

Feb 9th 2007

Last time, I looked at current trends in the popularity of different name initials. Vowels as a group are still soaring, leaving consonants behind. You can see the effect in names of every stripe. You want traditional, formal and regal? That would be Alexander today, not Frederick. Dignified Old Testament style for girls? Hmm, try Abigail, not Miriam. If you're considering a slightly offbeat name, you might lean toward vowel options to make the name more fashion-palatable--Adelaide over Millicent, say. Or you might steer straight toward the least fashionable letters to stay as offbeat as possible.

But the names most affected by swings in sound fashion are the most contemporary choices. Contemporary-style baby namers are willing to mold and refine a name to sound just right to their ears. So how does a creative modern namer address the decline of consonants? No problem. Just chop off the head of last year's hot name.

Madison has been a hit girl's name for 20 years and has begun a quiet decline. But Addison, unheard of 20 years ago, is suddenly booming. The '90s hit Kayla is fading? OK, here comes Ayla. You can find it happening in the middle of names too. Kaitlyn is falling while Kaylin is rising...and Aylin's rising even faster.

Sure, there are families of names where the vowel and consonant versions rise together. Aiden, Caden, Jayden all hit around the same time and are all soaring. But it's harder to find examples of hit vowel names on the decline that get a makeover by adding a consonant. Ashley isn't being reborn as Kashley or Amanda as Tamanda. 'Cause consonants are so 20th century, ya know?

The strongest candidates for a stylish trim--just a little off the top--seem to be the names that attract creative/contemporary namers to begin with. Look for little Bayleighs and Harleys to morph into Ayleighs and Arleys soon.

Trends, A to Z

Feb 2nd 2007

The NameVoyager makes it easy to see the historical popularity of a single initial. Type in P and you see a mid-century wave of Pauls, Patricias and Pamelas. But how do the 26 letters rate right now? What's hot and what's not?

To identify current letter-by-letter trends, I calculated the percent change in babies born in 2005 vs. 2003 for every initial. Here's the graph:

Wow, look at that! That's really...not very interesting. Pretty much gibberish, in fact. But let's not give up yet. First off, we have to zoom in -- the "U" bar is throwing off the whole scale. (U is far and away the least common first letter for American names, so the giant U bar that looks so important actually represents just four names or .02% of births.)

Next, let's consider the order. Are names starting with A and B really similar just because they're alphabetical neighbors? Instead of the arbitrary alphabetical order, I want to group by sound. English doesn't make that easy, of course. Lots of letters have multiple sounds, so Carl and Celia, Tina and Theo may follow very different sound-based styles. But for a rough view, I've sorted the initials into vowels, hard consonants and soft consonants. Time for another look:

Now that's a little more promising.

If you play with the NameVoyager, you'll see that one of the strongest historical trends is the fall then revival of names starting with vowels. This graph suggests that the vowel wave hasn't crested yet. Vowels as a group are still rising, while consonants -- especially hard consonants -- are falling.

So what does the vowel-consonant divide mean on a practical basis? Is it just a couple more Emmas here, a couple fewer Jessicas there? More thoughts on this next time.

Update (warning: hard core name geek material ahead!)
A reader suggested using Soundex values as a more standard grouping of initials. Soundex is a phonetic coding system for names that's commonly used to help identify individuals from earlier eras when spelling was less standardized and immigrant names were often transcribed in multiple ways. The Soundex codes reflect phonemic convergences from other languages; for example, H, W and Y are treated as vowel equivalents. This can make Soundex problematic as a reflection of American sound styles. But the subgroupings of consonants are useful indeed, so I shouldn't have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Here is a modified Soundex version of the initials graph, which should help you understand consonants better (and to see that style-wise, H and W are definitely not vowels!)