The Names You Choose Mean More Today Than Ever Before

Oct 28th 2010

The title of this column may seem like puffery, but I mean it very literally. Baby names carry more meaning now than in generations past. And all the time that today's parents spend fretting over the perfect name? They're not just obsessive, they're responding to a new reality. I can prove it.

I've talked before about a revolution in the way Americans name their babies. It started in the 1960s, when individuality was elevated to a prized cultural virtue. More parents started looking for names that stood out, rather than fitting in. It accelerated with the new media and information landscape of the '90s. Internet searches, unique user names, and 300 cable channels all upped the ante on finding a distinctive name. Bit by bit, the core classic English names that ruled for centuries began to disappear. They left behind a wild and woolly world where there's no such thing as a normal name.

That's the bird's eye view. What might not be obvious is the revolution's impact on an individual name, and an individual name-hunting parent. With the change in naming culture, your name choice carries more information; it means more.

Let's use clothing as an analogy. Imagine a company where employees are expected to wear gray or blue suits to work. If you see a guy wearing a gray suit in that office, what does it tell you about him as an individual? Not much. Now imagine another company with an anything-goes dress code. Couldn't you read more about an employee from his outfit there? And wouldn't the same gray suit mean a lot more in that environment?

Similarly, the more diverse the names around us, the more each name choice means. Back in the 1950s, "normal" really was the norm. The top 25 boy's names and the top 50 girl's names accounted for half of babies born. That meant that the typical child received a name that was very broadly used, so the name didn't communicate much about the family that chose it. (Gregory, George, Kathy, and Denise were typical/median names.)

Today, you have to include 134 boy's names to reach the midpoint of babies, and a whopping 320 names for girls. Names around the median now include Giovanni, Collin, Cody and Kayden for boys; Kyleigh, Ximena, Paisley, and Juliet for girls. Similarly, the 75th percentile of rarity has moved from Fred (rank: #93) to Giancarlo (rank: #677). There is no more naming "dress code," and so the names we wear speak volumes.

You can quantify this rise in meaning. (Serious stats coming up! If you want more methodological background, see these additional research notes.) In the field of information theory, a measure called Shannon entropy is used to describe the information contained in a message. The more diverse and unpredictable a message, the more information it holds. Think of how a photograph of a real-life scene, with all of its subtle colors and shapes, makes for a far larger file than a same-sized solid color block.

I calculated the entropy for the distribution of American baby names at five-year intervals over the past 125 years. Here's the full graph, for scale and reference:

 The Amount of Information Carried by Given Names

Now I'm going to zoom in for discussion:

Name Entropy Closeup

Notice how the curve starts accelerating in the '60s and speeds up again in the '90s. Name entropy, or the information carried by names, has risen as much in the past 25 years as it did in the full century before that. (It's not just a function of the number of babies born, either. See the research notes for more.)

This is the statistical underpinning of the practical reality we sense as parents. Choosing a name is a fraught, consequential process today.

Remember that company where you could wear anything you wanted to work? Imagine meeting three guys in that office. One's in an oxford shirt and baggy khakis. The next is dressed like an H&M model. The third is wearing a t-shirt with a "Far Side" comic strip that he bought in 1992. It's not just that you CAN glean information from those fashion choices -- you DO, automatically.

It's the same with names. As the cultural information conveyed by names grows richer, people process that information, often without even thinking about it. Or to put it another way, the more names have to tell us, the more we learn to listen.

So if you're obsessing over baby names, you're not crazy. In a world where babies are as likely to be named Elijah and Serenity as John and Mary, even John and Mary send powerful signals that the public is primed to receive.

The Triumph of the Olives! Oliver, Olivia Take England

Oct 27th 2010

The U.K. Office of National Statistics has announced the top baby names of 2009 for England and Wales. You might notice a subtle theme...

#1 girl's name: Olivia

#1 boy's name: Oliver

Yes, long time boy's champion Jack has relinquished the throne, to the masculine version of the girl's favorite.

What makes this not just amusing but amazing is that it's England. Sure, other languages have plenty of boy-girl pairings -- just flip a vowel to make Francesco into Francesca or Julio into Julia. But England is the land of John and Mary, James and Elizabeth. Classic English names always kept to their side of the fence. It's a powerful signal of how sounds and fashion dominate today's naming decisions.

(Okay, for the sake of completeness: it's not certain that Oliver and Olivia are really forms of the same name. Shakespeare invented Olivia, and while many people assume it was a feminization of Oliver, we can't ask him directly. He might have created it from the Latin root for olives, just as he created other Latin-based names like Miranda. Oliver, meanwhile, is believed to be a Latinized version of an old Germanic name. It's closer to Olaf than Olive. Oliver Cromwell singlehandedly knocked it out of style for a couple of centuries in England, but today's parents are probably thinking more of Oliver Twist.)


Mad Men and Megan: Spotlight on a Misunderstood Name

Oct 20th 2010

Reader Lila wrote,

I know that Matthew Weiner, the creator of Mad Men, is meticulous in his attention to precise historical detail. But am I right in thinking that the name of Don Draper's new love interest, Megan, is something of an anachronism? Her character probably would've been born around 1940.

Anachronism it is, unlike most Mad Men names. The name Megan didn't come into common use in North America until the 1950s. In 1940, only nine girls in the U.S. were named Megan -- fewer than forgotten names like Cleva, Trellis, Nezzie, Icy and Doyce. Canada, the supposed birthplace of the TV Megan, was much the same.

Add the Sterling Cooper agency to the long list of folks who have misunderstood Megan. The #1 misconception is about the name's heritage. Spellings like Meaghan look like throwbacks to Irish roots for an Anglicized name, e.g Brighid for Bridget. In fact, Megan was never Irish to start with: it's a Welsh nickname for Margaret. That makes Meaghan something I've referred to as a "Häagen-Dazs name," carefully crafted to suggest ethnic origins it doesn't really have.

Much credit for the Irishization of Megan goes to author Colleen McCullough, who named her oh-so-Irish heroine of The Thorn Birds Meghann Cleary. The bestselling novel was published in 1977, and the names Meghann and Meaghan both debuted on the U.S. popularity charts the following year. A second boost followed in 1983, when the book became a smash TV miniseries. You can see the powerful Thorn Birds influence in this graph of the various Megans, via the Expert NameVoyager:

Only the standard spelling existed in significant numbers pre-Thorn Birds. Even that spelling, though, isn't as "traditional" as you might think. Old records of Megans are scanty, probably because the name was mostly used as an affectionate nickname. It's simply Meg with the Welsh diminutive -an. As a given name it was virtually unknown until David Lloyd George, Britain's only Welsh Prime Minister, bestowed it on a daughter. (His other children included Gwilym, Olwen and Mair.) The rate of Megans in the U.K. rose a hundred fold under Lloyd George's watch, and a new given name was born. Think of it as the Malia of a century ago.

Megan didn't cross the Atlantic until the mid-century rush of Karens, Susans and Sharons sent American parents looking for more names with that modern sound. Megan, Lauren, and Erin were the next wave.

All in all, that's a busy century for the name Megan. From occasional Welsh nickname to British given name to all-American given name to a name of misplaced (though well-meaning) Irish pride. And now we can toss in anachronistic emblem of the '60s modern New York working girl. Perhaps the take home lesson is that Megan is a supremely flexible name, ready to be whatever you want it to be.