If the Shoe (Name) Fits...

Oct 27th 2011

Walking through a warehouse-style shoe store, I couldn't help but notice how many of the shoeboxes bore women's names. The DKNY "Sophie" flat; the The Mephisto "Alison" mary jane. Why those names and not others? What kind of names do shoemakers choose most? And do certain names match certain shoes?

To find out, I turned to a vast shoe data depository: Zappos.com. I searched Zappos for shoe models named for 100 different popular girls' names. (More methodology detail below.)

The top female shoe names:

1. Bella
2. Madison
3 (tie). Chloe
5. Naomi
6 (tie). Julia
8 (tie). Maya

And the popular names with the fewest shoe namesakes (tied at zero):


Some definite trends emerge. The popular shoe names names are visually simpler. They're shorter on average, with standard spellings and mostly straightforward pronunciations. It's definitely about visual/written impact -- the number of syllables in the spoken name doesn't correlate with shoe namesakes at all.

The chosen names are vowel heavy as well. Names ending in a vowel sound averaged 1 1/2 more shoe namesakes than names ending in a consonant sound. That might seem to point to a preference for clearly feminine names, but androgynous usage doesn't turn out to be an issue. Notice, for instance, names like Bailey and Taylor in the top 10.

I also found some differences in the kinds of names given to infants' and kids' shoe models vs. women's. Kids' shoe names are, well, cuddlier. More Bellas and Emmas, fewer Averys and Vanessas.

And now for the finding that surprised me most: they shoemakers aren't choosing very well. I can say this with confidence because there's almost no relationship between the style of name and the style of shoe. I routinely found the same name being applied to spangly flip-flops, sleek leather boots, comfort walking shoes, and leopard-print platform stilettos. For a typical example, here are the three models of shoes called Scarlett:

(Images above are from the Scarlett shoes available for purchase at Zappos.com.)

Now, I can see that there could be value in naming against type. If you're creating a comfort walking shoe, for instance, you might want to avoid comfy, old-fashioned names to keep the words "old lady shoe" far from buyers' minds. But if you're delivering a black, studded, high-heeled cross between a cowboy boot and a motorcycle boot, what the heck does a name like Emma or Amelia do for you? And why would your competitors turn around and apply that same name to an espadrille?

With their apparently random shoe-name matches, the shoemakers aren't using the names to signal ANYTHING about their products. Isn't that a waste of a good name?

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Shoe name methodology:

I looked at the the 100 most popular names for girls in the U.S., after eliminating: names that could be chosen by marketers based on non-name meanings, such as Serenity and London; the name Mary because of thousands of search results for the "mary jane" style of shoes; and the name Eva because search results included the thousands of models with EVA insoles.

Model (not brand) names of women's and girls' shoes (not slippers) were counted at Zappos. Exact spelling matches only. A shoe family (multiple colors, fabrics, etc.) counted as just one model. The name had to be used as a first name, so "Mamma Mia" didn't score for Mia, or "Madison Avenue" for Madison.

And a final note: don't try this at home. Not only was my head swimming after many hours of squinting to tell shoe models apart, but I'm now at serious risk of spending $300 on a really awesome pair of Sophia boots.

Named "Unwanted": Baby Names, Societies and Soul-Searching

Oct 23rd 2011

Baby names are topping the world's headlines today, and not in a happy way. The global news story comes from the Indian state of Maharashtra, where a renaming ceremony was held for 285 girls whose given names, Nakusa or Nakushi, translate to "unwanted."

The girls, mostly from rural families, were victims of a cultural preference for sons. This preference can be woven deeply into the fabric of a community, incorporating concerns from the spiritual (e.g. only sons can pray for the souls of dead parents) to the pragmatic (sons are responsible for the financial support their extended families; daughters, once married, support their husbands' families.) The girls' parents expressed their disappointment in having unwanted daughters in a literal and lasting way, in names, in the belief that this rejection would encourage the gods to grant them a future son.

I believe that the global outrage about this story has several levels. First, it shows how important we all believe names are. It's no secret that countless babies born around the world are, sadly, unwanted, and suffer for it. Yet there's something shocking about recording that fact in the child's name. It's a denial of her very humanity, reducing her to nothing but the unwantedness.

A name is a child's most basic birthright, cost-free and life-long. Turning it into a weapon against her seems a dire kind of emotional abuse, declaring to her and the whole world that she deserves nothing, is nothing.

Looking more broadly, the reaction to the story reflects the way names are a window on a society's soul. In fact, the same regions where son preference has produced this extreme name phenomenon show other, even deeper effects. Prenatal sex selection is skewing sex ratios in the population, and girls receive poorer nutrition, education and health care. The news-making renaming ceremony is shining a spotlight on a broader problem.

To be fair, their society does recognize the problem and is working to combat it. It's important to note that the renaming ceremony was the product of a long joint effort between government and advocacy groups to find all of the young Unwanteds and persuade their parents to allow them to choose new names.

Which brings us to a third, tricky level of emotional response to the story: response to numbers. If this story had been about one or two children, it would have been a "news of the weird" item. We would have shaken our heads in dismay at the parents, as individuals. The number 285, though, shifts the focus and blame to the broader society.

There's no question that this naming story does point to broader societal issues. The name Unwanted couldn't have been accepted without a cultural setting where sex bias was prevalent. Yet I'd like to put the large-seeming number into perspective. Accounting for population size, birth rates, and the cross-age sample, those 285 Indian children correspond to about 3 babies a year in the United States. Each year, at least 50,000 different names are used at that level or higher in the U.S. If we accept the name Unwanted as a reflection on Indian society, then what names must we accept as a reflection on American society?

While no American names carry the stark message of Unwanted, a great many do send signals about our culture, values and dreams. Here's just a small sampling, all used at at least the level of Unwanted, most much more often. Do you read messages in them? And what conclusions do you think are fair to draw?










Baby Name Wizard 3: What Names Would You Like to See?

Oct 20th 2011

I'm delighted to say that I've just started work on the third edition of The Baby Name Wizard book. I truly mean delighted. Working on the book makes me ridiculously happy -- especially this time around, because I'm bursting with new names and ideas that have been piling up in my brain since I finished the last edition.

I'll be reviewing, revising and updating every bit of the book, and expanding it significantly. (For those of you who may recall the great ISBN confusion with BNW 2: yes, this will be a full new edition with its own Amazon identity!) I have a ton of ideas for brand-new features and improvements. And, of course, I'm adding more names. Lots of names.

I already have a list of almost 100 new names that deserve full entries this time around. It's amazing how fast that can happen. In 2008, when I submitted the last manuscript, a name like Bristol was barely a blip on the landscape.

I'd love to hear your suggestions for more names that deserve fuller treatement. Are there names you keep looking up in the book, in vain? Name variants that have established distinct identities from their "parents"? Perhaps names that you're just starting to hear friends discuss, that could be up-and-coming? Nominations, please!