The Menachem Mystery: A Baby Name Data Adventure

Aug 26th 2009

Being in the name business, I have a lot of facts and figures rattling around in my brain. So when something doesn't fit, my name sensors go off. "This here name factoid smells fishy," I'll murmur, then I'll pull on my trenchcoat and start combing the dark alleys of data in search of the truth. Or at least I'll make a spreadsheet. Close enough.

This morning, the Factoid that Didn't Fit went by the name of Menachem. I encountered that name at #986 in the Social Security Administration's ranking of the top names of the decade, 2000-2008. The problem? I knew Menachem didn't appear in my NameVoyager.

The NameVoyager includes the top 1000 names for boys and girls from each decade, plus year-by-year figures starting with 2003 to get a close reading of current trends. If Menachem wasn't there, that means it could not have cracked the top 1000 for any individual year from 2003 on. Could it still rank among the top 1000 for the decade, as the SSA showed? It was possible, certainly, but unlikely. I double checked against my original data from those years; nope, no Menachem. Then I checked the SSA's full data on their website...and there it was. Menachem made the top 1000 for boys every year starting in 2003. The data had changed.

OK, to be honest, I know the data changes. The government releases each year's name popularity data in May of the following year, covering all SSN applications received through the end of February. Over the ensuing months more applications trickle in, and they eventually update their name rankings to reflect this. (I keep the original May data in the NameVoyager to assure comparable year-to-year samples.) By and large, name rankings change very little through this process. Menachem, though, seemed to be different. Late filings boost the name measurably year after year. Why?

My first thought was that it could be a seasonal name. Any name that's given most often in November & December would show up heavily in late filings. I checked birth records for Menachems, and no dice. The name is given pretty steadily across the course of the year.

What else, then? Well, Menachem is a name chosen overwhelmingly by Orthodox and other highly observant Jews. What about other names that fit that description? I dug out my original May data for the names Chaim, Chaya, Chana, Moshe and Yehuda from 2005-2007 and compared to the currently available data which includes late filings. In every single case, the name's rank rose with the late data.

The clues seem to point to this conclusion: on average, Orthodox Jews file SSA applications for newborns later than the rest of the population.

Weird, huh? I can dream up plenty of possible explanations, from the religious (e.g. the timing of naming ceremonies) to the bureaucratic (e.g. a slow processing center in Brooklyn). Perhaps one of you can up with a better answer? Regardless of the reason, though, the result is that Jewish baby names are being slightly but consistently undercounted every year.

By the way, the SSA currently says that Menachem didn't crack the top 1000 in 2008. Check back at those figures a year from now and see if they're singing a different tune.

Naming an American Girl

Aug 20th 2009

Reader Laura (nice name!) wrote with a question about the names of the American Girl doll & book series. Each character in the series has a specific cultural/historical setting in the American past. Laura's letter says it best:

I was just reading in the New York Times about how they chose the name Rebecca Rubin for their new doll - "a 9-year-old girl living on the Lower East Side in 1914 with her Russian-Jewish immigrant parents, siblings and a grandmother known only as Bubbie."

It seems like for Rebecca they did some research to pick an historically accurate name, and I suppose they did for the other girls as well, but they all sound very "current" to me.  Certainly no Gertrudes in the bunch!

What do you think?

Addy Walker (1864 - Black)
Felicity Merriman and her friend Elizabeth (1774)
Josefina Montoya (1824 - Latina)
Julie Albright and her friend Ivy Ling (1974 - Ivy is Asian)
Kaya (1764 - Native American)
Kirsten Larson (1854 - from Sweden)
Kit Kittredge and her friend Ruthie (1934)
Molly McIntire and her friend Emily (1944 - Emily is from England)

Naming an American Girl is an intriguing challenge. It's a delicate balance of baby naming, character naming and brand naming. The company generally strikes that balance very well, though nobody's perfect.

Let's take Rebecca Rubin as an example. Could a Jewish girl born to an immigrant family in New York circa 1904 have been named Rebecca? Certainly. The 1910 U.S. Census lists 796 girls named Rebecca born 1902-1906 living in New York City. Judging by surname, a majority of them were Jewish...and three of them were named Rebecca Rubin.

QED, Rebecca Rubin is a plausible name for such a girl. That's a big step up from the likes of Disney's Tiana. But is it a typical name that represents its cultural moment? Consider that the same Census sample that gave us three Rebecca Rubins also yields at least that many Rubins with names more typical of the period, such Dorothy, Helen, Mary, Bessie, and Anna...not to mention 11 Idas, 11 Fannies and 17 Roses & Rosies. The trick is that none of those names sounds distinctly Jewish.

As a biblical matriarch, Rebecca is a classic "good Jewish name." It has traditionally sounded Jewish to non-Jews, too -- the "Jewess" Rebecca of Ivanhoe is a glaring example. (It took Shirley Temple as Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm to make the name an interfaith American favorite.) Today, Rebecca sounds timeless with a whiff of the 1970s. Unlike, say, Bessie or Ida, it definitely does not summon up 1914. This suggests that the dollmakers were focusing more on the religious connotations than the time period when they chose the name. That's a perfectly reasonable decision.

It doesn't hurt that Rebecca is still a well-liked name. As reader Laura noted, American Girl has tailored all of the dolls' names to modern tastes. In reality, little Miss Larson from Sweden would have been much more likely to be a Matilda or a Wilhelmina than a Kirsten. But Rebecca seems a bit stiff alongside doll names like Addy, Kit and Molly. One alternative that would have hit the quadruple-bullseye of Jewish heritage, period feel, informal style and modern appeal: Sadie. There were 11 Sadie Rubins in the Census list, and 6 Sarahs besides.

Authentic Ethnic Names, Baked Fresh Every Day!

Aug 13th 2009

Does your family have Scandinavian roots?  Would you like to honor that tradition with your daughter's name?  Here's a great choice to consider:


Ronja is a literary name, the heroine of a novel by a revered Swedish author.  The book and name are both well-known and well-loved throughout Scandinavia; the name is a current top-100 hit in most of the region.  Ronja is the local spelling, Ronia the standard English equivalent.

That's a rock-solid ethnic name, right?  A name distinctive to Scandinavia, with meaningful cultural/literary origins.  Now: does it matter when that literary origin took place?

The book in question is Ronja Rövardotter (Ronia the Robber's Daughter) by children's writer Astrid Lindgren, author of the Pippi Longstocking books.  (Regular readers may recognize this book as the source of another name I described recently, Birk.) Ronja was published in 1981, and a 1984 film version was a huge regional hit.  So the name is the product of one woman's imagination, less than 30 years ago. Doesn't that make it a modern, invented name instead of an authentically ethnic one?

Perhaps the answer is that it's both, modern and "authentic."  After all, the name Wendy was created by J.M.Barrie in Peter Pan. Vanessa was dreamed up by Jonathan Swift for Cadenus and Vanessa.  Great authors enrich their cultures with names as well as ideas, and that's every bit as authentic a process today as in centuries past.

If you look closely, you can see contemporary, authentic names being created all the time. For example, saoirse is the Gaelic word for freedom.  Patriotic Irish parents started using the word as a name in the 20th Century, and it's today it's the 29th most popular girl's name in Ireland.  It's not a traditional given name, but a truly and purely Irish one.

Does it mean anything, then, to talk about "real" or "authentic" names from a particular culture if new authentic names can be created every day?  I think it does mean something.  It means...that it means something.  That the name has cultural meaning and resonance beyond an individual family's choice.  A beloved book by a local literary icon or a term from a cherished linguistic heritage is an emblem of shared meaning, part of an ethnic identity that binds a people together.

In contrast, a baby name invented by one family is about individual rather than collective meaning.  Even if that name grows into broader popularity, it doesn't have the same hold on a culture's shared sense of self and community...for a while, at least.  Individual inventions have to prove themselves.  If an unrooted name manages to stick around long enough, it can create its own roots in the culture in the form of the generations of people who live their lives with that name.  Eventually, its origins may cease to matter.  After all, how many of us hear Vanessa today and think Jonathan Swift, or hear Cheryl and think "creative made-up name?"