Advance the cause of name science!

Mar 27th 2008
I've been talking with a team of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania who are interested in people's attitudes toward different names.  They have a new survey they're running online that's open for public participation, and I thought we might lend them a hand.  It should only take a few minutes to complete...and since you're a reader of this blog, I suspect you'll rather enjoy answering questions about baby names!

Here's the survey:
If you frequent any expectant-parent messageboards, feel free to post the link there, too.

A plug, and a coincidence

Mar 25th 2008

First, the plug:  Have you entered your predictions in the Baby Name Pool?  If not, here's why you should bother.  Remember that time you joined in an Academy Awards prediction pool with your friends, and suddenly the Oscar telecast was soooo much more interesting because you really cared who won best sound editing?  Take two minutes to enter the Name Pool and the announcement of the most popular names in America will be a surprising lot of fun, as you rush to check whether Shiloh broke through or if Jennifer really did take a nosedive.

And now the coincidence.  I wrote a column on weird names in U.S. Census records well in advance and scheduled it for publishing last week.  Then I got a call from NPR's "On Point" to join in a show that same week, about...weird names in U.S. Census records!  It turns out that some enterprising folks at, the website that has taken on the gargantuan Census digitization project, had a smart idea. They put together a book of the strangest names they encountered in the records.  If you'd like to listen in to our discussion, here's the archive:

On Point: "Bad Baby Names," March 21 2008

Fake names tell a story, too

Mar 19th 2008

Real baby names are my stock in trade, but I'm also fascinated by the names we don't give our children...but think we do.  Those include urban legend names as well as false names that sneak into "official" records.  Sometimes those false name reports reflect nothing more than bad penmanship.  Sometimes, though, they paint a picture every bit as compelling as real names.

Take, for instance, the Census records.  Not just name records from the census, but records of the name Census in the census.  Got it?  According to U.S. Census records, the name Census peaked in 1880 when 132 Americans bore the name.  Few if any are genuine.  No, the Partridge family of Oneida, NY didn't really name their three children Eugene, Helen and Census.  But the interesting thing is the patterns.  The alleged men and women named Census aren't evenly distributed across the country.  There are little concentrated pockets of them, centers of baby-name mystery.

In the 1870 census, Chickasaw County, Iowa boasted eight infants and toddlers named Census -- including two called "U.S. Census," history's only recorded uses of that name.  A decade later Chickasaw weighed in as completely Census-free, while new outbreaks of the name hit places like Prairie Point, Mississippi and Militia District 957 of Baker County, Georgia.  The story that emerges isn't about the name, it's about the census taker.  Perhaps "Census" was just a placeholder indicating an unknown child.  It seems likely, though, that we're looking at fossil footprints of the boredom and job dissatisfaction of workers of past centuries.

Want something a little meatier?  How about the sweeping family dramas suggested by the "name" Worthless.  Step into the world of a small North Carolina township in 1910.  Meet the Yelvertons, a family of  five where the father lists his profession as "farmer," mother and eldest son as "laborers."  And that eldest son's name is reported to the census taker as...Worthless.  Anybody care to picture what the day's been like for the Yelvertons?  Now jump ahead to Houston, TX in 1930.  Care to sit down to dinner with Mr. and Mrs. Griswold, their two grown children...and their roomer, Worthless?

They're little, personal moments in time, preserved in the sterile medium of official government records.  The examples above may not be happy moments, but I find them oddly touching nonetheless.  And I hope that for every child recorded as Worthless, there are a dozen memorialized at happier moments among the records for Sweet Child and Perfect.

p.s remember to enter the Baby Name Pool contest by April 1!