Recession-era baby naming, Part 2

Apr 10th 2009

Last time I talked about (dubious) claims that the recession is turning baby names back toward the traditional, in a parental "flight to quality." Today, I look at the historical precedent: naming during the Great Depression.

My points of comparison were baby names in 1928 before the crash vs. 1932 at the depth of the crisis. A quick eyeballing shows that the traditional classics fell along with the stock market. John, James, William, George, Mary, Katherine, Elizabeth and Margaret all dropped in popularity as the Depression took hold. Now let's zoom in closer.

Applying the standard Baby Name Wizard Hotness Formula, the fastest falling boy's name, by a mile, was...Herbert. That's a clear reaction to the economy, but not in a stylistic way. Parents of the '30s simply decided that Herbert Hoover wasn't a president they'd care to remember. (Let's keep an eye on George in the years ahead.) As a group, the 10 fastest-falling boys' names fell into two categories: namesakes of public figures, and traditional classic names.

1. Herbert
2. Alfred
3. William
4. Harry
5. Joseph
6. Hoover
7. Edward
8. Lindy
9. George
10. Arthur

And the fastest rising boys of the Depression? They were the boyish ones. Check it out:

1. Jackie
2. Jimmy
3. Barry
4. Jerry
5. Franklin
6. Larry
7. Bobby
8. Ronnie
9. Gary
10. Ronald

That's a whole lotta nicknames, with a late smattering of movie stars (Gary Cooper, Ronald Colman). Even as James was falling, Jimmy was soaring. This could suggest a twist on the "flight to quality" idea: a "flight to comfort." Perhaps in a scary world, we just want to curl up under a cozy blanket with our dear little babies. It makes some sense.

Except those are just the boys' names.

Over on the girls' list, the hottest rising names list brimmed with glamourous sophistication. Top-10 gainers included Marlene (as in Dietrich), Carole (Lombard), Joan (Crawford), and Barbara (Stanwyck) -- a veritable honor roll of strong, stylish modern women. Sandra and Sondra both made the list too, their continental panache a contrast to fast-falling names like Helen and Ruth.

If you want a theory of naming for tough times, then, you'll have to account for cuddly, down-home boys and glamorous, urbane girls. I'll take a stab. To me, the key thing to remember is that names aren't simply reflections of our current reality; they're reflections of our dreams.

Amid the job losses and bread lines of the Great Depression, one industry soared: the movies. And sure enough, reports are already piling up that this recession era is following suit with huge box office tallies, especially for comedies, adventures, and rip-roaring spectacles.

Maybe, then, everybody predicting serious, conservative baby naming today has it exactly backwards. In grim times, we don't want solemnity. We want fun and glamour and excitement, and glimpses of a world far removed from layoffs and foreclosures. We certainly want to envision that kind of sunny future for our children. So bring on the creative, carefree names! Why not? They're free.

Quick hits: Baby Name Pool, and BNW2!

Apr 10th 2009

We'll get back to our scheduled discussion of recession naming in a moment, but first, a few notes...

- The revised 2nd Edition of The Baby Name Wizard has a due date: July 7, in a bookstore near you! (Confusingly, Amazon and BN.com already have the 2nd edition cover image up -- it has an extra pink circle -- and don't seem to distinguish between the two editions. I'll see what I can do about that.)

- Don't forget to enter the Baby Name Pool contest! Just 5 naming days to go.

Recession-era baby naming, part 1

Apr 2nd 2009

(For real, this time!)

Perhaps you've heard, the economy's taken a bit of a stumble lately? As families cut back and surveys reveal a bleak mood, the natural question in these parts is how the downturn will play out in baby names.

The popular idea in the press and the blogosphere is that parents will retreat to the reliable comfort of classic names. A few reporters have tried to pry this prediction out of me. (One was particularly eager for me to forecast a comeback for Faith and Hope. I had to break it to him that it's too late, they're already back.) In fact, some news reports have claimed that the return to tradition has already begun. Take the Reuters article titled "Parents get serious about baby names in tough year," with its bold opening statment: "Most parents have abandoned unusual names for their children..."

The idea sounds plausible, because many choices do work this way in economic downturns. In the world of investing, it's called the "flight to quality." The idea is that in uncertain times, people make the safest possible bets and aim for lasting value. Consumers, similarly, drop luxury in favor of utility.

Yet there are also good reasons to expect name trends to behave differently from investments or consumer goods.  The most basic is that baby names are free. In a time of belt-tightening, why not indulge in a cost-free extravagance? Anastasia won't set you back a penny more than Ann. In fact, lower-income parents are more likely to try unusual, eye-catching and newly-introduced names -- quite different from, say, food purchasing patterns.

A second reason is found in the motivations of modern baby namers. Many parents who seek the unusual are convinced that distinctive names will give their kids an advantage in life. Think of it like a creatively packaged product standing out on a store shelf. The tougher the competitive landscape, the more this perceived advantage should matter to parents.

Finally, there's the fact that the movement away from tradition has been accelerating for years. An immediate surge of traditional naming would be the fashion equivalent of a runaway freight train suddenly backing back up a mountain.

So where do the claims of reversal come from? If you read the Reuters article closely, you'll see they (and may others) were inspired by a press release from the online parenting community BabyCenter.com. In the release, the BabyCenter folks note the rise of certain specific traditional names among their users. But is there a consistent pattern?

In fact, if you look at the BabyCenter popularity lists from the last several years, 2008 looks like more of the same. The bellwether traditional classics like John, James and William continued their steady descent down the rankings. And if you tally up the top 20 for boys and girls, as a group the 2008 names were much less popular a century ago than the 2006 names. In other words, no "flight to quality" has been spotted so far (and don't believe everything you read in the paper).

So let's toss out our preconceptions and return to the question: what effect will the recession have on naming patterns? To form a hypothesis, we can look to historical precedent. Did baby naming change during the Great Depression? And if so, was there the retreat to strength and safety that so many observers expect today?

To be continued...