A non-excerpt from Baby Name Wizard 2

Jul 17th 2009

As the revised and expanded Baby Name Wizard slowly trickles in to bookstores, I thought I'd share one name spotlight that was cut from the manuscript at the last minute:


Gax (GAKS)
Popularity: Rare
Style: Fanciful and Fantastical
Nicknames: FatMan
Sisters: Moo, Spamela, Beer, Soup, John
Brothers: Flax, Vilx, Clax, Eleanor, Xax
Gax is a name you should not give to your child at all.
It's only in the book because my kids are beside me as
I'm writing and they absolutely insisted.  Keep this in mind,
prospective parents, if you're planning to work from home.


Research focus: is naming becoming more local?

Jul 14th 2009

As researchers in diverse fields turn more and more to baby name studies, BabyNameWizard.com does its best to keep 'em honest from a naming perspective. Today we focus on a new study out of Hebrew University in Jerusalem which purports to demonstrate that the internet has not created a "global village"; on the contrary, "the importance of geographic proximity has dramatically increased with the internet revolution." In other words, they claim that we communicate within our local community more than ever before, and thus local trends influence us disproportionately more than ever before.

The authors' baby-name evidence comes from the same state-by-state figures that power the NameMapper. They find that regional differences in naming, specifically the impact of local proximity in the spread of new names, rose dramatically starting in the mid-1990s. That's when the World Wide Web hit, too. Ergo, they conclude, the "IT revolution" has made us more local-focused, not more globalized. This result has been reported in major publications including the Economist.

The baby namer's first take: the good news is that the authors have identified a genuine naming phenomenon, one that dovetails neatly with other major patterns in modern naming. The bad news is that the conclusions they draw from it seem like a stretch, and ignore other news from the baby name world. In fact, my hunch is that their finding may mean the opposite of what they claim.

American baby naming did shift starting in the 1960s, with an additional acceleration starting in the '90s. I spend a lot of my time explaining this to anybody who will listen. (Yeah, I'm a lot of fun at parties.) Just look at the starting graph of the NameVoyager to see the national decline in the percentage of babies receiving a top-1000 name. The very top of the curve has dropped even faster. Since 1995, the number of babies receiving the #1 most popular name has fallen by half. The churn rate -- turnover, rising and falling of names -- has risen too.

So here's the first confound for the authors' "increased local socialization theory." If most new names start and spread locally, then a national movement toward the new and different could be enough to increase regionalization. But there's more, too.

The authors of the paper describe the spread of new names as diffusion based on exposure, which makes sense. Their argument is that the internet gets you socializing and thus hearing new names disproportionately more in your own geographic region, so local diffusion has become more powerful. But there's another key force at work in baby name decisions. A signficant percentage of parents are actively seeking the unusual. Knowing that everybody else around them is choosing a name will turn them away from it.

I'll throw in one other factor that the researchers didn't consider. The mid-1990s wasn't only the date of birth of the web. It was also the DOB of America's national baby-name popularity statistics.

Knowing all of  that, what's a realistic mechanism for the shift in naming patterns? Here's one possibility:

You're expecting a baby!  Time to think about names. The names that enter your awareness, and that you like, depend on your local community. But you don't want to be like everybody else, you want your child's name to be distinctive. What do you do? If it's pre-1995, you just guess at what's common based on your own experience. Maybe you ask your neighbors whose kids are in preschool. But in the internet era, you do a little research. You start web-searching the full name you're considering for your baby to see how many others are already called that. You check the first name's ranking in the national top 1000. (State name stats came later, only go 100 deep, are much less widely reported.)  You winnow down your list accordingly.

So let's recap. The names you're drawn toward were determined locally, then you pushed away names that were popular in a broader geographic region -- but not necessarily names that were popular locally. Thus the relative role of local taste in determining your child's name rises. Not because the internet magically increased your socialization within a tri-state area; on the contrary, because it led you to look farther afield in making social judgments.

That's my guess, anyway. And that mechanism fits well with the other naming phenomena I described above. The desire to choose distinctive names, which grew starting in the '60s, has been turbocharged by our modern exposure to a wide world of names and name rankings, fueling parents' competitive fire.  Our tastes are still like our neighbors', but we benchmark ourselves against the world.

p.s. The study in question only looked through 2005. As it happens, another small shift in name stats happened that year: The Baby Name Wizard, and particularly the NameVoyager. The NameVoyager attracted millions of users within months of its launch, giving a big new boost to interest in name popularity. If the benchmarking effect I've conjectured about is real, could a further acceleration in change be found?

Update on the update -- still hit-or-miss on receiving revised edition

Jul 14th 2009

I'm now hearing that Amazon has not been shipping the revised edition of The Baby Name Wizard as consistently as I'd been promised. I am so, so sorry. I guess we'll just have to wait a week or two for the distribution chain to work itself out. (Remember, if the book in your hands has a 4th red-pink circle on the front and a tiny NameVoyager image on the back, it's the revised edition.)

If you have an naming emergency -- like the woman I talked to yesterday who was 24 hours from a scheduled c-section -- a guaranteed-revised ebook is available here.