Names on the Verge: Tiana

Nov 24th 2007

Shh...listen. What's that sound? Could it be the tooth-gnashing of hundreds of parents who named their daughters Giselle?

With the release of Disney's new film Enchanted, the classic French name Giselle -- already associated with beauty and glamour via model Gisele Bundchen -- has been officially Princessized. Princessization isn't necessarily fatal. Take the name Aurora, still uncommon and and artistic-sounding despite its title role in Sleeping Beauty. But it's a fair bet that few moms of a toddler Giselle were banking on the 1000-pound gorilla that is the Magic Kingdom when they chose the name for their babies.

What name is next in the Princess Pipeline? Funny you should ask. In 2009 Disney plans to go back to its roots with a hand-drawn, 2D princess tale. This time the story is American, set in New Orleans in the 1920s. Having pretty much exausted all other racial options (Arab, Native American, Chinese, White, White, and White), Disney is finally introducing its first African-American princess. As originally announced by executive John Lasseter, the film was to be titled The Frog Princess and to tell the tale of a chambermaid named Maddy.

Welcome to the blogosphere, Mr. Lasseter! The announcement was met by a slew of angry blogs, complaining variously about this long-awaited Black princess being a maid to a White character; about the movie's title (offensive to the French?); and about the lead character's name.

Maddy is, of course, a wildly fashionable nickname today. Every imaginable spelling of Madeline and Madison fills America's schoolyards with little Maddies. Disney's critics, though, heard Maddy and thought "slave name." To them, Maddy seemed like an amalgam of Mammy and Addy -- a put-down rather than a royal uplift.

So years before the movie was even set to hit theaters, Disney found itself in damage-control mode. In a letter to multiple websites, the company addressed some "incorrect information" about the new princess. The movie, retitled The Princess and the Frog, now tells the tale of "a heroine in the great tradition of Disney's rich animated fairy tale legacy": the glamorous Princess Tiana.

Tiana. It's a contemporary name with an undeniable sparkle that appeals to many parents. (To adult-film producers, too. Word to the NOT do what I just did and run a Google image search for "Tiana" in the middle of a public cafe. Hoo-boy.) The resemblance to "tiara" also makes the name a natural for a princess. But one thing Tiana is not: a plausible name for an African-American girl in 1920s New Orleans.

The 1920 U.S. Census reveals a heyday of nicknames as given names, especially among African-Americans. As I've noted in the past, the baby name Willie was more popular in 1910 than any name is today. By 1920 that meant ten thousand Black males named Willie in Louisiana alone, more than were named William. The 1920 Census counts tens of thousands of Madelines and well over a thousand Maddies and Maddys, including 150 Black females in Louisiana. So Maddy is a realistic period name for the character, as well as one familiar and appealing to modern girls.

As for Tiana, it's a popular choice of African-American families today. While the name doesn't appear to have African roots, it does echo the style of some African names. (Among them is the Kenyan name Kiara, which is also a Disney Princess of a sort. It's the name of Simba's daughter in The Lion King II.) Take a look at the 1920 census, though, and you'll find only 14 women named Tiana in the United States -- none of them in Louisiana, and almost all of them White.

In other words, in their scramble to honor African-American history Disney switched from a historically accurate African-American name to the complete opposite. But perhaps that abandonment of realism is the true sign of Princesshood. Tiana, welcome to "the great tradition of Disney's rich animated fairy tale legacy."

Neutral colors revisited: Surname edition

Nov 18th 2007

Back in 2005 I asked the question, "what names tell you the least about a person's race?" I used baby name and ethnicity data from two major U.S. metropolitan areas to identify given names with roughly equal appeal to Black, White, Latino and Asian families. Realistically, though, no first-name choice will yield a truly "neutral color" name for many Americans. If your surname is Washington, Yoder, Barajas or Zhang, your racial background is pretty clear to all. Those are the top-1000 U.S. surnames that are most race-specific to Blacks, Whites, Latinos and Asians respectively according to Census Department figures released on Friday.

The new surname rankings are based on an analysis of the 2000 U.S. Census. Surname frequency was also reported in 1990, but this is the first time the names have been broken down by race. (I'm very, very interested to see what they do for first names!) So far, news reports have used the new surname data mostly as a proxy for race. "Hispanic surnames are rising" has been the big headline -- yet hardly a surprise, since the actual population change data for Hispanic Americans was released back in 2001.

So instead, I'm going to look once again for the points of intersection. What names are shared by large numbers of Americans of different races? If you stick to black and white, the answer is hundreds of them. Imagine a Williams, a Harris, a Rivers...flip a coin to guess the race. But Asian and Latino names are a different matter. The vast majority of surnames are either over 80% Asian/Latino or under 10%. So suppose you wanted to create a "neutral" character -- say for a public service ad campaign. What surname would you choose?

I went in search of names with at least 10% representation in three or more racial groups. Since the target was "neutrality," I eliminated surnames that crossed races but shared a strong religious or ethnic connection, such as Ali. The results? Just three names:

(near miss: Barron)

Lee is the champion by a mile, with no majority race: 40% White, 38% Asian, 17% Black. The largest "other" group of Lees is, not surprisingly, Mixed Race. So if you're planning to meet a guy named Anthony Lee, make no assumptions.

If you'd like to explore the new surname data yourself, let me point you a way to do it. My NameVoyager was a collaboration with my husband Martin, a "wizard" in his own right -- he has a magical way of turning numbers into beautiful moving pictures. He and his colleagues at IBM's Visual Communication Lab have created a site that lets anyone paste in their own data and generate amazing interactive visualizations. I used some of those tools on the surname data to research this blog entry, and will surely use them to illustrate future topics. See what you find! (Click on an image below to go to the full interactive graph; requires Java!)

Your Name Goes Here

Nov 9th 2007

How big a namenik are you? Here's one test. In a store, you spot a rack of name-printed gifts for kids -- stickers, say, or packs of pencils that read BRANDON, BRANDON, BRANDON. Do you walk on past? Or do you eagerly scan the list of names, judging how well the manufacturer chose the names? Come on, 'fess up, I know I'm not the only one.

Most often the gift racks are a few years behind the times. (Too many Melissas, not enough Mias). But they're getting better and better now that more name statistics are available. At one store I spotted two gift racks side by side, clearly from the same manufacturer. One held light-switch covers printed with butterflies, rainbows, and names like Haley, Jasmine and Hannah. The other held small flower pots printed with inspirational sayings and names like Barbara, Nancy and Joyce. The gift company had two different markets down pat. (Or realistically, one market: Melissa, Kristen or Stephanie buying one gift for her mom, one for her daughter. Because nobody really buys themselves that stuff.)

What happens if the manufacturer gets it wrong? Talk about short shelf life...the wrong baby name can mean those "grrl power!" stickers were out of date a decade before they were printed. So today, I offer a cautionary tale for the world's personalized-gift industry.

I recently found myself in a deep, deep discount store--the job lot/salvage variety. You know, the kind of place where rolls of paper towels (banana scented) go for pennies on the dollar, and where you can pick up a t-shirt celebrating your team's divisional title long after they're eliminated from the playoffs. Displayed across one wall were ceramic name plaques ready to personalize a child's bedroom door, marked down to just 19 cents each! Drawings of crayons, cars and ice-cream cones accompanied the names: Gene, Betty, Alice, Ralph. Gosh, I wonder why they didn't sell?

The plaques spanned nearly a century of name style, from Walter and Bea to Todd and Dana. The bulk, though, were names of the 1920s through '60s: Joy and Guy, Tammy and Jerry, Jean and Glenn. Here's the lineup, as recorded on the back of an envelope from my pocket:

When were these things made, anyway? A look at the package revealed: 1984. Uh-oh. The names were off by a generation or three, and now 23 years later the product still languishes on the shelves. Granted these are just the unsold remainder names, but there are a lot of them. It's a fair bet the boy's name Cary was printed on more of these plaques than on actual birth certificates in 1984.

For the salvage store in 2007, the extreme wrongness of those old name guesses might prove to be a bit of a blessing. The very "wrongest" names on the list may actually be ready to come around again. So if you're looking for a personalized gift for your little Alice or Bea, I know where to find