Two posts ago, we were talking about names with multiple spellings. (Don't recall? Go ahead and refresh your memory, I'll wait. Hum-de-dum-de-dum.)
Ok, so I did my best to show that creative spellings have been around for ages. But are they multiplying today? And if so, do they account for the seeming decline in name conformity I've talked about in the past?
This turns out to be a question you can measure in 100 different ways to produce whatever answer you want. But here's my take on what's really going on:
Your average boy today does bear a more spelling-malleable name than in past generations. (The change for girls is in the same direction, but smaller.) This apparent rise in creative spelling, however, is not the cause of the declining "conformity curve." Rather, both changes are effects of the same fashion phenomenon -- and it's not about spelling at all, but about names.
Let's start at the top. By official figures, Jacob has been the clear #1 name in America since 1999. But some lists that combine variants claim that Aidan/Aiden should be the "real" #1. To test the theory that spelling is the story, I plotted all the spellings of Aidan against the last single-spelling #1 name, 1953's Robert:
Yes, that's the Aidans down on the right. No matter how you slice it, a #1 name just isn't what it used to be. And most of the kreatively spelled names don't come close to Aidan's popularity. Six different spellings of Jaylin rank among the top 1000 girls' names, but if you add them all up the name still doesn't approach the top 100. So I don't think the declining conformity curve is merely a spelling phenomenon. But I do think that the spellings point toward something big.
Most American names have always been malleable, and the fresher the name, the more malleable it is. When a new hit sound climbs the charts it typically comes in multiple versions. Over time one or two spellings may become standard...unless the name dies out before it has a chance to settle in.
Meanwhile a small group of classic names, notably English monarchs, are spelled in stone. Ten English monarch names with highly rigid spellings have been popular American baby names. Take a look at their usage over time:
That's a major population-wide shift in just those ten names, down from 20% of babies born to 2%. I think this is the key to the story: we've lopped off the reliable top of the name curve. It's not so much that we're embracing wild spellings as that we're rejecting the kinds of names that you can't respell.
That might seem like splitting hairs, but it's a big difference. If America were just going on a spelling spree you would be seeing a generation named Wylliem, Henreigh, and Jaimz. We're rejecting the style of the names, the common, traditional feeling of them. Once you reject the core English naming stock, you inevitably find yourself in the realm where spellings are varied and evolving. There is no "wrong" spelling of Brayden as there is of William...so the real decision is naming your son Brayden instead of William to begin with.
I interrupt today's scheduled statistical analysis with a breaking news bulletin.
Ladies and gentlemen, it's celebrity baby season. The (movie) stars have aligned so that an unusual number of famous people are giving birth all around us. And that means an unusual number of articles trumpeting the weirdness of celebrity baby names. Even when the names aren't so weird. Reading all the "wacky Gwyneth's done it again" columns, you'd think she named her son Banana rather than the biblical classic Moses.
The weird-name hysteria reached its zenith with a long piece by Alex Williams in this Sunday's New York Times. The thesis:
"It seems almost unimaginable for any 21st-century movie star to send his children out among the Hollywood elite equipped with ordinary names"
Any American who lived through 2005, when overhyped Hollywood babies named Sean and Violet were born, knows that statement is simply ridiculous. But the writer sticks to it doggedly, "proving" the point with such Hollywood luminaries as Shannyn Sossamon and Penn Jillette. (Surely Penn Jillette is no closer to the mainstream of Hollywood than he is to the mainstream of anything else.) In fact, every article like this trots out the same minor celebrities to prove that all Hollywood is wacko. If you read only baby name articles, you'd be convinced that Shannyn Sossamon is the queen of Hollywood and that Britney Spears conveniently doesn't exist.
Why should you care whether Shannyn Sossamon is elevated to royalty? Let's take a look at what the Times piece does next. Having briskly concluded that all celebrities choose wacko names, the writer goes on to offer an explanation for the phenomenon: it demonstrates a vast, universal character flaw. You see, celebrities all like crazy names because they all have gigantic egos, and are even willing to sacrifice their children's well-being to prove that they're above normal people. Ah. In other words, the wacky-name fixation is taken as a great excuse to bash people.
In the name of civility, I'm going to pose a question that I've never seen asked in any article on weird celebrity baby names: What do celebrities name their children?
For an impartial answer, I've adopted the Forbes Celebrity 100 as my fame-o-meter. To make my roster of A-list moms and dads you have to be a peformer, under 50, American, and listed by name among the top 40 in the Celebrity 100 during the past four years.
The 18 parents who make the cut are household names. Their 38 kids, by and large, are not. (Quick, can you name Jim Carrey's child? Did you even know he had one?)
The real celebrity baby name list:
Isabella, Connor, Suri
Colin, Elizabeth, Chester, Truman
Bria, Miles, Shayne, Zola
Alexandra, Gregory, Matthew, Joseph
Willard III ("Trey"), Jaden, Willow
About 75% of American babies receive names in the top 1000, same as the celebrities on the list. Some of the other 25% in each group are unusual, but fairly normal. (For instance Will Ferrell's wife is Swedish, and Magnus is a classic mainstream name in Sweden.) And some in each group are truly eye-popping, like Sossamon's son Audio Science and the several American boys named ESPN.
Hollywood may indeed have a higher wacky rate, as you'd expect from a community of creative artists...I'd need a much bigger sample to say for sure. Even so, Jacks and Isabellas clearly outnumber Audios by a huge margin. As for the wacky few, do they really point to egos run amok? Could be. But it's not so obvious to me that naming your child Audio shows more ego than naming him -- traditionally, conservatively -- after yourself.
When you're trying to make sense of name trends, names with multiple spellings are a constant challenge. I generally treat each variant independently -- you can read my rationale here. But there are times when it is handy to merge all the Kayleighs, Kaylees, and Kaylis into one name.
The spelling issue recently came up here in response to a column on conformity in names. Reader "Jennifer" suggested that the seeming decline of name conformity could really just be a rise in different spellings of the same old conformist names:
"In the 1940's, there was only one way to spell Shirley. You didn't have hundreds and hundreds of parents blessing their little darling with Shirleigh, Chirly, Shirlie, and 12 other spellings, like you see now."
If you've recently met a young Madalyn or Bayleigh it's natural to see this as a generation of "kreative" spellers. Right now, there are six different spellings of Madeline among the top 1000 girls' names: Madeline, Madelyn, Madeleine, Madaline, Madalyn, and Madlyn.
Oops, sorry...I was looking at the wrong list. Those six Madelines were actually from the top 1000 names of 1915.
In fact, multiple variants have been more the rule than the exception for the hot names of each generation. Some highlights of a century of kreativity:
1900: Catherine, Katherine, Kathryn, Catharine, Katharine, Katheryn, Cathrine, Cathryn, Kathrine, Kathryne
1920: Eleanor, Elinor, Eleanore, Eleanora, Elenora, Elenor
1940: Gerald, Jerald, Jerold, Jerrold, Gerold, Garold, Jerrell, Jerrel
1960: Cheri, Cherie, Cherry, Cherri, Cherrie, Shari, Sherry, Sherri, Sheri, Sherrie, Sheree, Sherie
1980: Kristin, Kristen, Kristine, Kristyn, Kristan, Christin, Christen
2000: Kaitlyn, Katelyn, Kaitlin, Katelynn, Katlyn, Kaitlynn, Katelin, Katlynn, Caitlin, Caitlyn, Caitlynn
But is the trend accelerating? Does the typical popular name today have more -- or more popular -- variations than in the past? That turns out to be a tricky question to answer, as I'll talk about next time.