Celebrity vs. Fashion: The Kate Middleton Baby Name Effect

Dec 2nd 2010

The upcoming royal wedding in England has stirred up flurries of talk around the classic nickname Kate. The first headline-grabber was Kate Middleton's prenuptial shift to Catherine. (Good luck making that change stick, Ms. Middleton.) Now, the name speculation has moved to the broader English name landscape.

Genealogy website Ancestry.co.uk analyzed U.K. birth records from past royal wedding years and found consistent popularity spikes for the princess names. This makes plenty of sense. What better public platform could a baby name have? The Ancestry team felt so confident in the power of the princess effect that they made a bold prediction. Based on the historical trend, Kate is "likely to be [Britain's] number one girl’s name in 2011."

The prediction has history, celebrity and the global media industry on its side. Putting an attractive name on the news 24/7 generally makes it rise, as we've seen with hurricane names.

But facing off in the opposite corner is a formidable foe: fashion. The problem is that in England, Kate has already come and gone. The given name Kate was a steady, top-100 English favorite in the early 1900s. It fell out of fashion for several decades then reemerged in the 1970s, peaked in the '80s and began a slow fade in the '90s. By now Kate's been out of the U.K. top 100 list for years.

That makes 28-year-old Kate Middleton the typical Kate. In other words, the name may be a classic, but it's a mom name.

If you're American, you probably can't hear the mom-ness because Kate is more current on this side of the pond -- it hit its U.S. peak in 2007. For an American name with a curve similar to the U.K. Kate, think Amy or Angela. Or for a celebrity parallel, think Michelle. Michelle Obama becoming First Lady of the United States had zero effect on the name Michelle; her name says "First Mom." Is Britain's royalty culture strong enough to chart a different path?


p.s. Look for the Name of the Year announcement next week! It's shaping up to be a doozy.

The Mysterious Persistence of Little Johnny

Nov 25th 2010

The current Thanksgiving cover of the New Yorker magazine shows a turkey divided into sections for the many attendees of a holiday dinner. The center is labeled big and bold for the nuclear family:


Now, when was the last time you met a family with kids named Tommy and Sue?

This isn't a simple case of retro style. The rest of the turkey, after all, is allocated to the likes of "Nazi-Biker Grandma" and "Mono-Syllabic Estonian Exchange Student." Rather, it's an example of a distinctive faux-name species: the Mid-Century Normative Child (MCNC).

These generic symbols of American childhood are all around us. They're almost always diminutives, which makes sense to signal youth. But they're not today's nicknames; there are no little Maddies or Jakes. More curiously, they're not the names of 10 or 20 or even 40 years ago, either. And as the years roll by, they don't change.

I remember the generic use of "Little Johnny" sounding old-fashioned back in my 1970s childhood. All these years later, Johnny still rules the roost along side the New Yorker's Tommy and Sue, as well as Jimmy (a generic child I spotted in a recent Dear Abby column). All of those names had their heydays in the mid 1940s. The most up-to-date name on the standard MCNC list is Timmy, which peaked in the late '50s.

It's as if we locate the essence of childhood itself in that narrow historical period. There's some logic to that. The early bound is set by the end of WWII, and the first generation of American kids fully protected by child labor laws. The end is the last cohort to experience childhood before the creeping cynicism of the Vietnam era. We signal "little kids" with names historically pinned to innocence and carefree prosperity.

Logical, perhaps, but to me a little defeatist. We're still raising kids, after all, and they can still -- on a good day -- give all of us jaded grownups glimpses of the world's magic and possibilities. So here's to little Maddie and Jake, and all they represent.

2010 Name of the Year: Call for Nominations

Nov 17th 2010

Every December, BabyNameWizard.com honors one name that shaped -- and was shaped by -- the year that's been.

The Baby Name Wizard Name of the Year isn't necessarily the most popular baby name. It's a name that changed during the course of the year and points to more changes around us. It's a one-name time capsule, reminding us of how names are woven into the fabric of society, connecting to and reflecting everything that goes on in our culture.

Past honorees have come from Hollywood, politics and literature. They have included names of individuals real (Barack, Taylor), fictional (Renesmee), and conceptual (Joe, in the year of Joe Six-Pack and Joe the Plumber). What they all had in common was zeitgeist...and your nominations.

This is a group effort. The criteria for the Name of the Year selection include:

- A dramatic change in the name's usage or social meaning

- A reflection of a broader cultural theme, or influence on broader style trends

- In the case of current events, "naminess" -- how essential the name is to the story

- Your votes. The NOTY is always selected from reader nominations. The number of nominations counts in the decision, and compelling arguments in support of your candidate count most of all.

Please post your nominations in comments here, and feel free to second others' suggestions. Then look for the official Name of the Year announcement in December!