On Barack and Caylee: names and the news

May 10th 2009

In December, I described calls I'd received from journalists eager to report on the huge wave of babies named in honor of new president Barack Obama. I had to break it to them that I wasn't aware of any such wave; as far as I knew, Barack remained a rare name. What's more, that was pretty much to be expected. Hero naming for new presidents used to be routine, but in post-Watergate American we generally wait until a president is out of office -- and preferably dead -- before committing our children's names to the cause.

Some of the reporters had trouble accepting this. The flood of new baby Baracks was an awesome story idea, and they were on deadline. They asked me to put out a call to my readers to find little Baracks. I did; nobody answered. Around the country, more journalists scrounged for examples. One dad scored a major newspaper profile by pretending to have named his son after the president. Another family was featured on television for choosing Barack for their son...as a second middle name. In fact, if you followed the news accounts, you'd be excused for thinking that the wave of little Obama namesakes had actually happened.

And now, the Social Security Administration has compounded that impression with its lead story on the 2008 name popularity data. Barack has flown thousands of spots up the popularity ranks...all the way to #2409!

Everybody, do you realize just how insignificant that change is?

For perspective, more babies would be affected by a move from, say, #99 to #98. Tons of minor reality tv stars had a bigger impact. Our president's name still isn't within shouting distance of the popularity of names like Hezekiah or Abdiel. Or to put it in political terms, even Tripp outpaced Barack by a mile.

Today, as I peruse the many headlines about the "stunning rise" of the name Barack, I can't help but think about the opportunities lost. Because when you only search within the narrow beam of your own preconceptions, you miss the chance to truly discover anything. If you'd let the data take the lead, you might find that names did tell some revealing stories about American society in 2008. For instance, you might notice the name Caylee.

Caylee Anthony was a Florida toddler who was tragically killed in June, 2008. The child was initially reported as missing; later, her mother was charged with murder. Caylee was the fifth-fastest rising name in America, ahead of Miley. Previously unranked, Caylee is now #519 among all girls' names, many times as popular as Barack.

This is not an anomaly. When the death of an attractive young woman or girl generates extended media coverage, the victim's name reliably soars in usage. The name Laci, off the charts for a decade, rose all the way to #438 in 2003 after the murder of Laci Peterson. Similarly, the name Natalee was one of the fastest risers of 2005 due to the disappearance of teenager Natalee Holloway.

At first glance, this might seem to be another instance of the "hurricane name effect": the publicity surrounding a terrible storm can make its name rise in popularity, despite the associations of death and destruction. It's the ultimate example of the old saw that any publicity is good publicity, as long as they spell your name right.

But there's a significant difference with the crime victim names. A hurricane, or even a celebrity, will only  boost a name if it's the right name. If the name is fresh and stylish, the idea will inspire parents. If not, all the publicity in the world doesn't help. The crime victims, in contrast, inspire namesakes even when their names had already gone out of style. The graph of Laci illustrates the phenomenon. This year, Caylee created new momentum for a familiar name that, accross its many spellings, had leveled off. It takes an extreme name like Jon-Benet to keep namesakes away.

This pattern suggests that much more than a mere publicity effect is at work. The victim names behave more like personal homages. And for those who might think of the intense public interest in the cases as simply "morbid curiosity," the naming pattern reveals a more profound kind of emotional involvement. Parents take baby name decisions very seriously, and they won't name a child after just anybody.

I'm a baby namer, not a sociologist, so I'll only draw my conclusions as far as the names take me. But I'll end with a contrast to contemplate. In the 21st Century, American parents are less likely than ever before to name a child after themselves, or after their own parents. They're less likely than ever to choose a name to honor a new leader, or a military hero. But they will choose names to honor a particular kind of crime victim. Look at the difference in baby-name impact between a Laci Peterson and a Pat Tillman, and come up with conclusions of your own.


NameVoyager updated with 2008 popularity data

May 9th 2009

The NameVoyager is now up to date with the latest figures. Happy exploring!

The fastest falling names of 2008

May 8th 2009

Fast rising and falling names sometimes remind me of Tolstoy's happy and unhappy families. The rising names tend to have a lot in common. You can look at this year's hottest risers and see clear themes of sound and style (or last year's, and see an infatuation with attractive young singers). But when names fall, they often fall alone.

How do we explain this year's #1 faller, the much-loved biblical classic Hannah? The name had been quietly declining for several years, but nothing like this year's plummet. Other Old Testament names are still very much in style -- just look at the current top five names for boys...


...and kindred girl's classics like Sarah, Abigail and Anna declined only gradually. Yet the number of Hannah's fell by thousands -- an almost 30% decline -- dropping the name from #9 to #17 on the girl's charts.

The rest of the not-hot parade gives offers few clues about Hannah's demise:


That list leans heavily toward names favored by Latino families, which isn't too surprising. The more a name's popularity is concentrated in one community (be it cultural, ethnic, geographic), the more quickly its appeal can shift. But even among the Latino favorites, there's little in common. Diego, Ashley, Julissa and Angelique are stylistic worlds apart. The names have very different popularity histories, as well: Diego's a long-neglected classic that made a strong comeback in the last decade. Ashley's an '80s favorite in decline. Julissa built up gradually over the span of 20 years, while Joselin/Joselyn is simply coming down from a sudden 2007 spike.

Looking beyond that brief list, though, one broad theme does start to emerge. America's long J-joyride seems to be winding down. A whopping 12 of the 30 fastest-falling names of the year started with J, vs. zero of the 30 fastest rising. The momentum is moving away from the the letter that has reigned as America's favorite throughout the generations, from John to Jason to Jacob.