Research focus: is naming becoming more local?

Jul 14th 2009

As researchers in diverse fields turn more and more to baby name studies, 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.



High-concept, high-risk names

Jul 10th 2009

The bedtime story in the Wattenberg family this week is Ellen Raskin's 1975 puzzle-mystery The Tattooed Potato and other clues. (More about the book below.) Much as I love the story, I'm having trouble focusing on reading it aloud. It keeps distracting me -- in a good way -- with names.

Some of the character names are jokey, like Mrs. Panzpresser and the corpulent, white-suited Mr. Mallomar. Others are enigmatic, like the artist known only as Garson. But what sets The Tattooed Potato apart to a name enthusiast is the way it engages with the idea of names and their relationship to our places in the world.

In the book, art students experiment with twists on their names to make their signatures seem artist-worthy. A man named George Washington III, descendent of an immigrant who changed his name to sound as American as possible, feels a special link to Washington Square Park. And most of all, the central character grapples with a name that has always felt like a burden to her: Dickory. Ms. Dickory Dock.

Dickory dreads telling anyone her full name, bracing for the nursery rhyme that inevitably follows. One character tries to get her to see the blessing in this, noting, "Not everyone can make people happy just by telling them their name." Indeed, for some real-world people a name like Dickory Dock would be a powerful asset, an instant conversation starter. A Ms. Toker I once knew, who officially changed her name to her longtime nickname of Midnight, comes to mind. The Dickory of the story, though, isn't the jovial, laugh-along sort. She's quiet and serious, and resents being pulled again and again into a joke that was never funny to her to begin with.

This is the dilemma of what I'll call "high-concept names." Like high-concept movies (Snakes on a Plane) or books (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), high-concept names have a hook. They build off of established conventions to make an unmistakable impact, sometimes at the expense of subtely. In the world of entertainment, where public attention means everything, a high concept is a great way to get yourself noticed. In the world of names, though, a high concept carries as much risk as opportunity.

An ordinary name is defined by the person behind it. It may conjure up images or color your impressions, but it doesn't really exist until it's embodied. A high-concept name, in contrast, scarcely needs the person. Dickory Dock and Midnight Toker are self-contained messages, pithy and complete. That's not to say that an individual Midnight or Dickory can't make the name her own. (As The Tattooed Potato puts it, "a name is just a label; it can stand for whatever a person makes of it.") It just takes a certain kind of person to embrace the challenge of a high-concept name and take advantage of the social opportunities that it brings.

If you're considering such a conspicuous name, be sure to leave room for the possibility of a child with a more private personality. One option is to bestow the "hook" as a middle name. That gives you the option to call your daughter by that name in the short term, while in the long term she'll have more control over the kind of attention her name attracts.

And finally, as promised, a few words about The Tattooed Potato and other clues. First, I must apologize for recommending a book which is so hard to get hold of. (Puffin Books, are you listening? Reissue time!) If you recognized the name of author Ellen Raskin, I'm betting you share my love of her 1979 Newbery winner The Westing Game. The golden Newbery seal has kept that book selling briskly, while most of Raskin's other books have fallen out of print. Right now her only other title available new is The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel). Also worth seeking out is Figgs & Phantoms, a one-of-a-kind comic fantasy that's incredibly moving and life-affirming, but appreciated best by adolescents and adults despite its reading level.