Do April showers bring Aprils?

Jan 14th 2009

A reader who is expecting a baby girl in April recently wrote me with the question: how many girls named April are actually born in April?

It's a nifty question that taps into the fundamental nature of "meaning" names. How much do we think of jasmine when we hear Jasmine, or rubies when we meet Ruby?  And does the word's impact change along with the name's usage?

Seasonal names are a great place to look for answers, since the you can use birthdates as a measure of the word-meaning's influence.  April in particular is an ideal choice because it's a relatively modern naming phenomenon. That means we can track its journey from obscurity to popularity and (partway) back again, with full data available. So let's geek out, shall we? 

All else being equal, you'd expect about one April in every twelve to be born in the month of April, or 8%.  In fact the rate is one in three, a clear case of month-matching.  But even that doesn't tell the whole story.

I've written before about a 50-year cycle of month names. You can check out that column, but here's the key graph:

Clearly, there's more to the popularity of April than just the month.  Using birth records from several U.S. states, I looked at a sample of 671 Aprils: 71 born 1920-1940 when the name was rare, and 200 each from 1960, 1975, and 1995 -- at the beginning, middle and end of the name's big surge.  The pattern...

In other words, before April became a familiar name, most Aprils got their name from their birth date. It took that connection to spur parents to choose -- or even think of -- such an unconventional name. But once the name was well established on its own, parents simply considered it alongside other names, with an extra boost when Spring rolled around.

It's a great illustration of "namehood" taking hold.  You can hear the same process at work in names like Crystal and Amber.  If you met women with those names today, would gems leap to mind?  Likely not, because the words have crossed over the threshold into the world of names.  But that crossing can go both ways. A century ago girls named Coral and Garnet outnumbered Crystal and Amber, but those names have since returned to the gem column.  So let's make a date to follow up on the fate of April -- see you in 2075?

In Memoriam: UK Baby Name Statistics

Jan 7th 2009

Hard times are hitting economies around the world, and hard choices have to be made.  Even in my baby-name bubble I recognize that tracking the rise and fall of Nevaeh doesn't make any top-10 list of national priorities.  Still, it was a shock to learn to that UK Office of National Statistics has decided to stop reporting on popular baby names as a cost-cutting measure.

The announcement of the year's most popular baby names has quickly become a tradition around the globe. It's a happy tradition: a rare moment when our government tell us something just because it's fun and interesting. It's also a unique barometer of our changing national mores. As an American, I learn something new about my country with every new name list. Similarly, looking at the England & Wales stats each year taught me a lot about how our countries are the same, and how we differ.  I'll sorely miss watching names like Alfie and Poppy climb toward the top 10.

There's no substitute for true national statistics. They capture the full range of the nation's tastes, while private listmakers -- web sites or newspapers that poll their readerships -- systematically ignore large swaths of the population. As the UK experience demonstrates, we shouldn't take the government data for granted.

The United States first started tracking popular baby names in 1996. As I understand the story, a Social Security Administration actuary by the name of Michael Shackleford compiled the first name popularity lists, simply because he could. After a couple of years Shackleford left the SSA to dedicate his mathematical skills to the gambling industry (see By that time, though, the name stats were so popular that the other actuaries had to continue Mike's pet project.  Eventually the SSA realized they could use this popular feature as a showpiece to lure in parents and educate them about other family programs. Thus the current name stats website was born.

The SSA's approach to name data keeps evolving.  They've gradually tweaked and expanded the figures they make available, which are now the the world's best.  Last year they tried to jazz things up, making the data release a Parade Magazine "exclusive" and adding some freaky talking babies to their website. This year, who knows?

On behalf of the name-loving public, let me beg the SSA to keep doing what it does so well.  (No, dearest actuaries, that does not mean more talking babies. Please, no.)  Baby name statistics deliver a lot of cultural bang for the buck. We love them, and we love you for providing them. See you in May, SSA!  I hope.

One last holiday leftover

Jan 2nd 2009

There was Holly and Ivy and Noëlle and Joy,
Merry and Carol, and Nick for a boy,
But do you recall
The least famous Christmas name of all?

During the holidays, I renewed my annual acquaintance with the name that represents the season best to me.  This name calls to mind generations of families around the world, celebrating with those little family-specific traditions that carry the most cherished memories. The name is Tammis.

The funny thing is, Tammis isn't part of any tradition of mine. In fact, I don't know much about the name, though I quite like it -- it's a female name, simple but chic and very uncommon.  The holiday link comes via a lovely household I visit each December.  One of the family-specific traditions in that home is an old Little Golden Book of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, laid beneath the tree each year.  And therein lies our tale.

This Golden Book was first published in 1958.  It was written by Barbara Shook Hazen, and illustrated by the great Richard Scarry.  I was raised on Scarry's Busytown books, which used cartoonish animal illustrations to present original stories from the practical (What Do People Do All Day) to the bizarre (The Talking Bread, Schtoompah the Funny Austrian.).  But before Busytown, Scarry spent years at Golden Books illustrating other writers' works in a more conventional picture-book style.  His drawings for "Rudolph" took the material totally straight, with one exception: names.

In a key scene, Santa holds a long scroll naming all the "good boys and girls" on his delivery list. Little John and Mary and Peter and, yes, Tammis are destined to be happy on Christmas morning. Here's the full lineup:


(You can see the original image, courtesy of a random flickr user.)

Every year I pore over the names, reading Tammis, Huck and Carlton and wondering about the real meaning of Santa's list.  It's not mentioned in the text of the story so I assume it was Scarry's own contribution, a shout-out to all the "good boys and girls" in his own life.  I like to imagine that Tammis could refer to Tammis Keefe, a great textile designer of the same period whose animal prints could have done a Golden Book proud. (Check out some of Keefe's handkerchiefs with crocodile, circus and exotic animal motifs.)

Whatever the real story behind the names, the list speaks across time.  It's a moment of connection, a glimpse of quirky humanity in an otherwise sanitized setting -- like a family tradition passed down to us from the Scarry household.  And Tammis is a pretty nifty name, too.  Maybe one to add to your own list of "good little girls"?


UPDATE: Since I posted this, readers have joined me hot on the trail of the elusive name Tammis.  Theories abound, but evidence seems to be mounting that its roots are in Celtic variants of Thomas, and that it can be used for boys and girls.  Close relatives are Tam (the Scottish version of Tom) and Tamsin (a Cornish contraction of Thomasina which is now widely used across the U.K.).  Thanks, everybody!