PR reps often send me "exciting sneak previews!" of name-related announcements. A company realizes that it has a list of names (typically clients), and figures that it can get some publicity by slicing and dicing the list and revealing the "names most likely to" -- to get rich, get married, get a job.
I'm all for new name data, but most of these pitches end up in my trash folder. Some are just junk, like the folks trying to peddle data on adults with land lines as baby name info. Many others share a subtler flaw: they're reporting demographic effects in the guise of name effects. A finding that, say, Susans have higher average incomes than Maddisons tells you a lot more about age than names. (A 2005 Barclays Bank press release gives you an sample of this genre.)
At first glance, LinkedIn's new report on the typical names of different professions follows the demographic fallacy. For instance, take a look at the historical popularity of names they report as over-represented among CEOs vs. athletes. (CEO names are on the top, athletes on the bottom.)
The red lines show the the popularity peaks of the two lists, a generation apart -- 1950s vs. 1980s. This just in: CEOs are older than athletes! Umm, yeah.
Other LinkedIn name lists are proxies for ethnicity. Engineers, for example, are disproportionately named Rajesh, Ravi,and Vijay; restaurateurs are named Thierry, Philippe and Laurent. I don't consider this a name story at all. It just says that there are a lot of Indian engineers and French chefs.
But not all the LinkedIn data is that simple. Buried in the profession lists are a few insights that you couldn't glean from a table of ages and ethnic origins. Take a look at the top names of American salespeople. (The full lists are actually global, but through the quirks of LinkedIn's geographic reach half the names on the sales list are American and half Danish/Swedish. I've skipped the Jespers, Fredriks and Henriks for this discussion, but Scandinavian readers are welcome to chime in on them!)
Most Overrepresented Names in Sales:
There are certainly demographic tendencies in that list of swift little names. The names are most common in the upper Midwest and largely white. But the sales list is different from the CEOs and athletes in key ways. It has a somewhat broader age spread. It's heavier on "names of choice" -- names like Chip and Trey which don't necessarily come from your birth certificate. And significantly, it's not a list of super-popular choices that cut a broad swath through their generations. The sales names are defined by style. They're not just demographic profiles, they're personality profiles.
Look at Chip, the #1 most typical name of salespeople. It's a nickname, preppy but not elitist, confident but not cocky, and above all chipper. It's a name that strides up to you with an open, ingratiating smile, hand offered in warm greeting. And the other sales names walk right in its footsteps. Reading them, don't you feel a sudden impulse to join in a round of golf?
Is it nature or nurture? Parents who call their sons Chip and Todd are likely to share certain qualities of background, taste, perhaps income and personality as well. Their upbringings might have been conducive to warm handshakes and golfing. In the case of nicknames, the individual's own choice to stick with Chip or Trey could also reflect a personal style suited to sales.
But couldn't the names themselves have helped nudge them in that career direction? Short names, especially nicknames, tend to make men sound friendly, approachable and likeable. Couldn't a lifetime spent sounding friendly and approachable help you feel at ease meeting new people, as a salesman must? And wouldn't a school advisor or an employer reviewing resumes find it easy to picture Chip and Todd in sales? Or perhaps the friendly name gave the young Chips just enough of a leg up in their early sales efforts to encourage them to make a career of it...and to post their sales profile to LinkedIn.
[Note (05/03/11): Since I wrote this blog post, it has been picked up by a variety of media outlets -- often without context or explanation of the methodology. Much of the reporting has been guided by the post's unfortunately extreme title. To clarify, this column discusses the results of an informal survey of internet discussions, to gauge which names generated the most negative mentions. The names listed aren't "bad" or necessarily even unpopular. In fact, many of them are highly popular, well-loved names that some people are simply getting tired of. In other cases, the negative reactions reflect different cultural perspectives on a single name. Bentley, for instance, is generally seen negatively by people who hear it as a stuffy surname or a luxury car brand. It's seen positively by people who hear it as an easygoing neo-Southern name, via country singer Dierks Bentley. I believe that the existence of strongly divided opinions like these is a meaningful variable in understanding a name's impact and place in our culture.]
Which baby names do people like the most? You can answer that with a glance at the top of the baby names popularity chart. Which names do people loathe most? That's a trickier question. There's no such thing as the "least popular name." (Dogbreath? Margitudinal? Sxsddhwwwb? It's a many-way tie.)
What's more, the most-hated name might well be a popular one. Some names just provoke strong reactions, whether retching or swooning. In fact, popularity itself can be held against a name.
To capture negative name feelings, I scoured the web for conversations about baby names people can't stand. I skipped the "what's the worst name you've ever heard" freak shows (Felanie, Ima Hogg, La-a). My target was everyday baby-name negativity: the "normal" baby names that, for whatever reason, set your teeth on edge.
I ended up tallying the viewpoints of hundreds of U.S. messageboard participants, comprising almost 1,500 name mentions. Many of the discussions were on parenting forums, but a good number were simply chatter on forums of diverse kinds. The results are below. Spellings are combined in the count, listing the name under its most-mentioned form. I've also included comments on what people objected to about each name, which often point to themes that resonate beyond the individual name.
My goal in this is NOT to bash anyone's name. It's simply to track and describe the negative sentiment out there, as one more piece of information for parents weighing name choices.
1. Nevaeh (47 mentions). A landslide winner, no surprise. In the most recent edition of my book, I wrote "Nevaeh may be the most stylistically divisive name in America." Grounds for objection included look, sound and origin, the whole package.
2 (tie). Destiny (16). This name seemed to run afoul of two groups: people annoyed by "virtue names," and people who grouped it with other dreamy choices like Heaven and Candy as "stripperish."
2 (tie). Madison (16). The negative reactions to this name were particularly strong, especially in non-standard spellings. Reasons were seldom given; it just seemed to grate on people.
4. Mackenzie (13). Often presented in a group with other Mc- names, which several posters described as "low class."
5. McKenna (9). See Mackenzie above.
6 (tie). Addison (8). Sometimes grouped with Madison, and sometimes held as an example of the #1 most-cited loathing category: "boys' names used for girls."
6 (tie). Gertrude (8). When the conversation focused on "ugly" names, old-fashioned Germanic names like Gertrude, Bertha and Helga ruled.
6 (tie). Kaitlyn (8). The poster child for the #2 most common objection: "made-up spellings." Some people specifically exempted the classic spelling Caitlin from their wrath.
6 (tie). Makayla (8). See Mackenzie above.
10 (tie). Bertha (7). See Gertrude above.
10 (tie). Hope (7). To my surprise, the objection to virtue names extended to traditional choices like Hope, Faith and Grace.
1. Jayden (23). The overwhelming theme for boys' names was a backlash against the rhyming -ayden family. Many felt there were just too many of these names, and "it's getting really old." Others said the names sounded too childish or feminine. The names were often mentioned as a group, but Jayden was frequently singled out.
2. Brayden (16).
3 (tie). Aiden (15).
4 (tie). Kaden (15). See Jayden above.
5. Hunter (9). Objections included "should only be a last name" and "too violent."
6. Hayden (8). Part of the -ayden family but mentioned much less often than the others. It seems to be considered a little more mature and established-sounding than the rest of the clan.
7 (tie). Bentley (7). A lot of contempt was shown in mentions of this name, as people considered the luxury-car association "trashy."
7 (tie). Tristan (7). Described as "fakey" and "unlikeable."
9. Michael (6). The whipping boy for people who scorned "common" names. Names like Matthew, Sarah and Emily also came up several times. (Notably, they were the most likely names to be defended by others in the conversation.)
10. Jackson (5). No consistency to the reasons. Some grouped it with Peyton as "way too trendy," others with Jack as "old-fashioned and worn out." This was the one name where I didn't collapse spellings, since the several people who mentioned Jaxon objected to it solely on basis of spelling.
- At least three mentions apiece were tallied for Kayla, Kaylin, Kyle, Kyler and Kylie along with the high scores for Kaitlyn and Makayla, suggesting negativity toward that general sound category.
- Two statistically unlikely names ranked just outside the top 10. Star is a very rare name, so the fact that it occurred to so many people suggests particularly active negativity. Tiffany peaked back in the 1980s. That it's still mentioned so often as a disliked baby name leads to me suspect it may have been the "Nevaeh" of its generation.
P.S. If Your Favorite Name is Listed Above...
Sorry to freak you out! Don't go tearing up your name list yet.
First off, remember that "loved" and "loathed" are often two sides of the same coin. Anything that scales the heights of fashion attracts attention and becomes a target for contrarians. Many of the names listed are simply victims of their own success. In fact, almost every name in the top 10 for boys or girls received at least one "hate it" vote. Realistically, your little Aiden and Addison will be comfortably in the fashion mainstream, and any currents of negativity will flow right by them.
As for rarer names like Bentley that set off disproportionate levels of bad vibes, in the end you have to choose the name YOU think is best. Just consider this list a heads-up that some folks may respond badly to your beloved name. Forewarned is forearmed.
Many women change their surnames when they get married. In the past, I've discussed the idea of changing your first name while you're at it. But can you imagine a man insisting that his new bride change her first name, just to sound good with his surname?
That is the tale of one Lidian Emerson. The second wife of the great writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, Lidian was intellectually inclined and an ardent abolitionist. Her marriage to Ralph was, by all accounts, a long and content one. (Tales abound that Henry Thoreau was in love with her as well, but we don't traffic in centuries-old gossip around here.)
Mrs. Emerson was christened not Lidian, but Lydia Jackson. Mr. Emerson decided his wife should be known as Lidian upon their marriage in 1835. The reason is unclear. Here are some explanations I've found -- all presented as simple statements of fact:
"Emerson asked Lydia Jackson to become Lydian Emerson, wishing a less common name."
"Emerson changed her name to prevent the final 'a' from turning into "er" through local pronunciation"
"Lidian (as he spelled it) had both musical and classical echoes."
"The first name was changed from 'Lydia' to 'Lidian,' at Emerson's request, to avoid the hiatus between 'Lydia' and the new surname."
This last explanation, from a 1915 biography of Emerson, has the ring of truth to me. The specific choice of Lidian doubtless reflects the ancient Lydian language and Lydian musical mode. But the decision to change the name to begin with? Well, consider that Emerson never objected to his first wife's equally prosaic name of Ellen. My guess is that Lydia just didn't sound good with his last name.
In theory, this is a concern we should all be able to relate to. Every parent choosing baby names thinks carefully about how the first and last name sound together. Plenty of women today also take the first/last match into consideration when they decide whether to change their names at marriage. But to change your grown wife's name to match your surname? Even back in 1835, it was extraordinary. Check out Mrs. Emerson's embarrassed tone in a letter to Thomas Carlyle, six years into her marriage:
"Will you pardon my signing the unheard-of name by which my husband has presumed to re-baptise me? He will have me known by no other—and believes it valid even to Civil Law."
Then consider that the Emersons' children received unremarkable family names: Waldo, Ellen, Edith and Edward. In that context, the invention of Lidian is even more curious. Grand explanations like "flight of romantic fancy" or "chauvinistic power play" don't seem to fit the rest of the facts. So given my profession, I'm going with the name-first reasoning. It just sounded better that way.