The View from Abroad: A Look Back at the Future Part 2

Feb 26th 2010

Yesterday I talked about old-fashioned "lady and gentleman" names that were hot in Europe five years ago, and looked at whether U.S. parents had followed in those fashion footsteps. The result was yes and no -- yes for girls, no for boys.

Why the divide? As usual, each name has its own story. Phil is fighting against a middle-aged vibe in the U.S. and doesn't fit the dominant sound patterns of the moment: lots of vowels, -r and -n endings, and high Scrabble-value letters. Yet the European favorites that do fit those patterns fare little better here. Leon, Felix, Simon, Theo and Victor are all much hotter across Europe than in the States.

I think there's a broader pattern underlying the boy-girl difference. Here's the question that leaps out at me: If American parents aren't choosing "international gentleman" names like their European counterparts, what are they naming boys?

I believe the role played by the "gentleman" names in Europe is largely filled by Old Testament names over here. So instead of Leon, Felix and Theo, we have Caleb, Eli and Jonah.

The recent surge in OT names has been much stronger in the U.S. than elsewhere. 17 of the top 50 U.S. boys' names are now from the Old Testament. (That doesn't even count OT/NT crossovers like Michael and Joseph.) There seems almost no limit to the style here, with names like Ezekiel, Nehemiah and three different spellings of Isaiah in the U.S. top 500. And names like Jacob and Ethan, which are runaway hits here, are merely popular in the UK. Where we have a flood of Jakes, they have Jacks.

In the United States, Old Testament boys' names carry special cultural signals. They have a rustic pioneer style, owing to their 18th-19th century American history: Ethan Allen, Eli Whitney, Levi Strauss. That trailblazing aura appeals to a lot of American parents. As a nation, our style leans rugged rather than urbane; no fancy-pants boys' names, thank you very much. In fact, many of the Old Testament names are most popular in the rural, rugged parts of the country that also favor names like Colt and Maverick (two names that are virtually unheard of in Europe).

The Minuteman and Conestoga Wagon imagery doesn't play the same role in the European cultural imagination. Nor do the names play the same role in history -- just try to think of an Englishman named Eli. To European ears, then, Old Testament names tend to sound more esoteric, or more strictly biblical...or more Jewish. More than one American parent of an Old-Testament baby has told me of European friends being confused, or even concerned, that they chose such a Jewish-sounding name.

It's not a hard and fast rule, though. The Old Testament classic Reuben is a hot name across Europe but has gone nowhere in the U.S., despite its fashionable vowels and -n ending. That's a humbling reminder for those of us who seek order in the swirling chaos of name styles. You can have history, sociology and phonology on your side, and still be felled by a simple sandwich.

The View from Abroad: A Look Back at the Future

Feb 25th 2010

Not long ago, I wrote about hot names in Europe that might be up-and-coming in the United States.

Hold on a second...maybe it was long ago. Could it have been five years ago?

Yep, it's been five years since the first Baby Name Wizard book came out, and I've been writing this column ever since. Back in 2005, I wouldn't have believed I'd be able to come up with that much material on baby names. Now I know better -- that names are a limitless topic, reaching into every corner of our culture, our history and our world. And they're ever-changing, so it's time to take a fresh look at some of those old trends and predictions.

In the original "View from Abroad" post, I wrote:

Europe tends to be a few years ahead in the name curve...for a new angle on up-and-coming names, I've made a roundup of half a dozen international-styled countries: Australia, England, France, Germany, Ireland and Sweden. My targets were names that rank in top 20 in at least two different countries, but haven't cracked the American top 100 in the past decade.

GIRLS
Amelia
Charlotte
Clara

BOYS
Hugo
Louis
Oliver
Philip
Simon


Five years later, the girls' predictions have proved to be spot-on. Here's the 5-year U.S. usage trend for Amelia, Charlotte and Clara:



All three girls' names have risen by at least a third, and Amelia and Charlotte now rank among America's top 100. But the boys are a different story:


To get the real picture, try to look past the Oliver explosion. Four of the five names are flat or declining (and even Oliver hasn't cracked the top 100).

Why did the boys' and girls' predictions perform so differently? Thoughts on this tomorrow.

The Name of the Olympic Hockey Team

Feb 18th 2010


At the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, 23 American professional hockey players are taking time off from the NHL to play for their national team. If you were to meet one of these men, what would you call him?

Your best bet: Ryan.

The name Ryan may not scream "hockey" to you, but the numbers don't lie. As reader Ian pointed out to me, 6 of the 23 players on the Team USA roster are named Ryan. That's a whopping 26% Ryan rate. For perspective, at its peak popularity the name Ryan accounted for only 1.5% of American boys born.

Of course, this sort of statistical anomaly can easily pop up with small sample sizes like 23 players. If you expand the pool to all of the American players in the NHL, though, you still come up with an impressive 7% Ryan rate. In fact, Ryan is the 2nd most common name in the NHL, trailing only the perennial powerhouse Michael. Many names that are more common for young men in the rest of the country, and the world -- Dave, Matt, Jason, Josh, Chris -- trail Ryan in the NHL.

Again, statistical anomalies happen, but there's a reason this particular distinction falls to Ryan. The key is that hockey players aren't a random sample of American athletes; they're Northerners. Of the 23 Olympic players, 21 hail from New England or Great Lakes states. Even within those states, the players skew Northern. The three New York natives, for instance, were born in Buffalo, Ithaca and Rochester.

Take a look at the NameMapper map of Ryan popularity from 1979, the year Team USA Left Wing Ryan Malone was born:

That's a hockey-country name for you: a high rank of #4 among all boys' names in Wisconsin and North Dakota, a low of #47-48 in Alabama and Mississippi. (In case you're wondering, Ryan does skew white as well, but not dramatically within a geographic area.) Now compare the Ryan map to the William map from the same year:



Sure enough, there are only 2 Williams, Willies, Bills or Billies in the National Hockey League, compared to 19 Ryans. In the National Football League, which draws more heavily from the Southern U.S., the ratio is 23:29.

So what can we expect the U.S. hockey team to look like at the 2034 Olympics? Keep an eye out for new Northern names like Owen, Evan and Jack. But don't expect 26% of any of them. No name in America is as popular today as Ryan was -- ranked #14 --  back in 1979.

<p><strong>#1: <a href="/baby-name/girl/simone"><strong>Simone</strong></a>.</strong>