Trends, A to Z

Feb 2nd 2007

The NameVoyager makes it easy to see the historical popularity of a single initial. Type in P and you see a mid-century wave of Pauls, Patricias and Pamelas. But how do the 26 letters rate right now? What's hot and what's not?

To identify current letter-by-letter trends, I calculated the percent change in babies born in 2005 vs. 2003 for every initial. Here's the graph:

Wow, look at that! That's really...not very interesting. Pretty much gibberish, in fact. But let's not give up yet. First off, we have to zoom in -- the "U" bar is throwing off the whole scale. (U is far and away the least common first letter for American names, so the giant U bar that looks so important actually represents just four names or .02% of births.)

Next, let's consider the order. Are names starting with A and B really similar just because they're alphabetical neighbors? Instead of the arbitrary alphabetical order, I want to group by sound. English doesn't make that easy, of course. Lots of letters have multiple sounds, so Carl and Celia, Tina and Theo may follow very different sound-based styles. But for a rough view, I've sorted the initials into vowels, hard consonants and soft consonants. Time for another look:

Now that's a little more promising.

If you play with the NameVoyager, you'll see that one of the strongest historical trends is the fall then revival of names starting with vowels. This graph suggests that the vowel wave hasn't crested yet. Vowels as a group are still rising, while consonants -- especially hard consonants -- are falling.

So what does the vowel-consonant divide mean on a practical basis? Is it just a couple more Emmas here, a couple fewer Jessicas there? More thoughts on this next time.

Update (warning: hard core name geek material ahead!)
A reader suggested using Soundex values as a more standard grouping of initials. Soundex is a phonetic coding system for names that's commonly used to help identify individuals from earlier eras when spelling was less standardized and immigrant names were often transcribed in multiple ways. The Soundex codes reflect phonemic convergences from other languages; for example, H, W and Y are treated as vowel equivalents. This can make Soundex problematic as a reflection of American sound styles. But the subgroupings of consonants are useful indeed, so I shouldn't have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Here is a modified Soundex version of the initials graph, which should help you understand consonants better (and to see that style-wise, H and W are definitely not vowels!)

Good old biblical names

Jan 25th 2007

For much of the Western world the Bible is the cornerstone, the fundamental reference -- not only for faith but for traditional baby names. Biblical roots instantly anchor a name. Elijah is a contempory name with a creative flair, but its biblical bona fides make it immune to charges of excess trendiness or kreativity. It's a "good solid Bible name."

The Bible is full of these good solid names. (For boys, anyway.) In addition to prophets like Elijah you have judges like Gideon, kings like Solomon, apostles like Matthew, and long rosters of the righteous. But you also have characters you wouldn't want anywhere near your kids. You wouldn't expect a name like Pilate or Haman to be chosen for its biblical roots any more than Voldemort would be picked as a literary name. Yet in many cases, when parents consider "good, solid Bible names" the Bible part trumps the good.

Cain was the Bible's first murderer. After killing his brother Abel he was condemned to wander the Earth a vagabond. The name Cain first cracked the list of the top 1000 names in America in 1994.

Delilah was the duplicitous lover of Samson who persuaded him to reveal the secret of his strength, then betrayed him to his enemies. The name Delilah has risen fast over the past decade and is now 583rd most popular girl's name in America.

Before you take those names as signs of the times, note that Delilah is merely reclaiming its 19th-century standing: it peaked at #486 back in 1891. In fact, parents of that time were surprisingly willing to plumb the darker corners of the Bible for baby names. Here are a some more sketchy characters whose names hit the U.S. top 1000 during the late 1800s:

Amon was a king of Judah who forsook the Lord and worshipped idols, and was assassinated by his own aides. Popularity peak: #823 in 1887.

Ananias was an early Christian who lied about the extent of his gift to the Apostles. He was censured by Peter and fell dead. Popularity peak: #898 in 1883.

Nimrod was an obscure king in the text of the Bible, but later traditions established him as a tyrant and enemy of God -- and his name as an epithet. Popularity peak: #1000 in 1880.

Outside of the top 1000, you can find at least a handful of 19th-century Americans named for biblical scoundrels of every stripe: Onan, Amnon, Herod, and yes, Pilate and Haman.

All of this poses a practical problem for a baby-name writer. As a rule, when I include a name in a list I don't consider it an endorsement. I'm not necessarily advocating Zodiac or Taffeta, or for that matter John or Mary. But if parents turn to a list labeled "Biblical Names," it's likely that they're looking for a positive religious connection. Onan is a name from the Bible, yet I can't imagine including in on my list of Bible baby names. (Perhaps pet names...Dorothy Parker famously called her pet bird Onan because he spilled his seed on the ground.)

The dividing line isn't clear, though. Some major biblical figures like Saul are mixed bags of honor and treachery. Other names like Judas are shared by multiple characters of varying virtue. And the popular, Bible-drenched name Delilah surely belongs on a biblical name list, treachery or no. So don't be surprised to see an entry like this in a future edition of the Baby Name Wizard:

Jezebel was a queen of ancient Israel who turned the throne away from the Lord, used violent tyranny to force idolatry on the populace, and ultimately met a gruesome end. She was so irredeemably bad that her name has become a common word for a shameless, wicked woman. It's kind of catchy, though.

If you can't fill out the Baby Name Pool entry form...

Jan 22nd 2007

UPDATE: the contest entry form is now compatible with Internet Explorer 7. So come enter your guesses!

Thanks again to the readers who took the time to alert me to the problem.