My book features lists of names from many languages -- French, German, Arabic, Swahili. But you won't find any Chinese names.
In the 19th century, when European immigrants were filling the cities of the American East, Chinese immigrants helped shape the growth of the West. 25% of the California's workforce was of Chinese descent before the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 barred most immigration. Yet these thousands and thousands of families left little stamp on American naming culture.
In part, this reflects rapid name assimilation among Chinese-American families. Even today, many Chinese who work or live in the West take on Westernized first names as adults. The linguistic distance between English and Chinese also limits the spread of Chinese names into other ethnic communities. (The foreign names most likely to be adopted into English have always been those with a root or form similar to familiar English names.) But the most important factor may be two wholely different cultural approaches to first names.
Chinese tradition does not set aside a class of personal names separate from the general class of words. While certain elements are particularly common in names -- for instance, words for beauty in girls' names -- each name is essentially custom-made for the child. Name popularity is diffuse, with no Chinese counterpart to John and Mary. So while German immigrants could launch names like Hedwig and Ingeborg onto the U.S. popularity charts, no single Chinese name would see the same surge.
Yet you can find Chinese immigrant families in the 19th Century name data. During the 1880s, all of these name cracked the U.S. top 1000 at least once:
Chin, Lim, Lin, Lum, Sing, Wong, Yee
Each of them ranks among the 100 most common Chinese surnames. While given names in China are diverse, family names are highly concentrated. The top 100 names account for the large majority of the Chinese population.
And in Chinese the surname comes first, the given name second.
19th-century American name data is full of quirks. Abbreviations like Geo for George and Wm for William were recorded in sufficient numbers to rank as common names in their own rights. Sex was miscoded often enough to make Margaret a reliably popular boy's name. And it appears that enough Chinese-American names were recorded backwards to leave their footprints in history.
Last time, I talked about an imbalance in the effect of fame on the popularity of names. Popular celebrities regularly send names soaring, while scandal and crime seldom send them plummeting. Examples cited were Jeffrey Dahmer and Adolph Hitler, but feel free to look up Charles Manson, Roscoe Arbuckle, and many others who have gone down the road of infamy, rightly or wrongly. So what does it take to turn parents off a name?
Kobe Bryant was drafted into the National Basketball Association right out of high school in 1996. By the time he turned 24, he had helped lead the Los Angeles Lakers to three NBA championships and was an international celebrity and sought-after commercial spokesman. The next year, 2003, he was charged with sexual assault. The media coverage was intense, and while Bryant was not convicted he did admit to adultery and his public image was tattered. To top it off, his team stopped winning. This dramatic rise and fall plays out in the name popularity charts:
The name lost half of it's appeal, virtually overnight. Why Kobe and not the others? Is it a question of race? (Bryant is black.) Is it because it was a new name, without the ballast of generations behind it? Is it because Bryant was the source of the name's popularity to begin with?
For clues, let's look at another dramatic name victim. Monica Lewinksy was no rapist or murderer, but her Oval Office escapades were big news in 1998. And her name fell off a cliff. Take a look:
That's a sheer 50% drop from 1997 to 1999, extraordinary for a top-100 name. (Especially extraordinary considering the countervailing influence of "Friends," a sitcom featuring a Monica which was hugely popular during those same years.)
So what's the lesson of this? We're more scandalized by sex than by violence? With a sample size of just two, we can only speculate. But here's one name wizard's theory.
Both Bryant and Lewinsky were routinely referred to in the media by their first names only: "the Monica interview," "the Kobe trial." (That tendency itself, of course, has plenty to do with the subject's age, race and especially sex.) Through repetition of first-name-only references the baggage attaches to the name itself, not just the individual. To sink a baby name, it may be that the severity of the crime matters less than how we talk about it.
I often write about the influence of celebrities on name trends. From Shirley Temple in 1934 to Paris Hilton in 2004, hundreds of names have been propelled up the popularity charts by an individual's fame. But have you noticed how seldom I write about names sunk by celebrities? Shouldn't scandal and infamy drag a name down as surely as fame and fortune lift it up?
The short answer is simply no. Once a name is out circulating in society, it's hard to kill. Perhaps a common name has so many associations that a single individual can't defame it. Perhaps parents decide on a favorite name years in advance and don't want to give it up. Or perhaps they just gamble that the negative associations will be fleeting. (There's often truth to that. A relative of mine would have been named Marina except for Marina Oswald. Drawing a blank for a moment? Exactly.)
But there's another, pedestrian reason that it's hard to catch names getting killed off by infamy. Most were already dying natural deaths. After all, infamous villains are generally grownups...and the names of most grownups are on a downward slope.
For example, serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer was in the news steadily for about a year starting in mid-1991. Sure enough, the popularity of the name Jeffrey fell by 23% from 1990 to 1992. But take a look at that drop in context:
Would you look at that graph and gasp "what happened in 1991?!" While it seems that some parents did change their name plans, the effect is diluted by the existing downward trend.
Even Adolph, one of the most historically stigmatized of all names, didn't drop as dramatically as you might think. Like most Germanic names, its U.S. popularity fell off after WWI. (Partially because of politics, partially because a fad for dense consonant-stuffed names had run its course.) But the name's decline after that was relatively slow and steady, given the course of history. WWII only bumped the name about 25% off its projected path:
Does that 25% drop represent an outer limit for a name's negative impact? After all, it's hard to imagine a name with more negative associations. As it turns out, though, there are other variables to consider -- and a few names have sunk like stones.
To be continued...