The Antique Name Illusion: In search of the Next Ava and Isabella

Jun 2nd 2011

Like optical illusions, naming illusions are surprisingly powerful. You can see one working its magic in this excerpt from the official Social Security Administration announcment of the top baby names of 2010:

"A recent trend in the top girls names is a return to names that were popular in the early to mid-1900s.  Names like Isabella, Ava, and Chloe, which had disappeared almost completely from the top 1,000 girls names, have surged in popularity in recent years, which suggests a trend in naming newborn girls after their grandmothers."

The SSA, the very keepers of our nation's name data, were taken in by the "antique name illusion."

Faux antique names sound like living embodiments of a bygone age. They take you back to the time when they were all the rage, when flocks of little Avas and Isabellas trailed behind fashionable young ladies in shirtwaists and high-button shoes. And yes, that image is an illusion. The names existed back then, but they were heard only occasionally and were far from typical. None of them ever cracked the top 200.

To put the old-time usage of Isabella, Ava and Chloe in perspective, here are some groups of names that were more popular in the early 20th century. I doubt any of them will conjure up those high-button shoes.

Mid-century sound: Janet, Peggy, Ellen, Lee, Carol

'60-'70s sound: Amy, Leslie, Sara, Christine, Jennie

'80s-'90s sound: Shelby, Jewel, Callie, Amanda, Katie

"You mean those were actually popular?" sound: Elva, Virgie, Alta, Mittie, Ollie   

Or to put it visually, compare this historical graph of three names that are genuine antique revivals, Emma, Grace and Amelia...

...with the graph of Isabella, Ava and Chloe:

Together, the SSA's three "grandma" names are 40 times as common today as they were in the early 20th Century -- meaning there's no chance their popularity comes from being named after grandma. (Or great-great-grandma. Today's typical new grandma was born in the 1960s.) Rather than emissaries from the real past, Isabella and friends represent an imaginary past. Like much fiction, this alternate history keeps a foothold in our world but spins something more exciting and stylish than mundane reality.

The SSA's faux-antique faux pas got me thinking more about the nature of this imaginary past. If it's such a rich source of attractive names, can we explore it and mine for more? Perhaps Isabella, Ava, Chloe and their kin can point the way.

Statistically speaking, those names do have a historical pattern in common. They were used in past eras, not often but at a slow, steady rate for a generation or more before declining. That gave them enough time to acquire a coating of antique-style dust without becoming so common as to sound hokey or boring. In other words, part of their appeal is that you don't have a great-grandma by that name, you've never known a great-grandma by that name, but you do have the impression they're out there.

Are there other names that fit that description? I looked through decades of old stats to find names with untapped faux-antique potential. Could one of these be the next Chloe or Ava...or better yet, a stylish but uncommon choice for your baby?



Why You Can't Find a License Plate With Your Kid's Name On It

May 26th 2011

San Francisco's Chinatown is a bonanza of classic tourist souvenirs. Refrigerator magnets reading "Greetings from SF"? Check. Flatten a penny and imprint the Golden Gate Bridge on it? Check. Miniature California license plates with children's names on them? Check...kind of.

On a recent family trip I saw racks and racks of the little vanity plates, but something struck me funny. None of them featured the current California plate design, the red script and blue letters on white that the state has issued for the past 18 years. Nor did I find the design before that. Instead, I had my choice of 1970s-style yellow on blue and 1980s rising sun. (Refresh your memory of plate designs past here.)

Why are all the mini license plates so retro? It's not a matter of nostalgia. I'm confident that the souvenirs I saw were actually produced back when the plate designs were current. You can tell from the selection of names, suspended in time:

Souvenir license plates with old names and designs

It seems that mini license license plate production halted a generation back. It may be that the product has lost its allure for modern kids, but I doubt it. I suspect that what's changed is the business proposition of fabricating metal trinkets molded into individual names.

Back in 1970 when the Californa blue and yellows were first issued, stamping out plates in just 10 names would cover more than a quarter of all American boys. Today the top 10 names account for only one boy in twelve. That makes manufacturing enough plates to lure in a broad swath of the public an impractical business. What's more, name trends change faster today, increasing the risk of getting stuck with a lot of worthless merchandise.

Is the era of the name trinket doomed to end? Not so fast. In another part of San Francisco, another souvenir vendor offered a glimpse of a personalized trinket future -- a future that harkens back to the past. This vendor solved the name diversity problem with old-fashioned hand craftmanship. Take a look at these options for just the begining of the "M" section:

Those bracelets were hand made by the vendor, a city-licensed street artist. If you don't find your particular name spelling in her extensive inventory, she'll create a custom version for you on the spot.

It's the perfect old-school solution to a newfangled name problem. If only you could weave a license plate.

The Facebook No-Fly List: Who Controls Names?

May 18th 2011

Last week, news outlets (including our friends at NameCandy) reported on the travails of Indiana attorney Mark Zuckerberg, who has the misfortune to share his name with the founder of Facebook. Attorney Zuckerberg has been around for decades longer than the Facebook whippersnapper, but now finds his right to his own name challenged.

Two years ago, he tried to create a Facebook account but was rejected because of his name. "I had to send them copies of my driver's license, birth certificate, and Indianapolis Bar Association license just to get them to believe that I exist and to allow me to set up my page," he reports. Despite jumping through all those hoops, last week he found his account shut down on grounds of "fraudulent identity."

As I thought about this story, it struck me that there's a bigger issue buried in it: the fact that Facebook treats certain names as special to begin with. Looking closer, it's clear that the company maintains a kind of "no-fly list" of names deemed suspicious. People who bear those names are required to produce legal documentation to defend their own identities.

Try to create a Facebook account under the name, say, Barack Obama and you'll get this error message:

On the face of it, this is a very reasonable quality-control measure. It's all too easy to picture Facebook becoming a junkyard of "Lady Gagas" and "Justin Biebers."

The company's rules state that "your full first and last name must be listed" and "impersonating anyone or anything is not permitted." Yet it's apparent that those rules are lightly enforced. Facebook is in fact crammed with blatantly fake users, from Ihaté Yew and Abcde Edcba to Detective-Sherlock Holmes to dozens of Anne Hathaways with profile pictures of that actress. And in that sea of identities real, satirical and fraudulent floats a small set of privileged names that Facebook safeguards.

The Facebook no-fly list isn't made public, but it's not hard to tell when a name is on it. Type a protected name like Tom Cruise into Facebook's people search and you'll find endless imposters using slight variations on the name -- Cruise Tom, Tom's Cruise, or creative punctuation like Tom Cruìse. I tried a bunch of high-profile names to try spot a pattern of which are and aren't protected, and came to the conclusion that there's not much pattern at all. Judge for yourself:

Facebook Says You May Be Named: But Not:
Ben Stiller Adam Sandler
Rupert Murdoch Warren Buffett
Paul McCartney Mick Jagger
Sandra Bullock Drew Barrymore
Martin Scorcese Steven Spielberg
Brad Paisley Carrie Underwood
Jessica Alba Eva Longoria
Carmelo Anthony LeBron James
Mike Huckabee Mitt Romney
Justin Bieber Miley Cyrus

Whoa, hold on! So anybody can use the name Justin Bieber? Yep, they can and they do, in droves:

A few of Facebook's legion of Justin Biebers

The Bieber example alone rules out the possibility that Facebook protects names based on the likelihood of fakes. The commonness of the name in the broader population isn't the key either -- there are more Carrie Underwoods and Adam Sandlers out there than Brad Paisleys and Ben Stillers. Nor does category or influence of fame seem to be the issue. It's worth noting that rival tech executives don't all get the name protection that Facebook's founder does. Even while Facebook was shutting down the painstakingly verified account of a real Mark Zuckerberg, it continued to host dozens of users actively impersonating the leaders of companies like Microsoft and Google.

Historically, there are precedents for protected name classes. France, for instance, has longstanding laws barring common citizens from adopting surnames associated with the old aristocracy, thus preserving the aristocrats' hereditary privileged status. Today, we see private companies taking the role of name protectors, with celebrities playing the part of the aristocrats. Except the definition of the privileged class seems opaque, and even capricious.

Yes, there is a difference between a legal prohibition and difficulty getting a Facebook page. But the more powerful and ubiquitous any social media company gets, the more onerous the burden on name-challenged people becomes. Realistically, Facebook has broad power over personal identities, and it's deciding which names you are and aren't allowed to have. (Real people with unconventional names have run afoul of its name filters too.)

What happens in the long term, as new celebrities pop up overnight? Any of us could wake up tomorrow and find that, thanks to a reality tv star or basketball phenom, we suddenly have to defend our rights to our own names. I wonder what it would take to get Facebook to protect Laura Wattenberg for me?