The conformity curve

Mar 1st 2006

Recently I caught some flak for suggesting that today's parents are more determined to be individualists than parents of the past. It's certainly an easy trap to look at older names and just hear them as old, not thinking how fresh and trendy they might have seemed in generations past. (Here's a post from last year on just that topic.) In this case, though, I think the numbers bear me out.

The shorthand on modern America paints the middle of the 20th Century as the national pinnacle of conformity -- the organization man, the feminine mystique. This was followed by the social revolutions of the '60s which sparked a flowering of individualism, for better and for worse. But were the families of the '50s really any more conformist than those who came before? Is post-'60s America really a nation of individualists?

When I was writing my book a few years back, I plotted out a baby name "conformity curve" to address those questions. My intent, honestly, was to debunk some of the the pat little stereotypes. Instead, I confirmed them. The 1940s-50s were indeed the peak of modern conformity, and we've been stalking uniqueness more and more ever since.

The curve shows the percentage of babies receiving a top-25 name in each decade, and today. The 1960s marked a sharp drop in conformity. An even sharper decline began in the 1980s, the first generation of parents raised with the '60s in the rear-view mirror, the new social order taken for granted. At the same time, the novelty rate -- the adoption of new names into the core naming pool -- has been accelerating. Combined, it's a portrait of the curious cultural phenomenon that I jokingly called "lockstep individualism." Across regions, races and classes, many thousands of American parents are united by a common bond: their mutual determination to be nothing like each other.

I don't mean to imply any antagonism. I have no reason to suppose that we all like each other less than in the past. We're just determined to carve out a unique, or at least distinctive, identity for ourselves and our kids. But is it possible for everyone to stand out? In order to be the figure, you need a ground. So certain popular names -- Madison, for example -- are held out as emblems of today's conformity. Madison's highest peak (at #2 in 2001) would have made it only the 12th most popular girl's name of 1957. Conformity just isn't what it used to be.

The Name Olympics

Feb 23rd 2006

Reader Liz asks:

Laura, Have you ever looked at the Olympics to see if they have helped propel names into stardom? Will 2006 see lots of little Bodes, Sashas, or Renas?

Few stars rise and set as swiftly as Olympic champions. Their glories are perfectly crystallized in time, and sure enough you can find traces, like fossils, in the name records. But as with all celebrity-inspired names, it's more about the name than the celebrity.

Mark Spitz didn't do anything for the name Mark. Dorothy Hamill failed to revive the name Dorothy. It's the same story for Mary Lou Retton, Peggy Fleming, Bruce Jenner, Bonnie Blair....Those names were yesterday's news by the time their namesakes made history, and it would take more than medals to bring them back. For maximum celebrity impact, a name has to be fresh and interesting. That means that most of the Olympian-inspired names in America have actually been sparked by foreign athletes--in particular, foreign women.

Katarina, for instance, first hit the American popular name charts in 1988 when German figure skater Katarina Witt won her second consecutive gold medal. She was the first to take consecutive golds since Norwegian legend Sonja Henie won in 1928, 1932, and 1936 -- and yes, introduced her name to America. The single biggest Olympic name inspiration was probably Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci, who scored the first perfect 10 in 1976. The name Nadia immediately roared into popularity and has remained an American name ever since.

A few Americans have come close. The name Tai made its one and only appearance on the name charts in 1980, the year that highly touted pairs skaters Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner had to withdraw from competition. This year's top names are also likely to come from the skating ranks. Sasha is a possibility, though it's already been a top-500 U.S. name for decades. The most intriguing name spark may be ice dancer Tanith Belbin. (Tanith was the name of a Phoenician goddess; you might also consider the Greek version Tanis.)

Finally, a bit of perspective on Olympic glory. I mentioned that Sonja Henie's gold-medal performances inspired some American Sonjas. But take a look at what happened when she retired from skating in 1936:

Why the jump? Henie retired to Hollywood, where she starred in a series of popular skate-themed movies. A decade's worth of gold medals didn't hold a candle to films like Thin Ice and Happy Landing.

Fear of Jennifer

Feb 14th 2006

When parents talk about wanting an unusual name for their baby, the phrase you hear most often is: "I don't want her to be one of three Jennifers in her class." The name Jennifer has become a symbol of over-popularity, the emblem of a conformist age. It's the name that today's parents are all running away from. The anti-Jen sentiment has even been memorialized in a baby name guide, "Beyond Jennifer and Jason." As one Jennifer explained in a comment to this blog:

"I think a big part of the current search for unique names comes from a backlash against our parents. We grew up in a world where our classrooms were filled with Jennifers and Stephanies and Amys..."

It might be time we cut our parents some slack. (On names, anyway. Other lingering resentments you may harbor are beyond my jurisdiction.) Every generation has its popular names...were Jennifer and friends really such a conformist crowd?

Compare the accused to some of the trendy names of the 1910s:

Not only did Dorothy and her posse achieve the same level of popularity, but they sustained it longer -- doubling the number of Dorothys you'd actually meet on the street. And Dorothy wasn't even a #1 name. You know that huge peak Jennifer reached in the '70s? Mary reached far greater heights of popularity, decade after decade. It's not only the 1910s, eitcher. Toss Jennifer in with the top names of the 1950s, and it's just one of the crowd:

What's more, Jennifer wasn't truly the #1 name in America during its own reign. It was surpassed every single year by the boy's name Michael -- which kept up that pace for more than 40 years. Think hard about the number of Mikes you've ever heard of vs. the number of Jens, and its probably no contest.

So why do we pick on Jennifer? Perhaps because it rose and fell so quickly, leaving that date-stamped quality. (Michael is still the #2 boy's name, while Jennifer is at #38 for girls and falling fast.) Or maybe because it was the last of its breed -- the true across-the-board hit. Today's top names are only a fraction as popular as Jen and Mike were back in the '70s. But that doesn't necessarily mean the parents of the '70s were lockstep's the parents of the 2000s who are lockstep individualists.