Now playing, your requests: One-hit wonders

Sep 15th 2007

It's request hour here at WBNW, with this post going out to the, readers who asked for some "one-hit wonders." Those are the baby names that made the U.S. top-1000 name charts one year, never to be heard from again. Where did they come from, and where are they now?

I've run the calculations and I now have the definitive list of the names that appeared on the charts exactly once from the 1880s through the 1980s, and never since. Any guess how many? 860 names. It's a big number, but not really surprising given that we're spanning 110 years of baby naming style. The list reflects passing fashions, creative spellings, historical moments and waves of immigration. It's a fascinating collection of styles ranging from what-were-they-thinking to why-didn't-I-think-of-that. Today I'm going to describe the one-hit wonders as a group, and I'll highlight various discoveries over the coming weeks.

Before we delve into stats and methods, a few choice names:

- Euclid and Pliny

- Sable and Ermine

- Profit, Worthy and Wealthy

And now, the fine print. My first step was to classify the one-hit names into three broad categories:
1. Data entry artifacts (E.g. Infant, Christop, girls named Melvin)
2. Variant spellings of more common names with the same sound
3. Pure one-and-done names

There were plenty of judgment calls along the way. Were there really boys named Lottie? Is Darlyne pronounced the same as Darlene? The totals I arrived at: 47 artifacts, 157 variants, 656 straight one-hit-wonders.

Due to quirks in my data sample, the distribution of one-hit names skews heavily toward the earliest years in the range, the 1880s-90s. The biggest reason is that far more names made the top 1000 in those years than any others. How can more than 1000 names rank in the top 1000? The answer is ties. For instance, in 1980 the top 1000 girls list actually numbered 1002 names, with Lashunda, Mariel and Rae tying at #1000. (147 babies bore each name.) But that's 1980. 1880 America was a smaller country, and babies born then only made it into our data if they survived long enough to get 20th-century Social Security Numbers. The smaller data set means a smaller range in popularity and more ties at the bottom. So the 1880 girls list features a whopping 1102 girls' names, with a 158-way tie at four babies apiece. I considered skipping the 1880s for this reason, but frankly the names of that time were too much fun to ignore.

And now for a few more names:

- Welcome, Constant, Bliss (all boys)

- Sweetie, Lovie, Doll (any guesses which are boys?)

- Icey, Nicy, Spicy, Vicy (girls; Dicy appears in multiple years' lists)

To be continued....

Naming the Future

Sep 8th 2007

One of the greatest challenges of envisioning a future world is filtering out the present. Our current tastes infiltrate even our wildest imaginings. The effects may be subtle at first, but the more that time passes the more, say, a 1970s sci-fi movie looks and sounds like the 1970s.

Suppose you wanted to set a novel in the mid-range future. What would you name your heroes to keep them from sounding like time travelers from 2007? You could take the time-honored neologism approach, stringing together sounds to create a new namelike creation (think Lando Calrissian). You could morph a traditional name into a vaguely futuristic variant (Leia). You could push the envelope a little farther and imagine whole new fashions -- say a fad for Hungarian names, or names of chemical elements. Or you could be a crafty namenik and aim for a hundred-year style revival cycle. By that approach your characters in the year 2057 might be Jerry and Brenda.

Craftiest of all, you could combine those approaches. After all, multiple fashion threads run through every age. 2007 is the era of Liam, Alejandro, Braeden and Jack. So let's call our 2057 friends Arlex, R!chard, Istvan, Cobalt, Doug and Cheryl.

Not so good? Well, I never claimed to be a Hugo Award winner. So let me put you, instead, in the hands of one who is. William Gibson is a wildly inventive and influential science fiction author, the coiner of the term "cyberspace" and godfather of the cyberpunk genre. His first novel Neuromancer won not only the Hugo but the Nebula and Philip K. Dick awards for good measure. Neuromancer was published 23 years ago and could reasonably be expected to be showing its age by now. Yet the book still maintains an impressive measure of popularity and reader impact. Let's take a look at the names of the future, 1984 vintage.

- Your protagonist Case (he went by his last name)
- Your cybernetically enhanced heroine Molly
- The rastamen Maelcum and Aerol
- Bodyguard Hideo
- Magnate Lady 3Jane

Sure enough, something for everyone in a diverse fashion future. An aspiring sci-fi writer might take note that the effect is more than just atmospheric. The mixing of disparate styles means the author can't be caught guessing wrong, and helps keep this vision of the future from sounding like the past.

It's a Denis! It's a Pervis! It's...

Aug 30th 2007

Warning Label: readers who blanch at explicit language should tread carefully this week.

First things first. Your cousin did not go to school with twins named Lemonjello and Oranjello, and your brother-in-law did not give a speeding ticket to anyone named S***head ("shi-THEED"). That's that, case closed.

Naming lore is full of the fake and famous: non-existent lousy baby names passed on relentlessly as fact. As I was writing a book chapter on these urban legend names, I took pains to confirm that the names didn't exist. There are no Lemonjellos or Oranjellos in government records. (Someone did once manage to sneak a "Lemonjello Snarfblat" into the Tempe, Arizona phone book. A snarfblat is an intentionally ludicrous fake word from Disney's Little Mermaid film.)

As I poked through the records, though, I encountered some real-life surprises -- names I had assumed to be tall tales that seemed to be borne by real people. But were they? Digging deeper made me realize that even a census record isn't necessarily "proof." The wild names are out there, but not as many as a glance at the data would have you think.

Take the name Vagina. Looking at's database of the U.S. Census through 1930 (including scans of the original handwritten surveys), Vagina was once a modestly common first name. 16 women named Vagina are listed in the 1900 United States Census, 16 in 1910 and 23 in 1920. Proof positive? Not so fast. None of them are the same women. The Vaginas of 1900 all mysteriously vanished by 1910, and the adult Vaginas of 1920 are nowhere to be seen in earlier years. What's the story? Well, census records were recorded by door-to-door surveyors asking residents for information. It happens that most of the "Vaginas" in the records were rural Southerners...and the name Virginia was one of the most popular names in America during the "Vagina" era. Try pronouncing Virginia a few times with an old-time Alabama accent. I'm not ready to concede the existence of babies named Vagina just yet.

For equal time I took a look at the ultimate boy's name, Penis. Census databases reveal dozens of boys named Penis, and even a smattering of girls. I'm unconvinced. As with Vagina, no Penis appears in more than one year's census count. But what mis-hearing could produce that name? This brings us to yet another source of error, the modern interpretation of the old handwritten records. Most census forms were written in swooping cursive and entries can be ambiguous. (For example, the 1920 entry for one Nuts Moshmesh, a native of Italy, should surely be taken with caution.) When I spot-checked the handwritten originals for the men named Penis I found entries that looked to me like Denis and Pervis, and a few that were simply indecipherable. But somebody looked at them and saw Penis. It's a new twist on fake names: howlers entered into a seemingly official record because the word came a little too easily to transcribers' minds. After all, sometimes a Pervis is just a Pervis.

Yet some of the surprises do hold up to scrutiny. I was skeptical of the handful of women named Placenta, and if you look at the original cursive records most are highly questionable. Most, but not all. A couple of examples are crystal clear and at least one is validated by other records. So if you want to tell stories of bad baby names, Placenta looks like a go.

For a solid boy's name tale, you might consider Felon. Several Felons reappear in multiple years' census reports, including some who passed the name on to a Felon Jr. I thought at first that it might be a variant on the Irish Faolan/Phelan, but as in life, there are Felons of all ethnicities.