And Meanwhile, Down Deep In the Name Mines...

Jan 3rd 2012

The most popular baby names are the ones that make the news. The real action, though, is deeper down the name list -- the names that are used dozens of times each year, not thousands. That's where you see parents' minds churning, watch the seeds of new hit names sprouting, and realize that names we think of as creative, unique, or even shocking are far from unheard of.

I've been reviewing thousands and thousands of these lesser-known names for the next edition of the Baby Name Wizard book. Wherever I let my eyes stop and linger, there are fascinating details. Here's a smattering of boys' names that have struck me in the past week. (The number next to each name is the number of newborns given that name in the U.S. in 2010.)

Ruger (64) : Rising fast, this name is more evidence of parents' increasing interest in naming children after firearms. Colt, Remington, and Gauge have all soared, and Gunner is much more common than the traditional name Gunnar. The name Stryker (67) has also taken off since the introduction of the army's Stryker armored fighting vehicle.

Osiris (68) :  You know how Ryan helped make the name Orion seem usable? Well it seems that the resurgence of Cyrus is doing the same for Osiris, Egyptian god of the underworld. (A skateboarding sneaker name Osiris might have helped.) The familiar Greek underworld lord Hades barely makes a naming dent.

Axl (61) : Guns N' Roses went 15 years between albums, but they clearly weren't forgotten. The number of baby Axls has been slowly climbing. This name may be the answer if you're looking for a baby brother for little Zeppelin (24).

Jebediah (11) : No, there is no Jebediah in the bible. The name was created by the writers of "The Simpsons" for city founder Jebediah Springfield. It's been making appearances on the name charts ever since. (If you're thinking "then where does Jeb come from?" the answer is it's an occasional old-fashioned nicname for Jacob, or in the case of Jeb Bush, initials: John Ellis Bush.)


The 2011 Name of the Year

Dec 15th 2011

We've counted down runners-up number one and number 2, and now it's time for the official Baby Name Wizard Name of the Year. But with a little twist.

This year, I'm making the NOTY announcement over at Go ahead and read the selection at Slate, and let the arguments begin!

With thanks for a great year in names,


FOLLOWUP -- Here's an alternate, expanded version of the piece that appears at Slate, introducing (and making the case for) the Name of the Year.


And the 2011 Name of the Year is:


Siri is a Nordic girl’s name, a pet form of Sigrid. In Scandinavia it’s familiar as both a nickname and given name, common among babies and grown women alike. Think of it as a Nordic counterpart to our name Annie.

In the English-speaking world, though, the name Siri used to be virtually unknown. That all changed in 2011, but with a twist. English speakers now know the name Siri, but they don’t think of it as human…quite.

Siri is the name of an artificial intelligence system built into the latest version of the Apple iPhone. A virtual personal assistant, Siri is designed to help you find information relevant to your personal needs and navigate life's daily tasks. That’s what Siri does, but the key is how: via spoken conversation. Siri’s interaction, like its -- sorry, like “her” name, blurs the line between the human and the computer-generated. And that makes Siri the 2011 Name of the Year.

The annual honoree is a one-name time capsule, showing us how names are woven into the fabric of society, connecting to and reflecting everything that goes on in our culture. Past Names of the Year include names of people real (Barack), fictional (Renesmee), conceptual (Joe, as in Joe Six-pack and Joe the Plumber), and self-invented (The Situation.) This year’s biggest name stories sat at the intersection of the real and the virtual. The NOTY runner-up was a real-life name trapped in virtual limbo: Mark Zuckerberg, the name of an Indiana attorney who was kicked off Facebook for the sin of having the same name as Facebook’s founder.

Siri puts a new spin on the human/virtual name showdown. She’s virtual, but her name is human. 

The computer with a voice and attitude but no face was a familiar figure in late 20th-century entertainment. Think of the arch voice of KITT, the silicon brain of a Pontiac Trans Am in the tv series Knight Rider; Joshua, the troubled NORAD computer in the film War Games; and most famously, HAL of 2001: A Space Odyssey, whose eerie calm suggested that smart computers might just be a little too smart for our own good, or might render our own petty intelligence obsolete.

It's no coincidence that each of those computers was named like a character, not a machine. Yes, KITT and HAL were theoretically acronyms, but they sounded like names and were used as such. 

When you converse with something, you want to call it by a name. Have you noticed how many drivers give names to their GPS devices? Even a one-way voice conversation seems to demand a name. And consider how the year's other talking artificial intelligence, IBM's Jeopardy champion, was given the human name Watson. Quite a naming contrast with IBM's last headline-grabbing game player, the chess engine Deep Blue.

Using a human-style name reflects your relationship with the thing being named, and shapes it, too. Indoor pets, for instance, tend to be given more human names than outdoor animals. Assigning a name to a car or other possession is both a sign of growing affection and a spur to further bonding. Around my house, I've found that it's nearly impossible to throw out any object that my kids have named. Names give objects emotional life.

A human name is thus a key ingredient in the user experience of Siri. You say "the iPhone" and "my iPhone," but not "the Siri." It, she, is simply Siri. The name makes the act of conversing with a metal slab feel natural. It also encourages you to rely on her, even to form an emotional attachment which is the most powerful kind of consumer loyalty.

The way Siri’s name humanizes technology heralds a new era of name convergence. I've written elsewhere that today's parents approach baby naming a lot like product branding. In the past, names were typically chosen based on personal, private-facing meanings, like honoring a grandparent. Today, parents increasingly focus on public-facing impact. We’ve even seen brand names and baby names pop up together, like the Sienna minivan and baby Siennas, as parents look for the same kind of “oomph” that branders do. They’re trying to launch their kids into life's competitive marketplace with the best possible positioning. 

The 2010 Name of the Year, "The Situation," took this naming-as-personal-branding ethic to its ridiculous extreme. But the name/brand intersection that Siri represents comes from the opposite direction. As companies introduce technologies that function like people, they suddenly find themselves in my naming world. They have to consider the complex web of cultural meanings that each name carries. They have to ask, "what kind of person are we creating, and what name represents that?"

Let's take a closer look at the choice of the name Siri. It has been widely reported that the name is a riff on SRI International, the California R&D lab where the technology was first developed. According to the people behind Siri, though, that's not the real story. Siri's founding team of executives and investors approached the naming process by turning to baby name books. There was no question that they wanted a human-style name. In fact, the project's original code name was, irresistibly, HAL.

The name Siri was proposed by the project director, Danish telecom executive Dag Kittlaus. Where did the idea come from? Simple. Siri--remember,  it’s a popular name in Scandinavia-- was the girl's name Kittlaus and his wife had picked out for their first child. They ended up having a boy, so the name was kept in reserve until the proud papa finally got the chance to confer it on a virtual daughter. Sure, the letters S-R-I might have been a plus, but Siri was being launched as a separate company. Kittlaus and his team were playing to an audience of investors and consumers, not to the research lab. What mattered was the name.

And the name hit its mark dead-center. To English speakers, Siri comes across as classic Danish design: clean, spare, elegant in its simplicity. It feels namelike but isn't overly familiar or tied to any time period. It's approachable but not in-your-face. It's cool.

The name was cool enough, in fact, that when Apple bought Siri, it kept the name. That's no small thing for a company that has established itself as the trendsetter of tech cool, and that leans toward functional product names like iPhone and MacBook. The days of Apple choosing cute names like Newton and Macintosh went out with their old cheerful rainbow logo. But Steve Jobs knew a good name when he heard it, and Siri remained Siri.

To fully appreciate how good the name choice is, compare Siri to a legendary fiasco of a human-named software product, Microsoft Bob. Bob, introduced in 1995, was an alternate interface that attempted to make the intimidating world of computing a little friendlier. No more scary “directories” of “files.” Instead, Bob presented your computer as a house, with perky cartoon characters to help you find your way. Bob's logo was written BOB, with a bespectacled smiley face for an “O.” And Bob’s name revealed the product’s basic conceptual flaw. The aggressively disarming everyman pose was like Microsoft patting you on the head: "There there, helpless little user, don't you fret! Uncle Bob is here to take care of you." Bob was, in a word, patronizing.

The name Siri, in contrast, suggests the effortless Nordic cool of an Absolut Vodka bottle. It says that technology is a stylish accessory, and you, as its owner, are stylishly confident. The name encapsulates the movement of technology from geek to chic that was the defining contribution of Steve Jobs’ last decade at Apple. (That in itself makes Siri an apt name of the year for 2011, in memoriam.)

Technologically, Siri is the vanguard of a wave of systems that will try to claim increasingly human roles in our lives. Namewise, expect to be on a first-name basis with more of your electronics soon. The results of that naming shift may prove to be more powerful and unpredictable than companies, or consumers, expect.

A human name packs a lot of nuance into a few short letters. It’s more like a watercolor portrait than like Bob’s yellow smiley face. Opening up a name bridge between inanimate objects and human emotions builds connections, but it also opens you to human responses from jealousy to prejudice to grief.

Just as it’s hard to throw out a toy your children have named, might it be hard to throw out, or discontinue, a human-named product? Can a new version of Siri be called Siri3000 or SiriPro without imperiling her name-driven bonds? (Siri Jr., perhaps?) Will companies come under pressure to “hire” a diverse virtual name lineup, or spark anger by confirming name stereotypes? As a user, will you feel unfaithful switching virtual partners, and perhaps find yourself calling your new techno-assistant by the old assistant’s name? And what if a person who shares the virtual intelligence’s name runs for president…or commits a shocking crime?

Welcome to the world of personal names, technologists. You’re not in Compuland anymore.


Countdown to the 2011 Name of the Year: Runner Up #2

Dec 12th 2011

Our first runner-up for Name of the Year was a fashion phenom. Our second is a phenomenon of a very different sort:

Mark Zuckerberg.

No, not Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg the name. The name that got Mark Zuckerberg, a bankruptcy attorney from Indianapolis, kicked off of Facebook.

This name stands as a symbol of the year's biggest ongoing name story, the growing tension between online and "real world" identities. Some 2011 highlights:

May: Indiana Attorney Mark Zuckerberg finds his Facebook account has been shut down. He's done nothing wrong, he's using his real identity and photo, but his name alone made him persona non grata in the social network. He already jumped through special hoops just to open the account, providing Facebook with legal documentation proving his name. But it seems that in the world of Facebook and Mark Zuckerbergs, There Can Be Only One.

May & August: Politicians get caught behaving badly, under the presumed protection of anonymous Twitter handles. In May, Democratic Congressman Anthony Weiner, flipping between Twitter accounts, slips up and posts a revealing photo under his real name. In August, a top Republican political consultant working for the Senatorial campaign of Scott Brown is found to be behind an anonymous Twitter account dedicated to whipping up nasty personal sentiment against Brown's Democratic rival.

July: Facebook marketing director Randi Zuckerberg (sister of Mark) says "anonymity on the Internet has to go away."

July: New social media entrant Google+ attempts to police its "real names" policy by freezing the accounts of many users whom its review flags as pseudonymous. These include people using well-established nicknames and professional handles. Users revolt, and the ensuing controversy and debate over online pseudonyms is dubbed the "nymwars." Google apologizes and adjusts its policy.

August: A Vermont man is accused of using the wealth of personal information that a teenage girl posted on Facebook to stalk and threaten her in real life. This is one in a year-long series of cases where sexual predators took advantage of users' trust in the privacy and veracity of Facebook's "real names" environment to target young victims.

August: A former staffer for Newt Gingrich's presidential campaign claims that Gingrich's huge Twitter following is fake, comprised mostly of dummy users bought through specialized PR agencies. An outside review confirms that 92% of the followers appear to be fakes. Subsequent reviews of other politicians' followings show that many of them have similarly taken advantage of the ease of creating Twitter accounts to create a false impression of popularity and influence.

October: A Google executive announces future plans to formally support pseudonyms in Google+.

November: Facebook suspends the account of world-famous novelist Salman Rushdie for the sin of going by his middle name Salman, as he has all his life. They subsequently reinstate the account under his "real" name Ahmed. In a moment of pure zeitgeist, Rushdie whips up a public furor over the forced Facebook renaming...on Twitter.

These identity issues break down into two broad types, abuse of aliases and control over real names. This reflects the two kinds of social media name environments. In "handle" systems, like Twitter (and the comments on this website), users may adopt any kind of name they like with no expectation of it matching their driver's license. In "real name" systems like Facebook and Google+, each account is expected to be an accurate online representation of a real person, real name included.

Media theorists and technologists have hotly debated the merits of the two approaches. Advocates on each side make persuasive arguments about safety, reliability, and community. For instance, real-name systems are a safeguard against bullying and oppression, because would-be attackers can't hide behind anonymous handles. And handle systems are a safeguard against bullying and oppression, because vulnerable individuals don't have to expose themselves to real-world repurcussions in order to share their experiences or connect with others in similar situations.

It seems obvious to me that each approach has its place. You want real names for purposes like coordinating a high school reunion; you want handles for purposes like protesting against a dictatorship. Real names can establish trust; handles can establish a theme or purpose to your communications, or even serve as an art form. (It would be a shame if Twitter threatened to shut down @LochNess4Ever unless she could provide government I.D. proving she's the real Loch Ness Monster.)

The trick to real name social networks is the unique practical challenges they pose in implementation. For such a network to work, users have to be able to rely on other users' stated identities. That means the network has to establish standards of what counts as a real name, and some means of enforcing those standards. And make no mistake, no real "real name" network currently exists.

It takes only the most cursory search to reveal that Facebook is brimming over with fake identities. When I was researching my post on international translations of Bob the Builder, I kept running into hordes of Facebook accounts with names like "Puuha-Pete." But perhaps "fake" is too loaded a term for these identities. While some online pseudonyms represent scammers, many more are simply standard nicknames and alter egos. Most of us have multiple ways of presenting ourselves. My Twitter handle is @BabyNameWizard, which is not my legal name but is still an honest identifier. And as I discussed last week, fewer and fewer politicians run for office under their driver's licence names. They choose what they want to be called.

Handles can also protect privacy. Researcher danah boyd has reported that pseudonymous Facebook handles are routine for groups like black and Latino teenagers. She suggests that the notion of Facebook as a "real name" environment is a polite fiction by and for people in positions of power and privilege, who have the least to lose by expressing their views in public.

The power dynamic is what makes Mark Zuckerberg the perfect name emblem of this ongoing debate. As I wrote when the story first broke, Facebook grants unique privileges and protection to names of certain prominent people. (Certain prominent people, but not others, in a seemingly capricious distinction.) That means that according to the policies of the uber-powerful network, its founder literally has more rights to his own name than any other Mark Zuckerberg has.

What's more, any definition of real name comes down to telling people what they may and may not be named. How can anybody tell Salman Rushdie that he isn't allowed to be Salman Rushdie? Your right to your own name is a deep and powerful right. In the real world, the United Nations treats forced renaming as a human rights abuse. As more and more of life is lived online, the nymwars increasingly become a debate over the nature of our own identities.