What's Your Baby Name Crush?

Aug 6th 2015


You know it's a bad match. It would never work out. Your friends and family don't understand the attraction, and the practical side of you says to just forget about it whole idea. Yet your mind can't help drifting back wistfully, longingly....

You have a baby name crush. It's happened to many of us, an unshakeable attraction to an unsuitable name. Maybe it's the kind of name that's not usually your style, or is so "out there" that you couldn't pull the trigger. Maybe it's an "if only" name, ruled out by an awkward match with your surname or already taken by your brother-in-law. Whatever keeps you and your name crush apart, it never quite douses the flame. Do you fall into any of these name-crossed categories?

Woman dreaming of the baby name Indigo

Mismatched

A name may be good for other families, but not your own. Occasionally the issue is a religious or ethnic fit, but the most common stumbling block is surnames. Speaking personally, I've always lingered over Ariadne, the name of the clever princess of the ancient labyrinth. I’m not sure it was quite in my comfort zone, but in the end it was a moot point. I couldn't pair that name with my surname Wattenberg. Not only is the result a mouthful, but the rhythm of A-ri-a-dne Wat-ten-berg counts out like "eeny, meeny, miny moe."

Another mom lost her name crush to an even more pointed surname problem. She had always loved the uplifting simplicity of the name Joy, and dreamed of giving it to a daughter. Then she married a man with the surname Sexton and Joy was out of the running.

Spoken For

Perhaps the name was perfect, but someone else got there first. Repeating a baby name within a close circle of family or friends can ruffle feathers, and even adults’ names can end up off-limits. One mother told me that she hesitated to name her baby Aviva because of a family friend by that name, since Ashkenazi Jewish tradition refrains from naming after the living.

Other parents find that a name’s preexisting associations are too hard to shake. The Name Lady regularly fields the question, "Can we give this name to our baby if we already gave it to our dog?" Even in cases of namesakes, the image of the honoree herself can get in the way. Take the father who was tempted to name a daughter after his grandmother, until he realized that he "could only think of [her] smoking and trying to pretend that she wasn't."

Outvoted

Many of the parents I've spoken with had their favorite name voted down by partners or family. One dad who loved the name Oscar said "I couldn't get [my wife] to agree and she might just be right." A mom who wanted to name a daughter after writer Isak Dinesen put it flatly: "Everyone thought I was crazy."

Sometimes the objections are specific, as in the case of a mom enamored of the name Kylie: "Instant veto from hubby because we know about four dogs named Kylie." And in a bookend to Oscar, one mother's suggestion of Felix was shot down by her husband as "too Odd Couple."

Cold Feet

Just as often, we veto our own name crushes. A couple from Nevada was drawn to the local nature name Sierra, but reluctantly gave it up as "too common for our family." Other parents worry that a name they like is too unconventional, and thus potentially a burden to a child. A mother who wanted the name Indigo for a girl said "I still love it because I see it as an adventurous, creative name…but I see it as more limiting than a more conventional name, in a first impression way." Another mom who was drawn to the literary flourish of Ophelia and Persephone admitted that she'd ruled those names out herself. Much as she loved them, for her own kids they crossed the invisible line of appropriateness.

Are you still harboring a crush for a name that will never be yours? Please share your stories, and we can all commiserate on the lingering allure of our unrequited crushes.

 

Was Freakonomics Right About Baby Names?

Jul 30th 2015


Ten years ago, the authors of the pop-economics book Freakonomics made some bold predictions. They had analyzed names and income among a sample of Californians, and come up with a class-based theory of baby name trends.

Call it the "trickle-down theory." Baby names, they claimed, first catch on with high-income, highly educated families, then trickle down the socioeconomic ladder as aspirational parents copy the more privileged. In their words, "It isn't famous people who drive the name game. It is the family just a few blocks over, the one with the bigger house and newer car."

Inspired by that theory, they compiled a list of 45 "high-end names" that they predicted would become popular with the masses by 2015. Now that the future is here, we can put their predictions to the test. Here's the 10-year popularity curve of the Trickle-Down 45:

On first glance, that looks pretty impressive. Their predicted names were given to 43,000 more babies last year vs. in 2004, a rise of nearly 40%. But there's more going on behind that graph. Take a look at what had happened to those same names in the decade before Freakonomics was written:

Now that's what I call a trend. In the prior 10 years the names had risen in popularity by 87,000 babies per year, a rise of nearly 400%. In other words, the authors had caught a ride on the tail of a comet, choosing a set of names that were already wildly trendy. That's no coincidence. The Freakonomics name list wasn't a pure economic projection; it was a hand-culled sample based on the authors' own sense of what sounded fashionable.

The trendiness of their name choices alone could account for their positive results. In fact, the authors would have done better in their predictions by simply listing all baby names that had risen every year during the previous decade. Compare the two outcomes (normalized to display on the same scale):

 

That doesn't look good for the power of the trickle-down theory. Even if their predictions were correct, though, I think they'd be a red herring. The big picture in baby names is not top-down but defiantly grassroots. Any parents who choose names because they're popular with the ruling class are swimming against the powerful and fascinating current of American naming culture.

Take a look at the names that actually rose the most in the USA over the past decade (based on our standard BabyNameWizard.com "hotness formula"). All currently rank among the top 1000 names for boys or girls:

Jayceon

Daleyza

Cataleya

Neymar

Coraline

Everleigh

Khaleesi

Bentlee

Zendaya

Urijah

If you don't recognize all of those names, I'll give you a hint: there's not a Fortune 500 CEO in the bunch. They're an ethnically diverse lineup showcasing the full range of popular entertainment: extreme fighting champions, Spanish-language tv stars, action-movie antiheros, animated characters, reality tv stars -- lots of reality tv stars. This won't come as a surprise to regular readers of this blog. Every year we run a contest to predict the fastest rising names in America, and the smart money is always on the populist side of culture, especially reality tv, telenovelas and hip hop.

A closer look further challenges the notion of aspirational naming. Anyone from an adult entertainer to an assassin to the spawn of Satan can inspire namesakes, as long as their name is catchy enough. The single biggest baby name hit machine of recent years has been Teen Mom, the show that follows the lives of pregnant, unmarried 16-year-old girls. Even among the Freakonomics names, the closest they came to predicting a breakout hit was the girl's name Quinn...and that name only took off six years after their prediction, when it was featured as the name of a pregnant cheerleader on the tv series Glee.

In other words, American parents are picking up fresh new names wherever they find them, and those names don't sound anything like ladder climbing. Increasing numbers of parents are going off-road inventing whole new names. Some take words that express something about them and turn them into names. (Firearms-related terms are popular choices.) Others simply string together attractive sounds. As the hip hop and reality tv names above become popular, it's a fair bet that most of them will be abandoned in favor of something fresher.

Any analysis that focuses on the very top of the name popularity list will miss this big picture. The existence of a top 10 maintains the illusion of consensus, but it represents an ever-shrinking slice of the population. Every name now represents its own subculture and worldview, and poorer parents aren't following in the steps of the wealthy. They're aggressively blazing their own trails. 

Does a Celebrity "Own" Your Baby Name?

Jul 23rd 2015


Imagine that you loved the name Miley long before Miley Cyrus ever hit the scene. You still want to choose the name for your daughter, but you don't want it to remind people of the singer and her tabloid-frenzy life. Can it be done? Can you say "Miley" withough anyone thinking "Cyrus"? My guess is that most people would answer no. The name Miley has become inextricably linked with the star.

But what about the name Angelina? Actress Angelina Jolie is just as famous, yet her first name has held on to some stylistic independence. The celebrity association is there, but she doesn't own the name.


Photo: Image Press/Splash News

Celebrity name "ownership" depends partially on the star's image and fame, and even more on the name itself. To get a sense of how thoroughly your name has been claimed by a celebrity, score it on the questions below. I'll call this the "Kim vs. Kanye Test" in honor of a Hollywood couple who together max out the fame meter...but only one maxes out the name meter.

1. Does Pop Media Even Bother With Last Names? The more a star is referred to by first name only in the celebrity press, the more they become linked to that name. Assuming no accompanying photo, do editors feel safe in dropping the surname?

(Score 0 points if the celebrity always requires a surname in absence of a photo, like Ryan Gosling. Score 1 if they sometimes do, like Mila Kunis. Score 2 if never, like Oprah Winfrey. Extra bonus point if the star actually goes by one name, like Adele.)

2. Was the Name Familiar Before the Celebrity Came Along? Jennifer Lawrence has been called the most powerful actress in Hollywood, but her power doesn't extend to the name Jennifer. The name was already too familiar without her. This effect can also cover variant spellings of a name, like Ginnifer Goodwin.

(Score 0 points for a popular or classic first name, like Will Smith. Score 1 for a previously uncommon name, like Channing Tatum. Score 2 for a name that owes its whole existence to a celebrity, like Charlize Theron.)

3. Can You Think of Other Famous Examples of the Name? The more prominent bearers a name has, the harder it is for any one image to dominate. The famous examples can be past or present, real or fictional. Even a cartoon mouse like "Angelina Ballerina" can help loosen the name hold of a star like Angelina Jolie.

(Score 0 for a name scattered across Hollywood and history, like Adam Levine. Score 1 for a name with a few strong associations, like Leonardo DiCaprio. Score 2 if you're wracking your brain for another example, like Keanu Reeve.)

4. Does the Star Score a Clean Sweep of Google Image Results? This is a good illustration of the difference between the names Kim and Kanye (but be warned, it only works with safe search OFF, so some questionable images may result). Go to Google Image Search and type in Kim. You'll get an eyeful of Kim Kardashian, but focus on the top bar showing other associations from rapper Lil' Kim to North Korean potentate Kim Jong-Un. Now try typing Kanye. The result is 100% Kanye West, even in the top bar.

(Score 0 for a diverse image search result, like Daniel Radcliffe. Score 1 if a celebrity dominates the main images but not the top bar, like Trey Songz. Score 2 for a clean sweep, like Björk.)

Scoring

0-2 points: "Emma Watson." You're in the clear. This name is independent and likely to stay that way.

3-5 points: "Scarlett Johansson." The name is certainly linked to a star, but not owned.

6-9 points: "Beyoncé." The celebrity is in command. That doesn't rule out the name as a choice for your baby, if you like the image the star conveys. But be sure it's a celebrity you trust for the long term.