The name of the game

Mar 31st 2006

It's been a tough offseason so far for New England Patriots football fans. Some long-time favorite players have moved on to other teams, and it can be hard to say goodbye.

Especially if you just shelled out a hundred bucks for a replica jersey.

Across New England, fans are staring glumly at shirts that say #4 Vinatieri, knowing that kicker Adam Vinatieri is now a member of the hated rival Colts. As a wardrobe problem it's just a nuisance. But what if you'd named your child after him?

Consider the most visible Patriot, quarterback Tom Brady. Brady is the 122nd most popular boys' name in America -- but #53 in Massachusetts, home of the Patriots. (It firstcracked the top 100 in the state in 2002, the year Brady led the team to its first Superbowl victory.) Brady is signed to a long-term contract, but who knows what the future may bring?

Naming a child after a living person is risky business. By and large, today's parents are wise to this. There's now a time lag in naming babies after presidents -- parents wait to see how the term in office works out. Yet sports stars are inspiring more namesakes than ever. Not only are athletes, like any young celebrities, subject to unpredictable slumps and scandals, but they change teams. Look at another New England star, former Red Sox outfielder Johnny Damon, who's now...gulp...a Yankee. How do you explain to little Damon that he was named for a guy in pinstripes?

If you want a sure thing, name for a sports star whose career is already safely in the record books -- or better yet the history books. Jackie Robinson and Johnny Unitas jerseys never go out of style.

The Naming Map of the United States

Mar 17th 2006

A confession: I have never personally met a girl named Madison.

I know they're out there, tens of thousands of them. And having daughters in preschool and kindergarten, I meet plenty of little girls. But where I live the fad for androgynous surnames is just a distant rumor. Around here we're ensconced in another naming era altogether, surrounded by Amelias and Julians, Charlies and Sophies.

Every region follows its own threads of fashion. To get a handle on American naming style, perhaps what you need isn't a list but a map.

As it happens, I have such a map. Readers with long memories may even recall that I promised it to share it with you last year. But this is one big country, and its naming map just didn't fit the cozy confines of my blog. After wrestling with it for a time, I've given up and and granted the map its own page.

First, some background. To identify a state's characteristic naming style, I looked for names that were significantly more popular in that state than in the nation overall. That means the most characteristic names of state might not be the most popular names. For instance, Emma is the #1 girl's name in Mississippi, Mary is #11. But Mary is more characteristic of Mississippi's distinctive style because that #11 ranking is unusually high.

You'll also see that certain states fall into two different style streams. Maine, for instance, combines the New England neotraditional sound with the "frontier" style of other sparsely-populated states from West Virginia to Wyoming.

And now, visit the map at Then come back here and, as always, give me an earful.

Case study: Ashtons

Mar 8th 2006

Ponder this historical graph, then we'll get underway. (Pink is girls born, blue is boys.)

This is a tale of one name that has traveled a rare path over the past 25 years: from male to female, and back again.

Our story begins with Ashley, an English place name and surname which enjoyed a modest vogue as a boy's name starting in the the 19th Century. It was an elegant, mildly fancified choice which sank from view by the 1930s. It might have stayed dormant with the likes of Aubrey and Emery, but Ashley got a second lease on life thanks to a character in Gone With the Wind. The name hung around and began a slow climb through the 1960s and '70s, and then came the avalanche. The name Ashley became a runaway hit...for girls.

In 1977, 2,705 American girls were named Ashley. In 1987, the number was 54,815. Along the way, some parents of boys who liked the "Ash" sound took refuge in the harder, more masculine-styled name Ashton. But then, just as with Gone With the Wind 50 years before, the Civil War came calling via Hollywood. The tv miniseries "North and South" was a huge hit in 1986, featuring a scheming belle named Ashton. Now parents seized on the name as a female variant on Ashley. Out of nowhere, it became the 267th most popular girl's name of 1986.

Parents of boys reliably turn away from names that have tipped to the girls' side. But kindred names like Austin and Peyton started to soar, and Ashton held on strong enough for a savior to arrive -- on the tv screen, naturally. A young actor named Ashton Kutcher got his big break on the sitcom "That '70s Show" starting in 1998. By 2003 he was starring in movies, hosting an MTV reality series, and dating actress Demi Moore. His name was everywhere.

Before Kutcher's first screen appearance, more girls than boys were named Ashton. Today, new male Ashtons outnumber females by 13 to 1. How's that for a tribute to a guy's manhood -- turning an entire name masculine. At least until one of the girl Ashtons of the '80s hits Hollywood.