Isabel, Isobel, Isabelle: Identifying a name species

Feb 18th 2005

Site visitors often suggest that I combine names in the NameVoyager. The rationale is straightforward: a parent who types in "Katelynn" should also be aware of the popularity of Katelyn, Katelin, Kaitlyn, Caitlin, et al. Combining variants of a name would give them a better overview.

All it takes is determining where one "species" of name ends and another begins. But that, as biologists can tell you, is no small matter.

A few weeks ago there was a news story that the fabled Preble's Meadow jumping mouse, which can jump a foot and a half into the air, was losing its "endangered species" status. Why? It turns out it wasn't a species. After a careful review, scientists concluded they couldn't really tell it apart from other garden-variety jumping mice. The decision, though, was not unanimous -- and they have DNA to work with.

I sympathize. Back when I was building my research tools for The Baby Name Wizard, I tried to assign a core name species to each name variant in my database. After one frustrating week, I abandoned the idea. Try it yourself: how many different names are in this list?

Emily Emilie Emilee Emely Emmalee Amelie Emilia Amelia Aemilia Amalia

Hmm...let's say we just combine variants that sound identical. So that's 4 core names: Emily, Amelie, Amelia, Amalia. Or maybe 5, with Emilia. 6 at the outside (Emma-Lee?)

But if we're going by sound, are Devin and Devon the same? Some Devons are DEV-in, yet some are de-VON. And how about Caitlin and Katelynn? One is an old Irish Gaelic form of Katherine, the other a modern American compound name...how can they be called the same species? Plus they may be pronounced the same in the U.S., but in Ireland they sound quite different.

Let's try nicknames instead. Lump all the Bills in with the Williams, who are probably called Bill anyway. Unless they're called Billy or Will. So add those in too...but wait a second. Try typing Will into the NameVoyager, then hitting return. Now try Billy. The curves are completely different. Billy is a lot more like Jimmy and Tommy than it is like Will. If you lump them together, you miss the whole trend.

And that, in the end, is the real problem with dividing up species of names. The variations matter. Just ask any parent who named her daughter Michaela whether Makayla is the same name. Or try calling one of today's little Williams "Billy." It's often the variation rather than the root which ties a name to its time and place. From the nickname explosion of the mid-century to today's kreative spellings, the trends are in the details. So for the NameVoyager, I'm taking them one by one.

What's up next: the view from abroad

Feb 13th 2005

I write from an American perspective, but name trends don't stop at the border. More than ever before, a cohesive international style is emerging, with a set of names you're equally likely to encounter in Berlin, Paris and New York.

The international style favors smooth classics with a faintly antique flavor and no clear ethnicity -- think Anna for girls, Alexander for boys. The style is especially popular in Central and Northern Europe and in affluent English-speaking areas. Jet-setting American parents will be glad to find that the names travel well. They may also be interested to hear that Europe tends to be a few years ahead in the name curve. Greek names like Chloe and Elias, for instance, spread through Europe before catching the ears of American parents.

So for a new angle on up-and-coming names, I've made a roundup of half a dozen international-styled countries: Australia, England, France, Germany, Ireland and Sweden. My targets were names that rank in top 20 in at least two different countries, but haven't cracked the American top 100 in the past decade.

GIRLS
Amelia
Charlotte
Clara

BOYS
Hugo
Louis
Oliver
Philip
Simon

and some prospects that didn't quite make the cut:
Eloise, Georgia, Holly, Louisa, Mathilda
Elliot, Felix, Jasper, Marcus, Martin

(The fine print: I eliminated names that were close variants of American favorites, and combined spellings like Louis/Lewis.)

Many of these names are already climbing, especially in stylish urban neighborhoods...but the world clearly stands ready to welcome a few more Simons and Claras.

A NameVoyager Case Study: Adolph

Feb 9th 2005

My NameVoyager is designed to give you a sense of names as history. In certain cases you can see the stamp of a single individual -- type in Shirley to see the huge impact of Shirley Temple in the '30s. At the opposite extreme, you expect fo find names sunk by a negative personal association. So one of the most examined names in the Voyager is Adolph.

A few representative user posts:

"It's also funny to note the fortunes of names with political implications. Adolph appears to have been a somewhat popular name during the early part of the century, then plummets off the list in the 40's."

"Check out Adolph. It had a fairly precipitous drop in about 1940.. wonder why."

The odd part is, Adolph does not show a precipitous drop in the 1940s. Our intuition tells us it should, but in fact the name was already disappearing before then. The use of Adolph in America dropped 80% from 1900 to 1930, then slowly trickled off into oblivion by the late '60s. This is not to say that war with Germany played no part in the name's demise...but rather that we're looking at the wrong war.

In the 1890s and 1900s, German names were wildly popular with American parents. (Irish names play the same role today, so think of Gertrude as the Caitlin of her day.) With the dawn of the First World War, that generation of German hit names melted away. Try loading up the NameVoyager and typing Adolph. Then try Gertrude and Otto, and see how remarkably similar the patterns look. By and large, the more distinctly German the name, the faster it plummeted. The spelling Adolf disappeared completely during WWI along with names like Ernst and Ludwig.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing is that Adolph took so long to vanish from our shores. It's hard to imagine an American family circa 1950 naming a son Adolph, yet a good number did. The name was still close enough to its popularity peak that many parents still had Grandpa Adolphs, or other positive personal associations with the name. Half a century later, Adolph is virtually taboo and will doubtless remain that way...even as Otto prepares for a comeback.