In Search of Shirley

Jun 23rd 2005

It's no secret that a well-named celebrity can start a new baby-naming trend. But the perception of celebrity influence is often greater than the reality. Such is the case with little Emma, born to Rachel and Ross of "Friends" in May, 2002. She's often cited as the source of the name Emma's popularity, but that name was chosen for the character in reflection of reality: it was already a top choice of fashionable urban parents like Rachel and Ross. (In Washington D.C., a particularly fashion-forward name district, Emma was the #2 name of 2001.)

Similarly, several people have written in here suggesting that the Aidan craze originated with a character on "Sex and the City." While that exposure probably gave the name an extra boost, the character name was again more a reflection of the trend than its source. Before 1990, Aidan had never appeared in the U.S. top thousand. By late 2001, when the Aidan character appeared on "Sex & the City," it was already a top hundred name, and 27 other rhyme-twins (Braden, Cayden, et al) were in the top 1000.

Which brings us to the ultimate celebrity name, Shirley. Shirley Temple was the top box-office star of the 1930s. From about 1934 (Little Miss Marker) to 1939 (The Little Princess), she was an absolute phenomenon...and those same years mark the name Shirley's stint as a top-five name for American girls. Little Miss Temple has routinely been credited with the name's popularity by name writers, me included. Should we think again? Sociologist Stanley Lieberson, in his masterful opus A Matter of Taste, notes that Shirley Temple was actually part of an existing Shirley wave. (She was, after all, only five years old when Little Miss Marker was made.) In fact, the name was already in the top 10 when Temple was born.

Yet it's hard to imagine that an angelic, immensely popular child star wouldn't have a big naming impact. After all, she must have been on parents' minds. In 1939, you could no more name a girl Shirley without thinking of Shirley Temple than you could name a boy Roosevelt without thinking of the president. But perhaps the name had already reached its saturation point...or perhaps the high starting rank has simply camouflaged the fame effect.

Shirley was the #9 name of Shirley Temple's pre-stardom 1933, and the #2 name of post-stardom 1935. A pretty modest change in rank. But as I'm always muttering to any who'll listen, you can't tell diddly from ranks. Take a look at what really happened in those two years:

From 1933 to 1935, the number of Shirleys born tripled - an extraordinary leap for a name that was already so popular. This Shirley Temple spike, accounting for tens of thousands of babies, is one of the sharpest name spikes America has ever seen.

Temple's impact was so strong that it sent out ripples extending to other names. Her appearances as "Heidi" and "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm" sparked jumps in those names, and the dormant name Penelope suddenly hit the charts after Shirley played a Penelope in Now and Forever. But most telling is the pattern of names similar to Shirley. Early in the 20th Century Shirley was an anomaly, a surname used primarily for girls (thanks to the title heroine of a Charlotte Brontë novel.) It stayed that way for decades, until the Good Ship Lollipop sailed into the zeitgeist. Then see what happened:

Shelby: Not on the top-1000 name list in 1934, Shirley Temple's breakout year. By 1937, it was #119.

Shelley: Virtually unknown until the late 1930s, when it began a slow but steady rise until Shelley Winters (born Shirley) hit it big in the late '40s.

Sherry: Slow but steady rise from the mid-20s to 1934. Then from 1934 to 1935, the number of Sherrys more than doubled.

You can't say that Shirley Temple was responsible for the name Shirley's popularity. There would be plenty of 70-year-old Shirleys out there even without her. But few people in modern times have had a more dramatic impact on American names.

Are you Googleable?

Jun 15th 2005

The quest for name individuality is a common theme I hear from parents. Change is accelerating, the name pool is expanding, and parents are treating "popular" as a dirty word. It tells us a lot about our culture and values. But it also tells us something about our technology.

Most of us share our full name with others -- sometimes hundreds of others. A generation ago, that seldom mattered. So there's another Sarah Stubblefield three states over, who cares? But in a networked, searchable world, our name twins are suddenly closer than ever before.

Type "Laura Wattenberg" into Google and you'll get a pure dose of baby name wizardry. Wattenberg, though, is my married name. I was born Laura Miller. Google that name and you'll find results for hundreds of women, including a Salon editor and the current mayor of Dallas. I'm sure my old single self is in there somewhere, but who could find her?

For some tech-focused families, "Googleability" is now a prime baby-naming requirement. If a full name yields too many Google results, they toss it out. Many of these parents are reacting to their own frustration with mistaken identity. Once you've been one of seven Tom Wilsons in your company directory, you learn to crave the clarity of a unique name. For others, a Googleable name is a fashion statement. They'll even make sure a .com domain name is available for their baby-to-be, like the ultimate vanity license plate.

There are undeniable practical benefits to a unique name. The Boston Globe recently chronicled the woes of a man whose driver's license was revoked because he shared a name with a repeat vehicular offender. In my case, back in my Laura Miller days I once moved to a new town and started getting phone calls intended for another Laura Miller. Judging from the nature of the calls, that other Laura offered services I wasn't about to provide. As a Wattenberg, mistaken identity is a thing of the past. Arguably, there's also a psychological lift from feeling that you're not just one of an indistiguishable crowd.

Yet there's an upside to anonymity, too. It's called privacy. Kids growing up today are leaving a trail of information footprints, opening stray details of their lives to the public. The same unique moniker that sets you apart from the crowd makes you and your past instantly trackable. Even innocuous aspects of your life can be personal, and over the long run you might not want everyone you meet to be able to learn about them with a single click.

How about those old college party photos? Picture a new boyfriend 5 years down the line Googling the snapshots of you with with your old boyfriend...and the one before him, and the one before him. Or think of a prospective employer (because they will Google you, you can be certain). Did they need to see that picture of the tattoo on your rear end before meeting you? Worse yet, did they need to know all about your religious, political and sexual inclinations? It's none of their business. But thanks to a long-forgotten messageboard post, or organizational newsletter, or friend's blog, it may be there for the reading.

No new parent ever dreams of the future and thinks, "I want to make sure my child will be able to hide his tracks!" But we do think about protecting our kids, including protecting them from kinds of material they can find online. It's also worth thinking about the kinds of material they can put online. The more distinctive your child's name, the stronger the trail she'll leave behind, for whomever might be looking. A young Sirrenity Stubblefield should learn to think hard before she posts.

NameVoyager 2.0

Jun 10th 2005

Please join with me in celebrating a milestone with a member of the Baby Name Wizard family. The NameVoyager visualization has just received its first upgrade, with expanded data and a few new tricks up its sleeve.

The two changes NameVoyager users will notice most:

  • The Data. The name usage history now charts back to the 1880s, giving us a much clearer look at the volatile and influential turn-of-the-century naming era. [Suggested searches: try Ida to discover that name's huge 19th-century popularity, or Roosevelt to compare the Theodore and Franklin spikes.]
  • Boys and Girls. You can now choose single-sex searching, spotlighting patterns that differ for boys and girls. [Suggested searches: try girls' names starting with O to see the dominance of a single name, or look at the overall steady usage of M names, then see how it's composed of separate boy and girl waves.]
  • Happy exploring!

    Some additional data notes, for the hardcore NameVoyager fans:

    The popularity figures now go up through 2004, the most recent numbers available. I've used 2004 as the sole representative for the current decade, rather than mixing scales of data. Thanks to reader requests, I'll be planning a separate version of the program with a detailed focus on the past decade.

    The data in this version represents a fuller sample of babies, courtesy of new Social Security Administration figures. For the 1940s on, the sample is a close approximation of the full U.S. newborn population. The earliest years' numbers, though, are based on more skewed samples. For instance, the sex ratio is skewed dramatically toward girls in the 19th-century samples. I adopted a new normalization technique to correct for these differences, and informal data checks suggest that the trends in the early data are still suitably representative of the general population. Also, you may notice that the full "sea of names" view has a slightly different shape, reflecting a tweaked data prep process. The height of the total population for a given decade now accurately shows the proportion of babies receiving a top-1000 name.