Out on a name limb

Aug 12th 2005

Pilot Inspektor. Moxie CrimeFighter. Tryumph, Whizdom, and ESPN. Each of these has made headlines as a baby name in the past few years. Call them creative or call them crazy, they seem to come out of left field, breaking all the naming rules.

But even the wildest names are products of their times. The most famous celebrity baby name of all, Moon Unit, now shines as a clear reflection of the psychedelic '60s. In the same way, Pilot and ESPN carry the sound of today. They just carry it to extremes.

What is Pilot Inspektor, after all, but a tradesman name? That's been one of the hottest name categories for the past decade, and Pilot fits nicely at the macho end of the style. Hunter, Gunnar and Ryder are all popular choices in the same vein, not to mention Jett for the aviation theme.

CrimeFighter ratchets the energy up a notch, past the mere trade names. (Top-1000 name kin might be Maverick, Cannon and Blaze.) The real surprise is that it's a girl's name -- the middle name of young Moxie Jillette. Moxie is an inspired creation at the intersection of two popular styles. First, it's what I call a "guys and dolls" name. You picture Moxie as a jazz-age dame, getting into scrapes with guys names Buster and Rocky. Ruby, Sadie and Lola are all "doll" names that have come back strong, and near-match Max is hugely popular for boys.

At the same time, Moxie is a word name (meaning gumption). It bursts with confidence, which puts in right in line with the bold style of new meaning names for girls. Destiny and Justice fit the theme...as do Whizdom and Tryumph, the daughters of Jayson Williams.

ESPN is a brand name, a jock counterpart to girls named Lexus and Chanel. It stands out chiefly because of its fanciful spelling. Spoken aloud as "Espen," it has a thoroughly mainstream sound. Easton and Aspen are close matches, and the ubiquitous -n ending dominates current boys' names.

No matter how far we go out on a limb, it seems that limb still grows from the same naming tree. When Moxie CrimeFighter Jillette is Moon Unit Zappa's age, her name will probably sound like a perfect souvenir of 2005.

Those wacky Victorians

Aug 5th 2005

Admit it. You love stupid names.

Oh, it's not that you're about to name your twin sons Pink and Dink. But you get a wicked little thrill hearing about celebrities who saddle their kids with outrageous names. In the newspaper birth announcements, you can't help scanning for further evidence that parents today have simply lost their minds.

None of us is immune to this schadenfreude. It's the first question most reporters ask me: "what are parents thinking with names like..." In fact, there are now whole websites devoted to making fun of other people's names. And underlying it all is a presumption that names are getting worse. The popularity of luxury brand names like Lexus and Armani, for instance, is taken as a symbol of cultural decadence.

Before we proclaim a naming apocalypse, a bit of perspective is in order. Allow me to present some of the top 1000 names of the ' 80s and '90s. The 1880s and 1890s, that is.

The boys Pink and Dink? Not so strange back in those days. In fact, Pink ranked as high as #304 among boys back in 1881. Here are some other choice names of the period. To keep it fair, all these names made the top 1000 list in at least four different years:

BOYS
GIRLS

Flem
Icy

Clell
Dicy

Ples
Mintie

Cloyd
Tinnie

Bee
Viney

Gee
Birdie

Irl
Biddie

Purl
Pinkie

Perley
Mammie

Burley
Lockie

Okey
Lovie

Zollie
Anner

Author
Lular

Lawyer
Ellar

Fate
Dellar

Creed
Arizona

Handy
Florida

Chancy
Indiana

Pleasant
Missouri

Golden
Nevada

Love
Tennessee

Park
Tiny

Press
Fairy

Math
Queen

Shade
Novella

Price
Edmonia

Worth
Permelia

Toy
Lugenia

Coy
Ova

Orange
Media

Lemon
Floy

It's an impressive lineup, and only the tip of the iceberg. In fact, some of the most distinctive styles of the 1880s-90s turn out to echo today's trends. You find lots of place names, surnames and word-based names. (Perhaps Gwyneth Paltrow wouldn't have caught so much flak for naming her daughter Apple in a world with boys named Orange and Lemon.) Standing in for the luxury brands of the modern world are names like Noble, Royal, Silver and Golden. And just as today, you notice hundreds and hundreds of freshly invented names with endless variations on a theme. Dessie-Hessie-Lessie-Ressie-Tessie, meet Ayla-Jayla-Kayla-Layla-Shayla.

The real difference, of course, is at the top of the charts. For boys especially, a handful of names led by John, William and James were utterly dominant at the head of the curve, followed by a sharp drop off. The #1 boys name of the 1880s was twelve times as popular as the #20 name. Last year, that ratio was down to 2 to 1. The curve is flatter, and it changes our perceptions. Instead of meeting John after John after John, the names we hear are less predictable...and the strangest ones seem like a sign of the times. And to an extent they are, as I'll talk about next time.

Of storms and style

Jul 28th 2005

A reader, watching radar images of swirling winds, sent in an intriguing question: have names of hurricanes influenced parents' baby name choices?

The U.S. National Weather Service has been naming hurricanes to aid tracking since 1953. Lists are set in advance with an alphabetical set of names assigned to each year. All storms received female names until 1979 when, realizing that men too are capable of widespread destruction, the NWS switched to alternating sexes.

On the face of it, a calamitous storm seems an unlikely choice to inspire parents' name choices. You might expect a name's popularity to dip after an association with death and disaster. Yet there's also the simple exposure effect to consider. A name that tops the headlines day after day could rise to the top of parents' consciousness.

In fact, you can see both the positive and negative effects in U.S. hurricane/baby history. The net impact, I believe, depends on the name's baseline popularity -- how familiar it sounded before the storm. A classic, familiar name doesn't benefit much from media exposure because it's already at ceiling for public awareness. So the overall impact of a hurricane with a name like Andrew is neutral to negative (green bar=storm year):

But for a name with a lower profile, the media boost is huge and can translate to a sharp rise in the name. Hurricane Camille lashed the Southeast in 1969:


I rather expected to see a second split in name effects based on geography. It seemed reasonable that parents who hear the news but are far removed from the destruction might lean more toward the name, while parents in the eye of the storm would stay away. But take a look at the numbers for Texas, which bore the brunt of Hurricane Alicia in 1983:

It's an impressive demonstration that "any publicity is good publicity." Yet not just any name will rise with the tides. Even the biggest storm won't rescue a name that's already fallen dramatically out of fashion, like Floyd in 1999. Looking ahead to names on the 2005-2007 lists, I wouldn't expect a revival of Harvey or Wilma. But a major storm named Ophelia, Rafael or Felix could leave plenty of namesakes in its wake.