The top names of 2004

May 7th 2005

The Social Security Administration has announced the most popular American baby names of 2004. The top spots are unchanged: Emily and Jacob are still #1.

49 new names made debuts in the top 1000 lists. Many were variations on familiar themes (Aydin, Jaydin, Haiden) or hybrid offspring of other popular names (Gracelyn, Jayleen), while several of the highest debuts were celebrity-inspired (Kanye, Charlize). Indian names also continue to come on strong (Rishi, Diya).

I'll be preparing the data for an update of the NameVoyager, and of course reporting my obsessive musings on the new names here. In the meantime, here are today's top 20:

GIRLSBOYSEmily Jacob Emma Michael Madison Joshua Olivia Matthew Hannah Ethan Abigail Andrew Isabella Daniel Ashley William SamanthaJoseph ElizabethChristopher

Names, race, and economists

May 4th 2005

Last time, I talked about economist Steven Levitt's take on baby name fashion in the book Freakonomics. Names have suddenly become a hot topic with economists -- they seem to have wrenched the field out of the hands of psychologists and sociologists. Their single hottest subject is the "consequences" of having a distinctively black name. As the title of one paper asks, "Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?"

In 2003, a pair of researchers from Harvard and the University of Chicago sent out hundreds of resumés with either white-sounding or black-sounding names. The "white" resumés received 50% more callbacks for interviews, a seemingly dramatic consequence. Yet that same year, a different pair of researchers from, yes, Harvard and the University of Chicago, looked at life outcomes of people based on birth certificate data from the State of California. (The certificates indicated the parents' education level and other socioeconomic cues.) This study found no independent effect of distinctively black names .

As it happens, one of the authors of the second study was Levitt, who summarizes the result in Freakonomics. He dismisses the resumé study and all other field simulations, claiming "the audit studies can't be used to truly measure how much a name matters, the California names data can."

I read both papers when I was researching my book, The Baby Name Wizard. My initial reaction was that both painted names with a rather broad brush. All "black" names aren't created equal. Take two examples from Levitt's "blackest names" list, DeShawn and Terrance. Both may send the same skin-color signals, but they send very different cultural signals. (Just as, say, Beatrix and Shyanne are equally white names that send different cultural signals.) Look at Emily and Lakisha, from the title of the resumé paper. Emily, an old familiar classic, is the #1 name in America; Lakisha, an invention of the 1970s, has never cracked the top 1000. How can you compare such wildly different names and expect a pure reading on the effects of race?

Enter an economist from neither Harvard nor Chicago: David Figlio of the University of Florida. In 2004 Figlio looked at children in a large Florida school district, tracking signs of teachers' expectations of individual students: whether children were promoted to the next grade, for instance, or recommended for gifted programs. He rated names both for their racial makeup and their socioeconomic makeup. (By analyzing variables like parents' education level and economic status, he found that certain name characteristics were typical of a disadvantaged household.) And he focused especially on pairs of siblings, who had the same family background but often very different styles of names.

It's a remarkable bit of research wizardry, teasing apart the effects of names, race and socioeconomic status -- even the effect of the family that raises you. Figlio's findings showed that, indeed, all "black" names are not treated the same. A name like Dwayne, which was strongly African-American but carried no socioeconomic markers, didn't affect teachers' expectations. But a name like Da'Quan, with multiple signals of economic status, did. Teachers, consciously or not, drew inferences about the child's background and potential based on these naming signals. In Figlio's data, a pair of brothers named Dwayne and Da'Quan could expect subtly different treatment in school, which translated into different levels of scholastic success.

It's a useful demonstration for prospective name-and-number-crunchers that names carry a rich web of connotations. People are extremely sensitive to names' nuances: history, popularity, spelling, punctuation...everything speaks to our mental models of names and culture. There's a reason that parents agonize for months over name choices. It's not just a black or white question.

Name-onomics

Apr 29th 2005

When I was in graduate school, one of my professors, the legendary memory expert Gordon Bower, told a story of a paper he once wrote. He had conducted a study of word memory, but found that the results were muddled by an incidental social aspect of the experiment. The social effect intrigued him so that he wrote up the results and submitted them to a journal of social psychology, outside of his field. The editor of the journal responded, "Well Gordon, nice work. You've successfully replicated one of the best-known results in all of social psychology."

Why am I telling you this? Well, it came to mind as I was reading the baby-naming chapter of renowned economist Steven Levitt's new book Freakonomics, recently excerpted in Slate. Levitt (with journalist Stephen Dubner) set out to use "the best analytical tools that economics can offer" to uncover the "hidden side of everything," promising to reveal surprising and counterintuitive aspects of the world around us. His manifesto, from the introduction:

It is well and good to opine or theorize about a subject, as humankind is wont to do, but when moral posturing is replaced by an honest assessment of the data, the result is often a new, surprising insight.
Analytical rigor, astonishing revelations. Does he deliver?

I first started to worry when Levitt stated as fact the well-worn urban legends about babies named OrangeJello, LemonJello, and Shithead. A 10-second Google search would have been sufficient to throw those into question, didn't he bother? As a matter of fact, he did. In the endnotes, he cheerfully admits that his source for Shithead "might have been misinformed, of course, or even outright lying." And as for the 'Jellos:

Although these names have the whiff of urgan legend about them -- they are, in fact, discussed on a variety of websites that dispel (or pass along) urban legends -- the authors learned of the existence of OrangeJello and LemonJello from Doug McAdam, a sociologist at Stanford University, who swears he met the twin boys in a grocery store.
Oh, you heard it from a guy who swears he saw them once in a grocery store! Phew, thank goodness for "the best analytical tools that economics can offer."

Hereon, we proceed with caution.

In discussing the origins of name trends, Levitt's primary thesis is that fashions which originate with the upper classes gradually trickle down the economic ladder. This, naturally, is no revelation -- in fashion-based industries like apparel, it's an explicit, institutionalized process. (After all, we call the elite "trendsetters" because they set the trends.) The revelation is meant to come in the form of predictive power. Levitt uses data about California parents' economic status and name choices to propose a list of names that, "unlikely as it seems," are candidates to become "mainstream names" ten years from now. Names like Emma, Isabel, and Grace. But wait a second, aren't those already mainstream names?

Here's a graph of the popularity of Levitt's suggested future girl's names, using the data available at the time he wrote the book:

In fact, of his 24 predictions for "unlikely" names that could possibly hit the mainstream in a decade, 7 were already top-100 names, including 2 of the top 15 (Emma and Grace). Looking boldly out into the future, he predicted the present. Oops. So much for revelations.

What was the economics-based methodology for those questionable choices? Apparently, the author looked at a list of of names favored by rich Californians and chose the ones he personally found attractive. So much for rigor.

All of which brings us back to the Gordon Bower story. When anyone, even a brilliant scholar, walks into a whole new domain of knowledge, he's at a disadvantage: he doesn't know what is and isn't known. Thus it can be hard to tell the revelatory from the obvious. Any mom of a preschooler could have told Levitt that Emma wasn't a very clever prediction. It was news to him, though, so he didn't bother to dig deeper -- even to learn that Emma was already the #2 name in America. Which is a shame, because he was sitting on an absolute treasure trove of data which doubtless does have secrets to reveal.

The fashion analysis was only half of the baby-name presentation in Freakonomics. The other, much less silly half, concerns the real-world impact of race-specific names, which I'll talk about next time.