The presidential curve

Jul 8th 2005

Up through the mid-20th Century, a new American president was almost always immortalized by a crowd of newborn namesakes. Every presidential surname except Van Buren, Fillmore, Buchanan and Eisenhower has made the top-1000 name list at some point in the past 125 years. Today, though, parents are a little more wary about granting namesakes. They wait to see how the presidency is going to play out before committing a child's name to the cause. (The hundreds of boys named Harding in the early '20s would probably support this prudent approach.)

But presidential names as a whole are more popular today than ever before. Far, far more popular. Here's the overall presidential curve:


Aside from Arthur (which is kind of a cheat -- a classic first name rather than a converted surname), the presidential names used to be marginal. Now they're mainstream.

So what's the allure? I'll hazard a guess it's not just American patriotism, given all the Australian girls named Madison and the Canadian boys named Carter. And how many parents of a Tyler could even name that president's political party? But even when the presidential link is weak, its influence is there shaping the name's style. The presidential names epitomize what parents like about the surname style: names that feel familiar and substantial, but fresher than the classic English given names.

Here's the historical graph showing current popularity (for both sexes) vs. presidential chronology:

While it's tempting to read a lot into that curve, I think the results say more about style than politics. Most of the top choices fit stylish categories that I've discussed before, such as tradesman names (Taylor, Carter) and surnames that contract to traditional nicknames (Jefferson, Harrison). Meanwhile the cumbersome but strongly historical names like Washington and Roosevelt have disappeared. Perhaps most surprising is the recent scarcity of Lincolns. That's a swift, fashionable name with a strong nickname and even stronger heritage. Look for a comeback soon.

Quick, Name Your Kids David And Susan! Or Don't.

Jun 29th 2005

From today's UK headlines:

"Names affect top-earning potential"
"The key to a six-figure salary? It's all in the name"
"Want to earn £100K? Best make sure you're called David or Susan"

The details, courtesy of the Independent:

"What's in a name? The key to a lucrative lifestyle, it seems. Men called David and women called Susan are more likely to earn in excess of £100,000 a year, according to analysts working for Barclays Bank. Being christened John, Michael, Elizabeth or Sarah also gives you a higher chance of being a six- figure earner."

To quote the editor stung by the baby Yahoo hoax: "If it were real, it would have been a good story indeed." But the facts, alas, are much more mundane.

Barclays did not, as the papers report, list names with a high rate of earning high wages. They did not look at the percentage of Susans and Davids pulling in the pounds. They simply sifted through their records of customers earning more than £100,000 a year, and listed the names that occurred most often. In other words, they came up with a list of the most common names for mid-career Englishmen (and women.)

Here's the full list:

GIRLS
Susan
Elizabeth
Sarah
Jane
Helen
Patricia
Jacqueline
Alison
Anne
Nicola

BOYS
David
John
Michael
Paul
Andrew
Richard
Robert
Mark
Stephen

I don't have good historical figures for England, but based on US and Scotland data those names (especially the boys) look like a snapshot of the 1940s-1960s. That's precisely what you'd expect if names had no effect on earning power -- the opposite of what the headlines claimed.

In the modern economy, a typical worker sees a sharp increase in real wages until about age 35. The pace of increase then slows, with a relative plateau of 20 years at peak earnings followed by a gradual decline. The historical figures for women will be skewed somewhat by the advent of the sexual revolution; a girl born in 1950 faced a very different professional landscape than one born in 1970. So sticking to the boys, here's the US popularity curve for the Barclays names:

As you would predict from the economic lifecycle curve, the names on the Barclays list were big hits about 35-55 years ago. Based on this, I wouldn't rush out and change my name to Davy-Sue.

But before we brush this off and move on, one name did strike me...by its absence. James was the #1 name in America over the period 1940-1970, and reached close to that level of popularity in the Scotland sample as well. In the U.S. it's an across-the-board classic, unusually free of class, race, or sectarian associations. So a call out to UK readers: why didn't James make the list?

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.