The country name and the city name

Sep 18th 2005

National name statistics give us a portrait of changing fashions. But in a big, diverse country like the United States, the national numbers are the product of many interlocking microclimates of style.

For some names, the primary influences are obvious. The name José, for instance, generally tracks the Census Bureau's stats for percentage of "Hispanic origin persons" in a state. (Except for New Mexico, which is a story for another day.) But some cultural influences are subtler. Take, for instance, the cases of Logan and Nicholas.

Logan is a Scottish name which took the classic path of place name to surname to male forename to androgynous forename. (Names like Leslie and Lindsay took the same path earlier, but unlike those names Logan seems to be reasserting itself as primarily male.) Logan got a boost from the '70s film and tv series Logan's Run, and another big boost in the past generation with the trends toward Celtic names, surnames, and names ending with -n. Logan currently ranks #27 among all boy's names.

Nicholas is an old saint's name, Greek in origin, which has been used in many forms and languages for over 1000 years. In the U.S. it's especially associated with the Christmas holiday thanks to the modern image of "Jolly Old Saint Nick." Nicholas was used steadily but lightly in the U.S. until the late 1970s (the same time as Logan's Run), when it started rising alongside other multisyllabic classics like Nathaniel and Benjamin. Nicholas currently ranks #13 among all boy's names.

Both names are part of the sound of the times, examples of major trends that have defined the past generation of names. You're far more likely to meet a 5-year-old named Logan or Nicholas than a 50-year-old. Both names are also used predominantly by white families. But culturally, the names diverge: Logan is a country boy, Nicholas is a city boy.

Looking state by state, the popularity of these names correlates strongly with population density. Logan is the #3 name in Iowa, South Dakota and West Virginia, but doesn't break the top 50 in California, Massachusetts or New York. Nicholas, meanwhile, hits the top 5 in places like New Jersey and Pennsylvania, but doesn't come close in Alaska or Utah. And it's not just a matter of the coasts vs. the middle of the country--Logan is more popular in rural Maine and Vermont than in populous Illinois and Texas.

These names aren't individual anomalies, but representatives of distinct naming strains that define cultural regions. In general, names associated with surnames are far more common in low-population states. That includes boy's names like Parker and Tanner as well as girls like Mckenna and Riley. More densely packed areas tend to favor long New Testament and saint names (Nathaniel, Sebastian), and the "contemporary classics" (Matthew, Amanda).

The most interesting aspect of this, to me, is the cultural transmission of these differences. We hear so much about the homogenization of culture, and we tend to ascribe great power to mass media. But there's no media voice behind the Logan-Nicholas divide, nor any clear racial, religious or class distinction. By and large, Logan and Nicholas aren't names chosen as social signifiers. Parents choose the names because they "just like the sound," but that attraction is shaped by cultural forces we may barely recognize. So naming regions are more cultural than geographic: North Dakota and West Virginia may be far apart on the globe, but they're neighbors on the naming map.

The changing seasons

Sep 8th 2005

Most name styles are open to parents' creative impulses. Flower names may start at Lily and Rose, but they extend out to Dahlia and Poppy--or Zinnia and Lotus. Even the Bible has some untrodden name territory like Jabez and Mehetabel.

But a few sets of names are locked down tight. There are only 12 months in the year, and the fair-weather months come at a premium. Springtime, naturally enough, is fertile ground for names, with April, May and June all popular selections over the past 150 years. Yet the months don't stick together in fashion the way they do on the calendar. Check out this extraordinary cycle:

By this every-50-years pattern, we're due for a new month to surge around the 2020s. The problem is, we've run out of Spring. One possibility is to start over at May, a name which seems due for a renaissance. Another is to branch out into more adventurous seasons. Sure, the symbolism of Spring is a natural for expectant parents: growth, promise, and fresh beginnings. Parents of girls in particular like the image of blossoms and tenderness. But you could make a case for Autumn, too. Any new mother can relate to the idea of welcoming a bountiful harvest after months of hard labor. The sounds of the Autumn months, though, are a hard sell. So my dark horse candidate is January, which is both the birth of a fresh new year and a lyrical name with a traditional nickname (Jan, as opposed to Sept or Oct.)

And there's one other possibility, which is already hitting its stride. In the past generation, parents have started to throw over the months in favor of whole seasons:

Summer and Autumn are still climbing, and Winter has time for a surprise strike by the '20s to come.

Reinventing the wheel

Sep 2nd 2005

Take a look at these pairs of related names. How are the names in column A different from column B?

A / B
Afton / Ashton
Alina / Alida
Elle / Belle
Katlyn / Kathlyn
Nyla / Lyla
Dasia / Stasia
Stephany / Stephania
Willow / Willa

A / B
Denzel / Denzil
Addison / Edison
Dorian / Florian
Garret / Garnet
Tanner / Turner

In terms of sound, each pair of names is close as close can be--only a single sound distinguishes between them. Yet in terms of popular usage, they're polar opposites. The names in the left column are all trendy new creations. Once rare or unheard of, they've emerged as common names over the past generation. The near-twins in the right column, meanwhile, are antique relics. They hit the top-1000 popularity charts consistently 80+ years ago but have since sunk into obscurity.

Each pair of names has its own story, why the old and new seem so close, yet culturally far apart. Kathlyn was a blend of Kathryn and Kathleen, while Katlyn is an offshoot of Kaitlyn. Denzil was a traditional Cornish name, whereas Denzel is African-American on the model of actor Denzel Washington.

As a group, though, the right-hand names could pass for a 21st-century classroom. The girls in particular seem positively voguish. ("Afton and Kathlyn, meet Lyla and Belle.") Yet even as parents rush to revive antiques like Isabelle and Ella, these names haven't been resurrected. Rather, they've been reinvented from scratch. There's a perfectly fine name sitting on the scrap heap, ready to be good as new with a little loving care. *Sniff*. Perhaps some thrifty--or rather, tradition-minded--parents could consider this an opportunity to reduce, reuse, recyle.