Stalking fashion's foe

Sep 30th 2005

The most common question about names is "what makes a name become popular"? (Actually that might be the third most common question, after "did you hear about the twins Oranjello and Lemonjello" and "what's up with Apple???," but indulge me anyway.) Today, for a change of pace, let's turn the question on its head. What makes a name unpopular? Why do we hear Myrtle and Gertrude and instantly say "no way"?

If you want a single rule of thumb for designing a 21st-century name, it's to make sure the consonants don't touch. Look at the middle of Myrtle, Mildred and Gertrude and you'll find three consonant sounds clustered together. Those tongue-challenging clusters were perfectly fashionable back in the 1890s, but today they're a rare breed. From Madison to Olivia, Emily to Alexis, we're sending our consonants out solo.

Can a single pair of sounds really be enough to sink a name? Right now yes, especially if the pair is heavy on the soft voiced letters L, M, N, R and W. (For all you linguists, that's the "liquids," "glides" and "nasals.")

Take a look at the usage of L* pairs:

And when you pair two of the demon sounds together, the effect is even stronger. It's fertile ground for the kind of names that are exclusively comic relief today: Merwin, Delmer, Durward.

So what is the single least fashionable sound of the moment? It's not enough for it to be unusual. It must be fallen from a great height, a once-common sound now relegated to the fashion cellar. There are many fine candidates, from FL at the start of names (Floyd) to RV in the center (Orville). But the nod goes to LM in the middle:

The only LM-centered name that stands much of a chance today is Alma, which clears out all other consonants from the vicinity. By the same token, Elden sounds more viable than Eldred, Flora more current than Florence. If you're using a consonant cluster today, you have to give it room to breathe.

The Red and the Blue

Sep 22nd 2005

After writing about country names and city names last week, I fielded a flood of requests for a "red-blue" analysis. For those of you not immersed in American politics, charting red vs. blue has become something of a national pastime since the 2004 presidential election. Just take a U.S. map, shade the areas favoring the Republican party in red, the Democratic party in blue...and a glance at the map will show you that politics isn't the only thing dividing those regions.

The Red states cut a vast swath through the middle of the country, occupying the majority of the geographic territory. The Blue states tend to be concentrated on the coasts, including major urban centers. Blue-staters are more likely to have college degrees and six-figure incomes, but red-staters have a much lower cost of living. And on it goes.

So naturally, the red and blue regions differ in their naming choices, too. The differences actually represent several underlying name cultures (look for a full U.S. naming map here soon), but some broad patterns emerge. I've tallied up a dozen of the reddest and bluest names in America--names with the biggest popularity gap between the top Republican states and the top Democratic states. First, the girls:

BLUE GIRLSRED GIRLSIsabellaHannahKaylaAlexisSophiaHaileyAshleyAbigailSarahAlyssaJuliaLaurenSamanthaTaylorOliviaElizabethJessicaEmilyLilyChloeKatherineAnnaCarolineEmma

Some of the differences reflect the racial diversity of blue states like California and New York. Kayla, for instance, owes its ranking largely to African-American and Latino families. (It's the #1 name for black girls in New York City.) Latino and Asian parents, meanwhile, tend to favor the girls' names that dominated the '80s, like Ashley and Jessica. White blue-state families (or is that blue white-state families?) lean heavily toward gentle antiques like Olivia, Lily and Caroline.

The red girls' list leads with Hannah, an Old Testament/Hebrew Bible name that was seldom heard until the '90s. (It's worth noting here that Hannah, like many of the names on the list, is popular in blue states too--but it averages #13 in blue, #5 in red.) The red list also features several names that started out as male names (Alexis) or surnames (Hailey, Taylor) and have emerged suddenly as girls' hits. Keep those two themes in mind as you look at the boys:

BLUE BOYSRED BOYSRyanEthanNicholasLoganAnthonyTylerMatthewSamuelDanielJacobChristopherHunterJohnJamesJosephAustinMichaelJacksonNoahNathanAlexanderIsaacKevinGabriel

The red boys' list is a marvel of consistency. Except for James, every name either is from the Old Testament or is a common surname. It's notable that Republican voters are more likely to strongly identify themselves as Christians, yet the strongly Christian-identified names--John, Christopher, Matthew--are stacked on the Democratic side. (Even the name Christian leans blue.)

Overall, the blue boys are varied in origin but steady and traditional. Unlike the blue girls, the boys' names are used relatively evenly across races. And unlike the red boys, almost all of the blue boys' names were as common 30 years ago as they are today.

The strength of tradition seems to be biggest theme dividing red and blue names. Red staters are more prone to neologize--to create new names from surnames (Tanner), place names (Brooklyn), or simply appealing sounds (Kaden). Blue staters are more likely to stick to traditional naming stock. Even when they seek fresh territory, it's among traditional first names: antiques (Ava) or foreign imports (Gianna). In other words, the political conservatives turn out to be the naming activists, and the political progressives are the naming conservatives.

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.