The more things stay the same

May 4th 2006

William is a rock-solid classic that has never slipped from the top 20 list of American boys' names. But behind that steady facade lurks a wild up-and-down fashion ride. Because until recently, boys named William weren't actually called William. They were Will or Willie, Bill or Billy -- and nickname fashion is fickle.

A century ago the W nicknames of William ruled, so much so that they became hit names on their own. Incredibly, the given name Willie was more popular in 1910 than any name is today. By the 20s, though, the tide was turning. Bill was the more contemporary choice, and it became one of the standard casual names of the mid-20th century.

Then the late '60s hit, and Bill began a freefall. With the generation gap widening, a standard guy of your father's or grandfather's era was just not cool. All the mainstream classics were affected, but their nicknames most dramatically. Names like Bill, Jim and Bob fell off a cliff, as nicknames and given names.

And today? William is still holding on as a popular given name, but the everyday form of the name has splintered. In some families, old-fashioned Will is making a comeback. Others are demanding the full William. And a growing few are using the truncated Irish form Liam as a nickname. You can see it all playing out in the stats:

The real cultural shift is probably even bigger than it looks, because the graph only counts given names. When your given name falls out of fashion, you live with it. A nickname is easier to change, so chances are a lot of young Bills turned themselves into Wills or Williams during their teenage years. (And even more Dicks became Ricks.) All of which points to a funny fact about classic names: one way to stay steady and timeless is by changing with the times.

Kayli, meet Wylliem: creative spelling, part 2

Apr 27th 2006

Two posts ago, we were talking about names with multiple spellings. (Don't recall? Go ahead and refresh your memory, I'll wait. Hum-de-dum-de-dum.)

Ok, so I did my best to show that creative spellings have been around for ages. But are they multiplying today? And if so, do they account for the seeming decline in name conformity I've talked about in the past?

This turns out to be a question you can measure in 100 different ways to produce whatever answer you want. But here's my take on what's really going on:

Your average boy today does bear a more spelling-malleable name than in past generations. (The change for girls is in the same direction, but smaller.) This apparent rise in creative spelling, however, is not the cause of the declining "conformity curve." Rather, both changes are effects of the same fashion phenomenon -- and it's not about spelling at all, but about names.

Let's start at the top. By official figures, Jacob has been the clear #1 name in America since 1999. But some lists that combine variants claim that Aidan/Aiden should be the "real" #1. To test the theory that spelling is the story, I plotted all the spellings of Aidan against the last single-spelling #1 name, 1953's Robert:

Yes, that's the Aidans down on the right. No matter how you slice it, a #1 name just isn't what it used to be. And most of the kreatively spelled names don't come close to Aidan's popularity. Six different spellings of Jaylin rank among the top 1000 girls' names, but if you add them all up the name still doesn't approach the top 100. So I don't think the declining conformity curve is merely a spelling phenomenon. But I do think that the spellings point toward something big.

Most American names have always been malleable, and the fresher the name, the more malleable it is. When a new hit sound climbs the charts it typically comes in multiple versions. Over time one or two spellings may become standard...unless the name dies out before it has a chance to settle in.

Meanwhile a small group of classic names, notably English monarchs, are spelled in stone. Ten English monarch names with highly rigid spellings have been popular American baby names. Take a look at their usage over time:

That's a major population-wide shift in just those ten names, down from 20% of babies born to 2%. I think this is the key to the story: we've lopped off the reliable top of the name curve. It's not so much that we're embracing wild spellings as that we're rejecting the kinds of names that you can't respell.

That might seem like splitting hairs, but it's a big difference. If America were just going on a spelling spree you would be seeing a generation named Wylliem, Henreigh, and Jaimz. We're rejecting the style of the names, the common, traditional feeling of them. Once you reject the core English naming stock, you inevitably find yourself in the realm where spellings are varied and evolving. There is no "wrong" spelling of Brayden as there is of the real decision is naming your son Brayden instead of William to begin with.

Celebrity Baby Names Revealed!

Apr 20th 2006

I interrupt today's scheduled statistical analysis with a breaking news bulletin.

Ladies and gentlemen, it's celebrity baby season. The (movie) stars have aligned so that an unusual number of famous people are giving birth all around us. And that means an unusual number of articles trumpeting the weirdness of celebrity baby names. Even when the names aren't so weird. Reading all the "wacky Gwyneth's done it again" columns, you'd think she named her son Banana rather than the biblical classic Moses.

The weird-name hysteria reached its zenith with a long piece by Alex Williams in this Sunday's New York Times. The thesis:

"It seems almost unimaginable for any 21st-century movie star to send his children out among the Hollywood elite equipped with ordinary names"

Any American who lived through 2005, when overhyped Hollywood babies named Sean and Violet were born, knows that statement is simply ridiculous. But the writer sticks to it doggedly, "proving" the point with such Hollywood luminaries as Shannyn Sossamon and Penn Jillette. (Surely Penn Jillette is no closer to the mainstream of Hollywood than he is to the mainstream of anything else.) In fact, every article like this trots out the same minor celebrities to prove that all Hollywood is wacko. If you read only baby name articles, you'd be convinced that Shannyn Sossamon is the queen of Hollywood and that Britney Spears conveniently doesn't exist.

Why should you care whether Shannyn Sossamon is elevated to royalty? Let's take a look at what the Times piece does next. Having briskly concluded that all celebrities choose wacko names, the writer goes on to offer an explanation for the phenomenon: it demonstrates a vast, universal character flaw. You see, celebrities all like crazy names because they all have gigantic egos, and are even willing to sacrifice their children's well-being to prove that they're above normal people. Ah. In other words, the wacky-name fixation is taken as a great excuse to bash people.

In the name of civility, I'm going to pose a question that I've never seen asked in any article on weird celebrity baby names: What do celebrities name their children?

For an impartial answer, I've adopted the Forbes Celebrity 100 as my fame-o-meter. To make my roster of A-list moms and dads you have to be a peformer, under 50, American, and listed by name among the top 40 in the Celebrity 100 during the past four years.

The 18 parents who make the cut are household names. Their 38 kids, by and large, are not. (Quick, can you name Jim Carrey's child? Did you even know he had one?)

The real celebrity baby name list:

Ben Affleck:

Jim Carrey:

Tom Cruise:
Isabella, Connor, Suri

Johnny Depp:
Lily, Jack

P Diddy:
Justin, Christian


Will Ferrell:

Tom Hanks:
Colin, Elizabeth, Chester, Truman

Angelina Jolie:
Maddox, Zahara

Lisa Kudrow:

Lourdes, Rocco

Eddie Murphy:
Bria, Miles, Shayne, Zola

Rosie O'Donnell:
Parker, Chelsea

Julia Roberts:
Hazel, Phinnaeus

Ray Romano:
Alexandra, Gregory, Matthew, Joseph

Meg Ryan:
Jack, Daisy

Will Smith:
Willard III ("Trey"), Jaden, Willow

Britney Spears:

About 75% of American babies receive names in the top 1000, same as the celebrities on the list. Some of the other 25% in each group are unusual, but fairly normal. (For instance Will Ferrell's wife is Swedish, and Magnus is a classic mainstream name in Sweden.) And some in each group are truly eye-popping, like Sossamon's son Audio Science and the several American boys named ESPN.

Hollywood may indeed have a higher wacky rate, as you'd expect from a community of creative artists...I'd need a much bigger sample to say for sure. Even so, Jacks and Isabellas clearly outnumber Audios by a huge margin. As for the wacky few, do they really point to egos run amok? Could be. But it's not so obvious to me that naming your child Audio shows more ego than naming him -- traditionally, conservatively -- after yourself.