Of storms and style

Jul 28th 2005

A reader, watching radar images of swirling winds, sent in an intriguing question: have names of hurricanes influenced parents' baby name choices?

The U.S. National Weather Service has been naming hurricanes to aid tracking since 1953. Lists are set in advance with an alphabetical set of names assigned to each year. All storms received female names until 1979 when, realizing that men too are capable of widespread destruction, the NWS switched to alternating sexes.

On the face of it, a calamitous storm seems an unlikely choice to inspire parents' name choices. You might expect a name's popularity to dip after an association with death and disaster. Yet there's also the simple exposure effect to consider. A name that tops the headlines day after day could rise to the top of parents' consciousness.

In fact, you can see both the positive and negative effects in U.S. hurricane/baby history. The net impact, I believe, depends on the name's baseline popularity -- how familiar it sounded before the storm. A classic, familiar name doesn't benefit much from media exposure because it's already at ceiling for public awareness. So the overall impact of a hurricane with a name like Andrew is neutral to negative (green bar=storm year):

But for a name with a lower profile, the media boost is huge and can translate to a sharp rise in the name. Hurricane Camille lashed the Southeast in 1969:

I rather expected to see a second split in name effects based on geography. It seemed reasonable that parents who hear the news but are far removed from the destruction might lean more toward the name, while parents in the eye of the storm would stay away. But take a look at the numbers for Texas, which bore the brunt of Hurricane Alicia in 1983:

It's an impressive demonstration that "any publicity is good publicity." Yet not just any name will rise with the tides. Even the biggest storm won't rescue a name that's already fallen dramatically out of fashion, like Floyd in 1999. Looking ahead to names on the 2005-2007 lists, I wouldn't expect a revival of Harvey or Wilma. But a major storm named Ophelia, Rafael or Felix could leave plenty of namesakes in its wake.

In defense of the ordinary

Jul 21st 2005

A reader recently pointed me to an article that neatly links two recent topics here. The Washington Post reported that Factiva has tallied the top names for corporate chief executives: John, James and Robert. Well, the average CEO was born in 1948, and the top three names that year were...John, James and Robert. It's eerily reminiscent of the recent Barclay's Bank report on the highest-earning names, and my own comments on the most common names of presidents. In each case, the top names of the top dogs were the same as the top names of the general population.

I'll forgive you a yawn at this steady progression of non-news. Woo-hoo, the null hypothesis holds again! But as we watch the predictable rise of these predictable names, it's worth noting an important phenomenon:

Having ordinary names didn't ruin their lives.

As 21st-century parents, most of us want our kids' names to be distinctive. We feel that impulse as a matter of personal taste: you just happen to be the type to prefer unusual names. A widespread "individual" preference reveals an unspoken cultural norm.

I hear it most often in the form of protecting a child from excessive ordinariness. "I don't want her to have to be 'Jenny C.' in school," parents tell me. Fear of not fitting in, meanwhile, seems to be vanishing (among parents, not among kids). I don't claim to be immune to the trend myself -- I never considered the names Bob or Jim for my kids. Yet there are studies that suggest that kids with odd names may fare worse than kids with ordinary names, and we've just seen that the corridors of power are filled with the most ordinary names around. So for the sake of equal time, a reminder that "ordinary" names can also be:

  • Timeless. Ernestine sounded like a fresh, fabulous idea around 1920. Today, it still sounds like someone born in 1920. Meanwhile names like Catherine and Elizabeth, which were far more common, actually sound fresher...because they didn't have a "freshness date" that passed.

  • Unassailable. Any politician can tell you the practical virtues of the middle of the road. The reality is that if some people ooh and ahh in ecstatic surprise over your name choice, that means others will hate it. When you name your son William, nobody's going to jump up and down (except maybe your father Bill). But nobody's ever, ever going to form a negative impression of him based on that name. That goes beyond schoolyard teasing to job interviews, blind dates, and the thousands of snap-judgment opportunities he'll face through his life.
  • Flexible. Picture a boy named Maverick. What is he like? How about a girl named Daisy-Sue? Now try to picture a boy named Tom. The core classic names are blank slates, free of preconceptions. Like neutral colors, they don't clash with anything. That may seem boring, but it can also be freeing...Maverick, ironically, is the less free name. (It tells you you're not allowed to walk the straight and narrow.)
  • Strong. Ironically, the declining use of the popular classics has sharpened their image. Now that names like Angel and Ashlyn outpace Margaret and Anne, the classics no longer sound like defaults. They sound strong and self-confident, because they've ignored passing trends.

    None of this is intended as a manifesto against creative naming. It's simply a reminder that all common names are not created equal. The names that have remained common for generation after generation have unique virtues. It's not just about where a name is now, but where it's been and where it's going.
  • Presidential Recount

    Jul 16th 2005

    In response to reader comments on presidential names, an extra tally:


  • One reader noted the decline of the classic presidential first names. Four names have been shared by three or more presidents: James, John, William and George. The simplest explanation for the dominance of these "big four" is that they are, probably, the four most common names for men across American history. ("Probably" because of sketchy data and different ways to measure.)


    Even so, the concentration of these top classics among presidents is mighty high. They've accounted for over a third of the 42 men who have served as U.S. president, but just a fifth of the general male population. They're still holding strong in the White House: 5 of the of the last 10 presidents held one of the big 4 names. But look at the trend overall:

    The big four aren't alone in their fall. Remember that the leadership credentials of those names actually predate the American republic. They are all names of kings of England, a list that dominated American names for generations but plummeted in the past 50 years. You'll see the same pattern in kingly names like like Edward and Charles which have never seen the oval office.

    And a few brief notes:


  • The biggest effect of presidential names comes when the president isn't a John or James. Unconventional choices like Woodrow and Lyndon typically see big rises, whereas the more common names are barely affected.



  • There is one classic presidential forename that is completely American. It's a name born by two different U.S. presidents, with no kingly antecedents. (Got it yet?) It's an all-American homage, the surname of a founding father. (Now you've got it, right?) The name Franklin may not be fashionable, but it surely is presidential.



  • Occasionally, even losing presidential candidates have seen their surnames immortalized. Bryan rose in 1896, Hughes in 1916, Landon in 1936. Alf Landon garnered only eight electoral votes in '36 but hundreds of namesakes -- enough to make Landon the 422nd most popular boy's name of the year.



  • And a final follow-up, to the reader who suggested that the name Tyler might owe more to the city of Tyler, Texas than to President John Tyler. In fact, Tyler, Texas was named after John Tyler!