A NameVoyager Case Study: Adolph

Feb 9th 2005

My NameVoyager is designed to give you a sense of names as history. In certain cases you can see the stamp of a single individual -- type in Shirley to see the huge impact of Shirley Temple in the '30s. At the opposite extreme, you expect fo find names sunk by a negative personal association. So one of the most examined names in the Voyager is Adolph.

A few representative user posts:

"It's also funny to note the fortunes of names with political implications. Adolph appears to have been a somewhat popular name during the early part of the century, then plummets off the list in the 40's."

"Check out Adolph. It had a fairly precipitous drop in about 1940.. wonder why."

The odd part is, Adolph does not show a precipitous drop in the 1940s. Our intuition tells us it should, but in fact the name was already disappearing before then. The use of Adolph in America dropped 80% from 1900 to 1930, then slowly trickled off into oblivion by the late '60s. This is not to say that war with Germany played no part in the name's demise...but rather that we're looking at the wrong war.

In the 1890s and 1900s, German names were wildly popular with American parents. (Irish names play the same role today, so think of Gertrude as the Caitlin of her day.) With the dawn of the First World War, that generation of German hit names melted away. Try loading up the NameVoyager and typing Adolph. Then try Gertrude and Otto, and see how remarkably similar the patterns look. By and large, the more distinctly German the name, the faster it plummeted. The spelling Adolf disappeared completely during WWI along with names like Ernst and Ludwig.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing is that Adolph took so long to vanish from our shores. It's hard to imagine an American family circa 1950 naming a son Adolph, yet a good number did. The name was still close enough to its popularity peak that many parents still had Grandpa Adolphs, or other positive personal associations with the name. Half a century later, Adolph is virtually taboo and will doubtless remain that way...even as Otto prepares for a comeback.

Born January 13: A Bouncing Baby Urban Legend

Jan 28th 2005

Headlines from around the world, January 13, 2005:

"Webhead couple names baby Yahoo"
-Reuters, U.S.

"Yahoo! It's a boy"
-The Sun, U.K.

"Internet couple name baby Yahoo"
-Daily Times, Pakistan

Oops. Smaller headlines, January 24, 2005:

"Boohoo! Yahoo baby story was a fake"
-Reuters, U.S.

"Reporter fired for Yahoo baby hoax"

In case you missed it, the name heard 'round the world was supposedly selected by a Romanian couple who met online. It was actually a middle name: Lucian Yahoo Dragoman. (For my money, Lucian Dragoman is already a heck of a name on its own.) It was reported by the Bucharest paper Libertatea, and somehow became the biggest news story out of Romania in many moons.

Alas, it has been revealed that the reporter invented the whole story, and the newspaper, faced with an international embarassment, sacked him. My favorite part of the saga is this quote from the newspaper's editor:

"If it were real, it would have been a good story indeed."

Indeed! Perhaps American newspapers should lay off the ritual hand-wringing and self-flagellation when their reporters are caught fibbing, and just take the upbeat Romanian attitude: "Wouldn't it be way cool if it were true?"

But I digress.

When the story first broke, it spread like wildfire. Reports of little Yahoo spent days in the "most popular" and "most e-mailed" lists of news web sites. The boring, deflating retraction stories that followed never got any traction. It's fair to assume that thousands of people heard the initial story and never learned it was a fake. And there we have it: a brand new urban legend name, destined for a long life of telling and retelling.

But will it remain just a legend? I have to believe that somewhere out there is a real couple who really did meet on Yahoo Personals, and upon reading the news story--or even the retraction--said "Why not?" After all, it sounds great with Lucian.

Did you hear the new Top 100 Names? Not really.

Jan 24th 2005

Have you seen the headlines? Or maybe you heard the news on tv, or the radio: The Top 100 Baby Names of 2004!

One small problem: that information just isn't available. The Social Security Administration doesn't release its official figures until Spring '05. So what are hundreds of media outlets reporting on?

A Babycenter.com press release.

Give credit to the clever folks at Babycenter.com, a parenting web site owned by Johnson & Johnson. They looked at their many users, ready to answer polls and post birth announcements, and created an annual "BabyCenter Baby Names List." Then they sent out a press release announcing their top names.

What's wrong with this? Not a thing, and The Baby Name Wizard would doubtless do the same if she could get away with it. The problem is the press, large and small, happily reported these lists as "the most popular baby names in America in 2004." Despite the clear-cut, in-your-face evidence that Babycenter's lists are not a snapshot of America's babies. Listen up, reporters:

There are no Spanish names on the list.

In 2003, America's real top 100 boys' names included:
Alejandro, Antonio, Carlos, Diego, Jesus, José, Juan, Luis, and Miguel.
Not a one made Babycenter's list, in 2003 or 2004.

Whatever Babycenter is reporting on, it isn't America's babies. Their press release gives no clue where the names came from or how they were gathered. At best, they're names chosen by a self-selected sample of the kind of people who like Babycenter. (And I count myself among those, by the way.) We know it's a radically skewed sample, excluding Latino parents among others. At worst, we don't know that the babies they're reporting on even exist, since anyone can post to a public web site...any number of times.

It's a small problem in the grand scheme of things. But here at Baby Name Wizard Central, where name data is our bread and butter, we shed a silent tear for the parents basing their name choices on what they think is real data, because the news told them so.