Neutral colors

Nov 26th 2005

Picture three American girls: Guadalupe, Imani and Bridget. The names are all quite close in popularity. But in your mind's eye, do the girls all look the same? Chances are not, because the popularity of those names depends hugely on race.

Just about every demographic slice--geographic, ethnic, religious--has its own naming patterns, and race is no exception. Researchers and baby name authors often try to track these differences, coming up with race-specific name lists. You'll even find tallies of the "whitest" and "blackest" names based on birth records. But what about the reverse? What names tell you the least about the person's race?

I started with data on baby name choices in two diverse U.S. metropolitan areas, sorted into racial groups. My targets were names parents of all colors agree on -- names used most evenly across races. As it turns out, the most popular names overall are not necessarily the most universal. Even the #1 baby name in America, Jacob, is favored primarily by one racial group (whites). Names with roughly equal appeal to White, Black, Latino and Asian families include:



These names could be attractive options for parents who are negotiating conflicting tastes in multicultural families. There's also an appeal to any name that can move smoothly through many different social settings...and one that is unlikely to trigger prejudices.

But there are other people besides expectant parents who have to choose names: business people. If your ad for birth announcements had room for just one example name, how would you choose? You could go with a timeless classic, a particularly eye-catching name, or to be current, the #1 most popular baby name. (Or perhaps the #2 -- Emma is the dominant choice in ads right now.) But you might also want to consider a name that everyone can relate to and nobody will feel put off by. For a name that's favored by all and favors none, try Jonathan and Victoria...or, for if you pay for ad space by the inch, Ian and Mia.

The sound of androgyny

Nov 17th 2005

In her Oz adventures, Dorothy encountered cyclones and earthquakes, witches and wizards, and all manner of miraculous happenings. She accepted the incredible with great aplomb. But one odd occurrence she simply could not accept: a woman named Bill. Even if that "woman" happened to be a talking chicken.

"But it's all wrong, you know," declared Dorothy, earnestly; "and, if you don't mind, I shall call you 'Billina.' Putting the 'eena' on the end makes it a girl's name, you see."

Dorothy met Bill the yellow hen in the wonderful Ozma of Oz back in 1907. Today androgynous names are much more common, with more and more male names adopted for girls' use every year. Addison, Skyler and Bailey are just a few of the many names that sounded solidly masculine a generation ago, but now rank in the "who can tell?" category. Yet a girl named Bill sounds just as unlikely today as she did in 1907.

Parents are selective in their gender flipping. Androgynous names make up a distinctive style with key elements in common. I tallied up 33 names that were in use exclusively for boys 40-50 years ago, but now sound androgynous or feminine. 23 of the 33 turn out to have surname origins--Parker, Kelsey, Peyton. The others include: names with sounds and rhythms typical of female names (Avery, Aubrey); names that seemed new and unusual 50 years ago and emerged into popularity for boys and girls simultaneously (Devin, Darian); and nicknames, a group which has always been more fluid with gender assignments (Drew, Alex).

Meanwhile the traditional English boys' names remain steadfastly masculine. If you look at the most popular names of 100 years ago, from #1 John to #200 Roscoe, only two names--Lee and Marion--would give you a moment's gender confusion.

For a quick gauge of a name's modern androgyny potential, picture a boy in a rough-and-tumble playground a century ago. Give him the name in question. Then ask yourself: "what are the chance this name gets the kid beaten up?" Today's androgynous names are yesterday's "fancy" names, the too-precious monikers that stood out in a field of Tom, Dick and Harrys. Even names that have become masculine standards in the ensuing years, such as Cameron, retain an echo of fanciness that leaves them open to reassignment. And as for the classic fancy-lad names, girls named Chauncey and Chesley are doubtless right around the corner.

But the classic boys will still be boys. And Bills will still be roosters, not hens.

Pop quiz: nicknames

Nov 12th 2005

Two girls in my daughter's class share the same name, so the teachers use their last initials to distinguish them. That's hardly a news flash, I know. It's the same in classes across the country. But a bit ironic in this case because of the name: Elizabeth.

Once upon a time, England was so thick with Elizabeths that elaborate means were needed to tell them all apart. As a result, the name boasts an unparalleled collection of nicknames. Bess, Beth, Betsy, Betty, Eliza, Elsie, Libby, Lise, Liz, Lizbeth...there's an Elizabeth to fit any mood. Yet in this nickname-averse age, we stick with the full version and resort to last initials.

The traditional nicknames aren't all dying out, though. You'll still meet many a young Eliza or Lizbeth, but chances are it's her full given name. A Tessa, similarly, is unlikely to be Theresa nowadays, and a Jack is seldom John. In fact, we've gotten so comfortable with many nicknames that they've become untethered from their origins. It's been going on for generations--just look at the thousands of Minnies of the 1800s, worlds removed from staid Wilhelmina. (And Minnie's friend Mickey was probably never called Michael.) So a little quiz for you: what full name was the traditional source of...


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Answers (you didn't peek ahead, did you?)

Buffy: Elizabeth, naturally
Colin: Nicholas (also adopted as a form of the Gaelic Cailean)
Dolly: Dorothy
Jenny: Jane or Jean (long before Jennifer)
Maisie: Margaret (via the Scottish Mairead)
Nancy: Anne (and earlier, Annis/Agnes)
Nell: Helen or Eleanor
Polly: Mary (via Molly)
Sally: Sarah