Pop-Culture Name Triggers of the Year

May 19th 2005

Do celebrities really influence baby names? After all, the top names in America, Jacob and Emily, are hardly stripped from the headlines. In general, the most popular names reflect a general cultural zeitgeist that's more powerful than any single celebrity.

You do see the celebrity influence, not in the most common names, but the most changed names. If hundreds of parents suddenly all have the same idea, chances are they all got that idea from the same place. And chances are that place is their television.

Some parents may choose a celebrity name in homage to their favorite star. More often, though, people simply take a liking to a name when they hear it. Watching Charlize Theron stride to the Oscar podium in a slinky gown, the thought wafts across the nation: "Charlize, that's a pretty name!" The celebrity plants the seed, but the name has its own life.

I did some quick calculations to find the 20 names that rose most dramatically between 2002 and 2004. (In case you care, I calculated rise as a function of the percentage change and the log of the absolute change. Ah, didn't care after all? Nevermind, then.) Sure enough, most of the top rising names had a clear pop-culture trigger during that time. The triggers ranged from the serious (Laci Peterson's murder) to the silly (Paris Hilton's...well, everything.)

Here is a handy cultural reference chart to guide you through the young Ashtons and Keiras in your neighborhood:

NameEventAshton (male)2002-2004: General-purpose celebrity Ashton Kutcher stars in a series of films, tv series, gossip columns.Charlize2004: South African actress Charlize Theron wins the Best Actress Academy Award, experiences the Halle Berry Memorial Name Surge.Dayanara2002: Former Miss Universe Dayanara Torres and singer Marc Anthony hold huge cathedral wedding. 2004: Torres and Anthony divorce, amid his romance with Jennifer Lopez.Dylan (female)2000, 2003: Drew Barrymore plays the character Dylan in two Charlie's Angels movies, establishing the name's "pretty tomboy" credentials.Jamarion2002: Singing group B2K, featuring *Omarion (née Omari) debuts. (*Name Omarion instantly soars in 2002, soon followed by variants Amarion, Damarion, Demarion and Jamarion.)Kanye2004: Rapper Kanye West's The College Dropout is one of the top albums of the year; 10 Grammy nominations create publicity flood that threatens coastlines.Keira2003, 2004: British actress Keira Knightly breaks out in Hollywood films Pirates of the Caribbean, King Arthur. (Lest you think Americans are the only ones to care, the name Keira soars especially dramatically in the U.K.)Laci2002: Laci Peterson announced missing. 2004: Husband Scott Peterson convicted of murder.Maddox2002: Actress Angelina Jolie adopts a baby boy, names him Maddox.Norah2002, 2004: Singer Norah Jones releases first two albums, wins armload of Grammys.Paris2003-4: General-purpose celebrity Paris Hilton's personal life is revealed in an array of media including home videos, electronic organizers, and the tv series "The Simple Life."Roselyn2002-2004: Actress Roselyn Sanchez stars in a series of films and tv series.Sanaa2002-4: Actress Sanaa Lathan stars in a series of films including Out of Time and Alien vs. PredatorSherlyn2002, 2004: Mexican actress/singer Sherlyn González stars in a series of telenovelas.

The Age of Aidans

May 12th 2005

Looking at the most popular American baby names of 2004, one name leaps out at me....or rather, one sound. A whopping 33 different names rhyming with Aidan made the boys' top 1000 list. (And that doesn't even count the near misses, like Dayton-Payton-Layton-Clayton-Treyton.) That number is up from 28 Aidan-esque names in 2003, and just one 20 years ago.

Such an overwhelmingly fashionable name sound is unprecedented. Now before you start dwelling on all the little Kristens, Kristas and Christines you knew in the '70s, I should make it clear: the remarkable part of the Aidan phenomenon is that we're talking about boys' names.

Traditionally, male names have been much less subject to the whims of fashion than female names. Parents were always more conservative in naming boys, and less likely to view their name choice as a style statement. Styles would change, but relatively slowly. Mary, Lisa, Jennifer, Jessica, Ashley and Emily all spent time as America's #1 girl's name during Michael's long reign as the top choice for boys. Yet last year, the majority of the new names debuting in the top 1000 lists were male names. And in a clear nod to fashion, two thirds of those new names ended with the letter N. In fact, more than a third of all the names on the boys' 1000 now end in N.

I've said before that androgynous names are a one-way street: parents like boyish names for girls, not girlish names for boys. But even as we choose more and more traditionally masculine names for girls, the way we approach naming our boys is moving toward the traditionally "feminine." Today, parents are extremely fashion-conscious with their sons' names as well as their daughters -- a first glimpse, perhaps, at how this generation will be raised.

For the curious or incredulous, here is the full 2004 Aidan-esque honor roll (boys only):

Aden Aidan Aiden Aydan Ayden Aydin
Braden Bradyn Braeden Braedon Braiden Brayden Braydon
Caden Caiden Cayden Kaden Kadin Kaeden Kaiden Kayden
Haden Haiden Hayden
Jaden Jadon Jadyn Jaeden Jaiden Jaidyn Jayden Jaydin Jaydon

The top names of 2004

May 7th 2005

The Social Security Administration has announced the most popular American baby names of 2004. The top spots are unchanged: Emily and Jacob are still #1.

49 new names made debuts in the top 1000 lists. Many were variations on familiar themes (Aydin, Jaydin, Haiden) or hybrid offspring of other popular names (Gracelyn, Jayleen), while several of the highest debuts were celebrity-inspired (Kanye, Charlize). Indian names also continue to come on strong (Rishi, Diya).

I'll be preparing the data for an update of the NameVoyager, and of course reporting my obsessive musings on the new names here. In the meantime, here are today's top 20:

GIRLSBOYSEmily Jacob Emma Michael Madison Joshua Olivia Matthew Hannah Ethan Abigail Andrew Isabella Daniel Ashley William SamanthaJoseph ElizabethChristopher