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

Names, race, and economists

May 4th 2005

Last time, I talked about economist Steven Levitt's take on baby name fashion in the book Freakonomics. Names have suddenly become a hot topic with economists -- they seem to have wrenched the field out of the hands of psychologists and sociologists. Their single hottest subject is the "consequences" of having a distinctively black name. As the title of one paper asks, "Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?"

In 2003, a pair of researchers from Harvard and the University of Chicago sent out hundreds of resumés with either white-sounding or black-sounding names. The "white" resumés received 50% more callbacks for interviews, a seemingly dramatic consequence. Yet that same year, a different pair of researchers from, yes, Harvard and the University of Chicago, looked at life outcomes of people based on birth certificate data from the State of California. (The certificates indicated the parents' education level and other socioeconomic cues.) This study found no independent effect of distinctively black names .

As it happens, one of the authors of the second study was Levitt, who summarizes the result in Freakonomics. He dismisses the resumé study and all other field simulations, claiming "the audit studies can't be used to truly measure how much a name matters, the California names data can."

I read both papers when I was researching my book, The Baby Name Wizard. My initial reaction was that both painted names with a rather broad brush. All "black" names aren't created equal. Take two examples from Levitt's "blackest names" list, DeShawn and Terrance. Both may send the same skin-color signals, but they send very different cultural signals. (Just as, say, Beatrix and Shyanne are equally white names that send different cultural signals.) Look at Emily and Lakisha, from the title of the resumé paper. Emily, an old familiar classic, is the #1 name in America; Lakisha, an invention of the 1970s, has never cracked the top 1000. How can you compare such wildly different names and expect a pure reading on the effects of race?

Enter an economist from neither Harvard nor Chicago: David Figlio of the University of Florida. In 2004 Figlio looked at children in a large Florida school district, tracking signs of teachers' expectations of individual students: whether children were promoted to the next grade, for instance, or recommended for gifted programs. He rated names both for their racial makeup and their socioeconomic makeup. (By analyzing variables like parents' education level and economic status, he found that certain name characteristics were typical of a disadvantaged household.) And he focused especially on pairs of siblings, who had the same family background but often very different styles of names.

It's a remarkable bit of research wizardry, teasing apart the effects of names, race and socioeconomic status -- even the effect of the family that raises you. Figlio's findings showed that, indeed, all "black" names are not treated the same. A name like Dwayne, which was strongly African-American but carried no socioeconomic markers, didn't affect teachers' expectations. But a name like Da'Quan, with multiple signals of economic status, did. Teachers, consciously or not, drew inferences about the child's background and potential based on these naming signals. In Figlio's data, a pair of brothers named Dwayne and Da'Quan could expect subtly different treatment in school, which translated into different levels of scholastic success.

It's a useful demonstration for prospective name-and-number-crunchers that names carry a rich web of connotations. People are extremely sensitive to names' nuances: history, popularity, spelling, punctuation...everything speaks to our mental models of names and culture. There's a reason that parents agonize for months over name choices. It's not just a black or white question.