Baby Name Time Machine: The Hottest Names of 1957

Jan 2nd 2014

1957 was the peak of America's baby boom. The year's #1 song was Elvis Presley's "All Shook Up"; the top tv series was I Love Lucy; and the hottest baby name of the year was...unknown. National baby name statistics simply didn't exist back then.

Today we're going to right that old wrong. Thanks to today's wealth of name data, we can turn back the clock and calculate the hottest baby names of 1957.

What Names Go With These Outfits?

(1957 Vanity Fair, via Tumblr)

"Hotness" is more than just popularity. Mary was still the most common name for American girls in '57, but it was falling fast as a new generation of names took hold. To grasp the year's fashion zeitgeist, you have to look at popularity change. Based on the BNW Hotness formula, the fastest rising names of 1957 were:

#1 Tammy
#2 Tammie
#3 Tammi
#4 Tami
#5 Cindy
#6 Tamie

Could there be any clearer sign of the sound of the times?

Elvis may have been music's King in 1957, but the rest of the top 40 featured the softer sounds of Pat Boone, Perry Como, and Debbie Reynolds. Reynolds' recording of "Tammy," the sweet, girlish theme song from her film Tammy and the Bachelor, was everywhere, and parents clearly loved the image it projected. The lone interloper in the Tammy-full name chart, Cindy, sticks to the same sunny, carefree style. Scanning down for the top boys' names, the cheeriness continues:

Fastest-Rising Boys' Names of 1957

1. Mike
2. Jeff
3. Tim
4. Greg
5. Tom
6. Kyle

Mike and Jeff weren't just stand-ins for Michael and Jeffrey; the popularity of the formal names was flat from the previous year. For a perfect illustration of the '57 mindset, consider Tammy-launcher Debbie Reynolds. The name Debbie rode the same wave, becoming the 15th hottest girls name. But the full name Deborah was the #1 fastest-falling name...and Debra was #2.

The celebrity effect of Debbie Reynolds wasn't a net increase in Debbies, but rather a jettisoning of formality. Her famous example freed parents to follow their hearts straight to the nickname, the part they really wanted.

Nicknames as a group are friendly, likeable, and approachable. In our "who would you rather have a beer with" era of politics, nicknames have also become de rigeur for office seekers. Running under a nickname signals that you're a man of the people: "You can trust me, I'm just like you."

The hot 1957 boys' names are a particular slice of the nickname spectrum. They're nicknames, but not diminutives; Tim and Tom rather than Timmy and Tommy. Those one-syllable names are the typical handles of salespeople. They project confidence and competence along with their friendly cheer. In 1957 Tim outpaced Timmy by a factor of 5:1...while Debbie outpaced Deb by a factor of 83:1.

Put it all together and the hottest names of 1957 suggest a cheerful outlook, easy confidence, and a desire to be liked and fit in. For boys that meant competence; for girls, cuteness. An age of optimism, security, and conformity, with a dash of gender inequality. At least that's what the names say.

The 2013 Name of the Year

Dec 18th 2013

We close out the naming year by recognizing the 2013 Name of the Year:


As Time Magazine wrote when they declared Pope Francis their Person of the Year: "This papacy begins with a name."

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On the day Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina was elected pope, one observer responded to his choice of name:

"(E)arly reaction is that the new pope has managed to send two very different messages at once. The image of St. Francis of Assisi makes the name Francis a strong symbol of poverty, humility, simplicity, and stewardship of nature. Yet the decision to step outside of the papal lineage and link himself directly to figures like Francis of Assisi and Francis Xavier suggests a leader who isn't afraid to break new ground and shake up 'business as usual.' In other words, the name manages to present the pontiff and his church as both thoroughly modest and thoroughly bold."

That assessment comes from this very Baby Names Blog, on the day of the papal election. A year into Francis's reign, it appears to be a prescient forecast. I say this not to call myself an oracle; other name-based analyses drew very similar conclusions. I point it out, rather, to illustrate the depth of meaning that names carry.

Vatican watchers who tried to forecast the priorities of the new pope based on his lifetime of service to the church found a more complicated picture. Cardinal Bergoglio was the first Jesuit pope, and the first pope from Latin America. He lived a humble life, devoted to the poor and eschewing the trappings of power, but was also a doctrinal conservative and staunch opponent of new social justice-oriented movements in the church. He was faulted by some for not speaking out against the Argentine government during the "dirty war" of the '70s and '80s, yet he earned the ire of the country's president with strong words against a proposal to allow adoption by same-sex couples.

Writers who delved into this history typically described it as "complex," and one profile introduced Francis as "a pope of paradox." But in the words of a reader who supported the nomination of Francis as Name of the Year:

"In one name, Cardinal Bergoglio told us who he is and what kind of a pope he would be."

According to a a church spokesman, Pope Francis chose his name in honor of St. Francis of Assisi. That Francis began his life as a pleasure-loving, glory-seeking son of privilege. After a deep spiritual conversion, he was called by God to "rebuild my church" in a life of selfless poverty and humility. He has long stood as a symbol of commitment to peace and unity, to spiritual renewal within the church, and above all to selfnesses and dedication to the poor and vulnerable.

Despite the name's deep resonance in Catholicism, there had never before been a Pope Francis. One vatican observer called the choice "stunning" and "precedent shattering." The picture it painted, though, was of the gentlest kind of revolution: a movement toward caring, humility and unity.

This ability to signal institutional direction and "brand identity" with a personal name was a major theme of 2013. The choice of of a name for the new heir to the British throne similarly became a "rebranding" opportunity for that monarchy. Choosing George, the quintessentially English name of six kings and of the country's patron saint, was as an act of reclamation of tradition. That simple baby name was as potent a symbol of pride and history as any palace or royal wedding could be.

The symbolic weight of naming a prince and a pope may seem far removed from the typical decision process of expectant parents. Yet the gap between branding and baby naming is shrinking. The "audience" for a baby name is shifting, from the inward-facing target of your own family and community to an outward-facing focus on the way the name will be perceived in life's marketplace. When you ask what name will get your child noticed, or hired, or admired; which name says "smart" or "free-spirited" or "tough," you are thinking very much like a brand namer.

Pope Francis demonstrates that this is far from a trivial decision. Our kids' names may not carry an entire global church on their backs, but they do sent rich signals, and those signals are received loud and clear. As I wrote about papal name speculation before the pope was chosen, "It's a stark illustration of the power of names: the ability to express an entire philosophy of faith and leadership in a single word."


With best wishes for the naming year ahead,

He's Making a List, He's Checking it Twice

Dec 12th 2013


The Christmas season is full of joy, giving, and name lists. In the past I've shared my fascination with Santa's list of "good boys and girls" in a Rudolph the Red-Nost Reindeer book. I also torment my family by stopping to ponder store displays like this vintage-style Santa:

And I've wasted more time than I'd like to admit over these lines from the song "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas":

"A pair of Hopalong boots and a pistol that shoots
Is the wish of Barney and Ben;
Dolls that will talk and will go for a walk
Is the hope of Janice and Jen"

I've never found those name choices quite satisfying. You can feel the songwriter working backward from the need for rhyming girls and boys, while the lyric cries out for Mid-Century Normative Child names. It seems to me that it should have been "Bobby and Bill" yearning for the pistol and "Judy and Jill" for the doll (and to heck with "Mom and Dad can hardly wait for school to start again").

Yet even today, when such 1950s vintage Christmas songs count as "classics," the champion of all yuletide name lists remains the one allegedly penned by Clement Clark Moore in 1823:

"Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donder and Blixen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!"

In the seasonal spirit of name lists, I offer a 21st-Century rendition:

Now, Skylar! now, Stryker! now Ryker and Jaxon!
Now, Cabot! now, Copland! now Sawyer and Paxton!
To the top of the charts! be the belles of the ball!
Name stylishly, to the envy of all!