Which Came First, The Celebrity or the Trend?

Jul 3rd 2014

A celebrity baby can launch a hit name. That much is beyond debate. Just look at what happened to the name Kingston when singers Gwen Stefani and Gavin Rossdale chose the name for their first son in the middle of 2006:

But celebrity parents don't just shape the times, they're also part of the times. They're attracted to the same stylish sounds as their less famous counterparts. Often enough, they choose names that were already rising fast — and then get credit for making the names popular.

How do you know which came first, the celebrity baby or the baby name trend? Can we even separate the two? Let's take a look at an example from my home state of Massachusetts.

In these parts, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and fashion model Gisele Bündchen are the reigning celebrity couple. In December 2009, they welcomed a son named Benjamin. At that time, Benjamin was the 6th most popular name for Massachusetts boys. The next year it leaped to #2, and since 2012 Massachusetts has been the only state in the union where Benjamin is the #1 name for boys. The fashion influence of young Benjamin Brady seems clear...until you zoom out.

Remember how Benjamin was #6 in Massachusetts before the Brady baby was born? That ranking already made the Bay State America's Benjamin capital. From the 1990s on, Massachusetts and neighboring states have loved the name Benjamin like nobody else. I can confirm from personal experience that my local schools are teeming with Bens.

Here's the 15-year history of Massachusetts Benjamins:

I can't imagine anyone would look at that graph and think, "Wow! What happened in 2010??" Yet a gradual decline did reverse at the time of Master Brady's birth. So it's quite possible that the celebrity baby influenced Massachusetts names, but it's equally likely that Massachusetts influenced Brady and Bündchen's choice of name. Benjamin is just what boys are called around here.

Baby Name Time Machine: The Hottest Names of 1946

Jun 25th 2014

The second in an occasional series looking back at the baby name trends of years past.


1945 began with battles fought around the world. The year saw the sudden death of President Roosevelt, and ultimately the victory of Allied forces in World War II.

1946 was the beginning of "after." Troops came home, and the U.S. birth rate rose by 20%. The country and the world turned from a wartime mindset toward rebuilding, and the future.

You can see that dramatic transition playing out, family by family, in the year's baby name trends. The falling boys' names in particular show parents putting the momentous events of 1945 behind them and looking ahead.

Fastest-Falling Boys' Names of 1946:

1. Truman
2. Delano
3. Victor
4. Franklyn
5. Franklin

That's a clean sweep of history, as late President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, new President Harry Truman, and the war victory all receded from baby name view. The rapid fall of Truman shouldn't be taken as an indictment of Harry Truman. Truman had been the fastest-rising­ name of the previous year, in a show of support for the man who suddenly found himself president. 1946 saw the natural settling after that spike. Similarly, Victor was settling back to its typical popularity after a year of celebrating victory. Parents were simply moving on.

One extraordinary name on the falling boys' list: #17, Adolph. It's hard to imagine that after four years of war against Hitler, the name still had that far to fall.

On the falling girls' side we find Victor's counterpart Victoria at #2. The rest of the falling girls' names, though, are surprisingly scattershot and obscure: Laraine, Carolee, Charla, Zelma. Wartime patriotism, it turns out, was encoded far more in boys' names than girls. Girls' names seem to have been in stylistic limbo during the war, with individual rises and falls based on movie stars and popular songs but no major direction. A year after the war's end, though, American parents were ready to turn the page and launch a new era of names.

The Top 10 Fastest-Rising Names of 1946:

1. Gregory
2. Michael
3. Terry
4. Dennis
5. Richard

1. Suzette
2. Cynthia
3. Gilda
4. Denise
5. Susan

...plus runners-up like Sherry, Patricia, Danny, Linda, Sharon, Suzanne, Cathy, Steven, Sandra and Bruce.

Those lists feature a single one-year-wonder in Gilda, the title character of a 1946 film. (And if you're wondering, yes, comedian Gilda Radner was born in 1946.) But the rest of the names announce the start of the baby boom generation. In the turn of a year, you can literally see post-war America being born.


The Names of the Nameless: Move Over, John Doe and John Q. Public

Jun 19th 2014

What do you call a nobody -- or an anybody? In American English, we have plenty of answers. You'll hear nameless males referred to as:

John Doe
John Smith
John Q. Public
Joe Schmo
Little Johnny

All are anonymous, yet none are synonymous. There are many ways to be nameless.

John Doe is most often a specific individual whose identity is either unknown (as in the case of a body found at an accident scene) or concealed (as in the case of confidential legal proceedings). Relatives: Jane Doe, Richard Roe.

John Smith is a flexible generic individual, often encountered in hypothetical situations or as a placeholder to indicate where a name should go. Relatives: Jane Smith.

John Q. Public is a representative member of American society. As the the typical man on the street, he is a probabilistic mix of social strata and frequently encountered in policy discussions. Relatives: Jane Q. Public, John Q. Taxpayer.

Joe Schmo is the put-upon American everyman; the hard-working, hard-luck side of John Q. Public. Relatives: Joe Blow, Joe Sixpack, Average Joe, Every Tom, Dick and Harry. Notably, he has no direct female counterpart.

Little Johnny is a representative American child, presumed to be part of a representative American nuclear family. Relatives: Little Timmy, Little Susie, and the rest of the Mid-Century Normative Child gang.

Then there are more specialized anybodies. "The Joneses" are hypothetical friends and neighbors who set community standards. "Alan Smithee" was, for decades, the anonymous director of any film disowned by its creator. You can even make a case for Spartacus as a name of anonymity via solidarity (or at the very least, a good Starbucks prank).

Even these placeholder names only hint at the possibilities. It seems to me we could use a generic name for telemarketers. Or maybe more than one; "Cassie Cause" is a different sort from "Mickey Mortgage."

What's more, the translation of John to Jane doesn't seem a satisfactory representation of generic women. Couldn't we put some more femininity in our anonymity? And as American names become more diverse, all these Johns and Joes become more retro than everyman. Surely it's time for a generic name for the non-generically-named generation.

What kinds of nameless individuals do you think we need, and what would you un-name them?