The Nickname Trap: How Popular Is Your Name, Really?

Mar 13th 2014

I recently spotted a potluck signup sheet and had to snap a picture:

It seemed an amusing coincidence that this group would include so many women with the same name. But then I started to wonder. Do they have the same name, really?

We traditionally think of Kate and Katie as forms of Katherine. Over the past 25 years, though, an American girl has been more likely to be named Kaitlyn (in one spelling or another) than Katherine/Catherine. Then there are all the other sources: the Kathleens, the Katrinas, the just-Kates. A flowering of parental creativity could have led to that remarkably uniform nickname list.

For parents who care about name popularity, nicknames like these can be "gotchas." Suppose you're considering naming your daughter Adelaide. You like that it's just on the outskirts of style. It's rare but familiar, old-fashioned but with fashionable sounds. If the name seems a little too much for a toddler, that's no problem, you can use Addie as an occasional nickname.

Five years later, your little girl is starting kindergarten. Just as you hoped, she's the one and only Adelaide in the school! Of course, by now she calls herself Addie...just like the two Addisons, an Adeline and an Adalyn.

Nickname popularity is nearly impossible to pin down statistically. Not every Addison goes by Addie, after all. What's more, nickname choices go in and out of fashion. Once you could expect to call a guy named William "Bill"; today he's more likely to answer to Will, Liam, or the full William. So how do you know if you're about to fall into the "nickname trap"? Read on.

Below are some nicknames that are becoming more popular than you might guess. If you're determined to choose a unique name for your child, you may want to avoid names that could shorten to any of these. On the flip side, you could treat a popular nickname as "safety valve" for an unconventional name. If the name Ajax turns out not to suit your son, he can always go by Jack. 

Ben. The classic name Benjamin is popular enough that you probably wouldn't expect Ben to sound unique. But you might at least expect it to be "all about the Benjamins." In the past few years, other Ben- names like Bentley, Bennett and Benson have skyrocketed. Take a look -- together they're catching up with Benjamin's popularity:

Bree. Aubrey, Gabriella, Brianna, and Aubree all rank among the top 100 girls' names. Then there's Brielle, Bria, Sabrina, Gabrielle, and Aubrianna. This nickname will be coming from all directions in the years ahead.

Cam & Cami. If you meet a grown man named Cam, you can safely guess he's a Cameron. But a little boy? A dozen different Cam/Kam names rank in the top 1,000 for boys (e.g. Camden, Kamryn, Kamari)...and ten in the top 1,000 for girls (e.g. Camila, Kamryn, Campbell).

Jack & Jax. These two names are very different in style, yet they sound enough alike to run afoul of the "classroom distinctiveness" test. Three Jack/Jax names rank among the top 100 names for boys (Jackson, Jack and Jaxon), and more Jax varieties are climbing (Jaxson, Jax, Jaxton, Jaxen).

Kate & Katie. As the photo above demonstrated, you'll meet lots of Kates and Katies of all generations. If you're focused on classroom distinctiveness, though, take heart: the combined "Kate" name sources are now at a historic low.

Maddie & Addie. Start with Madison and Madeline. Then get creative with spellings. Then take a little off the top to yield Addison and Adeline, and repeat. Here's a picture:

Max. Max makes a fine given name in itself, but don't judge its popularity by its rank. Twice as many boys get longer Max- names (Maxwell, Maximus, Maximilian, Maxton, etc.), and most of those go by Max.

Son of a Gun: The Firearms Baby Name Report

Mar 6th 2014

If naming a child Violet or Lily suggests delicate, timeless beauty, and naming a child River or Sky conjures the majesty of the natural world, what does naming a child Ruger or Beretta suggest?

That's no longer a hypothetical question. Gun-related names have become a style category of their own, and as I've briefly noted in the past, they're on the rise. Today I'd like to take a closer look at this trend.

I cross-checked lists of firearms terms and manufacturers with names given to five or more babies in the most recent statistical year (2012) and/or 10 years earlier (2002). I ended up with a list of 15 gun-related names, including brand names like Ruger and Colt as well as general terms like Gauge and Shooter. The decade-long popularity trend was crystal clear:

Every name on the firearms list rose significantly over the 10-year period.

The average rise was over 500%. Five names which didn't appear at all in 2002 -- Beretta, Browning, Savage, Trigger and Wesson -- showed up on the 2012 list. Here's a visual summary of the trend (* indicates girls' names):

Babies Receiving Gun-Related Names, United States

You may not see these all as "gun names"; the borders of the category are fuzzy. For instance, Gunner could be a respelling of the Nordic name Gunnar as well as an English noun. Even trickier is a name like Cooper, which is both a rifle maker and a familiar tradesman surname. (I left Cooper off of my list, but it too has soared in popularity.)

For borderline cases, I made my decision based on prevalence in name-idea threads on forums for firearms enthusiasts. A sign that a gun association really is a driving force in the popularity of borderline names: in 2002, the traditional Gunnar outpaced Gunner in the U.S., while today Gunners are in the lead by a 2-to-1 margin.

What does the trend mean? I believe it points to two different cultural threads in the United States over the past decade. The first is the rising role of guns as a cultural identifier. For hunters and firearms enthusiasts, guns can be both a passion and a symbol of a way of life. It's notable that other manufactured goods categories, like automobiles, haven't followed the same name trajectory.

Some gun owners perceive their lifestyle as being threatened by those who don't understand them or share their values. Choosing a gun name, then, can summon up happy memories of hunting with your dad -- or be a statement of cultural defiance. It's an in-group statement, designed to speak to those who share your cultural touchstones. (Suffice it to say that if the name Savage makes you think "Dan Savage" rather than "Savage Arms," that name isn't aimed at you.)

The second, equally important change is about names themselves. Think of it this way: to get to the point where you're asking, "Should we name him Ruger or Wesson?" you have to NOT be asking "Should we name him after Grandpa John or Grandpa Jim?"

The past decade has seen an accelerating movement away from traditional names. Over the same decade that the 15 firearms names above rose by a combined 3,824 babies, the four most classic English baby names, John, Mary, James and William, fell by a combined 16,875 babies. Something has to be stepping into that gulf. Parents today cast a broader net, and are more likely to consider creative meaning names that reflect their personal lives and interests.

Consider, too, that gun names were always popular for dogs, suggesting that a love of guns is nothing new. A foxhound named Trigger would never have surprised anyone. Today, parents are more willing to "pull the trigger" on that kind of eye-catching name for babies, too. Just as we're naming our pets more like children, it seems that we're naming our children more like pets.

This broad change in the naming process means that names are a more sensitive cultural barometer than ever before. Any shift in parents' interests, passions and values is sure to be encoded in the name record. Today, if you want to know what people really care about, follow the names.

The Real "Me" Decade?

Feb 27th 2014


Novelist Tom Wolfe famously dubbed the 1970s "The Me Decade." He was talking about a rising focus on the self -- an individualism that had Americans obsessing inwardly, trying to understand and remodel themselves, rather than looking outward at their communities.

It turns out that he could have gone with a much more literal definition. Take a look at what happend to "Me" names in the '70s:

Melissa, Megan, Melinda, Melanie. These names swarmed the '70s, shouting "me, Me, ME!" Over the decade, Melissa alone outpaced the traditional M girls Mary and Margaret put together.

Could it be mere coincidence, that the Me- wave hit in the age of "ME!"? Umm, yeah, it could. Definitely. In fact, if you say those names aloud -- Melissa, Megan, Melinda, Melanie -- you'll find that they don't shout "ME!" at all. It was an era of short consonants. "The Meh Decade," anyone?

In truth, Wolfe's "Me Decade" was never about telling your name the livelong day to an admiring bog. The core idea wasn't attracting the attention of others. Rather, it was the age of self-help and self-discovery; of "finding yourself" within yourself, rather than as a cog in the great machine of society.

That seems a different brand of narcissism from today's "Look-At-Me" decade, in which which our inner lives become ever outer. This is the age of over-sharing, of social media and reality tv. It's also the age of the Great Baby Name Explosion, as increasingly creative name choices vie for attention.

You can see that desire to stand out in every possible measurement. The popularity of very long and very short names have both risen. Names with the eye-catching letters X and Z are at all-time highs. And "popular" has become a dirty word, as parents shy away from the top of the baby name popularity charts. Today's #1 names, Jacob and Sophia, are only one quarter as common as the #1 names of 1976, when Wolfe wrote his article.

Perhaps it's fitting, then, that this is also the age of names that literally shout "ME!" by starting with that syllable: