The Generational Switcheroo

Apr 17th 2014

At a recent event I attended, a speaker talked about a father and son who were in attendance. He had met them numerous times, yet in his remarks he couldn't keep their names straight. Every time he mentioned the father he called him by the son's name, and vice versa. No matter how often he was corrected, he just couldn't get them right.

I listened with sympathy. I've been caught in the same trap, and I'll bet you have, too. The well-meaning speaker had fallen victim to the Generational Switcheroo.

Here's how it works. You meet a woman, age 40, and her daughter, age 10. They both have popular, familiar names; let's call them Emma and Melissa. The problem is that the mom is Emma and the daughter is Melissa. It's an age-band switcheroo: each bears a typical name of the other's generation.

Take a look at the distribution of American Melissas and Emmas born over the past half-century:

That demographic profile translates into mental models. Melissa has become a mom name, very common in the 25-50 age band, whereas most of the Emmas you meet are still in school. So when you meet a Melissa-and-Emma pair, your mind tries to fit them into the expected slots. Mistakes and embarrassment follow.

Back when I studied neuropsychology, we would look at the brain's "mistakes" (e.g. specific cognitive deficits caused by injury) to shed light on normal functioning. Thinking in that way, what might these generational switcheroos tell us about how we usually think about names?

Perhaps a mismatch with the mental demographic always makes a name harder to remember. Most often, though, the effect isn't strong enough to trip us up. If we meet a younger Melissa or older Emma as an individual, we just just take an extra moment to remember the name and pay little attention. But when a parent-child pair is a perfect generational swap the expectation effect is doubled, and it has an easy outlet.

Or to put it another way, perhaps we all carry little NameVoyager graphs in our head, and use them to help us fit new names into our knowledge of the world. I know I do, but I always thought that was a personal quirk; an occupational hazard. Seeing switcheroos in action, I supect I might be in good company.


p.s. Dont forget to enter the Baby Name Pool by Tuesday, April 22!

Meet the Hitmakers: Young, Pretty, and Supernatural

Apr 10th 2014

Why does one tv or movie hero inspire a thousand namesakes, and another nary a one? The answer is most often in the names themselves. Star Wars' Luke was an easier sell than Han. The title character of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a non-starter, while her supporting cast of Willows and Xanders became parents' darlings.

The show's story and characters, do play a part, though. The surest recipe for a baby-name stylemaker is to focus on the young, pretty, and supernatural. Ideally, the young, pretty, supernatural, blond and female. Check out this power lineup:

Bewitched (TV, 1964-1972): This sitcom about a pretty, blond suburban witch sent the names Samantha, Darren and Tabitha soaring. (Believe it or not, the name Samantha was essentially unknown before this show.)

Splash (Film, 1984): The story of a pretty blond mermaid launched Madison as a girl's name.

The Little Mermaid (Film, 1989): OK, they're not all blond. The animated tale of a lovestruck mermaid boosted the name Ariel by 300%. 

Sabrina the Teenage Witch (TV, 1996-2003): This sitcom about a pretty, blond suburban teenage witch made Sabrina nearly double in popularity overnight.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (TV, 1997-2003): The adventures of a pretty, blond suburban teenage scourge of the undead made hits of Willow, Xander and Anya.

Charmed (TV, 1998-2006): The adventures of three beautiful witch sisters inspired a jump in the names Piper and Phoebe. (Note that the effect of "Charmed" on Phoebe was greater than the effect of the much more popular but less supernatural show "Friends.")

Heroes (TV, 2006-2010): This superhero series featured a pretty blond cheerleader with special powers. The name of both the character, Claire, and the actress who played her, Hayden, rose.

Twilight (Films, 2008-2012): The romantic saga of beautiful vampires was a name bonanza, sparking rises in Bella, Emmett, Jasper, Alice and Cullen.

The Vampire Diaries (TV, 2009-present): The romantic saga of beautiful vampires brought new life to the classic name Elena.

Game of Thrones (TV, 2011-present): The bloody fantasy saga helped make a hit of the name Arya, and its pretty, blond Mother of Dragons even inspired the unlikely name Khaleesi.

Just being pretty and a little more than human isn't enough to guarantee name influence, of course. You still need the right names. A series like True Blood, populated by supernaturals with names like Sookie and Bill, won't get the job done. But if you do have a stylish name, the glimmer of magic—especially with the glimmer of long blond hair attached—can work wonders. Anybody care to bet against Frozen's flaxen-haired Snow Queen Elsa?


p.s. Let that trend tip inspire you to enter the 9th annual Baby Name Pool! Guess the fastest rising and falling names of last year, in preparation for the official name data announcement. Enter the Pool by April 22, 2014!


More Names, or Just More Spellings?

Apr 3rd 2014

Readers occasionally suggest that the modern era of name diversity, where the top of the popularity curve seems to be flattening, may not be as diverse as it seems.

What if what's really changed isn't the way we name, but the way we spell? Replacing John with Aiden, Aidan, Ayden, Aidyn, Aden, Aydin and Ayden could make for a statistical fracturing of popularity without any greater variety in spoken names.

Back in 2006, I tried testing that hypothesis. I compared the #1 combined-spelling name of the time, Aiden, with the last single-spelling #1 name, Robert. Here's the graph I came up with.

The bump on the right-hand side was the Aidens. My conclusion at the time: "No matter how you slice it, a #1 name just isn't what it used to be." The explosion of spellings was more a symptom of the movement away from traditional names than the cause of the stastical phenomenon.

Eight years later, I'd like to revisit that analysis and take it a little further. At the top of the boys' charts, little has changed. Jacob remains the #1 individual name (despite dropping steeply), and Aiden remains the leader when you combine spellings. And both names continue to be dwarfed in popularity by the hot names of generations past.

But let's think a little more broadly. A decade ago, I started calling our naming era "The Age of Aidens." That title went beyond spelling to encompass a whole rhyming family of Jaydens, Bradens and beyond. How do all of those rhyming names compare to Robert?

Aha! If you're willing to treat everything from Aaden to Zayden as one mega-name, you can approach the popularity of names of the past.

To make the comparison fair, though, we should let Robert have a name-sound family, too. Let's try the -aidens vs. the -berts:

The advantage tilts back to the Age of Robert. You'll get similar results comparing the Age of Aidens to other hot sound groups of the past, like the 1930s Age of Geralds, Donalds and Ronalds, or the 1950s Age of Larrys, Jerrys and Garys.

Yep, our parents, grandparents and even great-grandparents got swept up in name trends too. The difference was that they agreed on a small set of standard names to comprise a trend. The combined peak of the three names Gerald, Ronald and Donald reached higher than the combined peak of 33 -aiden names, with seven distinct pronunciations. That fracturing represents a combined explosion of name diversity, creative spelling, sound-driven style, and rejection of traditional name boundaries.

Put it all together and the defining characteristic of this naming era is parents' desire to feel that their child's name is distinctive.

Where parents of the past might have wanted a stylish, contemporary sound, they were willing to choose from a basic menu and share choices with their friends and neighbors. Today's parents make clear that they don't want their kids to share names. They're also more than willing to order from off the menu.

Let's say Donald was a "cup o' joe" name. We're still a nation of coffee drinkers, but a name like Kaedyn, given to 98 American boys (and 41 girls) last year, is more like a Starbucks order crossed with a custom ring tone. It's a venti double skinny vanilla latte that has to call out to you and only you.