Inside a Sibling Name Cloud

Apr 24th 2014

If names of a feather flock together, then this flock should tell you a lot about the name Daisy:

You're looking at the "sibling cloud" from the Namipedia name page for Daisy. It's a visual representation of the name's most common siblings, as reported by users. The bigger the type, the more often the name has been reported as a Daisy sibling.

The sibling cloud suggests that Daisy is a traditional name, since parents who choose it also favor names like Elizabeth, George and James. It looks botanical, as indicated by Willow, Lily and Jasmine. And it has a saucy informality, as shown by Ruby, Molly and Jack. The cloud even points to the name's especial popularity in Britain, the land of girls named Poppy and boys named Finley.

That informative cloud, though, is only a summary. It displays the 25 most common submissions out of almost 700 sibling reports. On more popular name pages, the sibling submissions can total in the thousands. The sibling cloud for Michael is so competitive that a name like Robert, submitted as a sibling by 25 different users, doesn't make the cut.

Let's take a close look at another sibling name cloud:

This cloud paints a picture of a name that's quite formal, but not old-fashioned or stodgy. It's doubtless traditional in English, yet the cloud shows no hint of the heavier English classics (no Edward, George or even Margaret). Meanwhile names like Alexander, Caroline, Sophia and Nicholas suggest a pan-European regal style.

The name is Victoria. The siblings that populate its cloud stand atop a list of 800 different names, totaling nearly 2,000 user submissions. I'm going to zoom out a little now, to show you all of the sibling names entered five or more times for Victoria.

This expanded cloud is more stylistically diverse. Yet the flock's characteristic plumage still shows in new names like Philip, Julia, Emmanuel, Georgia, and Vincent . Now let's zoom out even more and show the 3+ frequency siblings.

At this point, you can see clearly why we limit the sibling clouds in Namipedia. Not only is the visual presentation overwhelming, but the names speak with so many voices that no clear message comes through. Some of those voices, though, are worth tuning into. For instance, this set of sibling names:

Federico, Guadalupe, Jose, Juan.

If your linguistic and cultural orientation is English, Victoria may make you think of a Queen of England. Yet Victoria is also the Spanish word for "victory." Once you see names like Federico and Guadalupe in the sibling cloud, you start to notice how many of the names are Spanish/English crossovers, such as:

Adrian, Ana, Angel, Antonia, Daniel, David, Elena, Eva, Gabriel, Isabel, Julia, Laura, Maria, Monica, Sara, Sofia, Teresa, Veronica, Victor.

To me, that name list is both an interesting angle on Victoria and a notable flock in its own right. My profound thanks to the many thousands of visitors who have shared their sibling knowledge and given us this wonderful window on names.

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!