Name Inflation, Scrabble Style
You see a car drive by with a metallic avocado finish, and you know you're looking at the pride of 1973. You see a blouse in neon chartreuse, and it's 1999. As colors are to fashion, letters are to baby names. They sweep in and out of fashion, alone and in combinations. The hot letters today sound quirky and exotic, the kind of letters that beg for individual attention.
But how do parents know which letters are most exotic? No problem. That question was answered generations ago by an unemployed architect named Alfred Butts, who invented the game of Scrabble. Butts chose point values for letters based on popular usage of the time, with the workhorse letters (vowels, l, n, r, s, t) worth one point, and the rare birds far more.
Those depression-era value assignments remain an intuitively accurate portrait of letter "exoticness." The letters that jump out from a rack of Scrabble tiles -- Z and Q (the 10-pointers), X and J (8), and K (5) -- also catch the eye in a name. They're beloved by the brand-name consultants who've coined such names as Exxon and Verizon, and they're the first stops in the alphabet for parents who want to give their children's names punch.
Here you see the percentage of American babies whose names include at least one high-value tile, either as the first letter (blue) or anywhere in the name (green):
Since 1900, the rate has nearly doubled. American parents' instinct to avoid the "ordinary" has created a name-scoring explosion.
A few points to ponder about that graph -- first, note that the first letter of the name accounts for more than half the occurrences of high-value letters. The exotics, fittingly, don't mingle with the commoners. Letters like Q seldom venture into the middle of a name, unless it's a foreign import (Jacques, Enrique) or an African-American invention (Tyquan, Laquita).
Second, consider that J is a great leveling factor. It's rare in common English words, with their Anglo-Saxon and Greco-Roman roots. But names more often have Hebraic roots, making J a common naming letter. A handful of biblical standards like John, James and Joseph were enormously popular a century ago, and their frequency swamps the growth of names like Xander and Quinn. If you look only at the rarest, most aggressively exotic letters, the trend is far more dramatic:
To Be Continued...