Apr 29th 2005

When I was in graduate school, one of my professors, the legendary memory expert Gordon Bower, told a story of a paper he once wrote. He had conducted a study of word memory, but found that the results were muddled by an incidental social aspect of the experiment. The social effect intrigued him so that he wrote up the results and submitted them to a journal of social psychology, outside of his field. The editor of the journal responded, "Well Gordon, nice work. You've successfully replicated one of the best-known results in all of social psychology."

Why am I telling you this? Well, it came to mind as I was reading the baby-naming chapter of renowned economist Steven Levitt's new book Freakonomics, recently excerpted in Slate. Levitt (with journalist Stephen Dubner) set out to use "the best analytical tools that economics can offer" to uncover the "hidden side of everything," promising to reveal surprising and counterintuitive aspects of the world around us. His manifesto, from the introduction:

It is well and good to opine or theorize about a subject, as humankind is wont to do, but when moral posturing is replaced by an honest assessment of the data, the result is often a new, surprising insight.
Analytical rigor, astonishing revelations. Does he deliver?

I first started to worry when Levitt stated as fact the well-worn urban legends about babies named OrangeJello, LemonJello, and Shithead. A 10-second Google search would have been sufficient to throw those into question, didn't he bother? As a matter of fact, he did. In the endnotes, he cheerfully admits that his source for Shithead "might have been misinformed, of course, or even outright lying." And as for the 'Jellos:

Although these names have the whiff of urgan legend about them -- they are, in fact, discussed on a variety of websites that dispel (or pass along) urban legends -- the authors learned of the existence of OrangeJello and LemonJello from Doug McAdam, a sociologist at Stanford University, who swears he met the twin boys in a grocery store.
Oh, you heard it from a guy who swears he saw them once in a grocery store! Phew, thank goodness for "the best analytical tools that economics can offer."

Hereon, we proceed with caution.

In discussing the origins of name trends, Levitt's primary thesis is that fashions which originate with the upper classes gradually trickle down the economic ladder. This, naturally, is no revelation -- in fashion-based industries like apparel, it's an explicit, institutionalized process. (After all, we call the elite "trendsetters" because they set the trends.) The revelation is meant to come in the form of predictive power. Levitt uses data about California parents' economic status and name choices to propose a list of names that, "unlikely as it seems," are candidates to become "mainstream names" ten years from now. Names like Emma, Isabel, and Grace. But wait a second, aren't those already mainstream names?

Here's a graph of the popularity of Levitt's suggested future girl's names, using the data available at the time he wrote the book:

In fact, of his 24 predictions for "unlikely" names that could possibly hit the mainstream in a decade, 7 were already top-100 names, including 2 of the top 15 (Emma and Grace). Looking boldly out into the future, he predicted the present. Oops. So much for revelations.

What was the economics-based methodology for those questionable choices? Apparently, the author looked at a list of of names favored by rich Californians and chose the ones he personally found attractive. So much for rigor.

All of which brings us back to the Gordon Bower story. When anyone, even a brilliant scholar, walks into a whole new domain of knowledge, he's at a disadvantage: he doesn't know what is and isn't known. Thus it can be hard to tell the revelatory from the obvious. Any mom of a preschooler could have told Levitt that Emma wasn't a very clever prediction. It was news to him, though, so he didn't bother to dig deeper -- even to learn that Emma was already the #2 name in America. Which is a shame, because he was sitting on an absolute treasure trove of data which doubtless does have secrets to reveal.

The fashion analysis was only half of the baby-name presentation in Freakonomics. The other, much less silly half, concerns the real-world impact of race-specific names, which I'll talk about next time.


By velvet lane (not verified)
May 2, 2005 6:42 PM

Very good post!

By Anonymous (not verified)
May 5, 2005 6:36 PM

I worked at Central Bank of the South in Daphne, Alabama in the early 1990's. I DID have a young black lady come in to open an account. I had her driver's license in front of me when I asked how she pronounced her name.Shi-thade. It was spelled Shithead. I kept a copy of her license for many years because I didn't think anyone would believe me.

By Paul (not verified)
May 6, 2005 4:49 PM

People don't write mass-appeal books as a way of revealing insightful new research - it may be obvious to you that baby names trend from wealthy to poorer people, but it's totally novel to almost all readers of Levitt's book. Saying Levitt isn't analytically rigorous because he includes one apocryphal story in his book is just ridiculous though - it embarasses me to hear you say that.I found his predictions for name popularity in 2015 interesting. I agree that some of them are kind of retarded to include because you could make a similar prediction just by extrapolating current popularity growth. But for the case of the names he predicts for 2015 that aren't currently in the top 1000 (Flannery, Aviva, etc.), I'd be interested to see you come up with a similar list of not-top-1000 names that you think will be more popular than his in 2015, and then we can compare them in 10 years. With your finger on the pulse of names, I'm confident you could do a better job!

By Anonymous (not verified)
May 7, 2005 7:09 PM

Do you know where one could get a look at the "data about California parents' economic status and name choices" that Levitt used to make his predictions? I'd love to see it...

By Anonymous (not verified)
May 10, 2005 12:12 AM

I want to know how/why he thinks MY name will be on that list in 2015? Didn't my name "peak" in the 70s?Lara

By Anonymous (not verified)
May 11, 2005 2:47 PM

I don't think apocryphal stories belong anywhere in a book about economics (except as bad examples), especially one that promises to use data to blast open social expectations, so I'm not embarassed by your column, I think you're spot on for calling Levitt out. Mass-appeal doesn't have to mean stupid, although all too often, it does.

By Anonymous (not verified)
June 6, 2005 1:05 AM

Previous posters here may be sceptical about the authenticity of some "urban legend" names, but I can give you two examples of actual names encountered in D.C. in the 1970's - namely, gonorheea and syphilis. My husband was a pharmicist and was amazed to encounter these names for children of his customer. I knew my husband from the age of 15 and never knew him to tell a lie. He didn't always tell everything he knew, but he just didn't lie. Those names actually were bestowed on D.C. children although perhaps they had sense enough to change them when they became adults.

By Kates (not verified)
June 6, 2005 11:30 AM

When my mother was student teaching in Dayton Ohio she also had a student named Shithead on her roster the first day in the second grade class----so, it is really a name----

By Anonymous (not verified)
June 7, 2005 8:06 PM

why so sarcastic towards the Freakonomics book???if anyone cares, it's a great book and the above criticism is silly.

By Anonymous (not verified)
June 8, 2005 12:41 AM

it behooves the owner of this site to remove the racist urban legend 'shithead' story above.

By Anonymous (not verified)
June 10, 2005 2:29 PM

LemonJello and OrangeJello exist in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, as of this date.

By metalclarinet (not verified)
June 10, 2005 2:54 PM

I enjoyed the name section in Freakonomics. Much of the book includes anecdotal stuff which I assume was placed there, along with a bunch of self serving fluff, by the NY Times co-author. After all, their intent was to write a “popular” book that also conveys some economics, not the other way around. The real point of the naming chapter was whether name choice has much bearing on outcome in life. In other words, do the Majors of the world rise higher than the Sergeants? The book provides sound analysis to say that name doesn’t matter. It also includes breezy but irrelevant anecdotes. The story about the brothers Winner and Loser doesn’t prove anything, but is fun to know.. And my son has toyed with going by the nickname ShiThead. I wish I had named him Dweazel instead of Nathan.

By Notaiden (not verified)
June 10, 2005 3:00 PM

The writer of this blog will always have a problem criticizing a book like Levitt's Freakonomics - that book is almost incomparably more successful, more important, and better known. Hence, any criticism, even fair ones, risks coming across as sour grapes.It may help if the criticism didn't sound needlessly bitter, which would only foster such speculations.

By Anonymous (not verified)
June 13, 2005 6:27 PM

1. I still think names like Shithead are urban legends, I respectfully call bullsh*t on anyone who claims as much and will not believe it until I see physical proof.2. PAUL - The blogger was not criticizing the obvious conclusion of rich to poor trending. They were criticizing the methodolgy by which Leavitt arrived at his results.3. NOTAIDEN - Saying that the bloggers criticisms are based on "sour grapes" or at least sound that way is an ad hominem attack. rather than discussing why or why not they may be correct you're trying to assassinate their motivation.-TitaniumDreads

By Anonymous (not verified)
June 22, 2005 1:21 AM

The problemm I had with using the obviously false "urban legend" of the name mythical girl named "Shithead" is how it undermines the integrity of the entire book. The book is, ostensibly, about intellectual rigor and doing deep analysis to discover new information about how the world works. A motivated reader is left wondering how much of the rest of the book is comprised of false information. One of their key observations is that many "experts " are convinced they are right and often wrong. The irony that they are making up information, or knowingly using false "facts", is truly unfortunate, for any reader who geniunely cares about the subject the book covers. Its like finding out that "morality" expert Dr. Laura is divorced, has posed nude for private porno photos, and is a multimillionaire who preaches that people are too materialistic. At some point, personal integrity matters. The message and the messenger are intertwined. If these guys stand for intellectual rigor, then be intellectually rigorous.

By Anonymous (not verified)
July 20, 2005 1:02 PM

I want to know how/why he thinks MY name will be on that list in 2015?LaraBecause loving parents want their daughters to grow up with large breasts and a knowledge of firearms?

By Chris (not verified)
August 3, 2005 3:49 PM

I wrote to the authors of Freakonomics, Levitt and Dubner, and pointed out that Lemonjello and Orangejello had been listed on prominent urban legends Web sites for years (e.g. replied and said that they acknowledge such in the end notes of the book. That made me feel a little silly for not having examined the end notes, but I also feel that selling lies as truth, without even so much as an asterisk to lead the reader to the end notes, is irresponsible, and, in the end, more-or-less a marketing ploy. After all, see how much discussion we have generated?

By Anonymous (not verified)
December 20, 2005 2:37 PM

Levitt has, with this chapter, either written a self fulfilling prophesy or one that will be defeated by the stubborness of the readers. In writing from an "expert" status and making predictions in a pop culture book he has invariably tainted the selection process for names. Readers will either like the names he has chosen and use them, or decide that they are going to buck any future trends and avoid the chosen names like the plague.

By Anonymous (not verified)
January 6, 2006 6:34 PM

It is interesting to note that the author of the blog says that all that is necessary to confirm the Levitt/Dubner assertion is to do a 10 minute google search. One would suppose that the author of a blog would be more "web literate" than the norm. Moreover claiming a certain expertise, perhaps the author should have taken more than 10 minutes to prove or disprove the claims made in Freakonomics. While it is true that Google is good for many things the search for a name is not what Google specializes in. I recommend using something more task specific. Yahoo people search requires a last name and thus is not suitable place to start the search. Another place to refine the search would be Unfortunately the Verizon site also requires a last name. The best place to put this controversy to bed and the author's criticism of Freakonomics with it, is By doing a quick first name search you can see for yourself that there have in fact histrocially been two people who had the dubious distinction of being tagged with "Shithead" as a first name, a Shithead Rogers and a Shithead Louise James. One of the best things about the Internet is not having to take anyone's word for anything, if you just take the time to do the first hand research. As for whether there really are persons named after jello flavors or winner and loser as asserted in the book...well class that's your homework for tonight.

By stella (not verified)
August 11, 2007 5:16 AM

i live in devonport nz, i knew twins round the corner from us (about 15yo now) with names "Benson" and "Hedges"

By JDarcey (not verified)
October 25, 2009 9:48 PM

I don't believe names have any predictive qualities at all. You can have a name as common as Jimmy Darcey and still be a Shithead.

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September 7, 2010 7:35 AM

i personally dislike androgynous names. if i have children, tiffany & coi plan on giving my sons distinctly male names and my daughters distinctly female names. i don't necessarily mean that they have to be super-macho

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By vibro (not verified)
May 24, 2011 6:22 AM

Nice post, i expect a baby in 3 i'm searching a very good name for him..

June 16, 2013 4:53 PM

"LemonJello and OrangeJello exist in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, as of this date."

Now see, that sounds about right. I grew up hearing about Orangejello and Lemonjello and was surprised to find out that they are reputed to be an urban legend. My mother was an administrator in School District 170 in Chicago Heights, Il and she swears up and down that she saw those twin brothers names on the register of graduation students who might be going to Bloom High School. While they did end up moving out of district after graduating 8th grade, my mother remembers that they were both students at Washington Junior High. This was in the 90s.
Now unless someone in-house was playing a practical joke and listed nonexistent students (I suppose that is possible), it should be pretty easy to verify. 

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Unfortunately, being an authority doesn't prevent being human, with all the prejudice and poor judgment that entails. Freakonomics offers yet more proof of the failure of the American education system, and its authors are not immune to including their prejudices in what they write. Clearly, most of those who read it will fall into two camps: those who agree with its values will find it a good book, since it reinforces them, while those who disagree with their values will dismiss it. A third group exists, and may be in evidence as well. Those are readers who seek to have their preference for reasoned argument from empirical evidence satisfied. Those folks will enjoy Baby Name Wizard for its author's exacting and satisying methods, as many of those (like me) who were guided here by Randall Munroe will feel about his works.

One thing I wish the present author would consider (perhaps check with Munroe about this, as he seems to have done it) is a spam filter. Some large percentage of the comments here are self-advertising junk: spurious praise meant to create cover for slipping in the source's URL. Don't promote these fools for free, at your expense -- not only your money, but the loss of readers who give up after a couple of nonsensical responses and thus are lost to your engaging site. You don't have to sort this dross yourself (a waste of your obviously valuable time) nor do you have to abandon your work to vandals.

Highest praise! Ave atque vale!

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