Red and Blue Baby Naming: Inauguration 2009 Edition

Jan 20th 2009

Hey, anybody remember the 2004 presidential election? I'll refresh your memory, it looked something like this:

The stark red-blue segregation became a national obsession, with stereotypes flying on both sides. The division between the "two Americas" ran deep.  We could all feel it, and we could feel it widening: a vast culturo-political fissure with total mistrust and misunderstanding on both sides.  A map redividing the country into "United States of Canada" and "Jesusland" was one of the hottest jokes of the year.  There was no hope of bridging the gap...until there was. As soon as Barack Obama started redrawing that electoral map, the red-blue meme passed.  But is it really gone? Or was it ever real to begin with? On this inauguration day, I'd like to revisit the red-blue faceoff through the lens of baby names.

A few years back, I started a project to track down the red-blue divide in name terms. Did blue (liberal) and red (conservative) America actually name their children differently? Yes, they surely did. But how they did was a stunner.  The "bluest" names were traditional, Christian, and single-sex; the "reddest" were newly invented, non-religious and androgynous.  (Try it on the NameMapper: select 2004 and type in Henry, then Rylee.)  In other words, our choices of names -- one of the most candid, heartfelt expressions of our values and dreams -- ran precisely opposite to our supposed values divide.

What did it mean? I went down a long path, reading stats and research on red and blue America.  Along the way, I discovered some surprising facts.  For instance, while Americans felt certain their opinions were diverging, actual opinion surveys showed the country's views converging into an age of uncommon consensus.  The division we saw on the maps and felt in our guts was hard to pin down in the real world.  So maybe the peculiar baby name data could point toward some answers.

If you have some time on your hands, you can check out the full article I wrote on the subject back in 2006. But here's the condensed version of where the names led me.

Let's say you have two groups of women making fashion choices. One opts for timeless classics, simple and a little formal; the other chooses the newest, trendiest, most eye-catching styles that make old fogeys squirm.  What drives the difference? If you had to predict just one variable, the obvious choice is age.  Was it possible that blue state parents were more conservative namers simply because they were older?

Sure enough, in 18 of the 19 states that voted for John Kerry in 2004, first-time mothers were older than the national average.  And the more Democratic the community, the stronger the effect.

Waiting to start a family is part of a self-reinforcing class cycle.  Girls from educated, middle-and upper-class backgrounds are more likely to pursue higher education.  To make the most of their investment in schooling, they'll put off having children until they've gotten their careers under way. When they finally do start families they're more financially secure and can provide good educational opportunities for their own children, starting the cycle anew.

You can see how political factors play into this maternal age cycle.  Higher education, for instance, is a classic predictor of liberalism.  A strict cultural conservatism, meanwhile—rejecting abortion, embracing traditional gender roles—would tend to lead you toward younger parenthood.  A conservative community ends up with young moms and thus young-mom style, a liberal community with old-mom style.

So age-based style is entwined with the old standbys of income and values.  But remember that in the red/blue baby name choices, style and values were in direct opposition.  Going head to head in a decision that parents take very seriously, style beat values by a mile. So perhaps the style-making variable of maternal age plays a bigger role in the cultural divide than we realize.

In fact, if you start with nothing but a maternal age gap, you end up predicting a lot of the behaviors that divide red and blue America -- even seemingly value-driven behaviors.  For instance, red-state residents are more likely to report that they attend worship services weekly.  But when do people go to church most?  When it's time to introduce their children to the faith.  Americans who are married with children are twice as likely to attend church weekly as their single, childless counterparts.  The earlier you have kids, therefore, the more the church becomes part of the fabric of your life.  In a community of young moms, the church naturally becomes central to the community's life.

You can follow this same thread to countless other aspects of personal and community life.  What it adds up to is that the age when you have children isn't just one more variable in the cultural spreadsheet.  It's your life story, and the life story of your community.  A "life story gap" is a recipe for mutual incomprehension.

Now here's the kicker. Remember how America's political and moral judgments turn out to be closer today than ever before, and how the widening divide we perceive is hard to pin down?  Well, the maternal age gap -- the life story gap -- is widening.  In 1970, Arkansas and Mississippi had the youngest first-time mothers in America with an average age of 20.  Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York were oldest with an average of 22, a difference of just two years.  By 2000 those numbers stood at 22 and 27, a difference of five years.  The difference is even bigger at the political and lifestyle extremes.  The percentage of Democratic voters in a state correlates closely with the percentage of all births to mothers over 40, which is growing fast.  The red-blue life story gap grows with it.

So that's what I concluded after tallying up the baby names back in 2006.  Does it still have any relevance in the new political world of 2009?  Here's a little sign that it may.  Barack Obama won all or part of 10 states that John Kerry lost.  Suppose you tried to predict which 10 based on the percentage of the vote Kerry took in each state. You'd get 7 of 10 right.  If instead you predicted based on the average age of first-time mothers in each state...8 out of 10.

I'm a baby namer, not a politician.  I don't have to try to bridge policy divides (thank heavens), but I do encounter plenty of hostility on both sides of the baby-naming divide.  Perhaps thinking about the life story gap can help bring us all a little understanding of one another's choices.  As we look across the chasm, let's all take a moment to envision our own lives as they might have been.  Henry and Margaret's mom, you may be just a simple life circumstance away from Colton and Ashlyn's mom.  Be we red and blue or purple, this nation could use a lot of mutual understanding in the years ahead.


January 26, 2009 6:08 PM

@Eo (#185) - Glad you brought up the Novogratz family. We discussed them a bit here:

And we all agreed on the basic hideousness of the name Five. Love the suggestion for a change to Quincy!

Bellamy is my favorite of the bunch, it means "beautiful friend." (Right, francophones?) Tallulah is ok, too, if you really like Ms. Bankhead.

By Liz & Louka (not verified)
January 26, 2009 6:50 PM

OT, but someone on another forum mentioned Clarissa Dickson Wright, and I thought I'd google her. Well according to Wikipedia she had TEN middle names, plus two last names. In full, Clarissa Theresa Philomena Aileen Mary Josephine Agnes Elsie Trilby Louise Esmerelda Dickson Wright. How many forms would have room for all that?

By Caruso Confer (not verified)
January 26, 2009 8:01 PM

The actress Imelda Staunton has a long name like that--in an interview I heard recently, she said it was because she was an only child. "Imelda Mary Philomena Bernadette Staunton" seems like a name designed to cover a lot of saintly bases!

Y'know, unless "Murgatroyd"'s parents are here to tell us that they named strictly her for shock value, I won't assume that. It could still be a name they love, it could still be a name with meaning to them, it could still be a name that fits in with their peer group's sensibilities (whatever they might be). And while it's very unusual, I'm not convinced it's so out-there as to be a burden to the kid--very few names really are.

By Guest (not verified)
January 26, 2009 8:03 PM

Reading this article, I find that my family would fit in well if it weren't for the fact that my mother started having children at age 24, which in the late 1980's in Maryland, has her down as a young mother. She has always been exceedingly liberal and never took us to church, though all of our names came from the bible. Abigail, Cecily, and Jonathan. Being very interested in names in general, I have noticed that a lot more liberals than conservatives find names like Ashlyn and Colton simply to be in bad taste, whether they started having children young, like my mother, or in their early 30s, like a lot of my mother's friends. her

January 26, 2009 8:19 PM

Re many names for one person--

South of the rivers (that is, Catholic) Dutch people typically have three, four, even five given names, often in Latin, plus a call name (usually a nickname of one of the given names). For example, a good friend of mine is named J@cobus P3trus L@mbertus, called Jack. Jack is not a typical Dutch nickname for Jacobus, but he was born in 1953 when the Dutch were still being grateful to the Anglophone nations for their liberation, and so his parents chose an English nickname instead of a Dutch one. When people are being formally referred to in writing, the form is title+initials of given names+surname.

January 26, 2009 8:33 PM

"...all of our names came from the bible. Abigail, Cecily, and Jonathan."

Perhaps I am not as bibelfest as I thought, but, dear Guest, where in the Bible does Cecily occur? Chapter and verse, please. There is St. Cecilia, martyr and patron of music and musicians, but she is post-biblical.

January 26, 2009 8:49 PM

So, I was video-conferencing with my FIL, his mother, and his cousin yesterday and they asked if we knew what we were having. A boy, I told them. They never once asked what names we were thinking of, but they suggested Drambuie. Seriously. And continued to insist and insist that this would be a perfect name for our son. Even though both our other kids have family names (Drambuie, I don't believe, is a family name). I think they even threw out a middle name that "matched" well - I think it was Beau...

I'm guessing this is a common problem? With our first, we didn't tell anyone the sex until she was almost here (even though we knew) and with the second, he was going to be a third, so the name was already set once we knew the sex, although FIL did try to talk us out of it.

I guess the Drambuie kinda fits with a previous post about a Daquari, huh? Maybe adult beverage names are really "in"?

January 26, 2009 9:11 PM

Thank you Valerie 181, for the pronunciation tip. Good to know, and it's a lot prettier. :)

Miriam 206, it doesn't, at least not in the KJV or NIV.

January 26, 2009 10:29 PM

Regarding Hipster, I think that the term has shed its roots and now merely refers to people who are "Hip," which according to Merriam-Webster are people who are "very fashionable."

If you look at Nameberry's list of "hipster" names, the selection is clearly more "fashionable" than "beatnik."

I don't think today's Hipster Namers have anything in common with the original Hipsters of yore.

January 26, 2009 11:42 PM

LOL Uppy Ear-And if you have yet another girl you could name her Tequila! ROFL! (Please don't name him Drambuie!)

Speaking of children's names in celebrity families. I was flipping channels and TLC came on. The show {Kids By The Dozen} featured the Winters family who have 11 kids and some of them have (for me) strange names. I watched the show and the dad later said that some of the children were named because they liked Fiddler on the Roof and thus decided to choose Jewish names. (Miriam-hold on to your hat) This family is NOT Jewish. They did however decide to "go plain", in their words, and live how the Amish live by making their own plain clothes. This is about the only thing besides working at home that they do like the Amish however. I saw Dixie cups on the counter and he was using a circular saw to build a barn. So electricity must have been present. Anyway, here are the children's names:
Destiny;Andre;Nadia;Tzeitel;Tzipporrah; and I don't remember the rest. I tried to google them but did not find the rest of the names. Sorry!

By Guest (not verified)
January 27, 2009 12:47 AM

Post #210 made me curious about Amish naming tradition, I googled it and found this interesting link on Amish nicknames:

By Kai
January 27, 2009 4:11 AM

Considering how much thought and time goes into selecting just one name at a time for most people on this board, I can't imagine having to pick 7 names in one go and then find out that you actually need one more!

January 27, 2009 9:36 AM

Kai-I agree and hope that the babies remain healthy and grow to be strong. Here's the link regarding the birth:

January 27, 2009 10:54 AM

Also you'd presumably have to have 8 girls names and 8 boys ready...hope so much that the babies are OK.

By J&H's mom (not verified)
January 27, 2009 12:27 PM

I haven't been posting as the slow scroll is simply maddening to impatient me.

This is naive, I'm sure, but I've been hoping that we're at the start of a "post red/blue America."

At any rate, I did, indeed, have my boys after I was in my thirties, and I even named one of them Henry! We're a solidly blue state, but we have lots of purple pockets and red sections.
My sister lives in Seattle proper and runs into lots of other Henrys, but it's still unusual here in the 'burbs.

I don't argue that younger moms are more likely to use inventive names, but there are clearly plenty of older moms who like these names as well and then a broad chunk of the population in both spectrums who like the same names.
After all, if you look at the top ten names by state, the top ten names in Delaware aren't all that different from the top ten names in Mississippi.

To use but one example, the two oldest moms I know as well as the youngest, all have daughters named Sophie.
And while we don't meet many other Henrys,we often run into other Jacks with moms of all ages and styles.
I suppose it would make for a boring discussion to talk about the names we have "in common," but I think it probably says more about where we are as a country (again, probably naive, but I've still got post-inaugeration optimism).

January 27, 2009 1:20 PM

I have been offline for a few days due to a computer crash, so this may have been noted before and I may have missed it:

The article raises the question of whether naming children Adolf Hitler and other "offensive" names constitutes child abuse and contains various details about the Campbell family and their naming practices.

By Guest (not verified)
February 5, 2009 11:53 AM

Yes, can we? Thank you.

February 5, 2009 5:51 PM

the "Stuff White People Like" crowd is a lot more liberal and therefore will name their children Augustus or Madison.

i think most readers of this blog could have told you that. i'm surprised that you're surprised.

By Guest (not verified)
March 28, 2009 1:33 PM

We named our son Dade after his great-grandfather. I had never heard of Miami-Dade county until after he was born!

September 7, 2010 7:34 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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