On Barack and Caylee: names and the news

May 10th 2009

In December, I described calls I'd received from journalists eager to report on the huge wave of babies named in honor of new president Barack Obama. I had to break it to them that I wasn't aware of any such wave; as far as I knew, Barack remained a rare name. What's more, that was pretty much to be expected. Hero naming for new presidents used to be routine, but in post-Watergate American we generally wait until a president is out of office -- and preferably dead -- before committing our children's names to the cause.

Some of the reporters had trouble accepting this. The flood of new baby Baracks was an awesome story idea, and they were on deadline. They asked me to put out a call to my readers to find little Baracks. I did; nobody answered. Around the country, more journalists scrounged for examples. One dad scored a major newspaper profile by pretending to have named his son after the president. Another family was featured on television for choosing Barack for their son...as a second middle name. In fact, if you followed the news accounts, you'd be excused for thinking that the wave of little Obama namesakes had actually happened.

And now, the Social Security Administration has compounded that impression with its lead story on the 2008 name popularity data. Barack has flown thousands of spots up the popularity ranks...all the way to #2409!

Everybody, do you realize just how insignificant that change is?

For perspective, more babies would be affected by a move from, say, #99 to #98. Tons of minor reality tv stars had a bigger impact. Our president's name still isn't within shouting distance of the popularity of names like Hezekiah or Abdiel. Or to put it in political terms, even Tripp outpaced Barack by a mile.

Today, as I peruse the many headlines about the "stunning rise" of the name Barack, I can't help but think about the opportunities lost. Because when you only search within the narrow beam of your own preconceptions, you miss the chance to truly discover anything. If you'd let the data take the lead, you might find that names did tell some revealing stories about American society in 2008. For instance, you might notice the name Caylee.

Caylee Anthony was a Florida toddler who was tragically killed in June, 2008. The child was initially reported as missing; later, her mother was charged with murder. Caylee was the fifth-fastest rising name in America, ahead of Miley. Previously unranked, Caylee is now #519 among all girls' names, many times as popular as Barack.

This is not an anomaly. When the death of an attractive young woman or girl generates extended media coverage, the victim's name reliably soars in usage. The name Laci, off the charts for a decade, rose all the way to #438 in 2003 after the murder of Laci Peterson. Similarly, the name Natalee was one of the fastest risers of 2005 due to the disappearance of teenager Natalee Holloway.

At first glance, this might seem to be another instance of the "hurricane name effect": the publicity surrounding a terrible storm can make its name rise in popularity, despite the associations of death and destruction. It's the ultimate example of the old saw that any publicity is good publicity, as long as they spell your name right.

But there's a significant difference with the crime victim names. A hurricane, or even a celebrity, will only  boost a name if it's the right name. If the name is fresh and stylish, the idea will inspire parents. If not, all the publicity in the world doesn't help. The crime victims, in contrast, inspire namesakes even when their names had already gone out of style. The graph of Laci illustrates the phenomenon. This year, Caylee created new momentum for a familiar name that, accross its many spellings, had leveled off. It takes an extreme name like Jon-Benet to keep namesakes away.

This pattern suggests that much more than a mere publicity effect is at work. The victim names behave more like personal homages. And for those who might think of the intense public interest in the cases as simply "morbid curiosity," the naming pattern reveals a more profound kind of emotional involvement. Parents take baby name decisions very seriously, and they won't name a child after just anybody.

I'm a baby namer, not a sociologist, so I'll only draw my conclusions as far as the names take me. But I'll end with a contrast to contemplate. In the 21st Century, American parents are less likely than ever before to name a child after themselves, or after their own parents. They're less likely than ever to choose a name to honor a new leader, or a military hero. But they will choose names to honor a particular kind of crime victim. Look at the difference in baby-name impact between a Laci Peterson and a Pat Tillman, and come up with conclusions of your own.



By Katherine (not verified)
May 12, 2009 4:02 PM

Just for curiosity, is there a way to find out how a name places on the SS list if it doesn't make it onto the top 1000? Two of my daughters, Anthea and Sedona, don't make the list, and the other, Natassia, makes it if you spell it differently (although it, too, is low on the list). I suppose the SSA revealed where Barack placed because of the interest, but you say in an earlier comment that they don't release less-popular names for privacy reasons? We chose unusual (although we think very pretty and not bizarre) names because we didn't want them to be one of four Hannahs (a very pretty name, don't get me wrong) in the classroom. I guess I'm curious as to just *how* unusual the names are.

By Guest (not verified)
May 12, 2009 7:23 PM

Interesting to see all the political comments come out re: Obama. We also had joked about naming our son Barack, but it would never be an option for us, even though we were very happy when he was elected and it still makes me happy when I hear him on the news! I'm a little leery of being too gung-ho about the administration that's currently in power, just on principle, and I also would hate to name a baby after a president who seemed great at the beginning and then had some sort of scandal that tainted the name or made it a source of mockery - especially with a name as distinctive as Barack.

Caylee is nms, and it would creep me out anyway to have the association. On the other hand, in about five years nobody will remember anyway (I barely registered this because we don't have a TV...)

May 13, 2009 7:42 AM

Andrea J., I misunderstood your statement -- "There is a noticeable increase in kids with Barack or Obama somewhere in their names, but I would guess most of those kids are black." It was the use of 'but' and not 'and' which gave me an erroneous impression of what you were saying. I took it to mean that you thought the phenomenon of babies being named Barack is less noteworthy because those kids are mostly black. I understand from your current post (#50) that you were just making a factual statement: most of the kids bearing the name Barack are probably black or of other minority background. And I agree -- from what I've read that seems to be the case, including several babies in Kenya. I apologize for drawing the wrong conclusion from your statement.

I can see too that I've given you an incorrect impression when I said that part of your statement made me wince. Quite a mix up here: I didn't understand the accurate intent of your statement, which made me wince (thinking that you might be devaluing the increase in the use of the name Barack because mostly black kids are being given the name), and then you apparently thought I was making an issue of the name being used mostly by black parents.

Actually, it seems that we're 'on the same page' because I agree with what you wrote in your first paragraph of #50. I'm the mother of a large interracial family, created through birth and adoption, with six of my eight adult children of Asian ethnicity and 9 of my 16 grandchildren of minority backgrounds. The election of Barack Obama was very meaningful for my sons and daughters who have experienced racism, especially my sons. One of my sons told me that on the night Obama was elected, he held his sleeping baby son, and with tears running down his face, whispered to him, "Now you won't have to prove you're a real American. Barack Obama has been elected president."

By Andrea J. (not verified)
May 12, 2009 8:01 PM

Sorry for the misunderstanding. Of course it's not less notable because it's a trend among black parents or other minorities. I just find it interesting as a name trend and I think the trends among different groups are fun to follow. I just took a look at the state stats on the Social Security Administration and was having fun picking out the different trends in different states. Gianna has to be popular in New York and New Jersey because they have more Italians. Ryan is really popular in Massachusetts and other parts of the eastern U.S. and I would guess it's due to the Irish influence there. Jose and Angel are big in Nevada and Texas and New Mexico, states with heavy Hispanic influence. Nevaeh is in the top 10 in only one state -- New Mexico -- and it seems to be a name more popular with minorities. New Mexico is largely American Indian and Hispanic and I notice that it's fairly popular with American Indians in my state as well.

I voted for Obama, but I don't think it's necessarily a great name for a kid considering the possibility that he might do something in office that will make the name less of an asset. Better to wait until the President in question is out of office before naming after him.

May 12, 2009 8:16 PM

One unusual presidential name was that of Millard Fillmore, president from 1850-53. I checked SSA for use of his name. Millard was in the top 1000 from 1880 - 1971. I'm guessing the name Millard wasn't used much, if at all, before him because it was his mother's maiden name, not a usual name. I wish there were stats that showed exactly when the name Millard made the top 1000 -- during his presidency (which was very short), soon after, or decades later? In SSA records, the name peaked at 186 in 1887 and was in the 200s through 1927. Pretty good for the unusual name of a president who was never elected, but came to office when Pres. Zachary Taylor died in office and served out his term.

May 16, 2009 11:55 AM

Interesting. I, apparently, am an unusual case in that when an acquaintence at church recently named her daughter Caylee I was horrified (I love the name, just had that sad semi-negative association with the name - I would have suggested another spelling to her had I been asked) and my 2nd child (tbd girl or boy) will be either named for my husband and his father (he'll be a III) or for my mother (if it's a girl). Of course, my mother's name is in the Top 100 (her mom was way ahead of the curve in the early 50s) but she'll be named for her, none the less.

By Penny in Australia (not verified)
May 26, 2009 6:12 AM

coming in late, but will comment anyway - Laura's post was very interesting, and surprising to me. A tragic crime victim that fits into this category in Australia is Jaidyn Leskie, a toddler murdered in 1997 by his mother's boyfriend. The story was huge (as you might imagine) and very long running, with many various perpetrators suspected and lengthy court cases. I don't have the official stats, but I don't believe the name Jaidyn (and it's various spellings) is really that big here, compared to the rest of the world (while other similar names, such as Brayden are). It is gaining more popularity now, but slowly, and many years after the name has taken off overseas.

Laura's stats are unequivocal, but I can't help but wonder at the parents that give their children names that become well known due to a tragic namesake. Just seems a bit awful to me… I note Robyn T's comment (#5) that the trend seems to be to use female victim names, not male, which certainly fits in, in my mind.

By Guest (not verified)
June 1, 2009 7:15 PM

um ok well ;
my names caylee,
and its spelled that way,
and im 15 almost 16.
so i basically had this name before anyone i guess,
caylee the toddler that got murdered wasnt even born when i was born so my mom or dad didnt copy that name.
but i still feel bad for that caylee toddler girl, her moms a sick b**** for killing her.

June 1, 2009 9:44 PM

Amy 3: Does Astrid like her name? It's a big (and lovely) name for a little girl and maybe she will grow to appreciate it's uniqueness when she is older. I have a very unique name and I desperately wanted a more common name when I was younger -- in the 80's I was surrounded by Amy's and Jenny's and Maggies's and I so wanted to be one of them. They all had more formal names but had shortened nicknames and my name just didn't lend it self well to that. Plus, they all had stickers and pencils and other items with their names on it and mine was no where to be found. This my sound trivial, but in the mind of a 7 year old, this was a big deal. Of course, this is easily corrected today with the use of ordering personalized items on-line. I'm not saying don't help her try to find a nickname -- if you don't help her she'll just want one more -- but still calling her Astrid by certain family members and maybe ordering a few items with her full name on it that she can use at school may help encourage her to feel that her given name is truly beautiful. I think people made good efforts in suggesting nn's but they are either so cute-sy or just silly and that's something that you don't want to stick now and continue to stick as she matures and goes to college or the business world. It may sound super plain, but just calling her "A" at times could be simple enough to appease her and you and your husband as well.

By Guest (not verified)
June 6, 2009 4:13 PM

If your daughter wants a nickname, I think you should go along with it - your name is very important. Also, starting school is the perfect time to change a name - you are starting with a clean slate, so her options are wide open now as they won't be until she goes to college or you move to a new town.
I did manage to change my name from Kathie to Katherine when my sister's children were born - her sister-in-law was also Kathy so I volunteered to (jumped at the chance to) use a different name. It was hard & my mother still has trouble with it, but I also pulled it off at work, which was surprisingly much easier.

By Taina (not verified)
August 17, 2009 8:20 AM

The name does not affect the fate of the child. the more a child can change his name into adulthood)))

September 7, 2010 7:36 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

By Guestdsfsdf (not verified)
May 6, 2011 6:52 PM

The killing of "Baby Peter" by his carers was huge news for months in the UK. It would be interesting to see if there is any corresponding spike in naming trends. Similarly with other very well known child victims in the UK - Sarah, Holly, Jessica, Madeleine.