June 2011

When Names Were Heroes, Part 2

Jun 23rd 2011

Yesterday I described how baby name homages to heroes have been disappearing. Today, some thoughts on what that change says about our attitudes and naming culture.

In part, the shift away from hero naming represents the triumph of fashion in baby names. As sound and style play ever larger roles in naming decisions, homages have to yield. Note, for instance, the decline of "Juniors," and the way grandparents are increasingly honored with middle names or initials rather than direct namesakes. We still love our parents (and ourselves), but style comes first.

Cynicism about public figures appears to play a role too. We do name babies after presidents today, but we wait until their history is fully written, just in case. Ronald Reagan's death inspired far more little Reagans than his election did. Similarly, names like Ava, Harlow and Lana take their spark from celebrities who have moved beyond scandal-prone reality into Hollywood myth.

What's more, a Golden Age Hollywood name is seen as cool and retro, while a modern celebrity association seems to embarrass today's parents. Even when a baby name appears to be ripped from the headlines, they'll disavow it: "OUR Isabella has NOTHING to do with Twilight," they rush to assure you. That's quite a contrast to the generation of little Shirleys who were cheerfully, forthrightly named after Shirley Temple.

Perhaps, then, it's not just hero names but frank, public admiration itself that's out of style. The homage names that do still pop up take different forms, like naming after crime victims. Compare two different figures who were big in the news in 2009: Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger and Caylee Anthony. Captain Sullenberger had the word "hero" permanently attached to his name for saving the lives of hundreds of passengers on a doomed airplane. Ms. Anthony, a toddler, was tragically murdered. The naming effect was a thousand more Caylees, and scarcely a Sully to be seen.

In fact, using a baby name as a public expression of empathy is more common than ever. Crime victims of past eras didn't have a naming impact like Caylee (or Laci, or Natalee). Strange as it may sound, today we'd rather link our children to victims than to heroes.

When Names Were Heroes

Jun 22nd 2011

We don't name babies to honor people any more.

Yes, that's too sweeping a statement. You're probably dredging up examples right now to prove me wrong. But on a broad, societal level it's dramatically true -- a sweeping statement to represent a sweeping change.

It can be hard to appreciate the change, because we don't realize just how standard homage names were in generations past. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, politicians, military leaders and all manner of inspiring individuals could count on a bevy of namesakes. Today? Let's take a look.

The 2008 election saw the historic election of America's first black president. As you might expect, this event was commemorated in names. Approximately 60 more babies were named Barack or Obama than the year before. How big a deal was that? Well, it means hero naming for the new president accounted for .00001 percent of babies born, or one in every 71,000. Neither Barack nor Obama ranked among America's top 2,000 names for boys. In other words, the effect was so trivially small that you would never notice it unless you went searching for it. Recent presidents with more familiar names, like Clinton, fared even worse on the name charts.

Now roll back the clock to the presidential election of 1896. Democrat William Jennings Bryan inspired a dramatic jump in the names Jennings and Bryan. Those jumps accounted for one in every 2,400 babies born  -- an effect 30 times bigger than Obama's. It was enough to rank both names in the top 300 for the year. And in case your American history is a little shaky: Bryan lost the election.

This isn't an anomaly. Generations' worth of presidential losers past inspired more namesakes than triumphant new presidents do today. The likes of James Blaine, Alton Parker and Charles Hughes were baby-name stylemakers back in the days when names were, routinely, heroes.

Presidents are just the tip of the iceberg. How about new vice presidents? Yep, plenty of them. Adlai Stevenson's VP nod in 1892, for instance, prompted a big spike in baby Adlais. Military leaders? You bet. The name Pershing made the top 1000 for three years running after World War I, but that's too easy. Try Schley, a hot name in 1898. (A gold star if you recall the controversy over credit for the Battle of Santiago de Cuba between Commodore Schley and Rear Admiral Sampson.) Cultural icons? Sure, the death of opera singer Enrico Caruso sent the name Enrico to its all-time high in 1921.

In short, almost anyone you could stand up and cheer for prior to WWII inspired baby name homages. And every one of the individuals mentioned in the paragraph above outpaced President Obama in the namesake wars.

Thoughts on the significance of this change in naming practices tomorrow... Continue to part 2.



The Decline of Debbie

Jun 14th 2011

This week's sensation on YouTube has been "eHarmony Video Bio," a supposed entry in the online dating arena. (In reality, it's is a parody by comedian Cara Hartmann.) In the video, we meet a woman who really loves cats. Like, really a lot. It's a funny piece, but here at Baby Name Wizard headquarters, the big story is the video's opening line:

"Hello, my name is Debbie..."

Type "DEB" into the NameVoyager and you'll see that Deborah in all its forms was a mid-century phenomenon. For much of U.S. history it was just another semi-obscure biblical name. Then in the 1940s the name started to catch fire, fueled by the sunny nickname Debbie.

By 1948 Deborah ranked #30 among girls' names in America, and Debbie ranked #267. That was the year when 16-year-old Mary Frances Reynolds won a talent contest and a contract with Warner Brothers films. The studio changed her name to Debbie, a cheery choice for the contemporary girl next door. Young Debbie Reynolds was a smash, and both rode and drove the name's image as the 1950s All-American girl.

As that '50s generation grew up, the name Debbie held on to its perennially sunny, girlish demeanor. The early '60s brought "Little Debbie Snack Cakes," treats named for the bakers' young granddaughter, which helped cement that impression. The 1970s porn film Debbie Does Dallas played off the name's image for its title character, a sweet cheerleader-next-door who does some [*gasp*] not so sweet things. In the '80s, teen singer Debbie Gibson became the youngest person to write, produce and perform a #1 song. Even the phrase Debbie Downer took its punch from the contrast of sunny name and gloomy outlook.

And now, YouTube gives us the 2011 Debbie. Like the earlier porn film, Hartmann's video takes advantage of the name's chipper sound. But there's a key difference: back then, Debbie was a generationally realistic name.

The Debbie who "did Dallas" would have been born around 1959, when the names Debbie and Deborah both ranked in America's top 20. The woman in the eHarmony video looks more the age of an Ashley or Amber. Even if her parents did name her old-fashioned Deborah, a woman that age would be more likely to go by the full Deborah or the no-nonsense Deb.

The "my name is Debbie" intro, then, is our first subtle sign that this woman is a wee bit out of step. Her wholesomeness is a little unwholesome; she's  not quite living in 2011 grownup reality.

To all of you Debbies out there, I apologize for this knife to the heart of your totally blameless name. The good news is that Debbie does still sound friendly and likeable on a real person. And hey, there's always Deb and Deborah.

Villain Names: So Evil, So Stylish

Jun 9th 2011

My nine-year-old daughter approached me with a naming dilemma. She'd come across an appealing name in a book, but it was attached to a not-so-appealing character. Really, quite an unappealing character. As in horrifying and diabolical. Did that make the name off-limits for nice characters in stories, or future children?

The name in question was Jadis, the White Witch of Narnia. I had to hand it to her, that's one snazzy name. And unlike, say, Voldemort, I think you could get away with using it. The fact that the character Jadis is most often referred to by other titles helps, but the biggest factor is the name itself. Jadis is a tidy style synthesis -- Jada+Paris -- that sounds almost classic. Voldemort, meanwhile, falls wide of the fashion mark. (Vlad the Impaler + rigor mortis?)

In fact, parents do use the name Jadis at the rate of about ten baby girls a year ian the U.S. Do those parents not know or care about the villainy, or could the wicked vibe actually be part of the name's appeal? The number of baby Jadises rose with the release of the Narnia movies, which does point to a positive White Witch influence. There's plenty of precedent for such diabolical name sources. "Demon spawn" from horror movies, for instance, are reliable trendsetters.

Perhaps evil just has a distinctive sound and style, a tantalizing edge of danger imbedded in the name.

Unlike real-world bad guys, fictional villians are named with the job in mind. You'll find some deliberately innocuous choices, like Annie Wilkes of Misery. You'll also find plenty that are gleefully over-the-top, like Mister Sinister or Snidely Whiplash. But in-between lies a realm of names with just enough wickedness to give a thrill, without laughs or revulsion.

Take a look at the list below. All are prominent fictional villains with unusual names that have shown up in recent years' baby name records. Do you think the names themselves show a villainous kick?

(Note: In some cases the name has additional cultural associations, but none that spurred a significant U.S. naming history. I've skipped morally ambiguous characters like Anakin and Elektra, and names like Lucifer and Loki that pop up in too many villainous contexts to pin down. And before you ask, yes, there are babies named Lucifer.)

Auric (Goldfinger/James Bond)
Ganon (Legend of Zelda)
Jareth (Labyrinth)
Lex (Superman)
Kraven (Spiderman, Underworld)
Mystique (X-Men)
Stryker (X-Men)
Thade (Planet of the Apes)
Thanos (Marvel Comics)

EDIT - Per a reader suggestion, let's add Bellatrix (Harry Potter). That one's a particularly rich brew of attraction and danger: the belle of the ball crossed with a dominatrix.


The Antique Name Illusion: In search of the Next Ava and Isabella

Jun 2nd 2011

Like optical illusions, naming illusions are surprisingly powerful. You can see one working its magic in this excerpt from the official Social Security Administration announcment of the top baby names of 2010:

"A recent trend in the top girls names is a return to names that were popular in the early to mid-1900s.  Names like Isabella, Ava, and Chloe, which had disappeared almost completely from the top 1,000 girls names, have surged in popularity in recent years, which suggests a trend in naming newborn girls after their grandmothers."

The SSA, the very keepers of our nation's name data, were taken in by the "antique name illusion."

Faux antique names sound like living embodiments of a bygone age. They take you back to the time when they were all the rage, when flocks of little Avas and Isabellas trailed behind fashionable young ladies in shirtwaists and high-button shoes. And yes, that image is an illusion. The names existed back then, but they were heard only occasionally and were far from typical. None of them ever cracked the top 200.

To put the old-time usage of Isabella, Ava and Chloe in perspective, here are some groups of names that were more popular in the early 20th century. I doubt any of them will conjure up those high-button shoes.

Mid-century sound: Janet, Peggy, Ellen, Lee, Carol

'60-'70s sound: Amy, Leslie, Sara, Christine, Jennie

'80s-'90s sound: Shelby, Jewel, Callie, Amanda, Katie

"You mean those were actually popular?" sound: Elva, Virgie, Alta, Mittie, Ollie   

Or to put it visually, compare this historical graph of three names that are genuine antique revivals, Emma, Grace and Amelia...

...with the graph of Isabella, Ava and Chloe:

Together, the SSA's three "grandma" names are 40 times as common today as they were in the early 20th Century -- meaning there's no chance their popularity comes from being named after grandma. (Or great-great-grandma. Today's typical new grandma was born in the 1960s.) Rather than emissaries from the real past, Isabella and friends represent an imaginary past. Like much fiction, this alternate history keeps a foothold in our world but spins something more exciting and stylish than mundane reality.

The SSA's faux-antique faux pas got me thinking more about the nature of this imaginary past. If it's such a rich source of attractive names, can we explore it and mine for more? Perhaps Isabella, Ava, Chloe and their kin can point the way.

Statistically speaking, those names do have a historical pattern in common. They were used in past eras, not often but at a slow, steady rate for a generation or more before declining. That gave them enough time to acquire a coating of antique-style dust without becoming so common as to sound hokey or boring. In other words, part of their appeal is that you don't have a great-grandma by that name, you've never known a great-grandma by that name, but you do have the impression they're out there.

Are there other names that fit that description? I looked through decades of old stats to find names with untapped faux-antique potential. Could one of these be the next Chloe or Ava...or better yet, a stylish but uncommon choice for your baby?