What’s In a Name?

An awful lot when you’re a parent waiting for that first child.  A baby’s name is the stuff of negotiation, family history, a sense of how it all flows together, and of course the single most important factor – not naming the  kid after someone you always hated.  Life’s too short to live with that.

The Social Security Administration is good for a lot of things, especially a check once a month if you happen to be retired.  It also boasts this neat site that records and tabulates all the baby names under which people apply for social security numbers or, sometimes, through other historical documents.

You can have a lot of fun with this kind of site.

For example, if we use the broad Census designation of what lucky states get to be considered the South (Delaware? Really guys?), the breakdown of favorite boy baby name goes something like this:

Favorite Boy Names by Region
Year South Northeast North Central West
1988 Christopher Michael Michael Michael
1998 Jacob Michael Jacob Jacob
2008 William Michael Jacob Ethan

In 1988 all four sections of the U.S. went with the name and only the South – being the South – took a different path and preferred Christopher.  By 1998, the South went with Jacob (full disclosure, my son’s name, so a brilliant choice).  The North Central and West agreed.  The Northeast?  Still stuck with Michael.

I suppose they really liked that John Travolta movie.

By 2008, the South had moved on again, shifting to William as its favorite among boy names.  The North Central stuck with Jacob, the West with Ethan.  The Northeast?  Michael.

Here’s an interesting factoid.  In 1988, across all 50 states and the District of Colombia, only five boy names appeared as the top choice in all 51 cases.  Wow.  That’s a remarkable lack of diversity across a fairly diverse nation, at least when it comes to names.  By 1998 we improved, with nine different names appearing as the top choice.  And by 2008, you’ll find 14 different names.

How about the girls?

When it comes to diversity, the results look similar.  In 1988 there were only three names that landed in the top spot across 51 states and D.C.  Jessica was the first choice of 25 states, Ashley the tops in 23, and three places went with Amanda.  By 1998, we had eight different girl names snagging a top spot somewhere across the U.S., and in 2008 we had eight again, though the names were slightly different.

Below is the regional breakdown, at least as the Census folks define it:

Favorite Girl Names by Region
Year South Northeast North Central West
1988 Ashley Ashley/Jessica Ashley Jessica
1998 Hannah Emily Emily Emily
2008 Emma Ava/Emily/Isabella Ava/Emma Isabella/Olivia

First, let me say that in 1988, Ashley barely beat out Jessica in the South, 9 states to 8.  And as anyone can see, there are a bunch of ties that pop up by 2008 across the country, and some interesting developments with Ava, Isabella, and Olivia, no doubt due to recent immigration.

Oh, and let me add that my daughter’s name, Erin, doesn’t make the top of the list.  And it should.  She said so.

The Real South

If instead we use a more traditional “South” measure, you know, one with the states you’d expect to find, like Georgia and Alabama and Mississippi, and people know that iced tea must be sweet, we get:

The Real South and Names
Year Girl Names Boy Names
1988 Jessica Christopher
1998 Hannah William
2008 Madison William

As you can see the girl results change a  little compared to the Census South while the boy names stay more or less the same.

What all can you do with these data?  More than I can write here.  What’s missing is an underlying theory as to why regions of the country might prefer certain names over the others.  Immigration is one likely factor, and indeed we find Latino names more prevalent in states with strong Latino populations.  No surprise there.  But another theory may be a love of Biblical names.

Take Jacob, for example.  As I mentioned above it’s my son’t name, but we stuck him with that not due to the Bible but because of Jake Barnes, the protagonist in one of my favorite books, Hemmingway’s The Sun Also Rises (which he tried and failed to finish this summer, so what the heck does he know).  The name has grown in popularity.  Back in 1909, it was the 102nd most popular boy’s name in the U.S.  By the 1960s it slipped in popularity but since 1999 Jacob has been the single most popular name in the U.S.  Er, at least for boys.  Before that, Michael held the number one spot and today it remains #2.

I thought that perhaps the South would own those good, solid, scary, Old Testament names, but this doesn’t seem to be the case.  Once again, the data get in the way of a good theory.

Among girl names, Emma is #1 in the latest data, and for the first time ever.  It became popular in the 1990s.  Isabella is #2 and it’s a fascinating case study.  It was modestly popular from 1909 to 1948 and then disappeared from the Top 1000 list until 1990, when it began a steady climb to just below the top of the heap.

The Bad Girl Effect

Why do some names become unpopular?  One theory is the bad girl effect.

Take Paris as a girl’s name, as in Paris Hilton, she of recent arrest fame, no doubt because she was jealous of all the free publicity received by Lindsay Lohan.  The name Paris has been around for awhile, hanging around the bottom of the U.S. list, but it began a steady climb to its highest point (#157) before dropping quickly.  If you look at the years, it becomes clear the name dropped as Ms. Hilton became, um, less popular among thinking people.  Britney hit #137 in 2000 but since then, for obvious reasons, the name fell seriously out of favor and now ranks only #689.  Lindsay climbed as high at #35.  Now it stands at #277.

The Coasts are Cool, Except Not

We all know that trends begin on the East and West coasts and migrate slowly into the lands of the great unwashed, meaning all the rest of us.  So baby names, they ought to do the same, right?

The data don’t support this theory, at least when it comes to names.

I tried Madison.  It’s an up-and-coming name (#4, up from #628 in 1985) in that originates either from a town or a Founding Father or maybe from some TV show I missed along the way.  I figured it came first from perhaps California or New York and slowly grew popular elsewhere.  Nope.  The South seems to have used this name earlier than the rest of the country.  Emma is hugely popular and seems to have come first out of the middle of the country.

So take that, California and New York.

A Clever Conclusion

This is where I try to wrap up this mess, with a clever conclusion, but honestly I don’t have one other than to invite you to play with the web site yourself.  Scroll to the bottom right corner and you can enter a name and see how it’s popularity has changed over time.  Make sure you click either boy or girl, and where it asks Number of Years put in 50 or 100, don’t leave it at the default of 0.  In the bottom left column you can click on search by state and see how your state chooses, though you have to do it year by year.

In other words, have fun.  And lemme know what you put together.

Barry Hollander

Barry Hollander

Former hack at daily newspapers, now hack journalism professor at the University of Georgia, number cruncher and longtime Net user, caffeine addict, writer of weird fiction, and a semi-retired god in an online fantasy world where godhood suits him quite well, thank you very much. He also blogs at http://www.whatpeopleknow.com

  1. Alex Kearns

    Whew, that was close! From ’91 – ’97 my name (Alexandra) was getting fighteningly near to being popular. I, too, named my daughter Erin in 1989 thinking that it would be unique. There were four Erin’s in her kindergarten class.
    A fun article, Barry. I’ll tell my very pregnant daughter to check it out and that if she wants a unique name for the child she may think of going with Euphamia or Zeigfreid.

  2. This was fun! But we differ, Barry. Where you were looking for your family’s names to be up on the list, I was seeking to learn how far down the list I could find my grand’s names. The top peaked at around 50th. It’s a good, solid name and fortunately not too common.

    Conversely, one of my grandchildren has a name that doesn’t even appear on the list in the past ten years and yet it’s a perfect name for him and not even a little bit made-up weird, and since it “sounds out,” he won’t have to spend his life spelling it out at every necessary turn. It’s a great name. I guess it will appear on the list when he gets his SS#, one of these days.

    The other grands have names barely cracking top 500 and top 1000. Regular, cute names (little girls), that will age well with them, lovely in both the art world or corporate America. Makes me happy.

    I was surprised to learn that “Madison” is moving up the list. I thought it had already moved up, peaked and moved on to the green pastures. A fine name, but it isn’t done?

    Thanks, Barry!

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