Names matter. People named Dennis and Denise are disproportionately likely to become dentists. People named Lawrence or Laurie are disproportionately likely to become lawyers. People named Louis are disproportionately likely to live in St. Louis, and people named Georgia are disproportionately likely to move to the state that served as home in “Gone With the Wind.”As Brett Pelham of State University of New York at Buffalo has shown in dozens of different ways, people are drawn to professions, places and people that remind them of themselves. A thing as seemingly superficial as a name can influence, even if slightly, the course of a whole life (which is why I’ve named my own children President, Laureate and Hedge Fund Manager).
Nevertheless, I didn’t become aware of the true import of names until I read Laura Wattenberg. She has taken her obsession with names — which in other hands could be regarded as an eccentricity — and has transformed it into a window on American society.
On her blog, The Baby Name Wizard, Wattenberg tracks the rise and fall of naming fashions. One of her mega-observations, which isn’t that surprising, is that we are living in the age of the long tail when it comes to naming our kids. In 1880, just 10 names — William, John, Mary, George, etc. — accounted for 20 percent of all babies. Now those 10 names account for just 2 percent of American babies.
Name conformity peaked around World War II. Since then parents have been more and more likely to seek out the unusual. “Across regions, races and classes,” Wattenberg writes, “many thousands of American parents are united by a common bond: their mutual determination to be nothing like each other.”
This observation is merely a jumping-off point. Between 1890 and 1920, as America was urbanizing, parents gave names that were paved with gold, Wattenberg observes. Girls were often named after gems — Amber, Ruby, Jewel and Opal.
In the 1950s, some surge of naming testosterone produced a lot of swaggering male names ending in the letter K: Jack, Mark and Frank, not to mention Rock, Dirk and Buck. But over the past few decades, K has moved to the front of names: Kyle, Kaitlyn and Kayla. “If any letter defines modern American name style, K is it,” Wattenberg notes.
The most astonishing change concerns the ending of boys’ names. In 1880, most boys’ names ended in the letters E, N, D and S. In 1956, the chart of final letters looked pretty much the same, with more names ending in Y. Today’s chart looks nothing like the charts of the past century. In 2006, a huge (and I mean huge) percentage of boys’ names ended in the letter N. Or as Wattenberg put it, “Ladies and gentlemen, that is a baby-naming revolution.”
Wattenberg observes a new formality sweeping nursery schools. Thirty years ago there would have been a lot of Nicks, Toms and Bills on the playground. Now they are Nicholas, Thomas and William. In 1898, the name Dewey had its moment (you should be able to figure out why). Today, antique-sounding names are in vogue: Hannah, Abigail, Madeline, Caleb and Oliver.
In the late 19th century, parents sometimes named their kids after prestigious jobs, like King, Lawyer, Author and Admiral. Now, children are more likely to bear the names of obsolete proletarian professions, Cooper, Carter, Tyler and Mason.
Wattenberg uses her blog to raise vital questions, such as should you give your child an unusual name that is Googleable, or a conventional one that is harder to track? But what’s most striking is the sheer variability of the trends she describes.
Naming fashion doesn’t just move a little. It swings back and forth. People who haven’t spent a nanosecond thinking about the letter K get swept up in a social contagion and suddenly they’ve got a Keisha and a Kody. They may think they’re making an individual statement, but in fact their choices are shaped by the networks around them.
Furthermore, if you just looked at names, you would conclude that American culture once had a definable core — signified by all those Anglo names like Mary, Robert, John and William. But over the past few decades, that Anglo core is harder to find. In the world of niche naming, there is no clearly identifiable mainstream.
For the past few decades, the White House has been occupied by George, William, George, Ronald, James and Richard. Those pillars are crumbling. Pluralism is here.