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The Boston Globe

Ideas

Ideas

What baby names say about everything else

A private choice? Not exactly. Social scientists turn to names to understand changing tastes, class, and how ideas spread

About 11,000 babies will be born today in the United States. They’ll be born at home, in taxis, and in hospitals big and small, to mothers of all races, religions, and incomes. But one thing they’ll have in common: Each of them will receive a name, to be inscribed on their birth certificate, cooed by their parents, and carried with them for life.

Each time parents name a baby, it feels like a deeply intimate decision. In a sense, it is: Parents draw on family traditions, their religion, their favorite books and movies, their dreams for their children, and their aesthetic sensibilities in choosing names. Many Puritans, who gave their children names like Abstinence and Obedience, believed that names had a sort of power over character; as one English preacher put it, “A good name is a thread tyed about the finger.”

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