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.”
But a name is something more than personal, too: It is a social artifact. Picture the moment a pair of new parents gazes into their newborn baby’s face and proclaims her Olivia. That creation of an Olivia—which happened 17,169 times in 2011, and will almost certainly happen a few dozen times today—says something not just about these particular parents and child, but about the time and place they live in, social influence and trends, and even the economy.
In the past few years, a wave of social science research has been using masses of newly available naming data to draw big pictures of Americans’ evolving tastes and behavior. New York University psychology professor Todd Gureckis and his coauthor, for example, found that the American reaction to trends has shifted over time—in the early 20th century, people would steer away from names as they became more popular, but these days people flock toward the familiar. Others are looking at what kinds of things influence American parents. A paper out of the University of Pennsylvania found an unexpected effect from at least one major news event: Parents chose names beginning with “K” 9 percent more after Hurricane Katrina.
“People have come to realize recently that there’s a lot of
information untapped in names,” Boston University economist M. Daniele Paserman said. He and a colleague are using first names to track socioeconomic mobility between fathers and daughters in the 19th and early 20th centuries in an attempt to answer big questions about whether the United States was ever a “land of unlimited opportunity.”
Beneath it all is the moment Olivia became Olivia, and the moment you got your name, as well. If we used to believe that a name could shape our inner lives, it’s becoming increasingly clear today that names carry a wealth of information about the world around us, the family we arrived in, the moment we were born—and that they mark us as part of cultural currents bigger than we realize.
The rise and fall of individual names is fascinating to just about everybody. We all sense that Doris has gone out of style, and Brittany was big in the 1990s—and, since the rise of websites such as the addictive Baby Name Wizard, we’ve actually been able to see those trajectories graphed and quantified. Online information aggregated from across the country allows us to see that Mildred peaked about a century ago and has now nearly vanished, that 1880s-era Emma underwent a spectacular revival in the late 20th century, and that Elvis shot up in popularity in 1957, after the star’s appearance on the Ed Sullivan show.
Researchers have long known that behind those trends lie huge cultural shifts, but they haven’t been easy to study. When sociologist Alice Rossi, later a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and cofounder of the National Organization for Women, wrote a 1965 paper that found sons were significantly more likely to be named for relatives than daughters were, suggesting that men were seen as the carriers of family tradition, she had to go to great lengths to compile enough data to study, conducting hundreds of in-person interviews with parents in the Chicago area. Other early names researchers had to painstakingly request information from individual state agencies.
Names research suddenly became much, much easier because of one curious dad. In 1997, Michael Shackleford was an employee of the Office of the Actuary at the Social Security Administration’s headquarters in Baltimore; his wife was pregnant and he was determined to avoid giving the child a common name like his own. With his access to Social Security card data, he wrote a simple program to sort the information by year of birth, gender, and first name. Suddenly he could see every Janet born in 1960. He could see that the number one names in 1990 were Michael and Jessica. He realized this could be important. “I knew that my eyeballs were seeing this list of the most popular baby names nationwide for the first time,” he recalled recently. “It was too good to keep to myself.”
Since then, the SSA has built up its site so that anyone—a researcher, an expectant parent, or a teenage Olivia in 2023 wondering how she got saddled with something so commonplace—can now explore the top 1,000 names by year back to 1880. You can track a particular name over time, or peruse lists including popular twin names. (In 2011, 14 pairs of twins were named London and Paris.) The previous year’s list is released each year around Mother’s Day.
Beyond entertaining the rest of us, this new trove of information has proved a gold mine to fields such as sociology, psychology, and marketing. The federal file of names given to hundreds of millions of Americans gives researchers a pool of data that’s enormous, un-gettable any other way, and—by social-science standards—remarkably “clean.” (“If you want to study art, it’s hard to detect if a painting is Cubist,” Gureckis told me. “But if one parent names their kid Michael, and another names their kid Michael, they’re the same. There’s no ambiguity.”)
In the last decade, researchers have tapped the SSA names database to suggest that cultural elements obey statistical power laws, and that the sudden popularity of “Ashley” and “Tyler” in the 1990s can be explained by a model similar to those used by geneticists. Other researchers have observed that common names were most widespread between WWI and WWII, and that their prevalence has been dropping ever since, suggesting “behavioral evidence of growing individualism.”
Jonah Berger, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, was a coauthor of a paper published last year pointing out that after major hurricanes like Katrina, baby names that share sounds or syllables with the hurricane’s name become more popular, a finding that he argues has implications for figuring out how things like songs or cars catch on. In 2009, Berger coauthored another paper that used first-name data from both France and the United States to suggest that “cultural tastes that have been adopted quickly die faster.” In a new book, “Contagion: Why Things Catch On,” Berger compares baby names to YouTube videos: Both provide clues about “social influence and what drives certain things to become popular.”
“As a variable, [naming] seems to be connected to this very broad and surprising variety of outcomes,” said social psychologist Michael Varnum, who is currently working on a post-
doctoral fellowship at Peking University. In a 2011 paper, Varnum and a colleague found that residents of American frontier states are likelier to give their babies unusual names compared with residents of New England; the same values that pushed settlers out west, he suggests, now influence western preferences for uncommon names. Varnum is now looking into how naming trends respond to demographic and ecological factors, including urbanization and the prevalence of infectious diseases.
Scholarly interest in baby names isn’t limited to what the SSA database shows, of course. Varnum’s 2011 study also examined similar data from Canada, compiled province by province, and Europe. Economists Roland G. Fryer Jr. and Steven D. Levitt used data from a California state agency in 2004 to ask why black parents in racially isolated neighborhoods began giving their children “distinctively black names,” like DeShawn or Shanice, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, while other black parents’ name choices became more similar to whites’. Fryer and Levitt write that the “ghettoization” of black names is likely a consequence of the Black Power movement’s influence on black identity. A new working paper by three economists pushes back at their theory, meanwhile—they found census records showing distinctive naming patterns by black parents stretching back to the late 19th century, and concluded that roughly the same percentage of African-Americans held “black” names historically as now.
Boston University economist Paserman and a colleague, Claudia Olivetti, use census data on first names and income to track social mobility between fathers and daughters in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Previously, researchers could track connections only between fathers and sons, because daughters changed their last names upon marriage. But Olivetti and Paserman realized that first names carry rich information about socioeconomic status. Rich men named their daughters Emma in 1850, while poor men named their daughters Sally; that means you can look at how Emmas and Sallys are faring in 1880 to get clues about social mobility across generations. Paserman and Olivetti are now using their method to compare status across multiple generations, harnessing the name data to reach what Paserman calls “a new frontier of research on intergenerational mobility.”
Names have special value to research into the culture. Our increasingly networked world generates reams of data about our behavior, but not always much insight about what we really think and believe—in part because money clouds the issue. Did we buy a Volkswagen because of its reliability, or because the company shelled out for Super Bowl ads?
Not so with names. “No one advertises for Sarah versus Karen,” as Berger puts it. Obviously, certain names enter the cultural atmosphere thanks to commercial forces, but unlike, say, popular songs (another pet source for similar research), no one has a direct financial incentive to promote “Sarah.” That means name decisions hint at insights that lie beyond the realm of commerce, into more deeply held values.
In addition, no one name is inherently better than another; it’s a question of taste, not quality or cost. By contrast, when you decide between Bounty and Brawny, you’re looking at empirical differences in both cost and quality, so that choice is less revealing. As pioneering names researcher Stanley Lieberson put it in a 1992 paper, names offer a “rare opportunity to determine how taste is structured when neither income, nor occupation, nor formal education constrain the choices.”
Even if there are no rules, however, all those things and more do shape what we call our kids. If you think back to brand-new baby Olivia, it’s clear that an incredibly complicated web of decisions and preferences was at work when her parents chose her name. Certain syllables and sounds come in and out of fashion, building on and reacting to previous trends in a phenomenon Lieberson calls the “ratchet effect”; that means Olivia’s kindergarten class will probably also have plenty of Avas, Evas, and Olivers. As Baby Name Wizard’s founder told Wired magazine a few years ago, “People may think they named a child after great, great grandma Olivia, but they have a lot of great, great grandmas, and they picked Olivia because it fits the popular sounds.”
That raises the rather claustrophobic notion that this is true for the rest of us, too. If you treasure the sweet, unique story of how your parents named you, it can be unsettling to think of their decision as nothing more than a data point in an unstoppable national trend—the rise of location-inspired names like Brooklyn, or the spread of “K” sounds, or the early-’80s “Amanda” boom. But if the new knowledge about baby names strips away a bit of our individuality, it also connects us with each other—in ways we’re just beginning to understand.
Ruth Graham, a writer in New Hampshire, is a regular contributor to Ideas.