What’s in a Name?

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Nameberry, a website devoted to baby naming, has analyzed the page views of its own site and come up with a list of names likely to be the most common choices this year. (Go here for the same story, one meta-level removed). They don’t say much about their methodology other than to say that they have a pool of 3 million page views, which can mean both 1) if you find a remarkable trend in that much data, it won’t be a mistake (i.e. if you find a strong relationship, it probably won’t be a statistical quirk) AND 2) in that much data, you’re running a big risk of finding phantom trends that are really statistically significant but weak (i.e. you’ll be really sure even about tiny blips that don’t tell you much). Bearing that caveat in mind, let’s go through the list quickly and the reasons the professionals at Nameberry come up with to explain the trends.

1. Rue – from The Hunger Games

2. Emmett – from Twilight

3. Ivy – from Beyonce & Jay-Z’s recent offspring

4. Weston – from the son of a character on The Office (US version, I guess)

5. Adele – The Monster with Many Grammys

6. Grayson – Last name of a family on some show called Revenge

7. Aria – Opera (not the browser) is finally coming back?!

8. Cyrus – From a Kennedy-Bushesque dynasty of pop music

9. Estelle – Name of the recently born Swedish princess

10. Cato – Apparently another character from The Hunger Games, unless the Classics are coming back?!

11. Blythe – Parental subconscious really means ‘blight’?

So 8 (and a half, if you count royals) of 11 are drawn straight from pop culture. Of course, those generating these page views are consulting the internet for ideas, which might also mean that they’re already very plugged into pop culture, but then who isn’t?

Cynical SOBs like Yours Truly will probably jump quickly to the idea that these names are chosen as extensions of the parents’ desired brands. It’s a message to the world, but since the parents can’t know what to tell the world about someone as yet unborn, it’s a message about the parents themselves. The message might be about the parents directly (e.g. “We’re the kind of people who have kids as sweet and innocent as this figure that our peers will know from pop culture, like Rue.”), or it might serve the parents’ more profane interests. (Example 1: When I first heard that B & J-Z were naming their daughter ‘Blue Ivy’, my first, immediate thought was ‘That sounds like a perfume.’ and the bottle design and ad campaign formed involuntarily in my head in about 15 seconds. Example 2: I know a couple whose eldest daughter is named ‘O’hara’. I asked the mother about the name’s origins recently. When she was pregnant with O’hara, she ran a hair salon. Assuming her daughter would one day take over the family salon, the name ‘O’hara’ was going to work perfectly with the business, as in ‘O’haira’s’ or ‘O’hara’s Hair’.) And this doesn’t seem to be all that new. I seem to remember lots of Britneys, Brittanys and the like about a decade ago, there were a lot of Alexes and Samanthas back in the Family Ties days, and The Partridge Family was reproduced in many households in the 70s, I’m sure.

Okay, so parents are really thinking of themselves when naming their kids, but is there anything new going on here besides the fact that the parents are looking to pop culture for inspiration? Fathers have been naming sons after themselves and their fathers for millennia. It’s almost a rule among royalty, and it used to be a much stricter almost-rule. It would be a fair guess that Jewish boys would be more likely to be named ‘Joshua’, and for sons of Muslim parents to be named ‘Mohammed’, than you’d expect in the population as a whole. Names in cases such as these clearly are not chosen from out of a hat. Is referencing pop culture really new, is it just the case that other traditions have different sources of ‘pop culture’ to reference (i.e. holy texts & great ancestors), or is there a meaningful difference in the two practices?

For contrast, bear in mind that some parents in other cultures go about it very differently. For example, in a few west African countries, it’s conventional to name kids after the day of the week on which they were born, which is why it seems that every 7th Ghanaian is named Kofi or Kwame. Closer to home (for many of you) a couple of economists found that 30% of black girls in California had names that were unique to themselves, at least in the state. If you want to give your kid a unique name, you’re not going to check the internet, unless you wanna try to spin the wheel.

So what does this practice mean? 

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17 Responses to What’s in a Name?

  1. Very interesting. The other thing that bears some thinking about is that The Hunger Games audience is, mostly, female; so choosing Rue or Cato as a baby name means the mom wanted it so much, and had enough say in the matter, to be the decider in the name. I suppose I’m envisioning a scenario where the dad says, “what? The Hunger Games? No way!” but mom gets her wish anyway.

    The other names might not carry such meaning, as they simply “sound” cool and don’t so automatically carry a link to pop culture.

    Also note that this list isn’t what is the hot names of 2012, but the site’s predictions of what will be hot in 2012 given their study of pageviews. So, in theory, this could simply be parents (moms) checking to see if people have already picked Hunger Games names for kids, i.e. waiting for a precedent. What goes against this theory is that such moms would have undoubtedly looked up Katniss, and then the site would have detected that as a popular search. Which it didn’t, so I’m insane. Enjoy.

    • Minerva says:

      It’s not just “moms” who get suckered into current pop culture themes.

      I wanted to name mine after a medieval emperor, he wanted to name him after a Pulp Fiction character. You can’t even extrapolate on our personalities from that. The dad is actually a fairly solid, practical, down to earth person and I’m the airhead.

      Nothing against pop culture names, most are greatly preferred to Destiny Unique or LaCayenne but I do feel really sorry for any kid who’ll have to sign their passport with Katniss…

      • Nachlasse says:

        You misunderstood, moms read hunger games.

        • Minerva says:

          That’s just fine as long as you don’t fall in the trap of thinking that ALL mothers read hunger games (or have facebook/twitter accounts.)

          The same father that wanted to name his kid after a Pump Fiction character also wanted to read the Hunger Games after he saw a review of the film on TV. (Something about the words “16 yr grrl” triggers an unconscious reaction in most men.)

          While I kept seeing promotions of the book on Amazon for months and could not work up an interest. Loaded it on Kindle because of the agency/no agency debate only to delete it after 4 chapters.

      • AnonymousAtLarge says:

        I think most parents name their children after either famous people (royals, history, fiction) or other family members in honor. I think that’s normal. The intelligent thing to do is to name your child something obscure, like my parents did. My brother has an heirloom name (paternal men down the line have this name or a variant of this name for 4 generations and it is ridiculously guidorific), and his middle name is an honor to my mother’s father (which is funny because he was a wasp so when you hear my brother’s full name its like lol culture shock).

        All the girls were given names of random actresses my father liked. I am eldest born, and female, so my name was chosen with a bit more input from other family members (being the first born, they fought my father’s “name the girls whatever actress I like” method). They settled on a name that was both possessed by an actress, but also an ethnic honor to my maternal grandmother’s family, due to input from my cousin from my mother’s family. The other two girls were just like “whatever”, no one cared, lol.

        I don’t think there is anything evil or horrible about choosing children’s names via pop culture… it is only embarrassing if you demonstrate stupidity and uncreativity. For example, if you are a poor person, don’t name your child “king”, because it’s going to be awkward when little king grows up to be a janitor. Or, don’t name your child “PRECIOUZ” because it only exposes your gross ignorance of etymology and culture (suggesting you have no idea all conventional names already have meanings in other languages, so in a failed attempt at creativity, you give your child a bastardized english word name. Impression people get when they hear these names: everyone knows you, the parents, didn’t graduate highschool and are on the wrong side of the bell curve.)

    • CubaLibre says:

      I think your recent fixation on the Hunger Games makes you discard the strength of your own premise, i.e. the “sounds cool” explanation. I’m in the middle of baby naming right now and that seems by far to be most common motivation for choosing whatever name. Rue does sound pretty cool and most people probably never would have thought of it before the Hunger Games – it’s like old school advertising (hey! this thing exists!) vs. new school (creating and conditioning markets). Which also explains why Rue and Cato make the grade and Katniss doesn’t – it has nothing to do with association with the characters, they’re just popular presentations of names that people never heard of or wouldn’t have thought about. Katniss sounds stupid so it doesn’t matter how cool Katniss the character (allegedly) is, she’s off the list.

  2. BHE says:

    Baby naming has taken a pretty radical turn in the past 15 years or so, trend-wise. I’m too lazy to look up the numbers now, but if I recall correctly, prior to the 90s the top ten most popular names in any given year accounted for 70% of all births. Now the top ten names only account for something like 30% of all births. Which means that there are a lot of people trying to be at least a little original. I wonder what the psychology is behind this? Do we all want our babies to be unique flowers? Do we think our children are extra-special? Or has our increasingly diverse society given us access to a wider pool of acceptable names?

    Trends are strange to figure, too. My wife and I thought we had picked a somewhat unique name for our first daughter, only to find that it was pretty common on the playground. Now I am surprised to see that Ivy, a name we were seriously considering for our second, was picked by Beyonce & Jay-Z. In a way it just seems like that name was “ready” to hit the big time, and that even if they hadn’t chosen it we would have seen it pop up on playgrounds just like it happened with our first daughter.

  3. TheCoconutChef says:

    Rue number 1?

    Is it…is it the Jezebel readership?

  4. Aria is from Game of Thrones. So add another one to your pop culture tally.

  5. IsaacB says:

    When I taught in Britain, we teachers were constantly faced with absurd names. April Rainbow. Cherrie Blossum (spelling as in the original). Dazzyboy. We took bets on when we’d be faced with the new girl Gonorrhea, in obvious tribute to the princess from King Lear.

    More to the point, I think you’re right that this sort of naming has always gone on; the shift seems to be away from naming after external identities (ancestor, day of the week, religious figure) and more towards an commodified identity. “Rue” or “Cato” as an identity to pull of the shelf.

  6. Old Mike says:

    I would say, for what it’s worth that naming someone after a relative or a religious figure is quite different from naming them after a pop culture figure. The reason being that naming a child after, say, a grandfather is a way to honor the grandfather. Naming a kid Mohammed is done by strictly religious Muslims to pay homage to Mohammed. To name a kid the same thing as Beyonce’s kid is much more about you. It’s not paying homage to Beyonce or the child would be named Beyonce. Using the same name as Beyonce does links the namer to her. Further, religious figures are considered real and characters like Rue are universally acknowledged to be fictional.

  7. JonnyVelocity says:

    I wonder if the name McNulty was popular for boys between 2002 and 2008?

  8. vandal says:

    I don’t know that I believe the premise that because a name was looked up often enough on a baby-name website that it will become a popular name in the next generation. Names like Brittany, Samantha, etc might have been popular due to pop culture but if Christina were more popular you could have easily have said it were because of Aguilara. They’re all common enough names that always make top 20 lists of baby names.

    But the reason I question it is because I’ve gotten bored and sat around and stared at strange baby names. Googling mine, then looking at stranger ones. Imagining a girl or woman with internet in front of her I can see many just googling these names to find the meaning and look for deeper context to the story. Or just because it sounds neat. Beats tetris I guess.

    Then there’s this overlap I personally see with girls that are into pop culture and like to fantasize about what they’d name their child, even in middle school. Yes it’s 3 million page views but that’s including multiple viewing from the same person.

  9. Guy Fox says:

    Reflecting on this further, I reckon it is a language game, and the parents are always practicing some form of branding with it, but there isn’t one logic to ‘win’ the game. Choosing a significant namesake from a holy book or an ancestor is branding with some permanence. Great grandma Louise is gonna stay great grandma Louise (rest her soul, the saint) forever, and Abraham is always gonna be a prophet for the Big Three. Though their places in the culture may change over time (track Batman’s evolution from Adam West’s crime fighting clown to Keaton’s & Bale’s psych ward escapee, and imagine the same thing happening with other historical figures and ancestors over longer time scales), our great, great grandchildren will still have some cultural connection to Noah, Joan of Arc, and Abraham Lincoln. They’re cultural anchors, even if the point of view changes with time.

    Names like ‘Blue Ivy’ or ‘Rue’, though, is branding with cultural figures that have much shorter shelf lives. Names like Alex and Samantha have the benefit that they still fit comfortably in the category of ‘names’ even after their pop culture referents have dissipated. Names like those IsaacB and Minerva (above) mention, though, have a shelf life of a few years, if not months, before they become pop historical curiosities. ‘Dazzyboy’ or ‘Katniss’ could fit comfortably in the ‘nickname’ category (esp. as ‘catness’), but there’d have to be a huge shift in modal naming practices for them to be instantly understood as ordinary names. Whereas the more traditional brand-Names are cultural anchors, these are more cultural helium balloons and quickly fade out of sight.

    So the question remains why people choose one type or the other. Again, it might be pretty much the same motivation in both cases, it’s just that the parents are fishing in different cultural reservoirs. Different features in the cultural landscape are known and salient for different people?

  10. derKapitalist says:

    Obvious explanation? They’re doing shitty statistical analysis on purpose, like OKcupid, for the sake of page views/advertisement/whatever. The fact that somebody else picked up the story and we all clicked on their site means it worked.

    Less obvious? That they’re quicker to update their site with weird, new names from pop culture than other sites are, so while hits for the Hannahs and Michelles of the world are more distributed across different baby name sites, hits for Rue, et al are heavily concentrated on their site. Nameberry seems to be trying for the “community” thing, as well, which would compound that effect if successful.

  11. CubaLibre says:

    As an aside, I think that while baby-name discussions in the context of this blog lend themselves extremely easily to “parent branding” analyses, I think it’s partially excusable in the sense that here at least is one occasion where there is no child to un-narcissistically benefit. By which I mean: if we take the premise as true that someone’s name is supposed to “say something” about them, an infant is a person about whom there is nothing to say. It has no personality or individual characteristics. Therefore parents can only name their child in some kind of aspirational or associational way. A name is almost literally a brand anyway, in the sense that it is a label applied to you (not with a hot iron, but still). I’d agree that there’s an outer boundary of names so stupid or weird the kid will obviously get ridiculed, but within that boundary the branding impulse of parents is, if not exactly commendable, inevitable and anyway not unhealthy.

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