Even More about Names

In previous posts about first names, I addressed names that had shifted from male to female, presidents’ surnames used as first names, the changing popularity of my grandparents’ first names, and the changing popularity of my high-school classmates’ first names.

I was reminded of those older posts (published in 2006, 2008, and 2012) by an analysis of gender-fluidity in names, that is, names which are becoming more neutral rather than being given mainly to boys or girls. The author, one Nikhil Sonnad,

calculated a “genderedness score” for every American baby name—and for the country on the whole. The score goes from zero to one. A zero means a name is perfectly non-gendered. That is to say, exactly half of the babies with that name are boys, and the other half are girls. A one, meanwhile, means the name is used exclusively for one gender. So a lower score means a name is more gender-neutral, and less biased.

How is it “biased” to use a boy’s name for a boy and a girl’s name for a girl? That statement should be damned to PC hell, along with the idea that gender is “assigned” at birth. It’s not assigned, it just is, except in rare instances. And it’s immutable, regardless of what the PC witch-doctors profess to believe.

Anyway, Sonnad continues:

The overall genderedness score was 0.97 in 1920, meaning nearly every kid had a name that was used almost exclusively for just boys or just girls. The score is falling, though. It hit 0.946 in 2016, the most recent year the SSA has name data for.

I’m gratified to learn that the generedness score is still almost 1. I’m further gratified to note that the genderedness score has dropped in the past, and then rebounded:

Part of the apparent decline in genderedness may be due to the fact that the Social Security database used by the author covers only the top 1,000 names of each sex in each year. The variety of names grows with population, so the top 1,000 isn’t as inclusive now as it used to be (see below). And gendereless or ambiguous names are undoubtedly rising in popularity (for now) because baby-naming is a faddish thing, like transgenderism.

The variety of names grows not only because of population growth but also because of its changing composition. There are many more Spanish names and Hispanic babies than 10, 20, or 30 years ago — and vastly more than there were 100 years ago. Also, blacks have increasingly branched out into African, pseudo-African, and black-redneck names — names that are identifiably black, but not always identifiably male or female (by whites, at least).

So the real news isn’t the rise of gender-ambiguous names, but the growing variety of names, which I will show in two ways. First, using the same Social Security database as Sonnad, I constructed the following tables. They list the 10 most popular baby names (male and female) for equidistant 17-year intervals spanning the 136 years between the first year (1880) and most recent year (2016) included in the database. The tables also show the percentages of male and female babies given those names in each of the years. (Right click to view enlarged image in a new tab.)

Source: Go here and scroll to the search tool at the bottom of the page (on the left).

Note the general decline in the percentages. Being in the top 10 these days is almost meaningless compared with being in the top 10 through the 1940s or 1950s.  Note also the generally lower percentages for girls’ names than for boys’ names until 2016. Girls have long had a greater variety of names, though boys are finally catching up.

The following graphs (derived from the same source) illustrate the same points. They also highlight the relative stability in the number of names until the 1950s and 1960s, when the percentages of babies with names in the top 10, 100, and 1,000 really began to dive.

Returning to the lists of names, I note that many of the recent top-10 names are throwbacks; the 19th century is “in” again. There are some old top-10 names that have fallen from popularity for good reason — they are grating, if not ugly; for example, Frank (Frank is a wiener; Francis is okay), Henry (better as Henri or Enrico), George (fit only for a king), Walter (a plumber’s name), Donald (rhymes with Ronald, as in McDonald), Richard (you know the nickname), Minnie (little fish), Bertha (as in “Big Bertha”), Florence (with the pursed lips), Ethel (ditto), and Dorothy, Shirley, and Doris (so 1930s and 1940s).

Anyway, those are my prejudices. What are yours?

The Name Game

With the Social Security baby-name database, one can find the popularity* of a newborn’s name in any year from 1880 through 2011. Armed with the database, I set out to determine whether the relative popularity of presidential candidates’ names had any bearing on the outcome of the 33 elections of 1880-2008. Here is what I learned from an analysis of the names of the two leading candidates** in each of the 33 elections:

  • The candidate with the more popular name — in the year of the election — won only 15 times out of 33.
  • Ten of the winners with the more popular name were Republicans.
  • Ten of the 18 winners with the less popular name were Democrats.
  • The Democrat had the less popular name in 20 of the 33 elections.

The moral of the story: It is a slight disadvantage to have a popular name. Democrats are more likely than Republicans to have weird names. This latter tendency confers a slight advantage on Democrat candidates.

What about 2012? Willard (Mitt Romney’s first name) has not been in the top 1,000 since 1989, but it was in the top 1,000 in every year before that — ranking as high as 58th in 1915. Barack, needless to say, has never been in the top 1,000. It seems likely that Willard is somewhat more popular than Barack, even now.***

But Mitt — like Grover, Woodrow, and Calvin — is the name in the political arena. And I have no reason to believe that Mitt is any more popular than Barack. If Barack is the less-popular name, that might count as an advantage for Obama. But a less-than-dismal performance in a debate would do him more good than his weird name.

* Restricted to the top 1,000 boys’ names and the top 1,000 girls’ names in each year.

** All of them Republicans and Democrats, except in 1912, when Theodore Roosevelt ran on the Progressive ticket and was the runner-up to Woodrow Wilson.

*** It does not seem that presidents’ first names become more popular during their time in office. The rank of Grover (Cleveland) went from 20 in 1884 (when Cleveland was first elected) to 47 in 1892 (the year of Cleveland’s second victory). Benjamin (Harrison) dropped from 25 in 1888 to 42 in 1892. Woodrow (Wilson) barely budged, going from 192 in 1912 to 190th in 1916. Herbert (Hoover) was 25 in 1928 and 44 in 1932 (another victim of the Great Depression, no doubt). Franklin (Roosevelt) went from 66 to 65 to 87 to 112 (in 1932, 1936, 1940, and 1944, respectively). Dwight (Eisenhower) was 123 in 1952 and 139 in 1956. (And, lest you think that Dwight should have been a Democrat, remember that his opponent was the more weirdly named Adlai — or Adelaide, as some wags called him.) Richard (Nixon) fell from 8 in 1968 to 14 in 1972 (and, unsurprisingly, kept falling steadily thereafter, to 127 in 2010-2011). Ronald (Reagan) went from 58 in 1980 to 67 in 1984. George (Bush I and II) declined from 78 (1988) to 95 (1992) to 130 (2000) to 146 (2004). George has come a long way (down) since Washington was first in the hearts of his countrymen.

More about Names

In “The Names, They Are A-Changin‘,” I looked at the popularity of baby names in 1940 (the modal birth year of members of my high-school graduating class) and the popularity of the same names in 2011. For a more sweeping view of the subject, I returned to the Social Security Administration’s baby-name database, which spans the years 1880-2011. and constructed the following table:

On average, the top 20 male names of 1880 dropped at least 220 places from 1880 to 2011; whereas, the top 20 male names of 2011 rose at least 271 places, on average.

Female names are far more volatile: On average, names among the top 20 in 1880 were ranked at least 418 places lower in 2011; whereas, the top 20 in 2011 rose at least 457 places, on average. The greater volatility of females names is also indicated by the number of them that are not in the top 1000 in both 1880 and 2011, namely, twelve. Only four of the male names are not in the top 1000 in both years.

I must admit that, on the whole, I prefer the top 20 names of 2011 to the top 20 names of 1880. The male names reflect a trend toward the Biblical, and only the ersatz Jayden grates on me. (I would prefer Aidan to Aiden because the former is a better transliteration of the Gaelic original.)

The popular female names of 2011 tend to be more euphonious than their counterparts of 1880. I do not miss Minnie, Ida (curt), Bertha, Florence, or Nellie — though I do miss Carrie. On the other hand, we have the ersatz Madison, and unisex-sounding Addison, and two names that once were almost exclusively assigned to males: Avery and Aubrey. I do hope that the trend toward the feminization of male names does not extend to Homer, Humphrey, and Oscar.

The Names, They Are A-Changin’

In the table below, I offer a morsel of cultural history. The table compares the popularity of baby names in 1940 (the modal birth year of members of my high-school graduating class) with the popularity of the same names in 2011.

Also shown are the names that have replaced the names of my classmates in popularity. Michael, for example, is number 6 in 2011, replacing Charles, the number 6 of 1940. Michael, as it happens, was number 18 in 1940.

As might be expected, the turnover among female names is greater than the turnover among male names. For example, 6 of 40 male names dropped out of the top 1000 between 1940 and 2011, as against 20 of 39 female names. And 11 of 40 replacement names for males were not in the top 1000 in 1940, as against 21 of the 39 replacement female names.

Source: This search tool at the website of the Social Security Administration.