[Paleopsych] Slate: Trading Up - Where do baby names come from? By Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
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Trading Up - Where do baby names come from? By Steven D. Levitt and
Stephen J. Dubner
Posted Tuesday, April 12, 2005, at 4:35 AM PT
Which is more dangerous: a gun or a swimming pool? How much does
campaign spending really matter? What truly made crime fall in the
1990s? These are the sort of questions raised--and answered--in the
Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of
Everything. In yesterday's excerpt, authors Steven D. Levitt and
Stephen J. Dubner explored the impact of a child's first name,
particularly a distinctively black name. Today's excerpt shows how
names work their way down the socio-economic ladder.
The California names data tell a lot of stories in addition to the
one about the segregation of white and black first names. Broadly
speaking, the data tell us how parents see themselves--and, more
significantly, what kinds of expectations they have for their
The actual source of a name is usually obvious: There's the Bible,
there's the huge cluster of traditional English and Germanic and
Italian and French names, there are princess names and hippie names,
nostalgic names and place names. Increasingly, there are brand names
(Lexus, Armani, Bacardi, Timberland) and what might be called
aspirational names. The California data show eight Harvards born
during the 1990s (all of them black), 15 Yales (all white), and 18
Princetons (all black). There were no Doctors but three Lawyers (all
black), nine Judges (eight of them white), three Senators (all white),
and two Presidents (both black).
But how does a name migrate through the population, and why? Is it
purely a matter of zeitgeist, or is there a more discernible pattern
to these movements?
Consider the 10 most popular names given to white girls in
California in 1980 and then in 2000. A single holdover: Sarah. So,
where do these Emilys and Emmas and Laurens all come from? Where on
earth did Madison come from? It's easy enough to see that new names
become very popular very fast--but why?
Let's take a look at the top five girls' names and top five
boys' names given during the 1990s among high-income white families
and low-income white families, ranked in order of their relative
rarity in the opposite category. Now compare the "high-end" and
"low-end" girls' names with the most popular ones overall from 1980
and 2000. Lauren and Madison, two of the most popular high-end names
from the 1990s, made the overall top-10 list in 2000. Amber and
Heather, meanwhile, two of the overall most popular names from 1980,
are now among the low-end names.
There is a clear pattern at play: Once a name catches on among
high-income, highly educated parents, it starts working its way down
the socioeconomic ladder. Amber, Heather, and Stephanie started out as
high-end names. For every high-end baby given those names, however,
another five lower-income girls received those names within 10 years.
Many people assume that naming trends are driven by celebrities. But
how many Madonnas do you know? Or, considering all the Brittanys,
Britneys, Brittanis, Brittanies, Brittneys, and Brittnis you encounter
these days, you might think of Britney Spears; but she is in fact a
symptom, not a cause, of the
hers is a name that began on the high end and has since fallen to the
low. Most families don't shop for baby names in Hollywood. They look
to the family just a few blocks over, the one with the bigger house
and newer car. The kind of families that were the first to call their
daughters Amber or Heather, and are now calling them Alexandra or
Katherine. The kind of families that used to name their sons Justin or
Brandon and are now calling them Alexander or Benjamin. Parents are
reluctant to poach a name from someone too near--family members or
close friends--but many parents, whether they realize it or not, like
the sound of names that sound "successful."
Once a high-end name is adopted en masse, however, high-end parents
begin to abandon it. Eventually, it will be considered so common that
even lower-end parents may not want it, whereby it falls out of the
rotation entirely. The lower-end parents, meanwhile, go looking for
the next name that the upper-end parents have broken in.
So, the implication is clear: The parents of all those Alexandras and
Katherines, Madisons and Rachels should not expect the cachet to last
much longer. Those names are just now peaking and are already on their
way to overexposure. Where, then, will the new high-end names come
from? Considering the traditionally strong correlation between income
and education, it probably makes sense to look at the most popular
current names among parents with the most years of education.
Here, drawn from a pair of databases that provide the years of
parental education, is a sampling of such names. Some of them, as
unlikely as it seems, may well become tomorrow's mainstream names.
Before you scoff, ask yourself this: Do Aviva or Clementine seem any
more ridiculous than Madison might have seemed 10 years ago?
Obviously, a variety of motives are at work when parents consider a
name for their child. It would be an overstatement to suggest that all
parents are looking--whether consciously or not--for a smart name or a
high-end name. But they are all trying to signal something with a
name, and an overwhelming number of parents are seemingly trying to
signal their own expectations of how successful they hope their
children will be. The name itself isn't likely to make a shred of
difference. But the parents may feel better knowing that, from the
very outset, they tried their best.
Steven D. Levitt teaches economics at the University of Chicago and is
a recipient of the John Bates Clark Medal, awarded every two years to
the best American economist under 40. Stephen J. Dubner is a New York
City journalist and author of two previous books: Turbulent Souls
and Confessions of a Hero-Worshiper.
Remarks from the Fray:
"Low-end" names are adopted in imitation (conscious or not) of
"high-end" names. Then where are the high-end names coming from?
The suggestion appears to be that "high-end" families are merely
seeking not to use names in favor with "low-end" families. But then,
that doesn't tell us anything about which obscure names are chosen.
What, if any, is the economic rationale for giving your child a
'sort-of unique' name? Is it any more or less blinkered than the drive
to give your child a 'successful' name? (yesterday's column would
Are there simpler correlative factors (for example, are there strong
correlations between name choices and market-leading "Baby Name
Guides" released by the publishing industry?)...
(To reply, click here)
I agree with the basic conclusions stated in this article; lots of
people are obviously trying to be trendy with their choice of names. I
have always scoffed at this, and I prefer names that have stood the
test of time. I also paid attention to how the first name sounded with
the middle and last names when I named my kids. And I tried to avoid
names that seemed to invite nicknames that I didn't like. If a person
is going to be stuck with a name for a lifetime, the name should have
staying power, not brand the person as belonging to a particular era
(To reply, click here)
One thing I don't think that has been covered: what are the shares of
the top names? It's all well and good to say that Madison is the top
name; but does it garner as high a share as, say, Alice did, all those
Better yet: what share of names are covered by the top 20 in each? My
guess is this number has declined, as there is far greater insistence
on giving children unique names (note the gimmicky spellings of
Jasmine, etc.). Is there are racial component to this, and how does
the individualistic/non-traditionalist US compare to other nations?
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