The Baby Name Wizard

When I was born, my name was Matthew. Matthew Urban, the little tyke. My parents had been toiling between Matthew and Timothy and then I came out and they were like, "when let's just go with Matthew."

You know when you're in a restaurant and you're deciding between two entrees and you really can't decide and then the waiter comes and you're like "whatever I'll go with the chicken"? But then the second you order it, every possible negative quality of that dish comes directly into your focus? And as you sit there and the other people are ordering all you can think about is how delicious the pasta would have been and how you don't want to have to deal with cutting your meal the whole time and how you always like pasta when you order it but sometimes you don't like the chicken?

I think naming a kid is like that times 3,800. As soon as you go with one name you panic that it's lame-sounding or wussy-sounding or old-fashioned or whatever. I wouldn't know from experience, of course, but I have an idea-- because I am not Matthew. Indeed, there's an old photo I've seen where my father is holding my little infant ass in one arm and a book of baby names in the other hand.

He wanted to change to the pasta. And he did.

(The third name my parents were considering? Sanford. They liked the nickname Sandy. Sandy. And these are the people I entrusted with this crucial decision.)

Anyway, names have always interested me. I love lists like "Most Popular Baby Names of 1992." The ridiculously delicious book Freakonomics has a whole chapter on baby names and their trends. Among the many trends they point out, they discuss the phenomenon of new names becoming popular within the upper class and then "trickling down" in the class system over the years as the upper class babies turn into successful youngsters that parents want their kids to be like. They talk about "black" names and the pressure the black community puts on black parents to name their babies these names despite concrete evidence that such names make it more difficult to get a job.

It's just a topic I find fascinating. So when I recently came across something called the Baby Name Wizard, I was completely beside myself. Check it out:

http://www.babynamewizard.com/voyager (for some reason it works on my Safari, but not my Firefox)

So here's the deal with the Baby Name Wizard:

It's a database containing every name that has been in the Top 1,000 most popular at any point in the past 130 years.

When you type in a name, it shows you on a graph its popularity each decade for the last 130 years. When you type just one letter it shows all the names that start with that letter and their respective popularity over the years -- the thicker the space for a name, the more popular it has been. When you type a second letter it narrows it down to names that start with those two letters. And so on.

If you type "KIM" for example, it will show the popularity of "Kimberly," "Kimmy," "Kim," etc. ("Kim" would be people actually named Kim-- i.e. their birth certificate says "Kim"). If you just want to see "Kim" then press Enter after typing KIM and it will get rid of Kimberly and the other longer ones.

If you look on the right it shows the scale-- so even though when you type in "Tim" and "Sandy" both fill up the whole graph at their peak, by looking at the scale you can see that "Sandy" is much more rare. And for good reason.

And speaking of Sandy, you'll see both blue and red when you type it in, because it has been both a boy's and girl's name. If you click on either the blue or red it will isolate the graph to just that gender.

Finally, if you put your mouse over any part of the graph it will display the actual ranking of that name in the decade your mouse is on top of at that moment.

Play around with it-- it's unbelievable.

Some interesting things to try:

-Put in different single letters or consonant clusters, and you'll see that not only do names have trends, but letters and sounds do too. For example, putting in any vowel, you can see that names that begin with a vowel were really popular a long time ago and have gotten popular again, but had a dip in the middle of the century. On the other hand, names that start with S, D, or T were huge baby boomer names and not so big before or after. F names are, apparently, for old people. Consonant clusters are cool too-- put in "KR" and you'll see how hot those names were in the 70's and 80's. GL names are for old people. FL names are for really, really old people.

-It's interesting to see which old people names have had resurgences as people name their babies after their grandparents (like Emma)-- these names sound young and cool to a 25-year-old but like an "old person name" to a 50-year-old. Unlike Emma, Gertrude and Agnes have yet to make their comeback.

-Jack is back.

-Mary had a ridiculously great run but apparently overstayed its welcome.

-If a name is popular among 20-somethings and currently seems like a young-person name but has died since, those 20-somethings will have "middle-aged" names down the road. Like Jennifer. Karen, Sharon, and Bob are middle-aged names now, for instance.

-Diane is a middle aged name. Diana is for young people too.

-Caroline was hot 100 years ago. Then people in the 50's were like, "Caroline is a lame middle-aged name" and named their kids Carolyn, which became a cool young-person name. Now, 60 years later, Carolyn is a lame middle-aged name and Caroline is red hot again. We can see who got the last laugh in that one.

-Don't forget about the scale. When you type in William it seems like it has died out. But it has been an incredibly popular name forever and now, at its "low point," it's still at 5,000 -- right where "Timothy" was at its peak.

-Names have become more varied over time. Meaning there are simply more names now than there were 100 years ago. Check out "Joseph." You can see that fewer people are named Joseph now than in the past, while Joseph is actually higher ranked now-- because people have spread out more with their naming and there are fewer people "bunched" in the top 10 or 20 names.

Naturally, I spent a large part of my day here. And it's good to know that one day, when I'm holding my own nameless infant son, at least I'll have the Wizard by my side.

11 comments:

Jodie said...

What an amazing device! I could play with it all day. Or maybe years, if I live that long!

So how come we are calling you Tim now if your name is actually Matthew?

Anonymous said...

Tim (or matthew?), I get the feeling that you have way to much time on your hands.

Anonymous said...

what an awesome tool! where on earth do you find these things?

jennifer said...

Great. I'm 27 and middle-aged already.

I loved "Freakonomics" too. I need to dig my copy out and read it again.

Anonymous said...

Seven

laubergemarina said...

nice introductory paragraphs

Anonymous said...

WOW. I just spent a good hour there.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if the Wizard was given to
students at Gloucester to study and
led to a baby making pact.

Mayor , Carolyn 'Captain' Kirk.

Watch the professionalism of women
as another Carolyn sits beside DT's
daughter advising on A7.

Carolyn 'yn the city' Kepcher ...

Anonymous said...

I like Matthew.

Anonymous said...

Totally unrelated question I really want to ask:
Tim, what your IQ is?
I took a test yesterday and I'm ridiculously proud of my 129 points. If you never took one, I did it here http://www1.tickle.com, another of this websites I could spend hours on, real fun.

Nat said...

The question is, who stole whose idea for an article?

http://news.yahoo.com/s/livescience/20080708/sc_livescience/mostpopularbabynameschangedramatically