The Unpredictability of Baby Names

Because we had a chapter in our book about the socioeconomic impact of baby names, we’ve blogged many times about baby names in the past, including just the other day.

One question that rarely arises, however, is this: How possible is it to predict which names will become more popular in time, and which ones will fall? We did make a run at predicting some of the boy and girl names that might become popular in ten years’ time, based on the observation that the masses tend to choose names that first become popular among high-education, high-income parents. But trends, including naming trends, tend to march to a drummer that isn’t always audible.

If you had to pick one name in the past of couple years, however, that you were sure would be abandoned, it would probably be wise to pick Katrina. Who on earth would name their baby after a hurricane that nearly wiped out an entire city?

And indeed, according to this A.P. report, the name did slump in the 12 months following Hurricane Katrina, with only 850 namings in the U.S., slipping on the list of popular girl’s names from No. 247 to No. 382. That’s a pretty big drop, though perhaps not as big as you might think. Why wasn’t the drop even steeper?

You might think it’s because parents far from the affected areas weren’t all that tuned in to the hurricane and its destruction. And if so, you would be wrong.

In the two states most severely affected by Hurricane Katrina, the name actually received more action in the 12 months following the storm than in the 12 months previous. In Louisiana, the name increased from 8 incidences to 15, while in Mississippi, it spiked from 7 to 24. And I am guessing that the rate of Katrina namings increased even more, since there were lots of displaced people from both states who gave birth to their babies — maybe their Katrinas — elsewhere.

Maybe parents who live in Louisiana named their baby girls Katrina as affirmation that they’d lived through the storm — a kind of hair-of-the-dog naming treatment. Maybe they named their girls Katrina to commemorate friends or relatives who lost their homes or even their lives. But one thing’s for sure: I don’t know of anyone who would have predicted that there would be more Katrinas in Louisiana and Mississippi after the hurricane. Which says at least as much about our incessant desire to predict as it says about the people who had babies last year.


jamesetimmer

I wonder how many babies named Katrina in the South were given that name 9 to 10 months after the storm hit...

prosa

A schoolmate of mine had an older brother named "Adolph," who must've been born in the middle to late 1950's, in other words after the name should have become nearly taboo in America even with the slightly different spelling. Interestingly, Adolph was a feared streetfighter, no doubt a living example of the Boy Named Sue phenomenon.

phalkon

I know several people who have named their children based on where they were conceived (e.g. a romantic trip to Savannah, GA yields a child named Savannah). Perhaps a few of those displaced or without electricity found romantic ways to pass the time and named their offspring accordingly.

RandyfromCanada

l call my EX wife katrina

she was wet and wild when she came . took the house when she left .........

PaddyDwyer

I've a friend who is a massive Green Bay Packers fan (is there any other kind) and we got around to talking about kids names. I asked him if he wanted to name his son Brett after Brett Favre to which he replied he lost that battle. This got us talking about how popular the name is in green bay. We were disappointed to see it's not in the top 100. Then we checked for the year 1996 or 97 and it went from 80th one year to something like 30th the year they won the super bowl.

I don't think there are that many places in the world that could see such a strong increase in the amount of babies with that name.

I just thought that was funny.

Keith

The NameVoyager tool (http://www.babynamewizard.com/namevoyager/lnv0105.html) is a fun way to view naming trends over time.

frankenduf

for some reason, I want my child's middle name to be Wayne...(cue the suspense music)

volterra

is 8 -> 15 in 12 months and 7 -> 24 in 18 months a meaningful increase? what is the variability of the yearly change in the last years?

prosa

I know several people who have named their children based on where they were conceived (e.g. a romantic trip to Savannah, GA yields a child named Savannah).

"Good afternoon, my name is Walt Disney World Smith."

dancingemu

What about revived names? Growing up, I didn't know a single person my age with my name (Emma). Twenty-five years later, it's number two, and according to the baby name wizard it was pretty popular back in the 1890's too (number 9) before consistently dropping in popularity to hit 448 in the 1970's. I'm sure it's not the only name with this sort of wild drop and revival, but any ideas why?

lherrero

Living in a hurricane prone area, I can relate. In 1988 Hurricane Hugo hit Puerto Rico. My neighbor´s kid is named Hugo, and I know a couple more 19 year old Hugos.

Is actually pretty normal here.

What´s funny is that nine month after every major hurricane the press runs articles about the impeding baby boom. When a hurricane hits, major cities in the island loose power from 4 to 5 days and rural areas could be without electricity for a month, month and a half. Although I have never seen numbers, everyone assumes that this period of darkness results in busier delivery rooms.

civan93

In DC, we had the "Sniper Baby" phenomenon. During the time the sniper(s) were terrifying people into staying in their homes with the doors and windows closed and lights off ... something strange happened. However I don't know if we would notice a corresponding spike in babies named "John" or "Lee."

bogey4

Apropos prosa's comment above:

“Good afternoon, my name is Walt Disney World Smith.”

How 'bout, "Good afternoon, my name is Back Seat Jones"

Therese

I wouldn't doubt it. I'm a native Louisianian and know many people of the proper generation named Betsy and Camille (two hard-hitting hurricanes) and am now godmother and aunt to a Katrina and a Rita.

That being said, saints' names are still more popular.

dreck

Well, it could be just an increased presence of the name in the minds of people near where Katrina hit. If I ask you to pick random names, you will probably think of names of people you are familiar with. With people close to Katrina, the name just pops up more often. What could really be awesome is a study of the most powerful hurricanes in history and naming data from those...
yours truly,
Elevator McMurray

mattykremer

The best tool to gauge the up-and-coming baby names is to look at the names that appear on personalized items in the Pottery Barn Kids catalog. Seriously.

April Ann

I have a friend who is a huge Cubs fan and named her little girl Wrigley...after Wrigley Field where the Cubs play!
I am a Cardinals fan but Busch is out for our baby!

Thanks.

Natalie Allison

I know there's people who name their children after where they've been conceived. Well my mother named me after when I was conceived. Natalie, child born on Christmas... she also felt the need to tell me this when I was a kid... parents, really wait a few years atleast.

Sneoip Here

I knew a kid who was nicknamed Paper by his parents because his real name was Bartholomew and then something really hard to pronounce.

I also knew a kid who went by "F" because his name was Friday.

Dawn

I too have named my daughter Savannah. My husband and I met on the computer while he lived in Savannah, Georgia and I in New Orleans, Louisiana. I moved to Savannah, Georgia for about a year. It is truly romantic. We then moved to New Orleans and knew that if we ever had a little girl we would name her Savannah. She will always remind us of that wonderful city.