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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.