Thursday, January 3, 2008

The name game

In the midst of the very slow New Year's news, there are front page stories everywhere about baby names. There is this one about a Star Wars themed family and there are ones about the latest popular names list (The Age had three: here, here and here).

Freakonomics devoted a whole chapter to baby name choices and what they might mean. The answer: apparently, a surprising lot. The name you choose for your child might be correlated with later success in life. I was particularly pleased with this as our youngest had one of the names, if chosen in the last few years, was predicted as associated with future success. Of course, we hadn't read the book when choosing that name so if the cause of this association is some hidden characteristic it reveals about us as parents, that will still be there. But, even if we had read the book, it may be that the name itself generates success; although I suspect that isn't the case. Nonetheless, if you are a parent, why take the risk? Get a copy of Freakonomics and pick one of the names of the future winners in society.

The names identified by Freakonomics were not currently popular ones. The theory is that families at the high wealth end of social life choose names that are more unique and their example causes a trickle down to the rest of society; creating a popular name. Of course, that database is based on California and it may have its own peculiarities.

The trends in baby names have had a major personal impact on me. My parents chose my name back in the 1960s with the criteria that it was "unique." Uniqueness was seen as a good thing as it would assist me in later life by giving me a distinctive name that might be remembered. However, it comes with a cost: having to say it twice or spell it more when you are a child.

But here is the problem: the "Joshua's" of the 1960s faced all of the costs but have none of the benefits. Take a look at the top 10 names by birth decade in Victoria:

1960s: David, Peter, Michael, Mark, Andrew, Paul, John, Robert, Stephen, Anthony

1970s: David, Michael, Andrew, Jason, Matthew, Paul, Mark, Christopher, Daniel, Adam

1980s: Daniel, Matthew, Michael, Christopher, Andrew, David, James, Benjamin, Luke, Adam

1990s: Matthew, James, Daniel, Joshua, Thomas, Michael, Nicholas, Jack, Benjamin, Luke

2000s: Joshua, Jack, Thomas, Lachlan, James, William, Daniel, Benjamin, Matthew, Ethan

Look at what happened during the 1990s and to today: Joshua went from completely obscurity to being, not just common, but the most common boy's name! For the past decade or more, when I have been in a public place (like a supermarket), I am constantly hearing "Joshua, get your hands off that!" I then instinctively put back the item I was thinking of purchasing only to realise that that wasn't directed at me (well, usually not). But how was I to know? When I heard that, as a child, it was surely about me! If you had been a David, I guess you would not be sure. (Hmm, I wonder if Davids were more badly behaved as a result).

What is more, during the 1980s, I saw this coming. When I went to University, I would constantly meet people who, upon hearing my name, would comment on how nice it was and how they would like to have a child with that name. Socially, this was a disaster for me, but I quickly formed the hypothesis that the days of obscurity for Joshua were numbered. Had I had a blog then, I might have predicted it and linked back to it here.

The popular names list tells us one thing: the names popular yesterday will not be popular today. That won't help a parent get distinctiveness as choosing a popular name today still gives you a popular name in your cohort. But it does suggest that parents tend to avoid names of people they knew in childhood. Chances are that one of them annoyed them as a person, or they dated one of them or what have you. In any case, those names have lots of opportunity to be stricken from any list of potential names for a baby.

So if your parenting goal is to give your child a distinctive name, just choosing an obscure name may not do the trick. I think you are likely to have a better bet by choosing a culturally distinctive name; so not Anglo, Judeo-Christian or a name of a New York street but Ethiopian, Iranian or Klingon.