Names communicate a lot of information, which is subject to both interpretation and misinterpretation. This discussion of popular names is the first of a five part series What Do Names Tell Us? (From time to time, Looking in the Cultural Mirror deals with broad topics that require multiple posts--for example, the six part series on The Census and Race [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6].)


Because all births in the United States are registered, it is possible to track changes over time in the most popular baby names. The Social Security Administration has made this an easy task by providing the information on its website. You are free satisfy your curiosity, or to play sociologist and search for patterns in the data and suggest explanations for the changes. For example, in looking at the top ten baby names for 2009, I was struck to find that half of the boys' names were from the Old Testament (Jacob, Ethan, Joshua, Daniel, Noah), and half of the girls' names were of continental European origin (Isabella, Sophia, Ava, Mia, Chloe).

Jacob's Ladder by Wenzel Hollar (1607–1677)

Whatever the reasons for the popularity of names at a given point in time, one thing you can tell about someone's first name is how common it was when he or she was born--just go to the website and enter the name and year of birth.

There are many reasons parents might choose a popular name. The parents themselves might be typical Americans, and so the name appeals to them because it is a name that appeals to others in their social world. Or the parents might be trying to become typical Americans and want to demonstrate this by the choice of a popular name. Or the parents might want their child to fit in--they might be afraid that an unusual name would lead the child to be teased, perhaps because the parents were teased about their names when they were children. (Two problems with this strategy are: (1) all children get teased--a name is an excuse for a child to tease someone he or she wants to tease, not a primary cause of teasing; and (2) most of a person's life takes place after childhood--when name preferences will change in unpredictable ways.)

There are also many reasons parents might choose an uncommon name--I'll discuss some that are mainly psychological here and leave others for future posts.

Some parents might not be typical Americans, and they might choose a name because it is unusual or appeals to others in their atypical social world. Visual artists, performing artists, and writers; hippies, bohemians, and New Agers are among those who may view naming a child as an opportunity to express their creativity and demonstrate their refusal to be bound by convention. Others might choose to name their child after an admired figure--George Washington, Elvis Presley, Albert Einstein, Rosa Parks, Babe Ruth, Marilyn Monroe--to emphasize attributes worthy of emulation. (I am named for Thomas Jefferson.)

The names parents give their children say something about the parents rather than their as-yet-unformed children. However, once given a name, along with all the overt and covert messages accompanying it, an individual may come to deal with it in a variety of ways. One can accept it or reject it, try to live up to it, rebel against it, modify it by using a nickname or preferring to use a middle name or initials instead, or take steps to change it legally. The name itself says something about the parents, but the way people react to and make use of their names says something about them.

Image source:
Jacob's Ladder by Wenzel Hollar (1607-1677), University of Toronto Digital Collection

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