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Baby Names: 2 Reasons We Name Our Kids What We Name Them

Naming a baby: more than family tradition, religion, ethnicity, and faddishness.

Key points

  • Research shows parents benefit in evolutionarily by picking names for sons that indicate greater physical stature, and the reverse for daughters.
  • Some baby names serve as social signals that can indicate either cultural or economic wealth.
  • Liberal parents are more likely to choose uncommon, culturally obscure names to reflect their tendencies toward openness.

It’s June. Flowers are blooming. The weather is warming. And love is in the air. June is a popular month to get married and is often thought of as the traditional month of nuptials in the U.S. The arrival of the wedding season also arouses thoughts of the arrival of other things…babies. As the playground taunt goes, "First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in a baby carriage."

And if any topic is appropriate for a post about evolution, the topic of babies is it. After all, our basic evolutionary motivation is to pass on our genes through reproduction. In some sense, from an evolutionary perspective, the whole purpose of a wedding is to facilitate baby-making.

Given that drive, why do we give these little creatures the names we give them? Yes, there are family, religious, ethnic, and faddish influences. And there is a multitude of websites (33.5 million according to Google, in 0.18 seconds thank you very much) and books devoted to listing and explaining baby names. But why Esme over Elizabeth? Kyle over Cannon?

Reason 1: Our Babies Make Babies

A recent article by psychologists at Queen Mary University and an anthropologist at Durham University suggests parents choose baby names to imply desired characteristics about their children. More specifically, according to sound symbolism theory, the sounds produced by a spoken name go beyond their basic linguistic function of being meaningless building blocks for words. The sounds also convey meaning about an object’s characteristics such as movement, shape, color, texture, and, most importantly for caveman politics, size.

Research suggests the high/low frequencies of animal calls and human speech signal body size because larger bodies have larger vocalization structures, which produce lower sounds as a matter of mechanics. We perceive this signal and associate lower-frequency sounds with larger objects and higher-frequency sounds with smaller objects. In human terms, this means we link lower sounds with taller physical stature and higher sounds with shorter physical stature.

What are these sounds and how are they associated with size? The article showed sounds (phonemes with a focus on the first vowel) and the size each sound is associated with (small or large). Examples of lower, “large” sounding names include “Joseph” (similar to “bone” in the table), “Alexander” (similar to “cow”), and “Thomas” (similar to “mottled”), while examples of higher, “small” sounding names include “Elizabeth” (similar to “must), “Celina” (similar to “sell”) and “Emily” (similar to “bid”).

What's the Connection?

The researchers writing this paper suggest parents gain evolutionary benefits in the form of contributing more genes to the gene pool by picking baby names that signal physical stature. Why? There’s a lot of research showing that physical stature and social rank go together. On one hand, we tend to perceive taller individuals as having higher professional status. Taller males in particular are viewed as more attractive and make more money. In politics, we prefer leaders with greater physical stature (see my post "Do We Really Prefer Taller Leaders?"), and males with greater physical stature are more likely to put themselves forward as leaders (see my post "Are You Sure We Prefer Taller Leaders?"). On the other hand, females with smaller physical stature are rated as more attractive, which is also associated with social status.

People with greater social status are often viewed as more sexually attractive, which means they are better able to reproduce and pass along their and their parents’ genes. Males with greater physical stature have more children (probably due to their greater sexual attractiveness related to greater social and financial status) as do females with slighter physical stature (probably due to greater sexual attractiveness and their ability to attract and choose more desirable mates). As a result, parents benefit in evolutionary terms by picking names for their sons that indicate greater physical stature and names for their daughters that indicate smaller physical stature.

Interesting, because looking at 10 years of baby names from Australia, Britain, and the US, the researcher found exactly what their theory suggests. Parents tend to give their sons “larger” sounding names and their daughters “smaller” sounding names.

Reason 2: Politics Raises Its Ugly Head

In another study of baby names (see, love is indeed in the air), political scientists at the University of Chicago look at baby names from another perspective. In this conference paper, they argue that political ideology affects the names parents choose for their little bundles of joy.

They suggest that names serve as social signals that can indicate either cultural or economic “wealth,” in which liberals are more interested in signaling cultural wealth while conservatives prefer to signal economic wealth. In particular, they indicate that liberal parents are more likely to choose uncommon, culturally obscure names (e.g., “Namaste,” “Finnegan,” and “Archimedes”), possibly a reflection of liberals’ tendencies toward openness, while conservative parents are more likely to choose culturally traditional names (e.g., “John,” “Thomas,” and “Catherine”), possibly reflecting their tendencies toward conscientiousness. By the way, this ideological pattern fits nicely, particularly in terms of conservatives and tradition, with my post “Which of the 5 Types of Political Moralizer are You?

They also argue that liberals are more likely to choose feminine names, which they identify as multi-syllabic with “softer” phonemes and beginning or ending in vowels, while conservatives are more likely to choose masculine names, which they describe as including “harder” phonemes such as K, B, and D that carry connotations of aggression and strength.

Their results were a bit complicated, but they generally supported the researchers’ argument. Using data from birth certificates, the US Census, and voting records in California, the researchers found that high-status (more educated and wealthy) liberal mothers were more likely to choose unusual and feminine baby names, while their conservative sisters were more likely to choose masculine names.

William, Kaden, Emma, Satine, Alexander, Crew, Olivia, Eponine...?

And you thought naming a baby is as “easy” as family tradition, religion, ethnicity, and fad following. Maybe it’s about wanting to increase our contribution to the gene pool by making it easier for our kids to have more kids. Or signaling our cultural or economic prestige.

With issues like these to consider, I’m going to have a lot to think about during the weddings I have to go to this summer…while I focus on the beautiful bride, music, and flowers, of course.


For more information see:

Reason 1: Pitcher BJ, Mesoudi A, McElligott AG (2013) Sex-Biased Sound Symbolism in English-Language First Names. PLoS ONE 8(6): e64825. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0064825.

Reason 2: Oliver JE, Wood T, Bass A (2013) Liberellas versus Konservatives: Social Status, Ideology, and Birth Names in the United States. Paper presented at the 2013 Midwestern Political Science Association Annual Meeting, Chicago, IL.

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