Tag Archives: names

The rise of Jewish boys’ names in the US

Names are cultural as the personal is political for marginalized groups.

I’ve had these numbers sitting around for a while, since I noticed Nazis on Twitter calling me “Shlomo” as an insult, and was just spurred to write them up by a fascinating Twitter thread from someone who goes by Benjamin (בנימן טבלוב). He writes in response to criticism of Jews who change their names from their “real” European names to Hebrew names, specifically Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose father changed the family name from Mileikowsky after they moved from Europe to Palestine in 1920. (Netanyahu is terrible in every way, that’s not the point.)

Benjamin explained that the Jews of northern and eastern Europe historically practiced patronymic naming exclusively, naming children after their fathers, as in: Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham. (The most famous contemporary patronymic society is Iceland, although they sometimes use matronyms now, too.) It was only with the bureaucratization of modern citizenship in eighteenth and nineteenth century Austria, Prussia, Russia, France, and Bavaria, that Jews were forced to take permanent surnames, and these were often not of their choosing, based things like on places, occupations, or even insults. Besides being generally dehumanizing, this system of Jewish surnames also eventually made it easy to round Jews up for the Holocaust (see the Kaplan and Bernays’ The Language of Names, and this paper, for some history). An exception, incidentally, is the use of the priestly honorific terms Cohen and Levy, which were already in place (e.g., Philip, son of Marshall the Cohen) and then became permanent surnames. I assume Israeli politicians aren’t ditching the name Cohen for something more Hebrew sounding.

So when Jews went to Palestine, they often took new Hebrew names; but when they came to America they took more English names, and then gave their kids mainstream American names. The history of coercive naming in Europe makes it easier to see why this might not have been so objectionable to the Jewish immigrants in the early twentieth century. Kaplan and Bernays quote an immigrant to New York who said, “Nothing good ever came to us while we bore them [old names]; possibly we’ll have more luck with the new names.” (My grandmother was born Tzivya (צִבְיָה), which became Cywja when she boarded a ship from Poland in 1921, and then eventually Sylvia.)

Jewish names today

Today it’s probably safe to say most Jewish children in the U.S. don’t have Jewish first names per se (although they sometimes have a Hebrew name they use just for religious occasions). Here I look at the trends for seven Jewish boys’ names I found on various naming websites: Shlomo, Chaim, Eliezer, Mordechai, Moshe, Yosef, and Zev. These were the most popular ones I could think of (feel free to suggest others).

First a little data on Yiddish and Hebrew in America. This is all from the Decennial Census and then, after 2000, the American Community Survey, which asked about “mother tongue” (language spoken at home as a child) from 1910 to 1970 (except 1950), and language spoken at home after that. The Census doesn’t ask about religion.

Yiddish was the language spoken by the big wave of Jewish immigrants in the early twentieth century. Hebrew is the primary official language of Israel, and the religious language of Judaism. This shows the percentage of people in the U.S. who spoke Yiddish or Hebrew from 1910 to 2017.* The peak in 1930 is 1.1 percent, during the immigration boom. The 1970 peak reflects the only year “mother tongue” was asked of non-immigrants as well as immigrants. By 1980 only one-in-500 Americans spoke Yiddish or Hebrew at home.

yh1.JPG

The second thing about Yiddish and Hebrew is children. There are a declining number of old immigrants speaking Yiddish, and no new immigrants speaking Yiddish. So most people speaking Yiddish as their language today are probably the descendants of those immigrants, orthodox Jews participating in ethnic revival or preservation. The same goes for people speaking Hebrew at home, except by now some of these could be immigrants from Israel and their children. (By 2000 Hebrew speakers outnumbered those speaking Yiddish.) Here’s the percentage of Yiddish and Hebrew speakers that were under 18 for the same years.

yh2

It was low in 1930, when they were mostly working-age immigrants, and then in 1960 when their kids were grown. The percentage under age 18 increased after 1960, and now 40 percent of Yiddish speakers are children (which is not the case for Hebrew). And, this is key: the proportion of all U.S. children speaking Yiddish at home has more than doubled since 1980, from 5 to 11 per 10,000. If these numbers are to be believed.

yh3.JPG

Names

The sample numbers here are small, but the ACS sample is also picking up about 150 Yiddish or Hebrew speaking women per year having babies, which implies that population is having about 10,000 babies per year, or about 26 out of every 10,000 babies born in the country.

So, who’s naming their sons Shlomo, Chaim, Eliezer, Mordechai, Moshe, Yosef, and Zev? Now switching to the Social Security names database, I find that these names together accounted for 1,943 boys born in 2017 (that’s 9.9 out of every 10,000 US boys born). What’s interesting is that none of these boys’ names reached the threshold for reporting in the database — five children — until 1942. This is remarkable given that Yiddish was in decline by then. And they’ve all been growing more common since that time. So all those Yiddish immigrants in 1920 weren’t naming their sons Moshe, or at least not legally, but now a growing (though small) proportion of their descendants are.

jbn

I can’t tell if Yiddish or Hebrew speakers are giving their sons these names. But there must be some connection between the rise of these names and the increase in the proportion of children speaking Yiddish at home. It might not be same people teaching their kids Yiddish, but they may be part of the same (highly localized) revival.

I’ve put the Social Security names data, and my SAS code for extracting name trends, on the Open Science Framework here.


* An earlier version had much higher prevalence of Yiddish and Hebrew before 1980 because I was accidentally just showing the percentages among immigrants.

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Breaking: In 2017 names, Donald, Alexa, and Mary plummet; Malia booms

Time to update name trends, with the release of the 2017 data files from the Social Security Administration.

My hot take: Mary is back on the skids; Donald is going down, Alexa is over, and Malia shows that the resilience of humanity is not. Here are the details.

In Enduring Bonds I extend the Mary trend back to 1780, using Census data as well as Social Security records (and now is [always] an excellent time to get a review copy and consider it for your classes). The story is the mother of all naming trends, an unparalleled decline in name popularity, reflecting both the decline of conformity as an aesthetic and changes in how people see religion, parenting, and lots of other things. Then, for a couple years — 2013-2015 — it looked like maybe all the attention I gave the fate of Mary had prompted a revival, but now things are looking even bleaker than before, down another 4.3%. Here’s an updated version of the chart from the book:

mary names.xlsx

Meanwhile, the decline of The Donald has taken on a new urgency. Although the name has been taking for a long time (its association with unpleasant character didn’t start in 2016), but last year’s decline was impressive, at -4.3%. Not a cliff, but a solid slide (this one’s on a log scale so you can see the detail):

names.xlsx

You have to feel for people who named their daughters Alexa, and the Alexas themselves, before Amazon sullied their names. Did they not think of the consequences for these people? In the last year Alexa essentially ended as a (human) name, possibly the worst two-year case in U.S. history of name contamination. [Correction] Another bad year for Alexa. After a 21.3% drop in 2016, another 74% 19.5% last year:

alexa.xlsx

Finally, someone better tell the deplorables to start naming their daughters Ivanka, because in 2017 about nine-times more people are named their daughters Malia (1416) than Ivanka (167). Malia, up 15.4% last year:

names.xlsx

On my OSF project I’ve shared the names data, the Mary code (Stata), and SAS code for making individual name trends. The whole series of posts is under the names tag.

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Science finds tiny things nowadays (Malia edition)

We have to get used to living in a world where science — even social science — can detect really small things. Understanding how important really small things are, and how to interpret them, is harder nowadays than just finding them.

Remember when Hanna Rosin wrote this?

One of the great crime stories of the last twenty years is the dramatic decline of sexual assault. Rates are so low in parts of the country — for white women especially — that criminologists can’t plot the numbers on a chart.

Besides being wrong about rape (it has declined a lot, but it’s still high compared with most countries), this was a funny statement about science (I’ve heard we can even plot negative numbers now!). But the point is we have problems understanding, and communicating about, small things.

So, back to names.

In 2009, the peak year for the name Malia in the U.S., 1,681 girls were given that name, according to the Social Security Administration, or .041% of the 4.14 million children born that year (there are no male Malias in the SSA’s public database, meaning they have never recorded more than 4 in one year). That year, 7.5% of women ages 18-44 had a baby. If my arithmetic is right, say you know 100 women ages 18-44, and each of them knows 100 others (and there is no overlap in your network). That would mean there is a 30% chance one of your 10,000 friends of a friend had a baby girl and named her Malia in 2009. But probably there is a lot of overlap; if your friend-of-friend network is only 1,000 women 18-44 then that chance would fall to 3%.

Here is the trend in girls named Malia, relative to the total number of girls born, from 1960 to 2016:

names.xlsx

To make it easier to see the Malias, here is the same chart with the y-axis on a log scale.

names.xlsx

This shows that Malia has been on a long upward trend, from less than 50 per year in the 1960s to more than 1,000 per year now. And it also shows a pronounced spike in 2009, the year Malia peaked .041%. In that year, the number of people naming daughters Malia jumped 75% before declining over the next three years to resume it’s previous trend. Here is the detail on the figure, just showing the Malia in 2005-2016:

names.xlsx

What happened there? We can’t know for sure. Even if you asked everyone why they named their kid what they did, I don’t know what answers you would get. But from what we know about naming patterns, and their responsiveness to names in the news (positive or negative), it’s very likely that the bump in 2009 resulted from the high profile of Barack Obama and his daughter Malia, who was 11 when Obama was elected.

What does a causal statement like that that really mean? In 2009, it looks to me like about 828 more people named their daughters Malia than would have otherwise, taking into account the upward trend before 2008. Here’s the actual trend, with a simulated trend showing no Obama effect:

names.xlsx

Of course, Obama’s election changed the world forever, which may explain why the upward trend for Malia accelerated again after 2013. But in this simple simulation, which brings the “no Obama” trend back into line with the actual trend in 2014, there were 1,275 more Malias born than there would have been without the Obama election. This implies that over the years 2008-2013, the Obama election increased the probability of someone naming their daughter Malia by .00011, or .011%.

That is a very small effect. I think it’s real, and very interesting. But what does it mean for anything else in the world? This is not a question of statistical significance, although those tools can help. (These names aren’t a probability sample, it’s a list of all names given.) So this is a question for interpreting research findings now that we have these incredibly powerful tools, and very big data to analyze with them. The number alone doesn’t tell the story.

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Donald is not the biggest loser (among winning and losing names)

From 2015 to 2016 there was a 10% drop in U.S. boys given the name Donald at birth, from 690 to 621, plunging the name from 900th to 986th in the overall rankings. Here is the trend in Donalds born from 1880 to 2016, shown on a log scale, from the Social Security names database.

donald-name-trend

That 2016 drop is relatively big in percentage terms, but it’s been dropping an average of 6% per year since 1957 (it dropped 26% in the 8 years after the introduction of Donald Duck in 1934). I really wish it was a popular name so we could more easily see if the rise of Donald Trump is a factor in this. With so few new Donalds, and the name already trending downward, there’s no way to tell if Trump fanatics may be counterbalancing regular people turned off to the name.

Stability over change

How big is a fall of 69 births, which seems so trivial in relation to the 3.9 million children born last year? Among names with more than 5 births in each year, only 499 fell more, compared with 26,052 that fell less or rose. So Donald is definitely a loser.

But I am always amazed at how little change there is in most names from year to year. It sounds obvious to describe a trend as rising or falling, but names are scarily regular in their annual changes given that the statistics from one year to the next reflect independent decisions by separate people who overwhelmingly don’t know each other.

Here is away of visualizing the change in the number of babies given each name, from 2015 to 2016. There is one dot for each name. Those below the diagonal had a decrease in births, those above had an increase; the closer to the line the less change there was. (To adjust for the 1% drop in total births, these are shown as births per 1,000 total born.)

2015-2016 count change

No name had a change of more than 1700 births this year (Logan dropped 1697, a drop of 13%; Adeline increased 1700, or 71%). There just isn’t much movement. I find that remarkable. (Among top names, James stands out this year: 14,773 born in 2015, rising by 3 to 14,776 in 2016.)

Here’s a look at the top right corner of that figure, just showing names with 3 per 1,000 or more births in either 2015 or 2016:

2015-2016 count change 3per1000

Note that most of these top names became less popular in 2016 (below the diagonal). That fits the long-term trend, well known by now, for names to become less popular over time, which means name diversity is increasing. I described that in the history chapter of my textbook, The Family; and going back to this old blog post from 2011. (This great piece by Tristan Bridges explores why there is more diversity among female names, as you can see by the fact that they are outnumbered among the top names shown here.)

Anyway, since I did it, here are the top 20 winners and losers, in numerical terms, in 2016. Wow, look at that catastrophic 21% drop in girls given the name Alexa (thanks, Amazon). I don’t know what’s up with Brandon and Blake. Your explanations will be as good as mine for these.

namewinners

namelosers

For the whole series of name posts on this blog, follow the names tag, including a bunch on the name Mary


Here’s the Stata code I used (not including the long-term Donald trend), including the figure and tables. The dataset is in a zip file at Social Security, here. There is a separate file for each year. The code below runs on the two latest files: yob2015.txt and yob2016.txt.

clear
import delimited [path]\yob2016.txt
sort v2 v1
rename v3 count16
save "[path]\n16.dta", replace
clear
import delimited [path]\yob2015.txt
sort v2 v1
rename v3 count15
merge 1:1 v2 v1 using [path]\n16.dta
drop _merge

gen pctchg = 100*(count16-count15)/count15
drop if pctchg==. /* drops cases that don't appear in both years (5+ names) */

gen countchg = count16-count15
rename v2 sex
rename v1 name

gsort -count16
gen rank16 = _n

gsort -count15
gen rank15 = _n

gsort -countchg
gen riserank=_n

gsort countchg
gen fallrank=_n

gen rankchg = rank15-rank16

format pctchg %9.1f 
format count15 count16 countchg %15.0fc

gen prop15 = (count15/3978497)*1000 /* these are births per 1000, based on NCHS birth report for 15 & 16 */
gen prop16 = (count16/3941109)*1000

*winners table
sort riserank
list sex name count15 count16 countchg pctchg rank15 rank16 rankchg in 1/20, sep(0)

*losers table
sort fallrank
list sex name count15 count16 countchg pctchg rank15 rank16 rankchg in 1/20, sep(0)

*figure for all names
twoway (scatter prop16 prop15 if sex=="M", mc(blue) m(Oh) mlw(vvthin)) (scatter prop16 prop15 if sex=="F" , m(Oh) mc(pink) mlw(vvthin))

*figure for top names
twoway (scatter prop16 prop15 if sex=="M" & (prop15>=3 | prop16>=3), ml(name) ms(i) mlabp(0)) (scatter prop16 prop15 if sex=="F" & (prop15>=3 | prop16>=3), ml(name) ms(i) mlabp(0))

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Mary lives? (You’re welcome edition)

Things are looking up since last I wrote about the fate of the name Mary. It’s too early to tell, but it’s just possible things are beginning to turn around.

In 2014, Mary held steady at the 120th most-popular girls name in the U.S., as recorded by the Social Security Administration. That’s two years she’s been above her worst-ever showing of 123rd in 2012. Here’s the trend, starting with her last year at Number One, 1961:

Mary2014

You may recall that I first breathlessly reported Mary’s fall in 2009 when she dropped out of the top 100 U.S. girls names for the first time in recorded history (presumably ever). At the time I also speculated that she might have a chance of bouncing back, especially given the historical precedent of Emma, currently enjoying rare return to Number One:

Mary2014

Note that Emma had about 10 years of uncertainty before definitively tracking upward. With just a couple years of stall it’s way too early to write Mary’s triumph narrative, but you have to weight her odds of recovery higher than average because of the whole Christianity thing — especially with Catholics, who are holding their own amidst the general crisis of Christ.

names.xlsx

What is the basis for a potential Mary revival? We have seen before that popular events can hurt a name (Forrest, Monica, Ellen), or help a name (Maggie, Brandy, Angie, and my favorite, Rhiannon). In this case historians my someday date the resugence of Mary to the appearance in 2012 — her worst year ever — of my essay in The Atlantic with the memorable illustration:

atlanticmary

Call it a classic bottoming out.

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Mary free fall continues

For the past two years I’ve been tracking the fate of the name Mary as given to girls born in the U.S., spurred by the observation that Mary was no longer in the top 100 names, after an unparalleled run at #1 that lasted for all but six years of recorded history.

It’s a difficult job, but it’s got to be done. (Follow the Mary tag for historical background, examples, and more figures.)

So: 2012 was another rough year, according to data from the Social Security Administration.

There was another 5% drop in the number of Marys born, and as a result Mary fell a record 11 ranks, from 112 to 123. The 2,535 Marys born in 2012 were a mere 0.13% of the 1.9 million girls recorded born. Once upon a time, in 1880, more than 7% of all girls born were named Mary.

mary2012rankPart of the point of the Mary name project is to show the predictability of (much) human behavior, even including rare events, such as naming girls Mary. I have a simple model which predicts that the number of girls named Mary will decline at a rate equal to the average decline over the previous five years — what falls continues to fall. This year, out of 1.9 million girls born and 2,535 named Mary, my model was off by a microscopic 79 girls. The model predicted the number of Marys to within 3.2%.

Take that, indeterminancy, free will, or postmodernism (your pick).

P.S. Despite the continued free fall of Mary, my model missed low, incidentally — or, Mary-naming Americans beat expectations by 3.2%. Since my Mary post on the Atlantic site last December was shared more than 5,000 times, unless proven otherwise we have to assume the 79-girl bump was a Mary-name-blog effect. (File under reflexivity.)

ADDENDUM: MARIA

By request, here is the trend for Maria. It is not the case that Maria is replacing Mary — both are trouble. In fact, with Maria falling steeply in the last decade, she has also dropped out of the top 100 for the first time since 1943!

maria-ranks

Speculation: As Marias of Latina origin grow more common, perhaps their increase is not enough to compensate for the resulting perception among non-Latinas that Maria is a Spanish name. (Remember, this is just girls born in the U.S.)

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Big name drops in the news

A few more suggestions have come in for cultural events upending name trends.

The story behind these name shocks seem self-apparent. Both Monica and Ellen were mildly popular, though trending downward, before their names were associated with sex in a bad way, apparently leading to their collapse. Forrest was enjoying a run-up in popularity, tragically cut short by the movie Forrest Gump.

nineties-names

My series of posts on names is here.

The names database is here.

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