Alexa devaluation, cutting room floor edition

Joe Pinsker at the Atlantic has written, “Amazon Ruined the Name Alexa,” that develops the story of the name, which I started tracking with a pick drop in 2017, writing: “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? Another bad year for Alexa. After a 21.3% drop in 2016, another 19.5% last year.”

Pinsker concludes:

Amazon did not exactly ruin the life of every Alexa, but the consequences of its decision seven years ago are far-reaching—roughly 127,000 American baby girls were named Alexa in the past 50 years, and more than 75,000 of them are younger than 18. Amazon didn’t take their perfectly good name out of malice, but regardless, it’s not giving it back.

From the peak year of 2015, when there were 6,050 Alexas born in the US, the number fell 79% to 1272 in 2020, the biggest drop among names with at least 1000 girls born in 2015. Here’s that list:

Pinsker got Amazon on the record not commenting on the problem they created for actual humans named Alexa, who he reports are being bullied in school — they are not only named after a robot, but a subservient female one, so no surprise. Amazon said only, “Bullying of any kind is unacceptable, and we condemn it in the strongest possible terms.”

Cutting room floor

I am only quoted in the story saying, “We don’t usually think about the individuals who are already born when this happens, but the impact on their lives is real as well.” No complaint about that, of course. But since my interview with Pinsker was over email, I can share my other nuggets of insight here, with his questions:

I saw that you first blogged about this in 2018 (when you were remarking on the 2017 name data). Did you just happen to stumble upon Alexa’s declining popularity yourself, or did someone else point it out to you?

I wrote a program that identifies that names with biggest changes, and Alexa jumped out. One interesting thing about naming patterns is that dramatic changes are quite rare. Names rise and fall over time, but they rarely show giant leaps or collapse as dramatically as Alexa did after 2015.

When you look at what has happened to the name Alexa since Amazon’s Alexa was released in late 2014, how much of the name’s declining popularity do you attribute to Amazon? (Is it common for names to plummet in popularity as quickly as Alexa has since 2014?)

The Social Security national name data is a mile wide and an inch deep. We have a tremendous amount of name data, but it is all just counts of babies born — we have no direct information about who is using what names, or why. So any attribution of causal processes is speculative unless we do other research. That said, because dramatic changes are so rare, it’s usually pretty easy to explain them. For example, some classic 1970s hits apparently sparked name trends: Brandy (Looking Glass, 1972), Maggie (Rod Stewart, 1971), and of course Rhiannon (Fleetwood Mac, 1975). I defy you to find someone named Rhiannon, born in the US, who was born before 1975. We can also observe dramatic changes even among uncommon names, such as a doubling of girls named Malia in 2009 (the Obamas’ daughter’s name).

At one point, you mentioned on your blog that Hillary was another name that became less popular after becoming culturally ubiquitous. Are there any other examples you’re aware of, where a name’s cultural ubiquity tanks its popularity?

On the other hand, there are disaster stories, like Alexa. Hillary was rising in popularity before 1992, and then tanked. Monica declined dramatically after 1998 (after the Clinton sex scandal). Ellen became much less common suddenly the year after Ellen DeGeneres came out as gay in 1997. And Forrest, which had been on the rise before 1994, plummeted after Forrest Gump came out and virtually disappeared.

We don’t usually think about the individuals who are already born when this happens, but the impacts on their lives is real as well. The name trends tell us something about the social value of a name (and unlike other commodities, in the US at least there is no limit to the number of people who can have a name). People who were named Adolph before Hitler, Forrest before Forrest Gump, or Alexa before Amazon live with the experience of a devalued name. Many of them end up changing their names or using nicknames — or just getting used to people making jokes about their name every time they meet someone new, have attendance called, or go to the department of motor vehicles.

If I’m reading the SSA data correctly, there were 1,272 Alexas born last year in the U.S. I know this is speculative, but would you guess that most of these parents aren’t aware of the name of Amazon’s device? Or is it that they’re aware, and just don’t care?

Some don’t know, some don’t care, some probably think it’s cool. For some it may be a family name. I am fascinated to see that Alexis and Alexia have also seen five-year declines of more than 60% in name frequency. I wonder if that is because of concern over Alexa devices mishearing those names — certainly a reasonable concern — or maybe just association with the product making those names seem derivative or tacky. It’s hard to say.


See all the posts about names under the tag.

During the pandemic year of 2020, thousands of US parents named their babies Kobe and Gianna

And a few other highlights.

Data from the Social Security Administration show that the names Kobe and Gianna had the greatest increase in popularity of any names in the country in 2020; as Kobe boys increased from 499 to 1500 and Gianna girls from 3408 to 7826. Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna died in a helicopter crash on January 26 last year, one of the dramatic national news events eclipsed by the pandemic (George Floyd’s daughter, now 7 years old, is also named Gianna).

The Kobe count of 1500 was surpassed only in 2001, during his first run of NBA championships, but the number per 1000 births was higher in 2020. Here is the trend:

And the Gianna trend, with a similar increase off a much higher base. Gianna became the 12th most common name given to girls in 2020.

Other news from the pandemic year in naming

Besides Gianna, not much change in the top 20 names, by gender, as Olivia, Emma, Liam, and Noah continued their dominance. Most of the top 20 names declined in popularity last year.

Outside the top names, the biggest drop in percentage terms (among those with at least 1000 births) was Alexa, who fell another 36%, from 1995 to 1272. Alexa has had a historically catastrophic decline since Amazon gave the name to its robot shopping companion (discussed last year).

Finally, Mary remains dormant, with 2188 girls getting the name in 2020, a drop of 21 from 2209. I told the story of Mary going back to the Revolutionary War on this blog and in Enduring Bonds. Still ripe for a comeback (jinx). Here’s an updated Figure 1:

The Social Security Data and Stata code for this analysis is here under CC0 license: osf.io/m48qc/. Note SSA updates their denominators every year; I have a file of those in here too.

Alexa, Hillary, Melania/Ivanka, Donald, Mary, and the top 20 names from last year

First, very happy I finally learned how to make this kind of chart in Stata (thanks to a tip from Stephen McKay). These are the top 20 boys’ and girls’ given in the US last year, compared with how they did in 2018.

Liam and Noah still running away with the top spots for boys, while traditional names like William, Alexander, Jacob, Michael, and Daniel lost ground. Surprisingly little change among girls. (If you want to make these, you can look at my code here, just ignore the messy data stuff and look at the figure code at the end).

Next, updating some trends to watch.

First, what happens when a giant monopoly storms in and takes over a perfectly nice name enjoying a healthy run among semi-popular names: Alexa. Alexa got up the #43 position in 2009, possibly got a bounce from early Alexa talk around Amazon (which started in 2014), and then was destroyed by becoming a household name. Reminded by Kieran of another disaster, with a different etiology — Hillary — I combined them here:

On a percentage basis Hillary had a worse slide, but Alexa has further to fall, and she’s already down 65% in four years. Alexa, get me a nickname.

Quick update on the tension you all know you feel between Ivanka and Melania, this year I’m happy to say they can share a common bond over their names having both peaked in 2017 at under 300 each. For comparison, and just to rub it in, I added the trend for Malia as well:

Donald, on the other hand, was not ruined by the president who ruins everything he touches, but rather is just being ignored — his least favorite experience — with steady fall apparently unaffected by his omnipresence.

All the people who claim to love the Donald don’t really want their boys to be him, they want to be able to hide their deplorable allegiance from polite society when the shit goes south. No loyalty.

Not completely unlike Mary, a figure revered by many, but not quite enough to name their girls after her anymore. She’s down another 118 girls, to 2209, or 1.21 per 1000. (The whole Mary story, and the methods for how I got data back to 1780, are in my book.)

On the plus side, Mary will be glad to hear that her nemesis Nevaeh, is also on the way down, having lost half her number since peaking at more than 6000 girls in 2010.

Data and code for this project are on the Open Science Framework, here.

Less than half of women with PhDs in survey keep ‘maiden’ names

Marital Name Change Survey first results and open data release.

Over the last three days 3,400 ever-married U.S. residents took my Marital Name Change Survey. I distributed the survey link on this blog, Facebook and Twitter. I don’t know who took it, but based on the education and occupation data a very large share of the respondents were women (88%) with professional degrees (30%) or Phds (27%). It’s not a representative sample, but the results may still be interesting.

Here I’ll give a few topline numbers as of 8:00 this morning, and then link to a public version of the data and materials. These results reflect a little data checking and cleaning and of course are subject to change.

Respondents were asked about their most recent marriage. Half were married in the 2010s, but the sample includes more than 400 married in the 1990s and 200 earlier.

mncs1

The vast majority (84%) were women married to men; 11% were men married to women and 4% (~140) were in same-gender marriages. Here are some observations about the women married to men. The name-change choices are shown below, with “R change” indicating the respondent changed their name, and “Sp change” indicating their spouse changed. The “Other” field included a write-in, and the vast majority of those were variations on hyphenations or changes to middle names.

mncs4

Because of the convenience nature of the sample, I don’t put much stock in the overall trend (I’ll try to develop a weighting scheme for this, but even then). However, I think the PhD sample is worth looking at. Here is the trend of women with PhDs (now or at the time of marriage) married to men.

mncs2

By this reckoning, the feminist-name heyday was in the 1980s, followed by a backslide, and now a rebound of women with PhDs keeping their names. The 2010s trend is like that found in the Google Consumer survey reported by Claire Cain Miller and Derek Willis in NYT Upshot.

Note, these no-change rates are higher than those reported by Gretchen Gooding and Rose Kreider from the 2004 American Community Survey, which showed 33% of married women with PhDs had different surnames than their husbands (regardless of when they got married). I show 53% in the 2000s had different names than their husbands, and 57% in the 2010s. Maybe that’s because I have more social science and humanities PhDs, or just a more woke sample.

These results also show a strong age-at-marriage pattern, with PhD women much more likely to keep their names if they married at older ages. Over age 40, 74% of women with PhDs kept their names, compared with 20% who married under age 25. (Note this is based on education at the time of the survey; I also collected education at the time of marriage, which I discuss below.)

mncs3

I asked people how important various factors were if people considered changing their names. Among PhD women marrying men who did not change their names, the most important reasons were feminism (52% “very important”), professional considerations (34%), convenience (33%), and maintaining independence within the marriage (24%). Among those who took their husbands’ names, the most important factors were the interests of their children (48%) and showing commitment to the marriage (25%).

A few other observations: PhD women were most likely to keep their names if they had no religion (53%), were Jewish (46%), or other non-Christian religion (43%); protestants (27%), Catholics (29%), and other Christians (21%) were less likely to keep their names. Finally, those who had lived together before marriage were most likely to keep their names (51% for those who lived together for three years or more, compared with 27% for those who did not live together at all).

Data availability

I don’t have time now to analyze this more, but that shouldn’t stop you. Feel free to download the data and documentation here under a CC-BY license (the only requirement is attribution). This includes a Stata data file, and PDFs of the questionnaire and codebook. This will all be revised when I have time.

Open-ended responses

I am not including in the shared files (yet) the open-ended question responses, which include descriptions of “other” name change patterns, as well as a general notes field, which is full of fascinating comments; given the non-random nature of the survey, this may turn out to be its most valuable contribution.

Here are a few.

Reasons:

I changed my name to my spouses because I HATED my father and it was the easiest way to ditch his name. I kept my married name after divorce. I’m currently pregnant (on my own) and plan to change my name again and now I will take the surname of my step-father, who has been my “dad” since I was 5.

“True partnership”

My wife and I had been together 10 years and through several iterations of domestic partnerships prior to marrying. Including before she completed her PhD. I didn’t want to change my name because my name flows really poetically and a change would ruin it (silly but true). She didn’t want to change her name in part because it’s what everyone in her profession know her as. I think we both also feel like our names represent our life histories and although we are a true partnership, that doesn’t negate our family histories or experiences. Which I guess is feminist of us. But we never explicitly discussed feminism as an issue.

This is complicated.

My partner and I both had our own hyphenated names already! We kept our own hyphenated names initially (and our marriage was not legally recognized at the time so there wasn’t a built-in or convenient option to change at that point anyway). When we had kids, we have them a hyphenated name, one of my last names and one of hers. Eventually we both changed to match the kids, so we all share the same hyphenated name now.

And so on. Fascinating reading!

Take the Marital Name Change Survey

4878244181_e865015a4f_b
Photo by Drew, Flickr/CC https://flic.kr/p/8r5h3i

As I work on the 3rd edition of The Family (don’t hold your breath, it will be a while), I’m adding more discussion on the issue of marriage and name changes. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of great information about this, especially about the reasons for name changing (or not) and how practices have changed over time. However, I don’t bias your thinking by getting into the literature review here just yet. Instead, I designed a survey.

This is for U.S. residents who have ever been married. If 1,000 of you share this with 1,000 other people, I will have very large convenience sample. Worth a try. It’s anonymous, 28 questions, and took my testers an average of 5 minutes to complete. Thank you!

Click here to enter the survey, and share this post, or this link: https://umdsurvey.umd.edu/jfe/form/SV_8wsMAMubPtpWZiB.

 

Why aren’t female Charlies killing the name Charles?

Geena Davis as Charly in The Long Kiss Goodnight, 1996
Geena Davis as the best female movie Charly (The Long Kiss Goodnight, 1996)

Charles was a top-10 name for boys in the U.S. into the 1950s, and it has always been more than 99% male. American parents have shown no interest in breaking down that barrier. However, since the early 2000s, they have started naming their daughters Charlie, Charlee, Charleigh, Charli, Charley, and Charly. Last year 4,882 girls got one of those names, which is more than Anna or Samantha (and more than twice as many as were named Mary).

Near the start of that wave, the Disney TV show Good Luck Charlie — about a married, White couple with four children, the last of which was named Charlotte (nick-named Charlie) — debuted in 2010, and peaked in 2012, with 7.5 million viewers on one Sunday.

promo image from Disney show Good Luck Charlie

But Charlie has not become a girls’ name. As a I reported last week, Charlie is now the most common androgynous name (between 40% and 60% female), with 3,556 births split almost equally between boys and girls. The other variations are more female: All versions of Charlie together are 74% female.

So, with girls pouring in, are parents heading for the exits, as we saw with names like Taylor and Kim? Not yet. Charles is much less common than it once was, but it has not slipped appreciably since girls started picking up its nickname. Here are the trends back to 1880:

charlies.xlsx

As girl Charlies have gained ground, in fact, even the spelling Charlie is rising in the rankings for boys, up to 218th last year from 306th a decade ago. Parents are now naming their boys Charlie at twice the rate they did in 1968. This figure zooms in on the Charlie wars for the last 50 years. (For this I combine all the spellings for boys, but 92% of them are Charlies.)

charlies.xlsx

If Charlie follows the path of previous gender battleground names, however (see Tristan Bridges’ two posts on this from last week), we might still see a male crash, or a female crash, or both. Androgyneity has historically been unstable in this system, especially when (from parents’ point of view) femininity contaminates a masculine space.

If the collapse doesn’t come, maybe it will be because both sides have gender unambiguous reinforcements: Charles for boys (99.8% male), and Charlotte for girls (99.9% female). So parents who like the name Charlie, including those who may choose it precisely because of its androgynous image, also know they have a gendered space they or their children can retreat to if necessary.


Data for this analysis are from the Social Security Administration. The data files and my Stata code are available on the OSF, here.

Taylor, Kim and the declining sex binary in names

I’ll get to Taylor and Kim, but first more general data.

How gender binary is the practice of naming babies in the U.S.? Very. In 2018, 76% of babies were given names that were more than 99% male or female, according to data from the Social Security Administration (which releases name counts for only two sex categories).an4

That looks extreme (kurtosis = 1.06!), but 76% is actually the lowest that number has ever been. Here is the trend in babies with >99%-typed names back to 1880 (note the y-axis starts at 70%):

androgynous update 2019.xlsx

How important are the trends in name binaryness?

In her New York Times article on the rise nonbinary gender identities among young Americans, and a follow-up, Amy Harmon interviewed nonbinary people named Flynn, Keyden, and Charley.  (In 2018, 85% of the babies given the name Charley were identified as girls at birth, compared with 0.2% of those named Charles and 52% of those named Charlie — the most androgynous spelling of the three).*

One notable development in the striking rise of nonbinary identities has been the supportiveness of some parents. But are such parents reacting positively to their children’s development, or — not waiting to be prompted — giving their babies more androgynous names at birth? Extreme sex-dominance of names has become less common, but still dominants. And truly androgynous names, say, between 40% and 60% associated with one sex, are very rare.

Over the long run, the U.S. is becoming a less sex-binary society, but that evolution is far from direct. From 1950 to 1975 (the period featured in Jo Paoletti’s book on the unisex movement in fashion), the percentage of babies given names that were less than 95% associated with a dominant sex almost doubled, to 7.4%. And since then it has increased to 13%. However, the percentage given names that are between 40% and 60% sex-dominant remains barely over 1%. Here are those trends, back to 1940, using data from the Social Security Administration.

androgynous update 2019.xlsx

Are the parents giving androgynous names even doing it on purpose? I’m not sure how we can tell. Despite phonetic cues, which are guides but not rules, the gender of a name is ultimately determined by the gender of the people who have it. When names are very rare, it’s likely parents just don’t know the sex of the other babies getting the name. Maybe parents giving the names Charlie, Finley, and Dakota — the most popular androgynous names — chose them because they like their androgynousness. But others, like Justice or Ocean, probably just don’t have stable genders attached to them. And the conventional wisdom (from Stanley Lieberson and colleagues) is that androgynous names are not stable — they either swing toward one gender or fade away.

Here are the most common names between 40% and 60% sex dominant in 2018. Maybe blog readers can say something about the motives of the parents using these.

ant1

In that 2000 paper by Lieberson et al., which used data on Whites only from Illinois, through 1989 (how did people ever do sociology with such paltry data available to them?), they reported that the parents of girls are more likely to assign them androgynous names than the parents of boys are. That is consistent with the idea that the penalty for gender non-conformity is greater for boys than for girls, that femaleness is the contaminant more than non-conformity — which is why the move toward gender equality meant women wearing pants more than men wearing dresses. But now that may have reversed. Boys are now more likely to be given names that are less than 95% sex-dominant.

androgynous update 2019.xlsx

I think this is a good avenue for exploring changes in gender attitudes, including regarding nonbinary identities and gender conformity. This will require looking beyond name count trends, obviously.

Kim and Taylor

Another avenue for research involves name contamination (another Lieberson idea, which Tristan Bridges and I have written about; see also earlier posts). From a wide angle, it’s easy to see that androgynous names usually don’t stay that way, or they disappear. But the specific mechanism may be that parents of boys are spooked by the rising femininity of a name and thus turn away from it.

In that Lieberson et al article they cite the case of Kim, which (among Whites in Illinois) was increasing among both boys and girls before Kim Novak burst on the scene in 1954, as a sexy female movie star. And they also observe the rise of Taylor, just beginning by the end of their dataset, in 1989. Now we can update that, and expand it to the whole country, to see the amazing similarity of the cases. Amazing similarity, that is, if you remember who Taylor Dayne is.

androgynous update 2019.xlsx

Taylor Dayne was a big deal very briefly, at the end of the 1980s, with three gold singles, “Tell It to My Heart”, “I’ll Always Love You,” and “Love Will Lead You Back.” She was nominated for a Best R&B Vocal Performance Grammy for “I’ll Always Love You,” in 1988 (losing to Aretha Franklin). Did Taylor Dayne kill Taylor — right after giving us Taylor Swift (born 1989)? I’m open to other suggestions, but I think it fits. She was a big star briefly, and the music she made (no offense) didn’t turn out to be the most memorable of the period, which was awkwardly sandwiched between decades. There is a difference in scale between the cases, as Taylor peaked at the #6 most popular girls’ name and the 51st most popular boys’ name in the mid-1990s. Also, Taylor still ranks, and is still 18% male, while Kim virtually disappeared. So maybe the dynamic is a little different now.

Anyway, I love the idea that Taylor Dayne killed Taylor, because she isn’t even a real Taylor — she was born Leslie Wunderman (were any other Jews nominated for R&B vocalist Grammys?), and only chose the name Taylor in 1987, as it was already spiking upward. It also raises an issue relevant to the question of nonbinary-supporting parents: name changes. If gender identities are increasingly fluid, maybe names will be, too. In addition to being less sex-typed, names may also become less permanent. Just a thought.


* In the original version of this post I mistakenly wrote that 20% of Charles’s were girls, it’s actually 0.2% (I read .19 as a proportion instead of a percent).

Data and code for this analysis are on the Open Science Framework here: https://osf.io/m48qc/.

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.

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.

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.