When my husband announced the birth of our first child to my family last June, they were convinced, thanks to a bad cell phone connection, that we had named our daughter Tetra. My dad Googled the tropical fish, and my brother, who was wielding a video camera, performed a dramatic zoom on its Wikipedia page.
In the two confused minutes it took to convey that the baby’s name was actually Petra, my grandmother had started to come around to Tetra, which just goes to show that even the staunchest traditionalist can accept the weirdest baby name, as long as it’s attached to someone tiny, adorable, and genetically related to her.
Nevertheless, it was an inauspicious start for a name I’d long held close to the vest, especially for someone as baby-name obsessed as I am. I am a science writer, which wouldn’t at first blush seem to overlap much with the world of baby names. Surely the task of picking out the perfect name — something unique and pretty that won’t have Grandma and Grandpa suing for protective custody— is more art than science. But, in fact, the aggregate of all of those parental decisions is of great interest to some researchers.
It turns out that names are a rich vein of data on personal taste and even politics. Unlike the decision of what car to buy or brand to identify with (Mac or PC?), the baby-name decision is made free of advertising. And yet, somehow, we fall under the spell of naming trends. Think of all those melodious L’s and O’s and A’s in the Top 10 names: Sophia, Noah, Ava, Isabella. B’s, G’s, on the other hand, are not so fashionable. Helga all but vanished in the early 1900s and does not seem poised for a comeback. Bertha made a similar exit by 1970.
This unspoken cultural agreement on what makes a good name fascinates me. We can’t blame the Internet; when my parents decided to name me Stephanie in 1983, they were armed with nothing but a big book of baby names and had no idea that the name was the 6th most popular that decade. Today, the name ranks 146th and screams, “I was born in the 80s!”
Social scientists are with me. By mining data about name choices, they’ve found some intriguing patterns. For example, the East Coast/West Coast divide is real — and it shows up in baby names. Babies born in the most recently established “frontier” states have more unusual names than those born in older states, according to a 2011 study in the journal Psychological Science.
Meanwhile, down South, babies are more likely to be named after their dads, according to research by University of Oklahoma psychologist Ryan Brown. This patrilineal tradition is an eerie echo of immigration patterns of the 1700s, Brown and his colleagues suspect. The Scotch-Irish (or Scots-Irish) were immigrants first displaced from Scotland into the northern Ireland province of Ulster who later made the journey to America, landing mostly in Appalachia and the South.
The Scotch-Irish originally hailed from the border between England and Scotland, and their war-torn, hardscrabble existence made them into an “honor culture,” a society where honor, shame and revenge keep people in line more than the force of law. Even today, sociologists and psychologists see remnants of this bellicose honor culture in the Southern and some Western states where the Scotch-Irish migrated. Suicides, accidental deaths and homicides arising from arguments are all higher in these states than in the Northeast or Midwest. The Scotch-Irish honor culture was also strongly patriarchal, leading to the tendency to pass on Dad’s name that persists today.
If the honor culture name pattern suggests that we’re surprisingly wedded to the past, other research shows just how revealing modern names can be. Parents in liberal neighborhoods are more likely to pick baby names with gentle vowels and lots of “L” sounds, including Liam, Ella and Leila, according to a study published in June 2013. Parents in more conservative neighborhoods lean more toward strong-sounding B’s, D’s and K’s and T’s, as in Kurt or Colt.
The same study found that education alters our naming taste, too: More-educated parents look for obscure but established names, such as Esme or Archimedes. Less-educated parents make names unique by inventing them from scratch or by spelling an established name creatively (Madyson, anyone?).
All of these studies and more were swirling around my head last year, when my husband and I were brainstorming names for our first child. Knowing the naming science complicated matters a bit: Had I been in my parents’ shoes, ignorant of naming trends, I likely would have considered popular choices such as Sophia. As it was, I treated the top 10 list as a no-fly zone. Like so many parents, I wanted something unusual — but not too unusual.
We struggled with potential boy names, and the choices both my husband and I liked had a bit of Western flair, with those hard B’s and D’s beloved by conservatives. But there’s no doubt those names would stand out in our liberal-leaning, urban Denver neighborhood, populated by Isabellas and Noahs. I hesitated: Would our kid be judged an outsider if his name started with a B? Would our family seem like it was trying to be something it isn’t if we gave our kid a name that doesn’t fit our cultural conventions?
But when contemplating girl names, I found that when it comes down to a name you love, all the social science in the world doesn’t matter a bit. I’ve liked the name Petra for years, and its precise configuration of vowels and consonants can’t sway my enthusiasm. Granted, those pesky, non-liberal P’s and T’s just won’t leave me alone, and my daughter may occasionally be confused with a tropical fish. But I’m content to find that in my own family, the science of naming took a backseat to art.
How about you? Were you ruled by your intellect or your emotions in choosing a name?