Category: Wizard of Odds
We’re honored to have Michael Shackleford, the inventor of the Social Security baby name popularity list, as today’s nameberry guest blogger. Shackleford played a pivotal role in the history of American baby naming by constructing the first national count of the Top 1000 names. Shackleford, who can now be found at the Wizard of Odds, talks about the hows and whys behind his ground-breaking work.
The most frequent question I get about my baby name popularity lists is why I started making them. To give some context to why, my name is Michael, and I was born in 1965. At that time, and for every year from 1961 to 1998, Michael was the most popular boys name in the United States. When I was in elementary school, there were always one or two other Michaels in the same class. When the teacher called on “Michael,” we all had to ask, “Which one?” At my first job, in a fast food place at Knott’s Berry Farm, there was a big board with everybody’s name and daily cash register errors. When I was hired, there was already a Mike Smiley on the list. So I had to become Mike Sh. After that, everybody would whisper, “We better be quiet, Mike Shhhhh is here.” To this day, every time somebody calls out “Mike” in public, I have to turn around and investigate. Usually, I’m not the intended recipient and end up looking like I came in second place in a popularity contest, when the other Michael is warmly identified. Over the years it has become very annoying.
In 1992, I took a job with the Office of the Actuary at the Social Security Administration headquarters in Baltimore. My main duty was to estimate the effect to the trust funds given a hypothetical change in Social Security law. I used samplings of Social Security records, calculating the monthly payment under the current law and the proposed changes, took the difference, and adjusted for the sample size. I had lots of interesting data at my fingertips to make such calculations. One of the more interesting files was a 1% sampling of Social Security card applications.
Five years later, in 1997, my wife was expecting our first child. Naturally, after my negative experiences as one of many Michaels, I was not about to give my child a popular name, but I no longer had any idea what the popular names were. Keeping up to date was not easy at the time, especially for girl names, which go up and down in popularity much faster than boy names. It was only my intent to stay out of the top 25 or so. Many people incorrectly assume I take the extreme position of advocating a name nobody has heard of. No, a normal name is fine with me, just as it is not too trendy or conformist.
To determine what the most popular names were at the time, I wrote a simple program to sort the Social Security card data first by year of birth, then by gender, and then by first name. It takes a while to go through a tape of millions of records, but after about an hour the results came in. What I got back was a huge document of first name popularity lists dating back to the 1880’s. I believe my eyes at that moment were the first to ever see an accurate nationwide sampling of given names.