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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The 5 baby names you meet in Haeven, and the 995 you meet in Hell

The Social Security Administration has taken its annual timeout from underreporting my earnings and released the list of the thousand most common baby names from 2006. (The front page only gives you the top 5 boys and girls; choose "Top 1000" next to "Popularity" in the middle and click "Go".)

As always, the girls' names are much more entertaining than the boys. We guys have no analogue to the swings of fashion that brought Alexis and Madison to the top 5 in recent years, though a few names have dropped far from their former glory. Richard, which was fifth in 1947, now lags behind Brayden, Kaden, Caden, Jaden and Hayden, and old standbys like Peter and Max are now behind soap opera imports like Gage, Bryce, Tanner and Colton. But as long as it's Young Turks on top, New England Patriots fans will be happy to know that Brady is beating Peyton hands down. (Even better, Peyton is actually more popular as a girls' name than as a boys', which can only mean the WNFL is 19 years away.)

Still, the top 10 boys' names don't get more interesting than Ethan (number four), while the girls have both Ava (fifth) and Olivia (seventh), and the names get more surprising as you go down the list. In 2006, there were more baby Valerias than Rebeccas, more Brooklyns than Michelles, and even with the vote split with Peyton, there are more Paytons than Pamelas, Penelopes or Phoebes.

It was even hard to compete with Addison, a name that must owe part of its popularity to the ascension of Madison (107th in 1992, 2nd in 2000, 3rd last year), and another part of its popularity to being one of the words on textbooks that high-schoolers spent years staring at while bored and thinking about sex. To beat Addison, you'd have to gather and sum the stodgy has-beens Mary, Christine, Cindy, Deborah, Nancy, and an especially jilted Alison. Laura loses to fast-climbing Genesis, which I hope means that the band has passed from collective memory.

Celebrity names seem to have some effect, boosting Kimora (as in Kimora Lee "Baby Phat" Simmons) and Malia (as in eight year old Malia Ann Obama) into Patricia and Lauryn territory. But despite the popularity of Gilmore Girls and its alternative spelling of Lorelei, Lorelai couldn't even beat out Beatrice, McKinley or Briley, thanks to Shakespeare fans, mountain climbers and idiots.

It's never clear just what is and isn't a black name, by which I mean a name whose owner is more often than not black. But the top names I would bet belong to more black than white babies were Xavier (followed by Marcus) for the boys, and for the girls Destiny, followed by a trio of closely-ranked, celebrity-inspired names: Aaliyah, Jada and Mya.

Latino names are also tricky because some names, like Diego and Marco, have become popular outside Latino families, and because hip alternative versions of English girls names often wind up the same as existing Spanish spellings (like Cristina and Mariana). This may be why there are more clearly Spanish names at the top of the boys' list--Jose leads at #32--than there are on the girls', where I don't see a clear-cut Latina name until Elena at #187. Is a name like Angel (which ranks well on both the boys' and girls' charts) being given mostly to Latin babies? I don't know, and I'd like to peek at the demographic breakdown.

My sisters and brothers have pretty common names, except for Mariam, which is tied with the inexplicable Lizeth. My sister Sarah's spelling triumphed (Sarah:Sara :: 5:2) but my sister Rebekah's didn't (Rebekah:Rebecca :: 1:3). Benjamin and my brother's name, Alexander, are going strong, resisting challenges from upstarts like Mason and Jackson, though our truncated versions don't do so well; Alex is behind Landon, and Ben is behind Trace, Jett and Titus.

As for Alice, sorry, Alice, but you are off in the Kuiper belt, past Heaven, Diamond, Piper, Emely, Kayleigh and Kaydence. You're even behind a knockoff name like Brooklynn, though you do edge out Madyson and Maddison.

What else? The name Nevaeh arrived in 2001 thanks to the baby-naming frontman of the rock band POD (or "Payable On Death", as in, your sins and Christ etc.), and it continues its storied rise, reaching #43, right between Kaylee and Brooke. Unfortunately, a few parents not gifted in spelling fumbled the name and put it down as Neveah, or "Haeven" backwards. But not to worry--it's still tied with Janice.

A last note about unusual names: my wife-to-be, Kate, teaches around the city, and has a few funny stories about names she's encountered. Once, she was writing vocabulary on the blackboard, and on seeing one of the words, student raised her hand and said excitedly, "Hey miss, I think I got a cousin named Loquacious!"

(She has another, even better, story, but I hesitate to tell it because it's so hard to believe, as it raises questions about how someone could get so far into life without fully realizing her parents' terrible mistake. I can only swear to you that the below has been corroborated by the other witness, and that I believe it to be true.)

Kate was driving in North Jersey with a film producer, while they were working on a movie. They stopped at a Burger King drive-in, and Kate was surprised to see the producer, normally a gentleman, staring at the chest of the young woman working the window. When the woman turned away to attend to the order, the producer waved to Kate frantically and pointed to indicate her name tag. When she came back to the window, Kate peeked over and read: Diahrrea. Trying to keep his cool, the producer remarked on the name, called it interesting, and asked if the woman could tell him how it was pronounced and where it was from. She explained happily that it was pronounced "Deeuh-rahay", and that her father had spied it on a hospital wall while sitting in the waiting room with her mother in labor, and had thought it melodic and unusual. Kate and the producer could only agree.

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Blogger Alice on Wed May 23, 11:11:00 AM:
Other readers of this blog are also familiar with the amazing Baby Name Voyager site, which tracks the popularity of names since the nineteenth century:
Anonymous Anonymous on Wed May 23, 08:17:00 PM:
I think I'm going have to put 'Diahrrea'up to urban legend. Though my father swears that as an intern he heard a few OB residents giggling over their suggestion to a young black mother that she name the baby 'S'Phyllis'.
Anonymous Anonymous on Fri May 25, 09:30:00 AM:
Alice, I think you should change your name to Kaydence.