Monday, May 10, 2010

The Twilight Effect: Why Do So Many Parents Choose The Same Baby Names?

From Time Magazine:

By Claire Suddath Monday, May. 10, 2010

People are naming their children after vampires. The Social Security Administration has released its list of 2009's most popular baby names, and the leading choices were Isabella and Jacob. Both names just happen to belong to main characters in the Twilight book series. True, Isabella has been trending steadily upwards since the 1990s and Jacob has been in the top spot for 10 years in a row (thus predating 2005's Twilight). But one of the rising names is almost certainly the result of Stephanie Meyers' blood-sucking romance: Cullen. The last name of Meyer's sexy main vampire jumped 297 spots in one year and is now the 485th most popular first name for a baby boy. (Read TIME's Q&A with Kristen Stewart.)

Cullen is also part of a larger trend: two-syllable male names that end in the sound "-en." Aiden is another example (12th most popular name). So is Jayden (#8), Logan (#17), Nathan (#24), Kevin (#44), Justin (#46) and a name I've never heard of before — Brayden. At #47, it means I'll probably start meeting a number of Braydens in about 20 years. Likewise, nearly half of the 50 most popular girl names end in "-a," just like Isabella. Why does this happen? Why do parents so often choose the same names for their newborns?

The short answer is because people copy each other, and no one likes to be that unique. Just as fashion and music trends wax and wane, so do baby names. Girls born in the 1980s were given perky, peppy monikers that ended in "-y" or "-ie" — Tiffany, Ashley, Katie, Brittany. These days it's all about the soft, feminine ending: Isabella, Emma, Kayla and Ella. Sociologists and journalists often propose their own theories about child names, though they usually end up being nothing more than unfounded speculation. CBS News once asserted that Emma became popular in 2002 because Jennifer Aniston's character named her child that on Friends. But Emma had been on the rise since the 1980s and it broke into the top 20 a full three years before Rachel and Ross had their fictional night of passion. Friends probably had very little to do with it.

Dig a little deeper, and baby name trends become much more complicated. According to Harvard University's Roland Fryer and the University of Chicago's Steven Levitt, blacks and whites chose similar names for their babies until the 1970s, when hospitals began seeing a rise in so-called "black" names such as Ebony, Shanice or Darnell. The racial name divide is now so strong that Fryer and Levitt claim that 40% of all African-American babies born in California are given a name that doesn't appear on even a single white birth certificate. (They limited their study to California for simplicity's sake). (Comment on this story.)

Geography can also play a part. In 2009, Hebrew University researchers Jacob Goldenberg and Moshe Levy looked at names' varying popularity among different U.S. states, and found that people are likely to give their kids names that are popular in their town, city, or state. Judging from the Social Security's name database, they seem to be right. Isabella broke the top 5 most popular list first in Colorado and Rhode Island. From Colorado, it spread to California, Nevada and Arizona. From Rhode Island it hit Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey. Now it's all over the country.
But why did it start in Colorado and Rhode Island? And what happened in 1991 to suddenly shoot the name up 210 spots, from 698 to a still fairly uncommon 488, in just one year? Unfortunately, no one really knows. Ultimately, baby names remain subject to the whims of the people who bestow them. Parents are responsible for all the Isabellas, Emmas and Madisons in the world, not to mention the creative misspellings (Keighty instead of Katie, Danyale instead of Danielle) certain to drive their children mad for the rest of their lives.

Read more:,8599,1988092,00.html#ixzz0nY3BIg2W

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