Baby One More Tim

A Slip of the Lip
‘A Slip of the Lip’ is a linguistics student’s attempt to provide interesting and (reasonably) well-researched language titbits. Hailing from the glorious city of Queanbeyan, I spent my first year of uni dabbling in Physics, Maths, English and Music. By some drastic turn of events I am now majoring in German and Linguistics. In my free time I write articles for a blog by the same name and watch far too much Netflix. I look forward to you joining me for ‘A Slip of the Lip’!

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What’s in a name? If you’re on Facebook and your news feed looks anything like mine, every now and then you’ll have a post popping up titled “9 Weird Celebrity Baby Names” or “50 Classic Baby Names Making A Comeback”.

Whenever I see posts like the latter, it makes me wonder whether the names really are coming out of hibernation, or whether a bored blogger just happened to be reading Jane Austen.

Turns out, there’s an easy way to find out. The internet has a wonderful resource called Baby Name Wizard. This not-as-dodgy-as-it-sounds website has interactive graphs of the top 1000 baby names in the US for each decade since the 1880s (sadly, Australia doesn’t have an equivalent). Somewhat to my surprise, there are quite a few very popular names that have returned from relative obscurity.

Take Emma, for example. The graph for Emma looks like the Free-Fall at Questacon. The name started off as the third most popular for girls in the 1880s, before nose-diving to a miserable 448th in the 1970s. By 2015 it had clawed its way back up to number one. So why do people resurrect the names of their grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ generations rather than using something more modern?

People often don’t want to name their babies after the people they grew up with because they’ve got too many experiences attached to those names. They also don’t tend to give their children the names of their parents’ generation, as they associate these with an adult sense of responsibility. Currently such names include Karen,Gary and Cheryl, which were in the top 30 in the 1960s.

Maybe it’s just me, but ‘Baby Gary’ sounds like he’s lying in his cot ready for a day at the office.

By contrast, the names of the new parents’ grandparents begin to sound ‘classic’ and ‘vintage’, with a few hopeless exceptions such as Gertrude.

People like familiarity, so it’s hardly surprising that most people recycle old names rather than coming up with new ones. When they do come up with new ones, they’re usually spin-offs of those pre-existing.

A study called ‘From Karen to Katie: using baby names to understand cultural evolution’ found that people were more likely to give their baby a name beginning with a particular sound, if a name beginning with the same sound had been popular the previous year.

This effect was also found if there had been a famous, but not too destructive hurricane the past year. For example, Hurricane Katrina was associated with a 9% increase of names beginning with a ‘k’ sound. This love of familiarity also accounts for people naming their children after popular icons. Obama saw an increase from fewer than five each year prior to 2007, to more than 100 babies born in 2009 being named Barack. Khaleesi (a title from Game of Thrones in case you’re out of the loop) was ranked 816th most popular in 2015.

Of course, you could always take a page out of the “9 Weird Celebrity Baby Names” book and pick a word a random from a dictionary. I’m sure North and Saint West would love some company. If you’re looking for ideas, I hear Urban Dictionary’s a good place to start.