The Baby Name Wizard

The OKCupid statistics blog, by Christian Rudder, is amazing. Sadly, it hasn’t updated since 2011, around when OKCupid was bought by (Rudder says the timing was a coincidence—he took time off for another project, and the blog may return soon!)

In the meantime, I’d like to recommend another unexpectedly engrossing blog: The Baby Name Wizard blog, by Laura Wattenberg (creator of the amazing Name Voyager graphing tool).

I find the Baby Name Wizard blog fascinating because, like the OK Cupid Blog, it combines two key ingredients:

  • Access to rich data about something that comes up all the time in our lives
  • The ability to find and tell the stories in that data

The reason I like the blog has nothing to do with naming babies. (I’m not allowed to name babies, anyway.)

I like it because we all encounter names every day, all the time, in every part of our life. We all have feelings and opinions about what names mean, but if you’re like me, they were mostly unconscious, unquestioned, and never subject to any statistical rigor. (Freakonomics has a well-known chapter about naming trends, which Wattenberg takes issue with).

Nevaeh (“Heaven” backward) is currently a more popular baby name than Sarah.  Brooklyn is more popular than either, and Sophia is more popular than all three combined. In 20 years, those names will conjure up images of college kids, and Brandon and Sarah will sound as much like Mom and Dad names as Gary and Debby do to my generation.

If you’re like most people, you probably had some opinions when you read the names in the last paragraph. But maybe the biggest thing I’ve learned from reading this blog is that the reactions and stereotypes that names provoke often reveal more interesting stories than the names themselves.

For example, you may have heard the urban legend about a mother who named her daughter Le-a, pronounced “Ledasha”. Wattenberg dissects this urban legend in an insightful essay (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3), which explains how apocryphal names like Le-a serve, across a wide variety of communities, as proxies for talking about race.

Here are a few of the other things I’ve learned from the blog:

That’s just a tiny sampling; if you think any of it sounds interesting, I recommend browsing through the blog’s extensive archives.

100 thoughts on “The Baby Name Wizard

  1. First let me say, I love you, Mr. Monroe.
    You have contributed more to my adult delinquency than most if not all of the video games I own, combined!!!
    Thank you!

    I DIGRESS, however!

    The “La-a” name isn’t actually a myth, at least not in the factual sense!
    I will have to email the proof to you, but my mother, a former (36-year veteran) teacher in Florida had a student who’s name was spelled “La-ah”, legally binding and everything!
    She has pictures of papers with the name on it and everything…
    I was shocked when she told me, honestly, but these days I suppose it doesnt surprise me!

    Again, thanks for all the wonder and humor you put into the interblag, and please keep it going forever!

    Thanks – JOSH

  2. Here in Denmark, there’s a (long) list of approved names. You can name your baby something that’s not on the list, but then you’d have to fill in a form and ask nicely and it’ll probably allowed (though the spelling “Chrisophpher” was turned down a few year ago, causing journalists to go into a frenzy when the mum sued – yes, it was during the summer and nothing else was going on)

    When we were looking for names for our daughter we went through the entire list, about 14.000 names. Some of them were just plain insane. And some were AWESOME. Like, Ninja. And Lava. So we could legally name our baby daughter Lava Ninja! Imagine my excitement! Coolest. Name. Ever. Unfortunately my husband started droning on and on about “normal” and “non-bully inducing” names, so in the end we settled on Ea. Which is a known, but not very common name – but it will probably be fairly common when she starts school. My own name on the other hand (Karen) is one of the most common names in the country, but hardly any one my age shares it – they’re all 80 and above.

    I love statistics. And, like Josh, I love you too. Because. Well. You’re just plain awesome.

  3. I’d love to see more posts like this where you recommend interesting things you’ve found.

  4. I love Baby Name Wizard! I used it when naming my youngest to give her a name that was recognizable, pleasant, easy to spell and pronounce, and not overused. I made sure it was under the top 100, and thankfully it has stayed under 100.

  5. I am not going to go into the calculations as to how unlikely it is that I stumbled upon your post on the day that you posted it given your mean frequency of posts and my mean frequency of checking your blog so I’m just going to say it is 1/n where n>>42.

    Oh whats that, you thought I had something constructive to add. Sorry, but I’m designing telescope mirrors as fast as I can and have a countably infinite number of astronomers all yelling at me to get back to work.

  6. Man, you’ve just killed my free time for the next few months. Are you happy now?? ;)

    Love you anyway!

  7. I had no trouble getting a license plate for my kid’s name- U39QRS… I don’t know what you’re talking about.

  8. Today I learned that the Quantum Leap pilot features an anachronism in the name of Tom and Peg Stratton’s daughter.

  9. Josh, comment #1, I would be flabbergasted to see real documentation of name with a dash pronounced “dash.” Even your mom can’t be relied on as a source when verifying urban legends. My mom swore up and down there was a girl in her school named “Shithead” – pronounced “Sha-theed”. I pressed for a yearbook, a school ID, a class list, something. Nothing. Get some real documentation from your mom, send it to Snopes.

    It may have been “La’ah,” which is Hebrew. But there is no dash, and certainly nothing that “the dash don’t be silent,” which is the inevitable punchline of the urban legend as commonly told, followed by “and we let THESE PEOPLE vote!”

  10. My parents named three of us in the 1950s and managed to catch a trend (David was peaking then – my frat was 25% Davids one year), anticipate a trend (Ethan was rare in 1955, huge recently), and miss a trend (Name Voyager drops Ephraim at 1900). I think they did a fine job.

  11. There’s a Cole Porter song, “I love you, Samantha,” but none called “I love you, Permelia.” The song appears in the film “High Society,” which opened in 1956, so let’s give credit where it’s due. The film must have unleashed a virtual trickle of Samanthas.

  12. Not sure why you’re looking for baby names Randall *wink* *wink* but might I suggest 4942a? A great name for a boy OR a girl ;P

    In any case, if congratulations are in order, Congrats, if otherwise, then withheld until appropriate.


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  14. The square is the D’Alembert operator. I think I like del (upside-down capital Greek letter delta–sorry, don’t know how to type it) better, its proper name being Nabla. Then again, that sounds a bit like some evil god. (Full disclosure, I did have to look these up; I always call del just del, and do not regularly use D’Alembert. But it is the coolest bit of math in the entire world!

  15. For whatever reason, I feel like this legitimizes the love I’ve had for this blog for years. Like, it was just a silly baby name blog that I guiltily read with my laptop carefully turned away from prying eyes… but now that Randall Munroe likes it, I feel great! Because statistics!

  16. Unlike Josh above I can’t prove this, but I also have a real-life account of the name ‘Le-a’. My sister in law is a teacher, formally in an inner-city Texas middle school. Years ago one of her students had that name, which she’d never seen before and had no idea how to pronounce. She ended up asking the girl’s mother, who indignantly told her it was pronounced Le-dash-a (obviously)

  17. The OKCupid blog was one of the best things on the internet in 2008. Sadly, once the dating site was sold to another company, they took down some of the more interesting blogs.

  18. Previous commenters Chris and Josh–I highly recommend actually reading the La-a series Randall linked to. SMDH, etc etc.

  19. What’s so surprising about “Heaven” backwards being more popular than “Harass” backwards?

  20. Interesting comment about “Samantha”. I’ve heard that “Wendy” was basically not a name until J.M. Barrie used it in Peter Pan.

  21. I realize that this evidence is purely anecdotal and is not concrete enough for most, but my sister had a coworker at the library named “La-ah.” (I’m not sure of the exact spelling beyond the hyphen’s inclusion.)

  22. One simple point to consider. Ask any pediatrician and he or she will have a list of ‘bad names.’ Names associated with prematurity, bad stays in the ICU, weird genetic disorders, and the like. Unusual spellings of common names are high on the list. I had a partner point out that he gave his child a ‘common spelling of an unusual name’ rather than the other way around.
    La-a does exist. Neveah is on the bad list.

  23. The “Ledasha” thing is *not* just an urban legend. My daughter is a middle school teacher, and a couple of years ago there was a kid in her class named “T-a” (pronounced “Tadashay”). I’m serious.

  24. The OKCupid blog was one of the best things on the internet in 2008. Sadly, once the dating site was sold to another company, they took down some of the more interesting blogs.

  25. Let me just clearly state that a desktop-app version of “Now” would be beyond awesome. What could be cooler than an official xkcd clock?

  26. Am I the only one who thinks that Name Voyager needs to have regular expression support, or at least a soundex index? I was trying to compare Alyce and Alice and it was not easy.

  27. I hadn’t been to that site before, but my wife and I read through the book of the same name when we were trying to decide on names for our first child. We ended up using one that wasn’t in the book at all, but it was a fascinating read.

    As for the Le-a thing, it would be more accurate to call such stories proxies for talking about culture, not race. To pick a parallel example, a joke about the name “Skeeter” is a knock on rednecks, not whites in general. And as Wattenberg notes in the article, there are lots of black Americans who consider names like “Le-a” to be “ghetto” and steer clear of them. Race is obviously a significant component of both subcultural identities, but it’s not telling or laughing at such stories that makes you a racist; it’s the assumption that the story proves something about the entire race.

  28. Is an apostrophe permitted in any country as a character in name?

    (thinking ’bout Bobby Tables..)

  29. Love your comic, and the what-if as well. As for names, one of my most treasured books is this:

    Potty, Fartwell and Knob: From Luke Warm to Minty Badger – Extraordinary But True Names of British People, by Russell Ash

    You can get it off amazon in the UK, not sure about the US, but it is well worth a read.

  30. “Is an apostrophe permitted in any country as a character in name?”

    Not by the database systems I run into. My bank’s software allows it; my state’s DMV does not. Some systems correct the apostrophe to a period, others change it to a slash; most systems respond with an error message. I am software-ignorant about databases. I only know how to change the spelling of my name to make it “acceptable.”

  31. Vietnamese names commonly have dashes in them… but they’re not pronounced. Sometimes the dashes are dropped and it is all just run together: depends on if the person grew up in north or south Viet Nam. And the California DMV doesn’t like the dashes. Neither do any of the airlines. But the State Department has no problems putting them on passports.

  32. This is an amazingly interesting article on the Baby Name Wizard, full of delicious tidbits.

  33. My father saddled me with the name George…. seemed very staid until I discovered that I was in fact named after George III. Not the king, but the ICT 1900 operating system which was my dad’s favourite OS to that point!

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